Privileged Information and You
I’m pretty sure that most people who remember the original unveiling of the PlayStation 3 do so for the comedy value of the Sony presentation that featured it. Memes such as “599 US dollars”, Warhawk’s motion controls and the Giant Enemy Crab are the staple jokes of nerds everywhere, the kind you can even break out among non-gamers and sometimes get a chuckle in return. My own strongest memory of the PS3′s early days, however, is that of the long since abandoned idea of having not one, but two HDMI outputs on the console. The reason that this has stuck with me wasn’t so much Sony’s stated ambitions (multi-display single-local-player/online experiences), but rather that I saw the opportunity to finally bridge the gap between networked play and single-console multiplayer. See, playing together with other people on the same console has its own charm that networked experiences don’t quite offer (though LAN’s do get closer to the same experience than playing over the internet does). Meanwhile, split-screen sucks pretty hard even on big displays, and there’s also the problem of not being able to hide your hand from your opponent, as it were. Playing something ultra-twitchy like Street Fighter works really well with a shared screen, whereas a game much more reliant on positioning or subterfuge is almost always a crappy experience when your opponent can see what you’re doing.
Sadly, the dual HDMI outputs didn’t materialize on the PS3. And maybe it was for the best, considering how the console sometimes struggles to produce a good experience even with just the one HD screen to render to. Also, the logistics of setting up two televisions side-by-side would’ve probably made the whole thing way too cumbersome to be worth it for most people. At this year’s E3, however, Sony made it quite obvious that they too have been thinking along these same lines, and the 3D Television set they announced will supposedly be capable of making each player feel as if the screen is theirs alone. This is definitely a step in the right direction, in my opinion. Nintendo’s WiiU, however, could actually be making a leap.
Admittedly, there’s still a lot that we don’t know about the machine and it’s interesting-looking controller concept. But even if we stick with what we already do know, it will be possible for two players to play the same game on two different screens while in the same room, thus being able to keep secrets from each other. This alone is very cool already, and would open the door for competitive experiences that would otherwise be confined to online play, or be very diluted if played in a split-screen environment.
If, however, more than one of these New Controllers can be fed video and audio data (do they have headphone jacks by the way?) from the console, then we could be in for a treat like no other. This feature could potentially be what finally turns “hardcore” gaming into a completely inclusive family activity. Because it would open the door for spectating.
It will come as no surprise to readers of my blog that I quite like Starcraft 2, and the E-sports scene that’s growing around the game. So powerful is the impact of this game that a lot more people than one would think watch professional gamers duke it out on Youtube or at events like MLG. The reasons for Starcraft doing better than other competitive video games are outside the scope of this post, but what’s important is that there are loads of people that watch these professional matches who don’t even play the game. To researchers like Jesse Schell (read The Art of Game Design if you haven’t already) as well as just normal contemplative primates (I remember a Penny Arcade editorial about how the author liked to play as a supporting class in team based games because that’s the closest he could get to simply spectating), this is not a huge surprise. What’s surprising, if anything, is how few games there are that make concessions specifically for those of us who get off on watching others do it, as it were. Custom observer Functionality/UI, like that found in Starcraft 2, is very rare indeed.
The WiiU has a chance of making a huge splash here. Imagine a game that is pretty hard-core, but the proceedings of which can be easily parsed from certain vantage points that would be impractical for gameplay. Well, no problem. Just have the players sit away from each other (and the screen), ideally in a separate room, while the family watches from their own, custom vantage point. They could move the camera around, display statistics and marvel at the excitement of the electronic sport they were witnessing, while premium information would still be kept away from the players. Considering the success of E-sports, and considering how much people like to play games as a social thing, this idea is a no-brainer for me. The experience would be like a cross between professional Starcraft and Guitar Hero.
Still, it’s down to practicalities. Hopefully the WiiU technology will allow for these types of experiences, but as we’re talking about rendering to three displays at once it wouldn’t surprise me if was all too much to hope for. But the concept is solid, I’d argue. Since band and karaoke games were a huge hit for allowing everyone to feel kind-of-sort-of like rock stars, and since being an E-athlete is becoming less of a joke with each passing month, maybe something like this is worth hoping for. I for one would love to see more competition in the living room. I think a lot of people would love to finally be allowed to be spectators. And the status of games as a whole would benefit from the viewer’s seat becoming more prestigious and catered-for than it is today.