Sony's Copycat Policy
May 11, 2006
One of the many recurring stories coming out of E3 is how Sony have added motion sensors to the PS3 controller as an afterthought. I picked it up from Kim. Some people are saying that Sony are just trying to copy the Wii's controller concept. Nobody I've encountered has yet observed that you can do a lot more with motion sensors in a wand (which is a pointing device) than a joypad. However, a motion sensitive joypad will work as a control stick for an airplane, as being used in Warhawk. (And yes, the picture shown here is indeed the new PS3 controller; click on it if you want to see it close up).
Why would Sony blatantly rip off Nintendo in this regard? Because that's Sony policy. Nintendo are the undisputed innovators of the gaming interface device (although tip of the hat to Sony for the EyeToy and the tacky but entertaining Buzz controller). Sony have always stolen their best ideas, and this is no exception. One can imagine the discussions at Sony:
"Nintendo have some new motion sensor deely for their new console."
"Is it worth copying?"
"No idea, but Nintendo seem to be betting it will give them a new audience."
"Can we copy them?"
"Sure, we can put some motion sensors into our new controller."
"What would we do with it?"
"Doesn't matter. If we have it, we can copy any good ideas Nintendo has. Any anyway, our battle is with Microsoft now - and they don't have this. It's worth a few million dollars for motion sensing switches to get one up on them."
Why is Sony's interface device policy so dependent on copying Nintendo? A short history lesson (more information on the history of controllers here, if you're interested).
Back in 1991, Nintendo and Sony were going to be making a console together - the SNES CD. However, the contract between the two was, how shall we say, not acceptable to Nintendo (it allowed Sony 25% of the profits). So the two firms went separate ways.
At the end of 1994, Sony launched the PlayStation with a controller which was essentially a remodeled SNES controller, but with an extra pair of shoulder buttons.
In 1996, Nintendo launched the N64 with its innovative analogue stick controller. It was a bit of a sensation at the time.
1997, just one year later, Sony launched the PlayStation Dual Analogue controller. It's new feature? An analogue control stick, and an extra analogue control stick for... well, Sony didn't know, as early Dual Shock games show. But the development community gradually adopted it as a camera stick.
Also in 1997, Nintendo introduced the Rumble Pack accessory - the first haptic interface device (to coin a term I picked up from the Game Ontology Project). That happened in April.
In the winter of 1997, Sony replaced the Dual Analogue controller with the new Dual Shock controller. It's new feature? Vibration.
2002. Nintendo introduce the Wavebird, a wireless controller.
2005. In May, Sony announced that the controller for their new PS3 console would be wireless. (To be fair, everyone announced wireless controllers this year).
September 2005, Nintendo announced their new wand controller, an advanced pointing device with enormous potential as a new interface device.
Which brings us to May 2006, with Sony announcing that the new PS3 controller will now feature motion sensors.
I believe the pattern is self-evident.
I do not provide this retrospective to chide Sony, but rather to show that Sony recognises that Nintendo is the market leader in interface device innovation, they always have been, and Sony policy now seems to automatically presume that whatever Nintendo does with its interface devices are going to be worth copying at the earliest possible juncture.
I think it's sensible of Sony to steal this idea now, when they can add the concept to their new controller prior to manufacture, rather than risking having to issue a new controller within a year or so of PS3 release. But, and this point can't be overlooked, a joypad is not a pointing device. If the Wii happens to catch the zeitgeist and hit a new audience, Sony will have to introduce their own wand controller at some point in the future.
For the time being, however, the Wii still has the interface device spotlight, and the news that the wand has a speaker embedded so that, for instance, you will hear the sound of your bowstring being pulled from the wand, then hear the arrow strike its target from the TV, only adds to its charm. The wand sounds fun to a lot of people, and that's gaming gold dust.
Silly name or not, the Wii's wand (or wii-mote) is the next stop on the infinite path of interface device development. And Sony knows it.
1Up has a nice history of videogame controllers at: http://www.1up.com/do/feature?cId=3143627
The controller family tree is also pretty interesting (to see designs that weren't adopted):
Nice article, and I agree that I think Sony is using it as a differentiatior with respect to Microsoft instead of as a "Nintendo-killer".
Posted by: Jose Zagal | May 11, 2006 at 04:11 PM
Wii-mote is a nice coin. There's gonna be wee all over the new Nintendo console I guess.
I loved reading about the UK Nintendo representative trying to sound like they didn't think the name was as ridiculous as it is.
Yeah, it's a great idea, and Nintendo innovated again. Shame they can't brainstorm a name for toffee.
Posted by: Neil | May 11, 2006 at 04:34 PM
I just realised it looks like I want Nintendo to think of a name for toffee. I really don't. Even if I liked the stuff... I can't imagine eating T64 or Poo-Ffee or whatever.
Posted by: Neil | May 11, 2006 at 04:35 PM
I'm behind you on the controller innovation. I'm very excited about the low-end designs (such as mouse emulation via the pointer, just move your wrist a bit) and the more complex designs (such as tilt/yaw posturing and gestural patterns) that might require a bit more motion.
