Monday, August 20, 2012

Good Vibrations

It is an all too familiar feeling in gaming these days. It remains the only amount of tangible feedback a player can get from the action unfolding on screen; the response to a weapon kickback, chaotic explosion, or hit from an enemy; your controller gives a sudden shake. Lasting through previous console generations and looking to continue in future additions, the controller vibration has become a standard in modern console gaming.

Yet, I find myself growing numb to the sensation. I cannot even name off the top of my head with absolute certainty the recent games that utilize the tech. Perhaps it's the years of playing games that has attributed to the oversight or the feature being used as a default setting, but I never really notice the controller reverberation nearly as much as I did when the tech was brought to light.

It makes me think back to when the technology first amazed me on the Nintendo 64, with the release of the Rumble Pack. I still remember the excitement I had in watching this video I received as part of my Nintendo Power subscription:

Packaged with Star Fox 64, this little device snapped into the back of the controller, giving off a sensation with each hit. Despite giving the controller an additional three pounds and hunting endlessly for triple A batteries (thanks for that, Nintendo), it was something interesting to experience at home. Here was this sudden jolt of the controller with each action on screen, something that I usually had to travel to an arcade to obtain. It added a small dose of realism to an unrealistic game, and as a kid it was a fantastic novelty to enhance my games.

Not far behind, the Dualshock put the same technology inside the actual controller itself, which continues to be the preferred method to this day. No longer relying on batteries (and saving so many remote controls in the process), it would give the feedback at no expense to size. Open up your current console controller, and you will find two small motors on the inside of the controller handles. The way it works is simple: the flywheel motor has a weight attached to one side, when the motor turns it throws it off balance and produces a wobble which in turns gives your controller a nice shake.

Needless to say, the technology took off and was adapted into a number of games to better immerse the player. Shooters had the noticeably larger impact, in allowing players to get a feel of a weapon they were wielding with each shot. Explosions and impacts had an immediate response with a more violent shake, better attuning players to the intensity of the moment. Even subtle vibrations would give way to signal notifications of important items nearby or tipping off the best time to dodge. There were numerous avenues possible, and video games were exploring them all.

The technology is simple to add into a game, but it's the titles that utilize it in the most effective manner that really help in that overall goal of immersing a player in the game. One of the more memorable moments has to be from Metal Gear Solid in the Psycho Mantis fight. His request to set the controller down and use of the vibrating tech to "move" it along floor was a great way to break the fourth wall, being as captivating as it was entertaining. In Halo, the slight rumble given when driving a Warthog across rough terrain adds to the immersion of being behind the wheel of the vehicle, and the sudden impact from hitting a tree due to my incredible driving skills were rewarded with a big jolt.

Several years later you have to wonder if the tech is being overused. I started drafting this blog in the middle of playing Darksiders, and despite playing it a mere five to ten minutes before writing up a general outline, I completely forgot if the controller rumbled at all during the game (for the record, it did). The excessive use is even part of an app on the Xbox Live Marketplace, with a Rumble Massage app for 80 Microsoft points to turn your controller into a massage device. There is even potential for it to become a hazard for the excessive gamer. In an ABC news story, a 15 year old British boy was diagnosed with HAVS (hand-arm vibration syndrome) for his excessive seven hour a day play sessions, a problem usually reserved for construction workers familiar with a jackhammer.

Perhaps the fact that I have become jaded to the technology could be perceived in two different ways. Maybe games these days are utilizing the tech so subtly and well placed that I am completely immersed in the experience, with expectancy for the controller to shake. On the other hand the tech could be used so much that I have become numb to the sensation. Still, I feel like it adds that "je ne sais quoi" to a game, backing each movement to enhance the overall experience. While I remain hopeful that the tech will soon be better utilized, the question of what other physical responses could be pursued remains. The Kinect is already utilizing voice to illicit response in game, which means Smell-O-Vision must be right around the corner! Now I wonder what Mario smells like after traveling through all of those pipes....

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