As expected, Sony's Move is perfectly competent, hardware-wise, because Sony is a hardware company. But making games that mimic Nintendo's casual-friendly Wii party games is the wrong move. Instead, they need to focus on their true fanbase: The hardcore fans.
Of the three current-gen consoles, Sony has done the most to appeal to the hardcore gamer—the fan that grew up playing PlayStations. But in their haste to develop easily-accessible games for the mass-market—for the kind of people who buy Nintendo Wiis—they've sort of abandoned their base. Here's where the Move is now, and where it needs to go.
Sony's PlayStation Move is slightly different from the Wii in that it relies heavily on the PlayStation Eye, a high quality 60FPS at 640x480 or 120FPS at 320x240 webcam. The controllers have motion/inertial sensors inside, but are spatially located in 3D via the glowing ball on the tip by the webcam. And like the Wiimote, there's a secondary controller for your offhand (called the Navigation Controller) that doesn't have the rubber light-up ball tip, but provides the equivalence of a DualShock 3 controller to navigate menus. You can even just hold a regular DualShock 3 instead of a Navigation Controller if you want to save some money and don't mind the extra weight. Some games have you use just the Move, both the Move and the NC, or two Moves.
Sony claims that the Move is more accurate than the Wiimote, and doesn't have any of the jittery cursor problems that comes from using Nintendo's IR emitter and sensor-based system. The latter might be true, but in practice, in the games that I tried, it's just about as accurate as the Wii MotionPlus—which is to say, accurate about 75% of the time, and frustratingly loose the other 25% of the time.
What the PS3 does have is the PlayStation Eye, which allows the system to play augmented reality games, where you turn your Move controller into various objects in Start the Party, or to poke or prod the mini monkey in Eyepet. So far, this is only used as slightly more than a gimmick, but if utilized creatively, the presence of a camera could be fantastic.
Imagine facial scanning and facial mapping, something that's been done already in a few games on the Xbox 360 already via its webcam, so you can put your own face on the character in the game. Or, if you're playing a horror game, it can take a shot of your living room, and in a very tense scene, show your room on TV with the killer standing over your shoulder. There are lots of things you can do with the camera that aren't being done yet.
The unfortunate strategy Sony has taken, on the first round of launch games, is to basically try and bring Nintendo Wii-like games into the HD realm with PS3-level graphics. It might look nice, but this strategy isn't going to work to define a new platform.
I'm not saying the launch party games like Kung Fu Rider and Start the Party and Sports Champions are bad, they're just the same old Wii party games we've been seeing for four years. Sports Champions, the Move version of Wii Sports Plus, has the standard outdoor games of archery, sword fighting, disc golf, ping pong volleyball and bocce. They're executed well enough, and the Move provides adequate fidelity when chucking a frisbee, or swinging a sword and blocking with a shield, but is only so-so in the ping pong game and the archery game. It's nothing better or worse than you'd see on the Wii nowadays, with Wii MotionPlus, despite the much improved graphics and use of more lifelike, yet still cartoony, avatars.
And with Start the Party and Kung Fu Rider, Sony's not really pushing the boundaries of what a motion controller can do. Kung Fu Rider is an alright kart-based party game, and STP has an interesting use of showing YOU, on screen, when you're playing, but the actual gameplay of flicking the controller around with just your wrist has been done. And done. And done again.
Nintendo's success with the Wii shows that motion gaming is something people, even casual players, want. But four years and hundreds of millions of sales means that everyone who wants a Wii probably already has one, or knows someone who has one, or at the very least, has played one at a Best Buy. They don't need another console that does the same thing, with a slightly different controller and a camera. We're all Wii'ed out, as Nintendo's declining 2010 sales has started to show.
This is not what Sony needs to do. They need to get to their developers and deliver a message: Don't copy Wii, do something PlayStation.
The one title that shows the promise of the Move is actually not a launch title, but a game that came out earlier this year and is getting a patch to enable Move support: Heavy Rain.
Our review of Heavy Rain touched on the fact that it's a game that's more movie than game—a game that does something very different by letting you control motion-captured, pre-animated scenes.
