Sony Computer Entertainment
Casual or hardcore? The video-game-playing world has become increasingly factionalised in the past few years between these two smuttily titled gangs. Polarised in their opposition, one is made up of ludo-literate gaming cognoscenti who dedicate large amounts of their time and income to pursuing their love.
Unfortunately, these "hardcores" tend to harbour disdain for the "casual" players - those who drift in and out of a mobile-phone game on the Tube and often barely recognise that they're playing a game at all. For the industry, "casual" has been appropriated as a synonym for "accessible", which is as much an index of the inaccessibility of everything else the games creators produce as it is a measure of how easy it is to play Angry Birds on the bus.
For years, the casual gamer had been ignored, a situation that most observers would pinpoint as changing with the introduction of the Nintendo Wii in 2006. But it is rather unfair, in fact, to credit Japan with the "mainstreaming" of video games, as to do so is to overlook the contribution that Sony's London Studio has made to the leisure habits of Middle England. Its landmark projects SingStar and EyeToy have made an indelible impact on the interactive entertainment industry. These games demonstrated that what happens on the screen is secondary to the social response created off it. Fun isn't something that happens within a game, it is something that radiates from it. This studio put performance into play, literally handing you a microphone, pointing a camera at you and putting your grinning face on the television screen for the amusement of your friends. The PlayStation Move continues that tradition.
For many novice players, being introduced for the first time to a video-game controller is akin to being handed a particularly joyless Rubik's Cube. The controller presents a complex array of buttons and orientations and offers little encouragement to pursue the solution. The Move seeks to remedy this by placing in your hand a "motion controller", a kind of buttoned wand, on the end of which is fixed a gently glowing ball. You've probably seen footage of actors in motion-capture studios wearing black leotards covered in fluorescent orbs. The Move controller is essentially that, but with fewer balls. A small camera placed in front of your television tracks your movements as you play, inputting them directly into the game. The Move is a curious object and it is hard to accept that such an extraordinarily precise and obviously ingenious piece of technology can simultaneously be so utterly infantilising.
For anyone who has experienced the delights of Wii Tennis, this feels like a palpable shift of gear. Sports Champions, one of the launch titles, is primed with a table-tennis game that invites comparison with its popular Wii counterpart. Whereas, with Wii Tennis, one had the suspicion that any kind of arm spasm would probably get the ball back over the net, the Move presents you with far more subtle control.
The player on screen tracks and mirrors your motion with surprising accuracy and no discernible delay. With the realisation that, in effect, the bat you can see is in your hand, spin and backhand instantly become intuitive techniques that you can choose to bring into play by moving your wrist, not by having to learn a series of abstract button presses.
There's a clear ambition here to create more accurate sporting simulations, but it is in the more literally reflective areas that the launch titles impress most. Start the Party uses the camera to place you and your fellow players on the screen - again, you are fully inside the game. Watching oneself on TV is rarely pleasing, but the augmented-reality tricks that the software plays go some way to soothing any disappointment. While your "real" hand is still clutching the stick with the glowing ball, your screen hand is holding something entirely different - a mallet, a foam hand, a fan. All of these objects track and rotate with your body as you move. This suggests exciting possibilities for the future.
The Move is a compelling, surprisingly accurate controller. It does some clever things, and clearly it's going to enliven many parties over the next few months. The tension lies in its aim to be a tool for more accessible gaming. This instant playability makes for some quick-win, easy gratification for the player - "This is just like playing table tennis," you will gasp. Back at the Sony development studios, though, I suspect bigger design challenges are causing a few sleepless nights.
And what about you, the consumer? As you push back the sofa and the coffee table to make room to play on the Move in front of the telly, you won't be able to help feeling that the demands of this relentless (and expensive) accessorising are anything but "casual".
Iain Simons is director of the GameCity festival. Details: gamecity.org