Monday, June 1, 2009

I Don't Like Milo, Not at All

"Science-fiction writers... filmmakers... They haven't imagined what we're able to do today," says gamemaker Peter Molyneux in the video below. I used to think Molyneux was one of the greatest in the field of video games until I noticed that none of his games were actually that good. He's developed a reputation as someone who over-hypes his own games. There's a common argument that he really does make great games; they just can't live up to the impossible expectations he creates. I disagree. He makes decent games. They tend to be sort of fun if you can get around the fact that they're always overly ambitious, poorly designed, and unfinished. To give you a point of reference, if my readers have played any of his games, it would probably be Black & White, which fits all of these descriptions.

Today, he was onstage at Microsoft's E3 press conference. E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, is the biggest annual video game trade show, where all of the biggest upcoming video games are announced. Microsoft's biggest announcement today was "Project Natal," which is some stupid camera/microphone thing that I hate.

"Science-fiction writers... filmmakers... They haven't imagined what we're able to do today." Yes, Pete, they have. The difference is that they usually skip a few steps ahead in their stories to a few years later, when the last band of free humans is desperately struggling against the repressive robot overlords. I don't know; maybe he's never seen a movie or read a book like this before. Spoiler Alert: There's usually a message in there about how we shouldn't build creepy robots with thoughts and feelings.

Even putting aside that this is the first step in the extinction of our species, does anybody actually want that? Is that not seriously freaky? Does it look fun or desirable in any way?

This idea of a direct communication game is nothing new. The Project Natal camera looks very similar to the Sony EyeToy, which was nothing new either (you've probably played around with a motion-sensing camera at a museum or someplace). The idea of talking to a virtual friend via microphone has also been done plenty of times, and, as far as I can tell, in more compelling ways. Hey You, Pikachu! was a good idea (though, I'll admit, a bad game) because it was made at the peak of Pokémon hysteria. Between the games, the toys, and the TV show, half the kids in my generation wanted nothing more than a Pikachu of their own. Nintendogs has become one of the best selling games of all time because it offers you an adorable pet with none of the hassle of a real dog. Seaman is beyond creepy, but it's a game that accepted and embraced its creepiness.

This is just some kid who's supposed to trick you into treating him like he's real. Pure Uncanny Valley.

Also bizarre is that they're trying to pass this video off as if what you're seeing is totally unplanned. Bragging about how Milo is so affecting that Claire "felt the need to reach down for those goggles." "This wasn't acted." What? First of all, yes, it was acted. No one would speak so natually to a video game if they weren't acting, and even if she wasn't an actor, if you lnow you're playing a game that uses a camera and a character in the game throws something at you, you'll try to catch it. If you watch a 3D movie and the character starts jabbing a stick in your face, that doesn't mean the technology, or, more importantly, the movie, is any good.

"...that thing in our hands, that thing that's evolved in our hands, and got more and more complex, and got more and more buttons actually has been the biggest barrier to what we want to create." This is... sad. This is the same exact thing that Nintendo said (more eloquently) years ago, while developing the DS and the Wii. They said video game controllers had gotten to complex for most people to use, that they had too many buttons, and that they'd evolved in a way that excluded all but a select group of enthusiasts from playing video games. They said there were more opportunities for what a game could be and who could play games.

When Nintendo said these things, the video game industry laughed. Believe it or not, most video game fans, journalists, analysts, and developers said the DS would be unsuccessful; that it would be outsold by the PSP, while, in fact, the opposite turned out to be true, and by a large margin. Before the release of Wii, the same prediction was made, this time that the PS3 would be the best-selling home system, followed by the Xbox 360, with Wii in a distant third. This prediction was so very wrong.

If people like Peter Molyneaux really believed that simple, intuitive, interactive controls were the most important possible advancement in gamemaking, why didn't he try making Wii games? Even the DSi, which has been out for more than half a year in Japan, has a camera and a microphone built in, as well as a screen which allows direct interaction and tactile feedback. Why didn't Molyneux make a DSi game, or an iPhone game? Because he didn't really think that. Why did it take Microsoft 3 1/2 years to announce motion controls for the Xbox? Because they never thought anyone would want motion controls.

It's incredibly cynical. The industry turned against Nintendo. Nintendo was wildly successful. All the while, the industry is ripping off Nintendo at every possible chance. The big difference is that cynicism. Nintendo released the Wii with WiiSports, a great game that benefited from a new control scheme. It was hugely innovative. Project Natal is a disingenuous imitation, and Microsoft still has the gall to take shots and Nintendo. If I haven't lost you yet - and there's a good chace I have with a post this long - check out the video below and listen for the crowd response when the arrogant jerk onstage takes a not-so-subtle shot at Nintendo's "waggle" controls.

The whole thing is an attempt to get a pice of the Wii Sports/Wii Fit crowd, but you know what I think? It's no secret that a lot of the Wii audience is composed of people who either stopped playing games many years ago, or who never played games. I don't think those people bought a Wii because it has motion controls. I think they bought it because it was a system designed with them in mind. The motion controls weren't the selling point; it was the philosophy, the idea that someone was making games with you in mind. Games that weren't about fairies or muscle-bound dudes with huge guns. Games that are fun for anyone, whether you've played games all your life or you've never tried one before.

The technology behind Natal is impressive, and not without potential, but it's ultimately going to fail because it's not being created with any true philisophical reasoning or understanding or even any innovation from a business perspective. It has no Wii Sports, or any other compelling software. Most of all, it has no heart.

Forgive today's length. I feel like I always write too much or too little, and E3 week is a time when I like to let myself geek out. Tomorrow morning is Nintendo's press conference, followed by Sony's. As someone working at Nintendo, it's probably safest for me to decide right now not to comment on what Nintendo shows, but I'm sure Sony will announce something stupid. There's a lot of buzz about a PS3 motion-based controller/camera, and given Sony's inability to keep a secret lately, I'd be surprised if that doesn't turn out to be true.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

-sister jack