E3 looms. We’ve got a big week ahead of us. It’s E3, which means new games, of course. Last year we saw the unveiling of two handhelds, and this week, we see the unveiling of two new consoles. Xbox 360 having already been unveiled, based on what little I know, I’d have to say that I want an X360 more, for a lot of reasons. The biggest is probably Halo 3.

Oh, and J Allard is a BOSS.

Here’s my take on Nintendo’s as-of-yet unreleased information on innovation in Revolution (lots of -ions in that sentence).

Nintendo failed in the DS. I’ll say it again: the DS was a failure for innovation. Let’s look at the three big DS innovations:

  • Two screens: So far, this is really being used as a place to hold stats. Ok, so I don’t have to press the start button…great? Plus, if you really think about it, the two screens is really, in an abstract sense, one big screen. One TALL screen, with a built-in divider. Our eyes see and follow objects better horizontally than vertical, which makes playing such a game somewhat jarring. A glorified Dreamcast VMU doesn’t work for me.
  • Touch screen: Since we’re on the subject of the screens, I thought this would be important to touch on, pun not intended. Possibly good idea, bad implementation. In order to use the stylus, you need the entire use of your hand. Which means that you’re not only playing the rest of the game with one hand, you’re also maintaining a 10-ounce device (which doesn’t sound like much, but remember that’s about 3/5ths of a pound) in one hand, steady, while you’re pushing down on it with the other. Gets very tiring. The only way that touch-screen works is with that cord thing that you can use with your thumb, and that can be imprecise (plus, you obscure a chunk of the screen that way).
  • Microphone: Voice-controlled games? I don’t think so. Voice-recognition is difficult to pull off on desktops, let alone on a handheld device that costs $150 after two screens, two media readers, and Wi-Fi.

Furthermore, think about this. If you wire innovation into the system, you force developers to use those ideas in innovative ways. Before DS came out, Big N was saying “oh, a game can use two screens, but does a game HAVE to use two screens? No. A game can use the touch screen, but does it HAVE to use it? No.” Because, you know, you bought the system with the notion that developers are going to use these ideas. If they don’t, the game won’t sell, so they have to come up with ways to use these features. This results in hackneyed use of special features of the system, and as a result, the use of these features is limited. As a result, I can’t find anything on DS worth playing that uses these features very well, including Metroid.

Granted, we’re still very early in a system’s lifespan, and as is true with anything, it’s going to take some time before we see some kick-ass implementations of these ideas. That having been said, flawed implementation of innovative ideas leads only to failed ideas which will most likely not be repeated. Remember Virtual Boy?

If you look at these ideas Nintendo put into DS, they all boil down to input. Nintendo’s “innovations” really boil down to “OK, how can we find new ways for the gamer to interact with the game?” My question is: why? Why do I need ANOTHER method of playing a game? What’s wrong with playing a game with buttons and analog sticks and directional pads and triggers?

Controllers have evolved. Since the beginning of gaming, they’ve always been on a more-more-more system. There hasn’t really been any sort of radical change in how we input data into the system. Even the analog stick is just a D-pad with more flexibility. Games have grown accustomed to the notion of having these things on a controller.

As it is, we’ve pretty much maxed out on what we can stick on the face of a controller, without moving straight to a keyboard. The reason a keyboard works is because you move laterally along the surface, and any experienced typist knows exactly where any key is on a keyboard without even looking at it. A controller, however, is something glued to your hand – you have a very limited range of movement in your thumb to get to buttons. So I can understand how Nintendo is trying to expand that input to include more. However, as we’ve seen with the DS, the results can be less-than-stellar.

The only step that game companies can make from here is to make the feeling more natural; to make it seem like you’re not playing a game but are controlling an on-screen experience directly, rather than through a generic interface such as a controller. However, the only way you can make that work is through creating a separate interface for each game (or at least each game type – an FPS would play a lot differently than a driving game). EyeToy is kind-of creeping up on this, but it’s implementation is still kinda meh.

One of the reasons I like X360 is because they changed NOTHING on the controller. Didn’t add anything, didn’t take anything away. They rearranged stuff so it’s more ergonomic, but besides that, the interface to the game is the exact same as it was. Everyone was pleased when they found out that the Dual Shock 2 was going to be the exact same as the Dual Shock.

So, if Nintendo is going to be changing the way I integrate with my games through the physical interface, so be it. However, they need to realize that in order for it to work, it’s going to have to need a lot of work and refinement, and even then everyone isn’t going to like it. And it will take a long time for developers to come up with games that really use the full potential of these innovations to make such an endeavor worth it.