Microsoft's dream of a Kinect-controlled future has hit the skids. The Wii was basically a really, really long fad, and the Wii U just isn't taking off. Are cool, innovative game controllers on the way out? Not quite. They've just moved to new places, is all.
Rock Paper Shotgun talked to all sorts of developers about the future of video game controllers. The general consensus? Game creativity never quite caught up with motion controllers like Kinect, Wii, and PlayStation Move. People just didn't know what to make of them, so the idea well ran dry quickly. Doug Wilson, one of the creators of (wickedly fun) PS-Move-based physical game JS Joust, explained:
"Console-based motion control and physical play was already largely 'dead,' but Microsoft dropping the Kinect is a symbolic moment—another nail in the coffin. What Microsoft lacked was developers who knew how to think beyond the immersive fallacy and subvert technological constraints. As I see it, Microsoft could have done a better job supporting and incentivizing Kinect developers."
"Using consumer technology means I can more easily distribute my game. What disappoints me is how a generation of shoddy motion control games have turned core gamers against the very idea of motion control gaming."
Nowadays, however, that means all sorts of indie efforts are springing up to fill the void—from games that rely on pre-existing hardware like Joust, Sportsfriends, and the Wiimote-based Dark Room Sex Game to Punch The Custard, where the controller is a bowl of custard. That you punch.
There are also entire events dedicated to creative video game hardware and ideas, for example The Wild Rumpus, which primarily operates out of the UK. Games on display at Rumpus often straddle the line between installations and tiny planets that will blot out your entire living room. GIRP, for instance, is normally a climbing game best described as "Twister for your fingers," but Mega GIRP replicates that experience on a series of custom dance pads. Inevitably, everyone falls down, only instead of going "AAAAAAIIIIIIIEEEE" as they flail toward their inevitable demise, they laugh.
There's also Swordfight, a game where people strap custom Atari joysticks to their groins in an attempt to poke triggers with sticks and yes this is a real thing that exists. Let's not forget the PainStations and Kiss Controllers of the world, either.
It's all made possible by developers who've decided to step a couple feet outside the system, people willing to crack open controllers and maybe void a warranty or two in the process. Others, meanwhile, are unafraid to create games that only a handful of people will ever experience in their full glory, though Kickstarters for compilations like Sportsfriends ensure that some of these oddities will eventually get a chance to make the world a slightly stranger (and funner) place.
It's tough to see a future in which these sorts of games are huge moneymakers, though. For some people, even owning a few Move controllers and a dance pad or two is out of the question, let alone some crazy contraption like Tenya Wanya Teens' hilariously (and purposefully) convoluted multi-person controller. So maybe big, spectacle-driven events are the key. Regularly scheduled, temporary arcades, more or less. Places people congregate to play games that simply can't exist anywhere else—and hopefully laugh and smile and shout and wrestle with each other in the process.
I can't vouch for the moneymaking potential of more events like Wild Rumpus, but I can confirm that they're wicked fun. There was a Rumpus during GDC this year, and among other things I got to play a game where a friend and I put on specially calibrated, er, sleeping bags in order to control competing caterpillars in the world's wriggliest eating contest. Somewhat darkly, we could devour fruit or each other.
We rolled around on the ground while our avatars twisted and turned, swerving out of each other's ways at the last second like two eighteen wheelers in a game of wonderfully catastrophic chicken. A small crowd whooped and laughed as we duked (or whatever the caterpillar equivalent is) it out, and I don't think there was a single frown in the house. I later learned that the game was called Roflpillar, and I'd love to play it again someday.
Later, I wandered tipsily through this darkened space of glee and fun, just to take it all in. Rainbow lights danced off the floors and walls, accompanied by glimmering, flashing screens in the distance. Adults and so-called "professionals" were giggling like children while strapped into all sorts of insane devices. Some mashed buttons, others jumped up and down, others took Interstellar Selfies. Whether because of bubbling alcohol or burbling adrenaline, inhibitions were gone. People just played.
Removed from the hustle and bustle of a Wild Rumpus, I've also played JS Joust in the park with friends. The point of Joust is to smack other people's PS Move controllers while keeping yours calmly level, lest its hyper-sensitive motion detector count your sudden leap or dodge as a hit against you. There is, in other words, no screen. It's a physical game that uses videogame controllers. The game's physical nature makes it especially exhilarating in open spaces where you can move between objects like trees and benches, use them as obstacles for opponents closing in all sides.
I ended up developing a friendly rivalry with one person, to the point where we'd always go after each other in every match. Some people would use this against us, teaming up to slowly sneak up on us in the thick of our own personal battle. The afternoon continued that way, with new improvised strategies and unspoken partnerships springing up in every match. Joust is a game that has a powerful ability to speak silent volumes about the people playing it. Rarely are two matches even remotely similar, let alone the same.
At one point, I just barely wrenched my arm away from a strike so snake-like fast that it probably would've knocked the controller clean out of my hand. I slowly backed away from a pack of friends closing in on me, and then I briefly glanced over at my forearm. It was warm, sticky, bleeding. Only a little, but I had sustained a War Wound from this game. To this day, I still have a scar from that moment. I see it every time I look down. It's a tiny sliver of a thing, but it holds a memory.
These games rely on intoxicatingly simple formulas to produce diabolically fun, memorable results. I think that arises from necessity. When these things are on display, people only get to spend a few minutes at a time with them. You've got to hook someone fast or not at all. There's no time for 20-minute intros or tedious, long-winded tutorials. Games need to be instantly understandable, immediately enjoyable whether you're watching or playing.
That's another thing, I think, these games have in common with their arcade lineage. When you see people publicly flailing (and in some cases, um, gyrating) to these weird, wacky games, it becomes harder and harder to resist trying them out for yourself. I mean, why not? Anyone can swing a controller or roll around on the ground or punch a bowl of custard.
That said, even if you're vehemently against custard-based violence, these things are still impossible to look away from. Events like Wild Rumpus or even simply playing Joust in a park, then, draw people in on multiple levels. You can just watch and still have a great time. You can meet people.
So while some developers (Joust's own Wilson included) are a bit pessimistic about where truly mainstream alternative controllers are headed, we're not all out of options yet. Developers who might have been creating games for, say, a better supported Kinect, Move, or Wii are instead blazing their own trails because, well, what else can they do?
Games are entering new spaces as a result, and while I wouldn't say any of these things have cracked the mainstream yet, perhaps they don't need to. Maybe people will discover them at their own pace, by way of friends and parties and events. Maybe, then, the failure of controllers like Kinect and Move was a blessing in disguise, a call for better, more creative solutions to a problem we didn't know we had.
Regardless, innovative game controllers are only just getting started. Consoles might be dropping them, but there's still boundless untapped (or poked or shoved or swung or lobbed or tickled) potential lying in wait. As Robin Arnott, creator of excellent VR meditation game SoundSelf, put it:
"If I were in the console business right now, I'd be looking for a way to get ahead of the curve by integrating heartbeat sensors, breath-tracking, and EEGs into peripherals. The next generation of what we call games will not be about using the body as a means of control. It will be defined by experiences that blur the lines between self and software. This leap is right around the corner."
I sure hope he's right.
TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry (and sometimes other offbeat and/or uncomfortable subjects). It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.