Monday, July 19, 2010

Input Devices, the iPad, Wii and You

In recent years, consumer electronic products have seen several new and innovative technologies introduced to tackle the challenge of how users interact with their devices. Voice activation. Motion controls (Wii). Touchscreens. Invisible Mice.

Technology developed primarily as a result of wanting to create a more compact and portable product. The iPhone is perhaps the best example. It has voice activation features, motion controls to determine orientation and, of course, the now famous touchscreen. 99% of computer users still use a mouse & keyboard but most people have had some exposure by now to this type of technology with some type of non-computer device.

Why is this important?

Well, Raph Koster thinks the iPad form factor (or slate) is the future of computing for the average user. I tend to agree with him. It’s compact, portable and certainly covers all the needs that my wife, her parents, my parents, and all my siblings need out of computer. 

One of the knocks I had about the iPad at release is that for the price, you can buy a cheap laptop. And while I still believe that’s true, the trend is that the platform will eclipse PC innovation within the next 5 years. I would argue that it’s already eclipsed the innovation, but within 5 years it might actually become the dominant platform of choice among home users.

So by extension this is important for gaming because, in all likelihood, you’ll own one of these devices within the next 5 years.

Fighting the 1-2-3s
As we learned with the Wii, providing an alternate way to interact with our gaming devices is a novel and interesting way to breathe new life into them.

If I think about my own frustration with MMO controls, I find that what I don’t like most is having to make keystrokes (hotkeys) while simultaneously doing things with my mouse.

Compare that experience to the Wii with it’s motion controls. Or with the iPad's on-screen finger controls + motion controls. The controls themselves are not just intuitive, but fun to use. On a personal note, I find them more challenging as well. Something that is “easy” with the twitch of my wrist on a mouse is far harder to accomplish when I need to swing my whole hand or body.

As MMO players, we talk a lot about innovation. We talk a lot about how MMO devs need to break away from the 1-2-3 hotkey mold made popular by Blizzard.

For me, this was a huge part of the appeal with Darkfall. The UI might have been total crap, but the controls as it related to combat were both fun, challenging and innovative. As I’ve written about in the past, the simple act of killing a monster you need to “aim at” makes the game several factors more difficult than your standard MMO.

Gamers are all about efficiency
I think this is what strikes some gamers wrong about using these newer input devices. The Wii remote is not as easy to use as a Playstation controller.

Using motion controls to drive a car or do just about anything is a bit more challenging on a Wii remote. Some gamers, like myself, enjoy that challenge. Other gamers, like Yahtzee Croshaw from Zero Punctuation can’t stand the motion controls because they make them feel like they have to flail around to do the same thing they could have done with the twitch of a finger.

Gamers are competitive and look at the input device as a potential tool to make them more effective. They buy expensive mice with super high DPI ratings and more buttons than your number pad. I know that on a personal note I am very tempted to buy a Logitech G13 Advanced Gameboard for that exact reason.

This is a fundamental problem with introducing new controls.  One of the games I have for our Wii is Mario Cart. As much as I love the motion controls, you can’t get me to use them in that game because it offers a method without the controls. If I were to use the motion controls while playing against someone who wasn’t – I would be at a disadvantage. Therefore, I feel like I need to play without motion controls in order to feel competitive.

If you want it to work, it can’t be a choice.

It’s not a new argument. There are plenty of people who play WoW who would rather play the game without addons. But in order to compete against players WITH addons, they feel compelled to download and install them.

As an addon author, I’m cleary not against addons. However, I can see that point and respect why other devs like CCP would choose not to allow them to exist in their game. Having an interface option where one method is clearly far superior to another method is really no choice at all.

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