Immersion is Ruining Motion Control and the Industry

One universal flaw of every motion controller in the market is the lack of “tactile feedback”. The best example of this is the sword swing vs a rock. Say you’re playing a game where you swing the controller to swing your sword, but your sword hits a rock. In-game, your character’s sword would stop and rebound off the rock. However, in the real world your controller keeps going. Now there is a huge difference between the position of your controller and the position of your character’s sword.

Now, let’s be honest, without an expensive mess of wires and cables, there is no way to stop your controller and have it rebound in the same way as the on-screen character’s sword. Perhaps in the future they could do something with magnets, though I can’t imagine such powerful magnets would be good for any electronics. However, chances are, they won’t do it at all due to safety concerns. Think about it for a second: you’re swinging your controller as hard as you can and it suddenly stops in mid-air. Chances are you would stub your hand on it and hurt yourself. I know many users will say that they don’t mind and I myself think it would be pretty cool. However not everyone is comfortable with that. As it is we have a hard enough time convincing people to stand up and move around with their controllers, how do you think they would feel if their controllers suddenly started beating them up?!

This is, perhaps, the single most commonly discussed flaw of motion control and has been blown wildly out of proportion. I have even seen people claim that the entire reason why the Wiimote doesn’t work well is because of this and not because of it’s poor design. Needless to say that statement is astoundingly stupid. The reality of the situation though is that this is a non-issue. The gameplay solution for this is simple: keep tracking the controller and when the character finishes recoiling, have them quickly move their sword over to the controller’s new position. This is how it is handled in Sports Champion’s Gladiator Duel, which uses 1:1 motion control sword fighting and works great!

But people still obsess over this perceived flaw. The other day I read two articles on the subject, which were perhaps some of the most soul crushing literature I’ve read out of the game industry in a while. The first talks about how the people that made Boom Blox on the Wii have messed with all three controllers and claim that people shouldn’t do sword control on the Move entirely because of this flaw. The other was from a user who claimed that because of this flaw, developers should intentionally neuter their sword controls.  This is some of the most destructive thinking I have ever seen out of the game industry. One seeks to destroy the entire point of motion control while the other claims they should kill an entirely new genre before it has a chance to blossom beyond a single game. What makes it worse is that both of these articles were written by very intelligent people who went in-depth and clearly spent a lot of time thinking about this so-called problem.

Why would they say such a horrible thing? Because it isn’t “immersive”.

The problem here goes back to the Nintendo Wii. When Nintendo first unveiled the Wiimote, people were asking what the point of motion control was and Nintendo answered “It’s more immersive!”. Ever since then people have mistakenly believed that the entire point of motion control is to be more immerive and have obsessed over this point. In reality, the point of any new controller is to provide either more control. For example, think about the analog stick and how it offered more control than the standard directional pad. Why didn’t Nintendo say this? Because in most scenarios, the Wiimote failed to provide more control. There are a few scenarios where it does provide a bit more control, but not enough to justify building an entire system around the controller. So instead they said it was “more immersive”. Immersion cannot be judged or quantified in any significant way. What one person finds immersive, another person may not. As such, no one can really say that the Wiimote isn’t more immersive than the standard controller. So, from a marketing standpoint, it was a brilliant move.

However, immersion is not the point of motion control for exactly those reasons. Being more immersive does not make motion control better because you cannot prove that it really is more immersive. What can be proven is that a good motion controller can provide more control than a standard controller. In the Gladiator Duel game in Sports Champions, you have complete control over the character’s weapon and shield. Where you strike, how hard you hit, the angle of the blade, and numerous other factors can all be tracked and factored into how much damage you deal to your foe. This is something that cannot be done with a standard controller. Couple this with the position-based blocking and Gladiator Duel is practically an entirely new breed of fighter. A brand new genre the industry has never seen before and it is entirely because of how it uses motion control to drastically alter the sword fighting experience from other titles like Soul Calibur. That matters a whole lot more than “immersion” does. Especially because, personally, I find the game to be immersive even without the supposedly important tactile feedback and there is no way you can prove me wrong.

However, this is not the only instance of this obsession with immersion ruining games. How about the recent trend of minimalistic interfaces. Many developers these days put as little information on-screen as possible. Shadows of the Damned doesn’t even give you a targeting reticule and many developers have avoided putting life bars on screen. Instead they have opted for more “oraganic” methods of showing damage like tinting the screen red or having your character walk differently when injured. While these are nice touches, they don’t give you an exact reading of how close to death your character is, they only give a vague approximation. A lifebar, however, does tell you. While there are instances where not knowing how dead you are may enhance the gaming experience, in most cases this is a downgrade. We went from knowing exactly how many more hits we could take, to only knowing that we’re in some vague degree of trouble. Why would you downgrade your game like that? To be more immersive.

Perhaps the most preposterous example of this is in Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, where by default the camera shakes and jumps around to give it the feeling that it’s being held by an unseen cameraman running alongside you. At first it’s a really cool bit of presentation but once you play a bit more it nearly ruins the game. It makes the player dizzy or even sick and makes it nearly impossible to see at times. Thankfully, the developers had the foresight to allow players to turn this “feature” off, making it a non-issue. But why did they even bother programming it in in the first place? To be more immersive.

The worst part though is that this has become the game journalist’s latest scapegoat. It seems that every so often, reviewers come across a game they don’t like but isn’t flawed enough to justify the low score they want to give it so they just complain that the game isn’t “immersive”. As I mentioned before, there is no way to quantify a game’s immersion and as such you can’t fault them on it. So now they have a fallback excuse to hate games. This most certainly isn’t their first one though. Back when Jak 2 came out they whined about the lack of “gameplay variety” and shortly after that they would complain that a game wasn’t “relevant”. What does that even mean in the context of a review?!

At least, I hope these are just excuses to give games low scores. Because if reviewers are seriously saying a game is bad purely because it isn’t “immersive” and “relevant” than someone needs to be fired if you ask me.

Now, make no mistake, immersion is not a bad thing. That’s just silly. Of course we like to get immersed in our gaming experiences! Everyone does! However, immersion cannot be quantified and cannot be forced. You can’t make someone be immersed in your game. It happens naturally as they play and get involved in the game experience. In short, “immersion” should never get in the way of good game design. Similarly, it should never be used as an excuse not to try something new and different.

So technically, yes, the title of this article isn’t entirely true. It would be more accurate to say that our obsession with the nebulous concept of immersion is starting to hurt the game industry. But, obviously, that title is both too long and not nearly as intriguing. However, the point still stands.

Author’s Note:

Honestly the neutered control scheme this person came up with is a great idea for the Wii due to it’s technical limitations. But you know what’s really funny? The Kinect would be incapable of utilizing this control scheme! No, seriously, it has no buttons and cannot detect tilt. Just something funny to think about.

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