Monday, February 06, 2006

Why the DS is good for the industry aka why the PS2 controller is scary

Note: I wrote this a while ago and never had any place to put it. This was written before the Revolution controller was shown to the public.


"Dengeki reported that Nintendo has successfully acquired the female and adult market for Nintendo DS in Japan…”

What is it about the DS that appeals to women and adults? Why are they gravitating towards a machine that most of us mock?

My girlfriend is a programmer for a videogame company and needless to say she understands technology and is not afraid of it. And yet even she – a woman who makes videogames – does not play them. Why? “There are too many buttons” she tells me. We have evolved into an era of videogames where not only are they too complicated to understand, but even controlling them is frightening.

I remember the first videogame I played; it was Pac-Man at the local convenient store in 1980. It had one button to push, “Start Game.” This button needed to be only pressed once to start the game and after that it never entered gameplay again.

The first videogame console I ever played was the Atari 2600 in the early 80’s and the controller consisted of one joystick and one button. In 1985, the second console I owned was the Nintendo Entertainment System and the controller had a d-pad and two buttons (4 if you count select and start). The first console I actually purchased myself, was the Super Nintendo in 1991 and the controller came with an amazing 6 buttons; 4 face buttons and 2 buttons placed on the edge of the controller that came be known as “shoulder” buttons. Those shoulder buttons sure felt funny to press in the very beginning, especially the left one.

I’ve been playing videogames for the past 25+ years of my life and I’ve experienced the slow progression of going from no buttons required to being comfortable to using 14 buttons (L3, R3, and even the 4 directional buttons on the Dual-Shock controller have become buttons in games) on the PS2 pad. When I watch my girlfriend who is new to videogames hold the controller, it looks she is choking a poor dog to death that won’t stop barking.

It is no longer a secret that women actually do like videogames. Some not only like watching videogames being played but some also like playing games themselves. Not all games mind you (I don’t even play all games) but without sounding too stereotypical in my experience women tend do enjoy playing puzzle games, The Sims, MMOs, etc. I firmly believe that if The Sims had been released simultaneously on PC and console the PC version would still be the best selling version.

People who do not play games, for the most part, do use a PC on a regular basis. They have become common not only at work but in the home as well. People are comfortable with using a keyboard and a mouse, which is why casual gamers will gravitate towards what they already feel comfortable with. Another reason is the cost issue. I’ve been buying consoles my whole life and I’ve yet to buy one solely for a single game, which given the sparse pickings for women on today’s consoles, could be a real proposition. People are much more compelled to spend $40 on a PC game because if the interface is familiar and if the game doesn’t work out, they have only lost $40 in comparison to $200+ it would take to buy a different console and a game.

Recently, Katamari Damacy that quickly grabbed the attention of not only game designers everywhere but also women due to how simple it is to play. Granted they have to actually hold the PS2 controller, which is daunting, but once they realize no buttons are required to play they are instantly hooked. Unfortunately, even with a game as simple as this is to play, it still has yet to sell well. My personal theory is that even if women find it accessible, it is the only game on the PS2 that they are attracted to and why bother buying a whole console just for one game? I wouldn’t either.

Look at the success of racing games, particularly Gran Turismo. Gran Turismo basically said, ‘screw the PS2 controller!’ altogether and threw it out of the equation. Many people play the game with the steering wheel controller, which is instantly comfortable due to its familiar replication of driving an actual car.

The Gameboy has been dominating the market for the past 16 years and never even had a close competitor until the recent PSP. Many technically ‘better’ handheld consoles have been released, featuring color screens, fancier graphics, etc., and yet the Gameboy still stands as #1. The killer app for the Gameboy, Tetris, only required one button. Not only that but the Gameboy dominated the market for 12 years with only 2 buttons. Coincidence?

