In every generation of videogame consoles, a manufacturer attempts to take how we play games past the status quo. Videogames have been presented in the same basic way for nearly 40 years. You look at a screen and control whats on that screen with a joystick and buttons. The screens have gotten bigger and the controllers have added more buttons, but all in all, not much has changed. But each generation, a company tries to move gamers deeper into the experience and expand how we interact with our consoles. And they fail. Every single time. The failure isn’t because it’s a bad idea (well, sometimes it’s a bad idea). Most of the time its because the idea was poorly implemented, lacked support, or simply didn’t work. Or maybe gamers don't want anything new. Is it possible we're satifsifed with how things are and that's why gamers as a group steadfastly reject any control scheme other than a stick and buttons?
In this article we'll go back through each console generation and look at some of those failed attempts at innovation. We’ll only be looking at 1st party peripherals, the items built by the console makers themselves since they had best chance to succeed in terms of development and support. That mean famous failures like the Power Glove and U-Force will get a pass.
XBOX One Kinect
Ok, this isn’t a surprise to anyone. Microsoft recently announced that the Kinect will no longer be a required part of the Xbox One console. While this doesn't automatically mean the camera/microphone sensor has failed, lets be honest. It means that it failed. The Kinect was the most advanced sensor of its kind. It could listen to your voice commands, translate your movements into controls for games or media. Hell, it could even tell if you were smiling and when your heart rate went up. Experts will be debating why the Kinect wasn’t embraced by consumers for a long time. But the lack of software support had to have been a huge problem. For most people who had the Kinect sitting in front of their TV, that's all it did..sit there.
PS4 PS Camera/Move
Sony’s PR people are the best in the world. Not because they’re great at promoting products. But because when they have a failed product, no one ever talks about it. At the launch of the PS4 was a Camera/Microphone sensor that had many of the features of the Kinect, just not as precise. The camera was a $60 option that the vast majority of PS4 owners have skipped. And the few that did pick it up quickly realized that there wasn’t much they could do with it other that make tiny robots dance in the free Playroom software.
The PS4 Controller is also treasure trove of failed concepts. Sony added the ‘sixaxis’ motion abilities to the DualShock 4 controller. You can tilt and rotate your controller and thus have more precise and integrated movements on screen. It’s a feature thats used less than the Sweet n Low packets at a candy store.
Sony also managed to sneak in a PS Move sensor into all of the controllers along with a touch pad. The Dual Shock 4 is equipped with a bright tracking light that is very similar to the original PSMove controller that will allow the the PS4 to have pinpoint accurate motion controls. This has yet to be used in any game (but it's rumored to be important to the upcoming virtual reality headset). And the touch pad is a pretty good way to enter your password when signing into PSN, other than that, its a controller feature that has yet to be exploited.
Wii U Tablet
It’s a 10.5 inch tablet with a screen smaller than my 7 inch Nexus. Nintendo knew their Wii U console was underpowered spec-wise when it was released, but they figured that the innovative tablet controller would be more than enough to alleviate any problems with horsepower. Nintendo has stood behind the controller, even if it does seem forced at times. Blowing into the microphone to turn a propeller on Mario World doesnt really boost your confidence that you made a smart purchase.
Xbox 360 Kinect
The first iteration of the Kinect had a lot going for it, a wide range of titles, tons of media coverage as the next big thing, and the unwavering support of Microsoft. But after the initial surge, the games quicky dried up and the consensus of the gaming public was ‘it just doesn’t work’. Microsoft didn't give up easily though and announced the second version would be a required part of their next console (until it wasnt). Meanwhile the original Kinect is gathering dust with development for it at a near standstill.
Live Vision Camera
Before the Kinect there was the Live vision camera. Basically is was a webcam that plugged into your Xbox 360. Why would you want to do that? No reason. None at all. Unless you wanted to play UNO and witness visuals that made Chat Roulette look highbrow. The camera was succeded by the Kinect sensor which for all intents and purposes made the Live Vision cam obsolete.