The original construct of Heavy Rain has you performing actions by pressing buttons or wiggling joysticks. Sometimes these are mundane actions like opening doors, shaving, turning on faucets, and sometimes these are very urgent actions like dodging a punch, kicking a guy, or jumping over a chasm. The concept was pretty great—control a movie, Choose Your Own Adventure Style, while keeping the constructs of a game. Mark even kept bugging me to play it. However, the execution, with Sony's traditional DualShock 3 gamepad, turned me off entirely, about 10 minutes in.
Turning a knob by twisting the analog stick? Opening a door by pushing forward, and then back? This felt nothing like I was seeing on screen, so I was forcefully ejected from the pretense of actually being the character every time I had to press an awkward series of buttons to take a swig of orange juice. Then came Move.
This past weekend, I played through the entire game of Heavy Rain with the Move controller. It completely changed the experience.
Instead of wiggling a stick to turn the key in an ignition, I actually grasped the Move controller and turned the controller like I would turn a key. Opening a door? Push forward to grab the handle, yank back to open the door. Slide a window open? Grab the controller and slide to the left. Grabbing a guy in the balls? Push forward. Squeeze aforementioned balls hard for information? Press down on the trigger. Twist balls because he still won't talk? Twist the controller. It's that simple.
As wonderful as the experience became, it still suffered from the hardware's limitations. Often I would perform an action correctly—one I had done hundreds of times before, by the end stages of the game—and yet still fail the gesture. There was no way to know why I failed, which is a limitation of the game, but it felt like I should not have failed, based on all the successful executions of the same move I made just minutes before.
I blame this partially on the capabilities of the Move controller, as well as on the movement recognition in the software itself. The game, as well as other games, need to be more forgiving with recognizing whether or not a gesture is successful. The controller, after all, just feeds data to the game, and it's up to the game to determine what to do with it. Each game developer needs to reinvent the wheel in this aspect, to calibrate what kind of leeway they want to give their players. This, hopefully, will be fine-tuned with time.
But as quirky as the gameplay sometimes was, Heavy Rain was enlightening in terms of what the platform can do.
Sony is the platform for the hardcore. Kids and adults who grew up with PlayStation know exactly what to expect when they buy a PlayStation console. They won't feel like the games they're playing are artificially toned down for the family crowd, or have their game updates restricted by the console manufacturer because they don't want too many free downloads per title, or because there are too many updates in a set period of time. The gaming experience is as pure, for better or worse, as it was 15 years ago when the PlayStation first launched.
Sony knows how to make hardcore games thrive on their platform. Games like God of War and Metal Gear Solid and Shadow of the Colossus. These are the games that need PlayStation Move support.
Imagine playing the next God of War game as Kratos, not just in spirit, hitting square, square and triangle over and over, but actually physically swinging your arms to make him swing his Blades of Chaos (the chain weapons) around. Imagine actually slicing soldiers and watermelons as Raiden in the new Metal Gear Solid: Rising, making 1:1 cuts and seeing the character doing the same thing. Imagine stabbing the giants in Shadow of the Colossus and feeling the vibration as they shudder and tumble, their gentle life force escaping their enormous bodies because you're on a quest.
These are the gameplay promises, implied or not, that Nintendo first made with the Wii in 2006, then didn't deliver, and re-promised with the Wii MotionPlus, and failed to deliver again in 2009. The reason wasn't a hardware one. It wasn't because Nintendo couldn't do it. It was because the platform, and the mentality of Nintendo wasn't one to foster these hardcore games. Games that many core gamers grew up with. Nobody buys a Wii these days to play traditional games. They get a PlayStation.
So forget casual gamers, Sony. They've already got their Wiis, and they don't want to spend $299 on a console that also plays Blu-rays. What do they care about Blu-rays? Focus on the hardcore. These are the people who stuck with your platform when Microsoft's Live system offered dramatically better online play, and when Nintendo's systems offered much better motion gaming (compared to the Sixaxis). These are the same people that will buy your Move because it will offer them an experience they can't get anywhere else.
Combine what you know—traditional, core games for the core gaming crowd—with your new tools, and it will be a winner.