I ask you do adopt the article-less use of console's name, I think it was designed to stand-alone as "Wii", not "the Wii" and the sooner that meme spreads the sooner people will stop associating it with urine, which seems counter-productive to me.
I'm not sure whats going to happen between Sony and MS, but I have a feeling Nintendo will do very well, perhaps even evangelize a large cluster of non-gamers, and that its controller will see many descendants, like Abraham or something.
Posted by: Patrick | May 11, 2006 at 08:58 PM
Jose: cheers for the links - the family tree is really sweet!
Neil: T64 - nice. :) How about the Nintendo ChewCube? :D
Posted by: Chris | May 11, 2006 at 09:04 PM
Patrick, I just can't seem to find a way to use Wii on its own. "Shall we play on Wii?" doesn't seem to be a grammatical sentence in my head, whereas "shall we play on the Wii?" works fine. "I'd like a Wii, please" seems okay, apart from the obvious pun. But then what? "This is my Wii?"
Try as I might I can't imagine myself in my future lounge refering to a Wii in any sensible manner at all! Nintendo's marketing department have their work cut out for them on this one!
Posted by: Chris | May 11, 2006 at 09:12 PM
Frankly, all the obviously potty-related humor is a strong point of the new name, aside from flustering all the guys that have already registered revolution-themed domain names. On the internet, the spread of the new name has been rapid, and no doubt aided by a variety of comedy memes that play on the ridiculous sound of the name. And ironically, it's a lot more unorthodox than the name "Revolution." The Wii, my Wii, my Wii Buddy--it all works because it all means people are talking about it and using the term.
Anything beats the turgid market calculation of "XBox 360," which sounds like a reject from a Mountain Dew pitch session circa 1999.
Anyway, good rundown on Sony's copycat. Much as with the games themselves, it's clear that some companies just do better slightly refining: the dual shock, derivative as it is, is regarded by many as the finest of the current generation controllers. While other companies, like Nintendo, are at their best taking risks, taking the path less traveled to be paved over later by Sony or MS.
Posted by: Jack Monahan | May 12, 2006 at 12:46 AM
"Xbox 360" really is emblematic of the corporate forces that produced the name. In many ways, it's just as silly as Wii *but* without the potential to turn into myriad childish jokes. :) I agree that in some ways it really helps the name spread - but I also think it will be a barrier to sales if the marketing doesn't find way to leverage the playful potential of the name.
I personally do not rate the Dual Shock that highly. I have several complaints:
1. The analogue stick is very poor, and hard to use for fine control. I rate both the Xbox and GameCube controller higher on this point.
2. Sony's symbol marking scheme is truly arcane. I've been playing on PlayStation branded consoles for years and *still* I don't really know which is which (I remember that triangle is up and X is down, but the left and right face buttons I am forever getting mixed up on). When telling other people what to press, I still use "left face button" and "right face button" as designations. The GameCube is the winner in this regard for me - the controls are readily identifiable "red button" and "big green button" are very clear instructions. "Top kidney" and "Side kidney" (as I usually say) are less satisfying, but still very easy to identify. One doesn't have to look at the controller to see which button is which, as players often do with PS2 controllers (usually inexperienced players, but the point remains).
3. Dual banks of shoulder buttons do not lend themselves to remembering their separate functions. I am forever returning to a game and not remember what is on L1 and what is L2, for instance. With just two shoulders, it is easy to remember their function, with four, it becomes muddy. This, however, is a minor complaint at best.
My personal favourite is the GameCube controller, but it isn't perfect. Its two flaws, to my mind, are:
1. The D-pad is rubbish. It's just too small and ill-positioned to use.
2. The connection cord is much too short. I have to physically move the GameCube to make it reach across the lounge to all players. The Dual Shock at least has an exceptionally long cord.
Thankfully, we don't need to complain about cable length ever again. We just have to complain about our internal controller batteries going dead. :)
Posted by: Chris | May 12, 2006 at 07:25 AM
I have to say I like the Dualshock, and rank it pretty much joint best with the lovely-to-hold Nintendo 'Cube pad.
I like the fact that the Dualshock has 4 shoulder buttons, I think this is very useful in games, and I feel the missing shoulder buttons on every other controller.
The fact that you can't remember which side circle and square are on is *exactly* the same as not knowing which of the grey buttons are which on the 'Cube pad. Exactly. The amount of times I do the wrong things in games I am playing *now*, let alone coming back to. At least Sony managed to print some colour symbol on their buttons so you can see which it is without squinting askance at it. (And this complaint goes to the handheld too - why can't we have the ABXY buttons either coloured in some way (I see even the DS Lite has all same colour buttons) or with the letters coloured in?)
It's this sort of detail that Nintendo need to sort if they are going to really pull in all those non-gamers and be a "destructive innovator" in the industry.
