Moving On

Just who is expected to buy this year's new motion controllers?

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It is no great surprise that, despite Microsoft's slowly building focus on Natal, Sony is likely to beat it to market with its PlayStation Move motion controller. The noise and heat generated by the rumbling PR campaigns behind both technologies occasionally mask the reality - that this is, on one level, a battle between a company usually seen as a technological imitator which has unexpectedly taken on the mantle of cutting-edge innovator, and a firm which has prided itself on high-end engineering R&D suddenly embracing the "disruptive" ideal by employing cheap, tried-and-tested technology.

Both companies are arguably outside their comfort zones. Natal is technologically ambitious, which is not something Microsoft attempts often. PS Move is a low-cost, robust approach, which is equally alien to the neophiliac, technology-obsessed culture which has dominated Sony for decades. Even with both firms playing away games, however, Move's simpler technology was always likely to be first to market, and may well end up sporting the cheaper price tag of the two.

Does this matter? Probably not. It's yet to be confirmed whether Move actually will beat Natal to market (this is simply the relatively sane assumption that's being drawn from Sony's bombastic GDC performance this week), but even if it does, it's likely to be only by a handful of weeks, since Sony has committed itself to "autumn" and Microsoft to "before Christmas".

First mover advantage doesn't really apply here, since neither company is the first mover. Natal, being a much more distinctive technology, has a better excuse, but the reality is that both of these efforts are slinking into the back of the classroom halfway through the lesson - while Nintendo, the prize student, turned up five minutes early and has been sitting up at the front earning gold stars all along.

That reality isn't just important for snarky journalists sniping from the sidelines, however - it's also something of which the consumer will be keenly aware. It speaks to just how badly Sony and Microsoft's cages have been rattled by the Wii that they're willing to take the inevitable reputation hit involved in following meekly in their competitor's footsteps - both firms having decided that the risks of failing to do so justify the hefty servings of humble pie involved.

The extent to which Sony, in particular, is aping the approach of its corporate rival a handful of hours away on the bullet train is particularly notable from the software line-up hinted at in the company's GDC presentation. Looking through the list of supporting publishers, there's no doubt that some of them are going to attempt more hardcore-style titles using the Move technology, but with the notable exception of SOCOM 4, Sony's showcase was a direct response to the Wii - attempting to answer the "where is PlayStation Move's answer to Wii Sports?" question by, er, developing a range of motion-controlled sports and party games. Subtle.

In the interests of fairness, it's worth pointing out that most people who've gone hands-on with the PlayStation Move software in San Francisco this week seem quietly impressed. The games sound slick and well-conceived, even at this relatively early stage, the hardware itself is pleasant to use and the motion controls themselves are responsive, accurate and lag-free - just as you'd expect, given the mature technology they employ.

None of this, however, answers the key question which the industry has been asking itself since PlayStation Move (and, to a lesser extent perhaps, Natal) was announced - who, exactly, is going to buy this?

The cards Sony has placed on the table this week suggest one answer to that question. It sees PlayStation Move as being an upgrade path for Wii owners - an invitation to the tens of millions of consumers who have invested in Nintendo's platform to swim upstream to the more powerful, HD-enabled system. Yet even Sony's most optimistic view of the market will be tempered by a dose of realism here.

How likely, exactly, is it that a consumer who has already bought a Wii for its motion-controlled games is going to invest in another, more expensive console just because it has a similar motion controller to the one they bought a Wii for in the first place? Some consumers probably will, especially given the right software line-up (software, as ever, is absolutely key to the success of both peripherals), but it's unlikely to be a Road to Damascus conversion for a significant proportion of the Wii's installed base.

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