Unmoved by PlayStation Move

By Sam Machkovech April 9, 2010

I'm standing in a small crowd at Sole Repair Shop in Capitol Hill, and a Sony game designer hands me two wireless remotes with glowing, colored bulbs at each tip. He points me toward a boxing game, currently listing real-life gestures that I can do with these remotes to make my character fight dirty. Two hands swinging from left to right will make my guy swing elbows into my opponent's face. Two hands slamming downward will deliver a head butt.

Anticipating my next question, as I look at the Wii-like controllers, the Sony rep insists that I'll never see this kind of game on the Nintendo Wii.

The PlayStation Move controller, plugged in for charging (and a verrry nerdy shirt behind it)

I've come to the invite-only Sony event to play with this motion-sensitive gizmo, dubbed the PlayStation Move, because it won't be in stores until this fall. (I'm also here to talk to some designers at Redmond's Zipper Interactive, but more on them later.)

Santa's going motion-control crazy this Christmas, what with Microsoft releasing a similar—and perhaps more advanced—rig named Project Natal (which I've written about before). Microsoft hasn't yet hosted public demos in Seattle, so Sony gets the first shot at an important question: Is their motion-sensing rig more precise than the Wii? And will it make their games more fun?

I should point out that Nintendo released its own "motion-sensitive" boxing game years ago, but that game didn't sense real motion. You'd shake your fists wildly in the air, and your 3D character would respond to a fifth of your motions. (This "not-really-sensitive" complaint has dogged the Wii ever since its debut.)

Sony's untitled boxing demo seems like a great comparison point, and it looks cool enough; realistic, musclebound dudes beat each other up in a shady alleyway. But, geez, it barely senses half of my motions. I see my opponent leave his stomach open and jab with the Move controller, only to watch my guy stand there. I then get socked in the jaw. Ugh. The developer interrupts to say that there's "some lag we're working out," and the final game will be smoother.

Wait. This "revolutionary" motion-sensing hardware has lag, and the game developer has to solve it? That's like Apple saying that finger taps on the iPhone screen will have a delay unless each app maker designs around it. Puzzling.

Among the other demos, one party game displays my body via camera on the HDTV while I interact with whatever's on the screen. Swat flies, shave a doll's head, other silly stuff. It's responsive, but it's nearly identical to Sony's "EyeToy" game series from more than five years ago. Also, a kooky racing game—glide down the street in an office chair—is so hard to steer, I wonder if its designers have to "solve" lag issues of their own.

In the less-crowded upstairs lobby, a few designers from nearby studio Zipper Interactive, known for war simulators like MAG and SOCOM, are showing off a forthcoming SOCOM sequel. A tight-knit squad of soldiers sneaks through Southeast Asia and kills opposition forces; you control the squad leader.

"We'd been working on this game for two years," a Zipper rep says, "and then Sony asked if we wanted to add PlayStation Move support about, oh, three months ago." Only three months? This is gonna be worse than the boxing, I figure.

Turns out, with a pointer in one hand and a joystick in the other, I can nimbly run and aim around the battlefield. I was able to do that two years ago in a Wii game, but SOCOM 4 also allows me to point at the screen and order my virtual squadmates around the battlefield: go here, then here, then duck behind this wall, then kill Enemy #3.

I'd never done that in a console game, and SOCOM 4 deserves props for the trick—it feels great to control one soldier while ordering others around at the same time. But all I did was point at the screen, something the Wii can already do. Most of everything I played, really, came down to that feeling—I've done this before. And I don't have to pay an extra $70-$120 (rumored add-on cost range of Move) to do so.

Sony rep Anton Mikhailov stresses the Move's technical prowess.

There's one major exception. Hidden in that upstairs balcony, a thin, wiry Sony rep uses two controllers to manipulate a series of tech demos. I'd seen Mikhailov do this kind of stuff at last month's Game Developers Conference—in that case, using two Move remotes to simulate "multi-touch" on an HDTV (shown above)—but he goes even further into the nerd rabbit hole in his Seattle demo, grabbing a 3D sphere on the screen with one hand, then manipulating it with the other—sort of like spinning an apple with one hand, then using the other to cut worms out of its skin.

He's nimble with his motions, able to find any point on the on-screen sphere with the perfect turn of his two wrists. "It's so intuitive," Mikhailov insists, saying this could revolutionize, say, 3D strategy games.

But "intuitive" isn't the right word. I've never seen a game controlled like this, and his movements need explanations to make sense. Sony may benefit from Mikhailov's wide-eyed wonder some day to create a unique, must-have game that rotates and spins in ways we've never seen before. For now, the Move is miming the Wii too blatantly and hiding behind guarantees that they'll "smooth it out soon."
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