Thursday, June 12, 2008

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

This article first appeared in my column for Zeitgeist, the New Indian Express' Saturday supplement in Chennai. They don't seem to have uploaded it to their site, so I've taken the liberty

Playing Metroid Prime 3 : Corruption on the Wii is an eye-opener, even for a battle-scarred oldie like me. In perhaps one of the best control schemes to use the Wiimote's motion sensing capability, Nintendo has once again indicated the direction in which gaming needs to progress.

Consider this – the modern videogame controller has two analog 'joysticks', one directional pad, and anywhere in the region of ten (yes, TEN) buttons arranged in finger-twisting positions. To be able to effectively play a modern day shooter like Call of Duty or Halo, you need to use every single one of these in various combinations. To the experienced gamer, this may seem like no big deal, but it makes these wonderful games extremely difficult to learn for someone with no previous experience.

In my personal experience, there have been numerous instances where I've sat down with an eager friend, all set to introduce them to videgames, only to have them quickly lose interest because they're overwhelmed by the controls. Rest of the evening spent over beers and television. Much less fun.

As has been the case all too often in the history of gaming, it's Nintendo who is showing the way.

In Metroid Prime 3, you aim the gun by simply pointing with the Wiimote, wherever you want to aim. Just like a real gun. This simple modification alone dramatically reduces the coordination levels required to master the rest of the controls. Yes, there are still several button presses to master, but by removing one level of abstraction from the mix, the designers free up the gamer's mind to focus on the other aspects of the control scheme. Resident Evil 4 is another game that lends itself beautifully to the Wii controller – and is in fact even simpler to learn than Metroid.

The control schemes for these games aren't quite perfect yet, but they inarguably are giant strides in the direction of more intuitive, less abstract control schemes for videogames.

And with the advent of intuitive controls, one great roadblock towards the mass adoption of videogaming as a hobby will have been removed. For gaming to compete with movies and music as forms of entertainment, designers need to keep the games simple to play. It's easy to watch the best movies. It's easy to listen to the best music. By comparison, it's insanely difficult to play the best videogames.

Of course, I'm not suggesting oversimplification to a degree that the games become boring, I firmly believe that most games today tend to err in the direction of packing in too many features at the cost of accessibility. RTS and FPS games are the major culprits, but other genres aren't immune to these failings either.

Nintendo gets this. Which is why they're working hard and smart towards reducing button presses in favour of easier to understand control actions like pointing, punching, swinging and tapping which normal human beings can learn easily, and get on with the fun part of actually playing the game, as opposed to playing hour-long 'tutorial' levels just in order to get started. In fact, even the process of learning to use the Wiimote is far more enjoyable than a similar process with a conventional controller.

The Wii and the DS (Ninty's equally innovative handheld system) have outsold every other contemporary gaming platform worldwide by large margins. There's a reason for this – a reason other gaming hardware and software developers should do well to heed.

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