The Future of Sports Doesn't Seem Set in Motion

I have this silly daydream of a Kinect-enabled baseball game. In it, you can call for your runner to steal by going through the signals of a third-base coach. Then touch the cap, touch the belt, touch the letters, indicator, sign, corners of the mouth, batter-up fists, clap, let's go.

Or you can, you know, just select the runner and hold right trigger or something.

One year and two E3s in, I'm still not sure that motion control, no matter how much Microsoft and Sony want it pushed, has a strong future in simulation sports gaming. We saw how far the technology is from mainstream enjoyability in the NBA 2K12 demo. I know I've harped on this, but when your celebrity endorser runs directly out of bounds with the control set, his claim of it being "so real, it's scary," falls a little flat.

The problem isn't that using Kinect or PlayStation Move to play a sports video results in something that looks gimmicky or, worse, earns the dreaded "casual" label. The problem is it's a different set of controls to learn. Faced with that, most serious sports gamers will not bother. My top two simulation sports games of the past nine months, NBA 2K11 and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12, both have PlayStation Move support for the main game. And I could not be less interested in using either one.

If sports video gaming and actual sports have any intersection, its in their fundamentals. From a golf swing to a perfect spiral to a free throw motion, these are acts that need to be unconsciously triggered and easily repeatable. The same holds true for how sports are played in video games.

We're now in the 14th year of gaming with twin analog controllers. Most simulation sports titles have control legacies stretching back to the turn of the century (which is just an awesome way to put it, even if it's only 11 years ago.) For millions of gamers, playing their favorite game effectively comes down to muscle memory.

If you think I'm exaggerating, think back to the vehement community rejection EA Sports encountered when it changed the pre-snap adjustment commands in Madden NFL 11. The designers said they'd optimized the process, even removing one a button press and on paper, yeah, you can't argue with that. But that one extra button press was essential to a self-taught routine, one optimized for speed, to get the defense set up before the other guy snapped the ball.

That's not to say all controls cannot be improved or better supported simply because they're several years old. Those same pre-snap adjustments, which even boggle my mind, could be simplified into voice commands. This is the example Peter Moore, the EA Sports president, gave at E3 when he said Madden, FIFA and two other titles would feature Kinect support. Calling plays, shifting your defensive line, audibling to a blitz would, theoretically, be handled by voice.

That concept works, partly because it doesn't pretend that making pantomimes out of stick-and-button controls makes a game better. We've already seen a little of this design in Kinect Sports: Season 2 and, in a way, Mass Effect 3 will use the same support. People have wondered how shooters and how sports games would handle movement under Kinect and the best answer seems to be that they won't.

The key here is support. Kinect will have a future with simulation sports as an adjunctive experience in the main game, not as a dedicated means of control and certainly not in anything reduced to a minigame. Unfortunately, as an entirely separate controller, PlayStation Move's ability to support is a lot more limited. It esssentially requires its own mode of play.

Erick Boenisch, a producer on NBA 2K12 doesn't dispute that Move controls aren't what the game's hardcore are looking for at E3. On the flip side, he said, it's a control scheme that's a little easier to use for people who don't have much exposure to the game, using his wife as an example.

Clearly, it's a means of selling to a wider audience, assuming the development cost can be recovered, and additional sales can be attributed to it. And the ultimate ulterior motive for Move development is it gets you a ton of love from Sony. Looking back at their E3 presser, if your game wasn't about Move, 3D or PlayStation Vita, it wasn't getting on that stage.

That's well and good for now but there appears to be little that's sustainable in the experience after these novel first tries, especially when a game-of-the-year franchise like NBA 2K hears derision from its own community when it demonstrates motion controls. Even in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters, the sport that makes the most sense with the Move, wasn't much fun when played with it. Positioning your swing parallel to your screen, rather than into or facing it, wasn't a good choice. I suppose it's because the Move camera had a difficult time interpreting shot strength with you facing it. Still, the whole experience felt imprecise and disconnected. With Kinect support, developers will face a similar challenge posed by lag.

Further, I'm not playing this game to remind myself how bad I am at golf in real life. I'm playing to give myself the illusion I'm the world's No. 1, and you don't get to that point with a golf swing that looks like Charles Barkley's (except slightly better). And that circles back to the other obstacle motion control development faces: redundancy. We've already got sports where you are the controller, where you use peripherals, where everything is motion controlled.

They've been around for centuries. You don't have to buy a console to play them, either.

The Future of Sports Doesn't Seem Set in Motion
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.