This unfortunately shaped device was Sony’s answer to the overwhelming success of the Nintendo Wii’s motion controls. An illuminated bulb tethered to a makeshift gamepad worked in conjunction with the PSEye camera on the Playstation 3 to give you an incredible range of precise movement on screen. And it worked pretty well, too. But people couldn’t get over the fact that it looked like it should be sold at a discount by Adam & Eve, and also the game support for it was almost non existent. The technology would like in as it was transferred to the DualShock 4 controller and Sony still contends that the PSMove works with the PS4, even though there is no software available that uses it.
Nintendo Wii Balance Board
The Wii Balance Board was going to transform your Wii into the ultimate fitness partner. Instead it spent it's life gathering dust underneath couches all across the world.
Sega Dreamcast VMU
The Visual Memory Unit (VMU) for Sega’s Dreamcast added a new dimension to controllers. Think of it as a very early version of the Wii U tablet. Only much, much smaller with its 1.5 x 1inch screen having a resolution of 48x32 pixels. If that seems like it would be too tiny to do anything meaningful, you would be correct. It was intended to be used as a way to display information from your games, and the VMU even had a little controller and buttons on it like a baby gameboy. But in the end only a few games took advantage of it and most just ignored it altogether.
Sega Genesis Activator
The Genesis had its fair share of failed add ons (32x anyone?). But for the purposes of this article, the Activator fits perfectly. The Activator was a large ring that you placed on the floor and stood inside of. It would sense your movements so that you could punch and kick while your onscreen character mimicked your actions. Now, if the Kinect has problems pulling this scenario off in 2014, this 1993 controller had very little chance of success. Its lackluster sensors resulted in unwanted motions and twitching characters that almost never resembled what the player was doing. Since it was a direct controller replacement, you could use it with any game, like say, Ecco the Dolphin (which was actually suggested by the tutorial video). They never explained exactly how punching and kicking in the air corresponded to a dophlin swimming in the sea eating guppies.
Nintendo NES Power Pad
Nintendo wanted to get kids moving. Partly to silence critics who said the NES was creating a generation of couch potatoes, and partly to sell a bunch of overpriced plastic mats. So Nintendo introduced the NES Powerpad. The power pad was a large mat you placed on the floor with buttons embedded in it. The uses started and ended with running in place or hopping back and forth like a futuristic form of hopscotch. Unfortunately kids weren’t interested in being active. They had an NES so they -didn’t- have to run around. The Power Pad died a quiet death after having only 11 titles to support it.
Coleco Vision Expansion Module #2
The ColecoVision launched with an available expansion module that added a steering wheel and gas pedal to the system. It allowed players a true arcade like experience when playing racing/driving games. Today PC gamers spend hundreds of dollars on steering wheels to go with their driving sims. But in 1982, not so much. The Colecovision’s driving controller only had 4 titles available for it. Which wasn’t nearly enough reason for consumers to get the accessory.
Atari 2600 Keyboard Controller
Oddly enough, the Keyboard controller for the Atari 2600 wasn’t really a keyboard. It was actually a 12key number keypad(0-9 and *, #). As you can expect, there are very few titles that used the keyboard controller. Classics like 'Basic Programming' and 'Memory Match' weren't enough to spur gamers into leaving the world of up-down-left-right and a single fire button.
Game makers continue to try to change how we play games, and even though none of them caught on and infact were often huge failures, I'm glad that they are making the attempt. As consoles get more powerful and games get more complex, we need to search for better ways to interact with the virtual worlds being created. Simplifying everything down to a few buttons and joystick movements deal a huge disservice to gamers and the games we play. Hopefully we'll get a control method that's not gimmicky and actually works. Until then, I'll be yelling at my Kinect and watching Hulu on my Wii U Tablet.
- Published in All Games Blog