In the beginning, there was the D-pad. The player could move their character across a 2-D plane with ease… and it was good. With Microsoft and Sony both set to follow Nintendo into world of motion control, it seems that the industry is standing on the brink of great change. The limits of what a controller can do have been stretched. The analogue stick, the staple of gaming since the Playstation fully embraced the third dimension half through its life cycle (so much so that we soon demanded one for each thumb) has been declared now as only half of the equation and in the case of Natal doesn’t even figure. The stick, surely the greatest addition to games since the ubiquitous D-pad (which still graces the controllers, despite the 360’s efforts to sully its name with a spongy mass of plastic), is so perfectly fit to navigate a 3D space to the point that it’s addition to the way we control games was never really questioned. However, with motion control there are a number of avenues available to exploit and the definitive method is far from being locked down as is ably demonstrated by the fact that each of the big three companies all employ very different technology to track motion. It is easy to suggest that this is the first time the industry has come to such a crossroad. However, this suggestion, as sensible as it sounds would be wrong.
In the beginning was the D-pad. Well, not really. In the beginning were a number of different ways to control games. The Magnavox Odyssey, the system considered to be the first legitimate home games console, had two knobs on the side of a box, the Atari, various joysticks, but also a little wheel controller. The Sinclair Spectrum had a keyboard. The 80’s were a time of discovery for videogames. Back then, there were few industry standards, many systems had multiple controllers, like the Commodore 64, which featured keyboard and joystick options. These control choices had two main avenues of influence: The arcade and the home computer. The joystick had its home in the arcades. The most adaptable of the arcade control systems (many of which were game specific), it made sense to adopt it as the method of control should the company be attempting to create the “home arcade” experience. The keyboard? The result of trying to market machines such as the Commodore 64 as home computers that could help children with their homework. Clever, but parents never reckoned on Paperboy…
It was the NES that got it just right. The classic controller, the first that many of today’s gamers became familiar with, a D-pad with two buttons; a and b. With the NES, the home console got a control method to call its own. The NES didn’t mark the cross’s first appearance, it had several incarnations before industry legend (and Game Boy creator) Gunpei Yokoi designed the now familiar design and added into the Game & Watch series. It’s also worth noting that the NES actually predated a number of the systems quoted above. It took time for the design to filter down and become standard, though tellingly the Sega Master System, released a year after the NES, featured a very similar pad as standard on the controller. However, by the time the 80’s had wrapped up, almost every system, home and hand held alike, featured the four way directional pad.
It’s easy now to look back and see that the D-pad was the obvious choice to carry forward. More practical and than a keyboard and more precise than a joy stick, it’s easy now to wonder how it wasn’t thought of and adopted sooner. However, it is a situation in many ways similar to this that we are presented with today: The issue of control. Where are we going next? Right now, motion control seems to be the safe bet, though it’s possible the industry could veer off on another direction entirely given four or five more years (however, given the massive financial commitment involved within all parties on developing motion control it’s unlikely). It’s possible that in twenty years time, the games industry will look back and say with a smug smile that of course Natal was never going to work, that its reach exceeded its technological grasp, that the Sony Motion Controller was too little too late for a company that needed something to separate them from its competitors or that the Wii did little behind highlight the technical and practical limitations of motion control. While it would certainly be unfair to suggest that what lies before us is a repeat of the infamous Super Scope, hype is a cruel mistress. In the end it will most certainly fall to software. The Wii had Wii Sports but failed to follow up with anything that suggested the remote could stir imagination beyond clever tech demos. Should Sony or Microsoft release a title that people feel must be played, they will have legitimised their respective approaches to motion control. Remember, even the D-pad need Super Mario Bros.