Dear Developers of Tech Demos: We Get It!

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Published by Jim Sterling 6 years ago , last updated 1 month ago

(This is another edition of , a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

You know what, game industry? We know how motion controls work. We know what touchscreens are. We really don’t need anymore tutorials in how such technology operates, and we certainly don’t need videogames to teach us. After playing through the majority of the PS Vita’s launch library, I was shocked at how many games existed to show off what it could do. Of course, when you have a brand new system, you expect a slew of tech demos to show off its features, but considering the Vita is more of an amalgamation of existing gimmicks, I think even the most casual of gamers can work their way around the interface. Instead of showing us an exciting blend of traditional gaming enhanced by touch, gyroscope, and voice input, the Vita’s current games seem to exist just to tell us how touchpads and motion controls work … something I think we’ve all figured out by now.

The idea of tech demos existing so late in the generation is absolutely astounding to me, but we still seem to be suffering from them. Late last year, I had to play several PlayStation Move games — all of them acting as introductions to waggle controls. Carnival Island and Medieval Moves were intended to show off the features of the Move, and let players know exactly what they could do with 1:1 motion control. Except … it was the back end of the year 2011. The time for tech demos should have been over. Yet here we were, with developers insisting on making us throw bowling balls or shoot arrows as if the Move hadn’t already done that shit before. As if the Wii hadn’t been doing it for half a fucking decade before then.

Whatever happened to the idea that motion controls would change the way games were played and breed innovation? Whatever happened to the idea of touchscreens enhancing our input capabilities, rather than existing solely to show themselves off? That’s what half the games on the DS and Vita are at the moment. They exist just to let us know that touch interface … exists. And we get it. We bloody get it, okay? Yes, you can rub the screen to knock some dirt off of a thing. Holy fucking shit! Now tell me how that makes the game better. Oh, it doesn’t? You made me transition from buttons to the screen, just to show me that I could? Well … good for fucking you. What’s that, Little Deviants? I can pinch the front screen and the back pad of the PS Vita and pull something? That’s really uncomfortable and inconvenient, though. Oh right, you don’t care. You just want me to do it because you’re showing off. Fuck you.

We’re seeing this now with the “AR” concept, too. Recently, Spirit Camera was released on 3DS, a game that uses the system’s camera to allow you to see ghosts in the real world. Yet, everything it does has already been done with by Nintendo itself, and on launch day! The thing uses a special book to make images appear on the screen, just like the 3DS’ pre-packaged AR cards, and it allows you to spin around your room fighting monsters in your living room, just like Face Raiders — a free game that’s loaded onto every 3DS shipped. This game is nothing more than a tech demo for tech that was already demoed.

That’s what I’m driving at, here. The tech has been demoed. It doesn’t need demoing anymore. If your primary goal with a game is to just let us know that a certain control method exists, then you can just fuck right off. We’ve seen that. Show us something new. Show us how that control method actually makes the game more fun, rather than gets in the way. That’s what I’d like to see demonstrated, because I’ve yet to see much evidence that this glorious new technology is more convenient and enjoyable than traditional button interfaces. It’s kind of shocking that systems like the PS Vita are essentially repackaging old news to those who game on their phones. iOS gaming has already done a ton of interesting things with touch screens, and the Vita looks like it’s late to the party when it puts out shit like Little Deviants or Escape Plan — which feel like iOS games in the first place.

What dedicated gaming systems need to do is to really, really stop telling us what we already know. It’s embarrassing at this late stage, a stage where we should have had all sorts of exciting projects that blend traditional gaming with new interfaces. Instead, developers still can’t seem to get over the idea of making a gamer rotate their hands to turn valves. Apparently that’s as fresh and exciting as they think we need.

Let me tell you the very best touchscreen interface I’ve seen. It’s in one of the few PS Vita games that don’t feel like tech demos, a game called Unit 13. This is a fairly traditional cover-based shooter from Zipper, and it’s pretty fun, albeit not very breathtaking. What it does with touch input, however, is almost revolutionary in how brilliantly mundane it is. You see, to interact with switches or other objects, you press a digital button on the left-hand side of the screen. To throw a grenade, you touch a digital button on the right-hand side of the screen. That’s it. That’s all you do. The rest of the controls act as they would in any other shooter. And that’s brilliant. It’s brilliant because it truly exploits touch controls in a way that enhances the original experience, rather than gets in the way. In Unit 13, these virtual buttons are perfectly placed right next to the physical buttons, so you simply move your thumb as if it’s an extension of the controls. You don’t need to physically transition from one input method to another, you don’t have to alter the way you hold the Vita. It’s just an intelligent expansion of the controls using conveniently placed touch areas. It keeps the kind of controls that already work best, and adds some improvements. That’s perfect.

Yet Unit 13 is an anomaly when it should be the norm right now. Even Uncharted: Golden Abyss couldn’t resist showing off and attempting to force less convenient control methods down our throats when traditional input would work better. It took a fairly unspectacular game that nobody really talks about to show us how best use the Vita’s features. I fear few developers will actually take note.

Most of us are over the wonder and surprise stage, and we just want to play fun videogames. I’m sick of games that pretend they’re the first to tell me I can rub things, swing my arm, or swipe at stuff.

The tech has been demonstrated. Now actually do stuff with it.

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