I used to feel the Xbox controllers was the best, shortly after getting it, but I find protracted play sessions with any game that requires use of the analogue shoulder triggers makes the tendons in my fingers really hurt... Not so much fun... Oh, and I don't rate the sticks on the Xbox pad that highly either as I frequently see problems with it not detecting me pushing it in a direction as I go round with the stick. e.g. I push forwards, then round to the elft, and sometimes nothing happens. Now I realise I might have a dodgy stick, but still - it doesn't compare to the slightly shaped Nintendo stick which is easy to point in an orthoginal direction accurately.
Anyway, the look of the new controllers is interesting (well ok, seeing a Dualshock with a USB socket and some extra LEDS isn't exciting) but there still might be wire length type problems... Who knows how well the wireless stuff will work in a room full of the stuff? ;-)
Posted by: Neil | May 12, 2006 at 10:40 AM
Am I alone in not understanding the interest in wireless controllers? I have never used one, so it's likely that I'm just not getting it for that reason.
But to me, it seems annoying on its face. You've got another thing to recharge (how do they recharge, anyway? There don't seem to be nicely designed docks embedded in the top of the consoles, which is the most obvious thing to do). You've also got to worry about range. Even within range, are they reliable? Does every click, press, and nudge get through to the console?
On the other side, with wired controllers, you just need long wires -- which are certainly annoying, but can be solved with a fairly simple mechically retracting cord either in the console or hanging off the wire (okay, not elegant).
Perhaps with all this newfangled "waving it around" schtick we'll be doing next year, wireless makes more sense...
Posted by: inw | May 12, 2006 at 11:13 PM
Well, sure, obviously this move by Sony is reactive to Nintendo. And it's not hugely original. But look, given that Nintendo have just introduced a new controller which is pretty darn spiffy, and has a good chance of revolutionising the gaming landscape, why would you NOT copy it? If you were Sony, would you go, "An ill-defined principle of fairness demands that we sit back and watch Nintendo steal the market out from under us," or would you say, "How much of that can we add to our controller?" This actually works in Nintendo's favour, too - the Wii will be a much more attractive development platform if developers know they can use some functions of the controller, and have those functions also work on a PS3 version of the game. Really, this only hurts Microsoft.
Posted by: GregT | May 13, 2006 at 12:45 PM
A little late to the party...
"and I agree that I think Sony is using it as a differentiatior with respect to Microsoft instead of as a "Nintendo-killer"."
Nobody wants to kill Nintendo, they want them alive and well:
It's an age-old political trick - if you're in a natural position of power, but you have a rival, identify yourself in the minds of the great unwashed with the underdog. People always side with the underdog, and good public opinion rubs off by association.
In light of which, the conspiracy nuts may like to question why the PSP is so adamantly aimed AWAY from the market sector traditionally held by Nintendo handhelds? Why the PS3 and Wii are neatly positioned on either side of the 360 in terms of power and price? Why they're coming out at the same time(making the Xbox look a generation old already)? Maybe Sony's entire strategy of recent years has been to divide the spoils with Nintendo...Japanese hegemony.
Or not. Who knows?
Posted by: zenBen | May 15, 2006 at 10:28 PM
I wouldn't be suprised if Sony were squeezed out this cycle.
Posted by: Patrick | May 16, 2006 at 06:04 AM
Nothing prompts discussion quite like talking about the latest skirmish in the console wars... :)
Neil: Of course, I haven't spent much time playing on an Xbox, so I don't know what strains the controllers inflict. I agree with you that it's strange the DS buttons are undifferentiated, though.
Ian: I believe they charge by being plugged into the base unit when you finish with them, using a cable they come with. Like you, I'm not especially keen on this, but if the power cable is long enough you can always leave them connected to the base station. Anyone spent enough time with the 360 to get a feel for the wireless controllers, and any inconvenience therein?
Greg: I'm not really criticising Sony for their consistent copying of Nintendo; I believe it's shrewd business sense on their part. But it does mark out Sony's inadequacies in that they are so dependent on Nintendo to lead the way with interface devices. It's not an issue of fairness, per se, but image: a company the size of Sony is expected to be self-sufficient, after all. Also, what Sony has been done isn't really sufficient to emulate the Wii; it's just enough (as you allude) to embarrass Microsoft. :)
zenBen: I don't think there's any underlying conspiracy at work (although it's an entertaining idea!) The positioning of the PSP away from the Nintendo handhelds was probably Sony using their advantages to their own benefit: they have market strength selling consumer electronics to a predominantly adult market. Sony would happily take over the handheld market if they could, but Nintendo's is deeply entrenched here; better for Sony to establish a parallel market first rather than expending effort fighting 'a war on two fronts'.
Patrick: Sony squeezed out? Very unlikely, I'd say, although not impossible. I just don't think that Microsoft has any mass market brand image worth talking about (being synonymous with productivity software, not entertainment), whereas Sony is viewed in the eyes of the masses as a premium brand name. They didn't sell 100 million PS2 units solely by selling to gamers. One thing certain: it's going to be a very interesting bout in the console wars this time around.
Posted by: Chris | May 16, 2006 at 08:12 AM