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Is Motion Control Still the Future of Video Games?

While Nintendo kicked off the motion control revolution four years ago and quickly dominated the field, Microsoft and Sony are betting there’s a lot of life — and money — left in the category.

Playstation Move
Source:Sony
Playstation Move

Last Sunday, Sony’s new PlayStation Move controller went on sale and in November Microsoft will launch Kinect, it’s motion-tracking camera that essentially transforms players’ bodies into the controller. Both products are gambles — and, to some degree, risks — for the companies, who are hoping to keep the current generation of video game systems relevant for several years.

Sony hasn’t released any sales figures for Move, but retail checks show the peripheral to be moving gradually. That’s atypical of major game-related releases, which usually have a big initial burst, but it’s not entirely surprising. Sony didn’t heavily promote Move at launch, instead holding the bulk of its marketing budget in reserve for the holiday season, when the target audience is more likely to be in a buying mood.

“They have a little bit of a free window, but Sony’s not expecting a major lift until the gift givers show up at the stores,” says Colin Sebastian, an analyst with Lazard Capital Markets. “What we’ve seen with the Wii is it’s really a gift givers item, so this probably falls in the same camp. I’m not sure a lot of PlayStation 3 owners are rushing out to buy Move.”

While Nintendo has made an all-in bet with motion control this generation, Microsoft and Sony are using their new controllers as test balloons. Historically, casual gamers — the same ones who have made the Wii such a hit — have been critical to console manufacturers in the back half of each product cycle. This time, though, the competition for that market is much fiercer.

Even if they haven’t already bought a Wii, there are free social network games on sites like Facebook and the ever-growing influence of Apple’s iPhone and iPad vying for their attention.

This raises the question: What if Move fails to move buyers and Kinect fails to connect with audiences? Would underwhelming sales accelerate plans by either company to fast track their next generation consoles?

It’s possible, but that’s a step of last resort.

“There’s an idea, if nothing else, that motion sensors are the controllers of the future,” says Sebastian. “If these don’t appeal to a more mainstream demographic, though, then I think [Microsoft and Sony] will have to rethink their late-cycle strategy.”

Cost is considered to be one of the biggest hurdles for both controllers. Kinect will cost $150, which is $50 more than most publishers were hoping for. Move’s pricing is more complex, since it has multiple parts, but for people to get the complete set, they’ll have to spend $130.

So if Kinect and Move disappoint, that’s likely to be the first thing changed. Many industry observers say prices will drop as early as the first quarter of 2011, in fact.

“The first thing they’ll do is cut the cost of Move and Kinect,” says Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities. “Before they spend money on the next generation and lose hundreds of millions, they’d rather sell Kinect and Move at a $10 million loss.”

Another thing console manufacturers have to keep in mind is that with so much competition for the casual audience today, they need to be careful to avoid alienating the core gamer, which (more than ever) is the lifeblood of the industry.

That’s an audience that’s more resistant to permanent change, since it has honed its skills on the standard controller the industry has been built around for the past 20 years. While it might enjoy the occasional party game built around motion control, it still wants to be able to play “Halo” and “Call of Duty” games as it has from the beginning.

“The casual market has already shown they like the simpler interface,” says Sebastian. “Whether the core gamer will accept gestures over button mashing, though, is still up in the air.”