This brings us to why I think the DS is good for the industry. While there are more buttons on the DS in comparison to the Gameboy, the main form of input is the stylus. The stylus is immediately comfortable as it feels like a real world device, the pen. There are already many games which require you to draw really fast on the screen, much like coloring, which is not only fun to do but very intuitive. What the DS is bringing to the table isn’t revolutionary gameplay or even for the most part nothing we haven’t seen before – what it is doing is packaging it in a way that is more appealing to women. The DS will be the gateway drug; getting women hooked on DS games mean that they will be more willing to try out other games.

Now that E3 2005 has passed, we have seen the controllers for the PS3 and the Xbox 360. One interesting thing to note is that there are no new buttons on either controller. Sony and Microsoft both feel that this number (note that they both have the exact same number of buttons) is the magical number that will attract new gamers and sustain long-term gamers. Since this is an industry first, where we go from one generation to the next without an addition of buttons I am curious as to if this interface is still too complicated to attract new players.


Maj said...

I agree with almost everything you've said and i definately think controller issues are a huge barrier to entry for video games. Some genres more than others. Racing games suck without a wheel because that's another layer of arbitrary memorization you have to get through to get to the cool stuff.

In my case, i pretty much only play fighting games (and Onimusha games when Jean Reno or Guile are playable). So i'm having a little bit of difficulty imagining how the Nintendo DS will help my video game genre of choice.

How would one even go about designing a fighting game with a stylus? Would it be anything of an improvement over the current industry-wide fighting game control standards?

- Maj

Kamui said...

As far as fighting games are conscerned, the only ways they've implimented the stylus so far is through one-button special attacks. The bottom screen in Bleach DS for example, has a list of special attacks available. You use the stylus to tap on the special attack name to initiate the corrisponding move, which isn't remotely interesting. Even in the case of Jump Super Stars, the stylus was only used to summon assists or perform a not so cool Dream Combo system.

As mentioned, this might be what new players need though. This eliminates complicated commands for special attacks, which seem to be the first stepping stone to get over when players first start playing fighting games. Accessability is a huge problem with fighting games in regards to gaining new players.

Attempting to use the stylus in other ways to change the entire control scheme might not work in the end. The stylus might have a little too much flexibility to work for fighting games, which often rely on precise limitations.

If anything, the stylus could be used for a gimmick in a fighting game. For example, in the case of a projectile heavy fighting game, tapping the screen with a specific character might summon a stationary projectile at that point (You could limit the amount the character could have on screen at once). With other characters, tapping a location on the screen might dictate where a projectile travels. You could possibly have one sword wielding character use the stylus to draw arcs which dictate where the character slashes. You could add limitations to this by limiting the length of the line, allowing him to only have one slash on screen at once, and give the opposing player a warning signal that it's coming (By giving the attack a little bit a of start up while also having a visual mark the shows where the slash will end up).

A lot of those examples might be stretching it though. Again, fighting games often need precise limitations to end up bieng exceptional games.

Darkstalker said...

The thing is, implementing a stylus into standard video game conventions is not all that necessary. Sure, there may be some games that need them and others that benefit from using them, but if you're trying to change controls that we're used to, it'll probably attract a whole new set of gamers, and possibly alienate old time players.

The above holds true with any Revolutionary controller (hahahahaha I made a stupid pun), and also holds true to any gimmicks that a game or a gaming system might have (fatalities, boobies, destructible environments?).

All I'm saying is, developers should be careful with gimmicks. Nintendo should be even more careful than others. Why hallo thar, Virtual Boy!

Derek Daniels said...

The revolution controller resembles a tv remote control and I think that is totally on purpose. People are familiar with the tv remote by now and I have a feeling they will gravitate to at least try the revolution controller instead of some scary boomerang.

I think the DS has also grown beyond just being a gimmick with something like 10 million units sold.

Ziggy said...

A lot of people who hate on the Revolution controller also overlook the bigger picture Nintendo has put forward. By using the "remote control" design as a wireless core that can be inserted into essentially any type of alternative controller e.g. gamepad, arcade stick, etc, you suddenly have big potential for 3rd party wireless controllers. I'm hoping that this will lead to a wider range of controller options (something the Gamecube lacked), ideally at more affordable prices than what we're used to (especially for things like arcade sticks and light guns).