The Life and Death of Motion Controls

Motion controls are nothing new to gaming, although their prominence is a relatively recent phenomenon having exploded with the 2006 release of the Nintendo Wii. The life of this technology has been rich and interesting, but is it coming to an end?

One of the earliest examples of motion controls for video games was an arcade game made by Sega in 1976. It was called Heavyweight Champ, which required players to punch using a glove controller. Power pads, power gloves, light guns, dancing games, and many more, frequently in arcade settings, followed over the decades. These devices varied wildly in accuracy but their novel nature had an undeniable draw to it. For that reason, the arcade was the safest place to experiment with motion controls.

Sega, one of Nintendo’s fiercest competitors in the days of yore, was also the first company to implement full-body motion sensing as a part of their little known arcade title, Dragon Ball Z: VRVS, which was released in 1993. We’ve seen most of these technologies I’ve mentioned evolve to more popular forms.

The catch-all motion tracking, with the highest degree of versatility, arrived with the Nintendo Wii’s unconventional controller design. The company was seeking accessibility with their controller which was designed to look like the living room staple, the remote control. Or clicker. Or whatever term you prefer. That, and its simple waggle controls, made immediate sense to non-gamers, although the more “hardcore,” types seemed to feel alienated by this approach.

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 had to look at the success Nintendo had found in a market they hadn’t really explored. They devised motion controls of their own. Microsoft created the Kinect, and then improved upon the design for the Xbox One, although its most popular era seemed to be on the Xbox 360. The idea behind the Kinect was to rely on motion controls entirely, avoiding the need for a controller. Games like Just Dance grew in popularity, despite the fact that the Kinect’s motion tracking wasn’t really all that good. Sony, on the other hand, created a more precise device with their PlayStation Move controllers which utilized the PlayStation Eye camera accessory. The camera tracked the glowing lights on the controller, which also contained devices within to measure tilt and rotation. PlayStation Move was also complemented by accessories, like plastic gun frames that could hold the controllers, to work with shooters like Killzone 3. PlayStation Move shooters felt more like dragging a cursor around a screen than aiming, creating an experience that was inferior to Namco’s old GunCon controllers. The shooting experience was even, arguably, worse than Nintendo’s NES Zapper.


The trend of motion controls seemed to mostly die with that generation. Instead, it was virtual reality that picked up the technology which makes sense considering the entire point of virtual reality is to create a believable physical experience within a safe gaming environment. While companies like Oculus, HTC, and Valve created mostly computer-based experiences with their own controllers, Sony repurposed the PlayStation Move controllers to work along PlayStation 4’s VR device, Sony PlayStation VR. While this technology has been used in some incredible ways, including some option modes to play traditional games, like with Resident Evil 7, motion controls didn’t really seem to be as large a deal as they were in the generation prior.

The most common method of implementing motion control these days are through traditional controllers. Nintendo’s Wii U and Switch both have motion sensing capability in their controllers. The Wii U was even compatible with the controllers from the Nintendo Wii and the Nintendo Switch controllers can be wielded individually, rendering them essentially Wii Remotes with better technology. Sony’s DualShock controllers also have tilt controls in them, and a sensor on the front of the controller sometimes functions alongside the PlayStation camera. But the common response to these motion control options is just to avoid them altogether and select a different control scheme when possible. And, indeed , these control schemes are often an option. This could be because the company’s behind the motion controls realize that the popularity has waned. It could also be because they realized that for plenty of people, motion controls aren’t a physically viable option and including traditional control schemes is a way of keeping accessibility in mind. It is easy to imagine motion control fading away on consoles while virtual reality carries the technology forward. But if motion control is going to explore in popularity again, it will likely be as result of VR becoming cheaper and more popular, but there is no way of knowing if that will happen. It seems likely, but it isn’t a guarantee.



Benjamin Maltbie
Benjamin Maltbie

Writing Team Lead
Date: 08/18/2020

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