Image: Rock Band
Electronic Arts
"Rock Band," from Electronic Arts, is about as gadget heavy as you can get, with a guitar, a drum set and a microphone. But titles like "Rock Band" are pulling video games into the mainstream.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/27/2008 9:54:16 AM ET 2008-02-27T14:54:16

There’s a revolution going on in gaming. Some of today’s most popular games are played not with a controller, but with a guitar or drum sticks. The Wii remote introduced video games to senior citizens. And then there’s this vest that pokes you in the ribs when you take a hit in “Call of Duty 2.”

Peripherals — add-on gear for console and PC gaming — aim to make gaming more accessible, more realistic and more fun. Sounds promising, but we’ve heard these claims before. Remember the P5 virtual reality gaming glove? OK, how about the Virtual Boy? If the answer is “no,” you’re not alone.

Flight-simulation joysticks, steering wheel controllers and elaborate foot pedal systems have been available for years. “Duck Hunt,” for the Nintendo Entertainment System, used the NES Zapper light gun in 1984. But until recently, the really popular games were played with a regular controller or, on a PC, with a mouse and keyboard.

So what’s different this time around?

In a word: Wii. Nintendo’s console has ripped the mass market wide open. According to industry analysts NPD, Wii outsold both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation3 in 2007, despite chronic supply shortages.

Image: 3rd Space Vest
TN Games
The 3rd Space FPS Vest, by TN Games, lets you feel the impact of your enemy's bullets and body slams.
Games like “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” are making gaming more accessible to a broader audience. If you’ve ever held a guitar, you can rock out in “Guitar Hero.” No strings on the plastic axe you use to rock out in this game — just buttons.

Peripherals based on familiar items — it's no accident that Nintendo calls the Wii controller a remote — opened gaming to folks that don't know a PS3 from a 360.

“For some that may be intimidated by a traditional controller and the learning curve, these (games) offer a more intuitive experience,” says Anita Frazier, video games analyst at NPD. “That’s key to getting the uninitiated to try gaming.”

Big points for game design
U.S. game sales reflect the accessibility of peripheral-based games. “Guitar Hero III” and “Guitar Hero 2” together sold 4.61 million copies for PlayStation 2 last year, just shy of the number one game, “Halo 3.”

But no intuitively shaped input device can compensate for a poorly-designed game. For every mega-hit Wii game, such as “Super Mario Galaxy,” there are several not-so-great cash-ins that vanished without a trace.

“If the gameplay in ‘Guitar Hero III’ hadn’t been so solid,” says Game Developer magazine senior editor Brandon Sheffield, “you’d be seeing a lot of guitar peripherals in thrift stores and landfills, alongside light guns, virtual reality headsets and track balls.”

But consoles aren’t the only systems getting into the add-on act. Mark Ombrellaro, CEO of Redmond, Wash.-based TN Games, designed his company’s newest product, the 3rd Space FPS Vest, a sophisticated contraption that lets you feel the impact of your enemy’s bullets and body slams.

“Once [games] become that real,” he says, “you know you’re going to want to interact with them and you’re going to want them to interact with you.”

Feels like the real thing
The vest, which sells for $169, houses eight contact points that are injected with air from a separate compressor. Those points jab, pulse and throb along with events in a supported PC game.

Right now, you’ll only find the most complete set of effects in a game that’s coded to support the vest: the company’s own “Incursion,” and a special edition of “Call of Duty 2.”

TN Games also has a software driver that supplies limited effects to games such as “Unreal Tournament 3,” “Crysis,” and “Medal of Honor: Airborne,” to name a few.

Phillips Electronics’ amBX PC system takes a multi-sensory approach to pulling us deeper into the game. The Premium System includes a battery of peripherals: two speakers with top-mounted lights, subwoofer, ambient wall-washer light, desk fans and rumble wrist pad. This system sells for $400 and is available on Amazon.com.

Games, including “Supreme Commander” and “Quake 4,” are either developed with the amBX effects embedded or use a software patch to trigger effects. The effects emanate from the game: red lights flash on the speakers as your character takes damage, wind from the fans buffets your face while you run and the wall behind your monitor glows with colors tuned to the game’s environment.

Without an intelligently designed game, however, all your going to end up with is a sore chest or a cheesy light show, says Gerry Block, IGN.com’s gear editor.

“It’s not so much a game’s support of a peripheral that makes it engaging, but rather the quality of the game itself and the ability of its developers to come to terms with new control schemes and mechanics.”

I road-tested the game peripherals mentioned here, and had mixed results.

“Guitar Hero III” and “Rock Band” are both fresh, engrossing games. The game and gear together create an experience that wouldn’t be possible otherwise; just holding a guitar, even if it is plastic, made me feel instantly cooler.

TN Games’ 3rd Space vest started off on a strong note. Suited up and feeling slightly self-conscious, I nearly fell out of my chair after taking my first hit. The twitch in my chest was sharp and surprisingly strong. After a few minutes, though, the sensation was distracting and a little too much like a string of muscle spasms.

The future looks brighter for Phillips’ amBX system. The most subtle effects enhanced my gaming the most: a puff of air from the fans when my character opened a door or a slight shift in the hue of the lighting from behind the monitor to compliment the surroundings in a new game scene.

Ultimately, peripherals could transform gaming into a full blown body and mind experience. The success of this new generation of games depends on thoughtful game design as much as any new gear. For now, the landfills and pawn shops are waiting.

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