In my previous blog, I discussed my experience with the 2002 Xbox game Steel Battalion. At the end of that blog, I mentioned that I had read that Microsoft and Capcom are developing a new Steel Battalion game, and that I would give my opinions on such a game in a future blog.
Well, I didn't wait long to write that "future blog".
Here it is!
According to this Joystiq article, Capcom and Microsoft are developing a Kinect-enabled version of Steel Battalion for the Xbox 360. The game is titled Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor and looks more like a remake/reboot than a true sequel.
According to the article, the new game will not require the old game's controller, and it will use a combination of Kinect gesture-control and the regular 360 controller. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that the game won't support the use of the old game's controller as a replacement for the standard 360 controller, but if the game isn't built around the premise of using the fancy cockpit controller, then it probably won't be worth using.
Steel Battalion? Or Ring of Red?
This new game looks very different than the previous game. It takes place in the year 2082 in which (somehow) semiconductors no longer exist (or were never invented) and wars are still fought using World War II-style weapons and equipment. The mech is, therefore, much more like a giant, World War II-era tank containing a crew consisting of at least one pilot and two gunners. So this game might have more in common with the alternate-history war-game Ring of Red than the original Steel Battalion.
The mech itself will be controlled using the standard 360 controller, and some advanced functions will be performed with Kinect gestures (such as venting heat by pulling on an imaginary level with one of your hands). But the bulk of Kinect features will be based around context-senstive actions, camera control, and interactions with your co-pilots and/or gunners. By performing various Kinect gestures, you can view the outside world through a peep-hole, open the hatch of the mech to look outside and get a better view of the environment, or look through binoculars.
You can also apparently give commands to your crewmates using other Kinect gestures. The demo that Joystiq played included a segment in which one gunner has a panic attack and attempts to flee the mech. The player has to then simulate grabbing that gunner, pulling him back into the mech, and then slapping some sense into him using Kinect gestures.
It sounds like the game might be interesting and worth playing on its own right, but is it really a true successor to Steel Battalion?
Why not make a new cockpit controller peripheral?
The real appeal of the original game is the hard-core mech simulation. Coming primarily from the cockpit peripheral! Without it, it really isn't worth making. Kinect has its uses, but I just don't see this as being appealing enough to make me want to go out and buy a 360 and Kinect. A new Steel Battalion game that supported the original controller or came with a new, updated controller, would have been a 360-seller for me. I would buy a 360 for that game. But without it, I really don't care as much. If the game looks good enough that I want to try it, I'll hijack my co-worker's or sister's Xbox 360 - which is what I do now when there are games on the system that I want to play (such as Alan Wake).
The original game didn't sell well for a combination of reasons:
In 2002, when the game was released, consumers hadn't really been indoctrinated into the idea of buying games that use large, expensive proprietary peripherals. So the size and cost of the game ($200 new) was just too much for most people to justify at the time. When Guitar Hero released a few years later (2005), however, all that changed.
What was different between Guitar Hero and Steel Battalion? First and foremost: Steel Battalion doesn't have the mass, casual appeal that Guitar Hero had. Almost anybody can buy into a game that makes them feel like a rock star for 5 minutes by playing with a plastic, toy guitar. The audience that will put up with using a cumbersome, dashboard-sized cockpit controller to simulate being a virtual, bipedal tank pilot is much more limited. Steel Battalion shipped in very imilted quantities, and I highly doubt that there were very many retailers that would even stock it. So even if it could have had a mass appeal, it never really had the chance to begin with. This game had "cult-classic" written all over it from day one!
The 2002 controller for Steel Battalion
But nowadays, consumers and parents are used to spending hundreds of dollars on specialized video games with proprietary hardware thanks in large part to the music-rhythm genre - and games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. The success of the Wii is also a large part of why peripheral sale is easier nowadays. People do buy all those fancy attachments for their Wii-motes (the guns and wheels). People do buy those fitness boards for their Wiis. People do buy plastic guitar controllers. And so on.
You can argue that music-rhythm sales have slumped due to a lack of consumer demand and a poor economy. But that isn't because people aren't willing to buy these peripherals anymore. It's just because they are burnt out of music-rhythm games and plastic guitars - even though now the games are played with real guitars! The slump in sales has more to do with Activision selfishly oversaturating the market with crappy Guitar Hero spin-offs, than with a lack of willingness to purchase expensive peripherals or a poor economy. In fact, didn't Rock Band and Guitar Hero see their greatest success during the lowest points of the recession in 2008 and 2009?
So there is no reason to believe that a giant cockpit controller for a mech simulation game wouldn't be able to sell nowadays.
But only if the game that it comes with is good!
If the game's not good, then it's no dice. For example: the skateboard peripheral for Tony Hawk: Ride game does not seem to be selling well because the game is crap.
But if the new Steel Battalion is a good game, then a new cockpit peripheral would sell! And it would be even more likely to sell well if the controller were supported by other (prefferably good) games. And there are plenty of styles of games that could use such a controller. Flight sims, naval combat simulations, tank simulators, space shooters, starship games, driving games, and so on could all use such a controller - with varrying degrees of success.
Imagine the team behind the TIE Fighter and X-Wing games using the controller for a hypothetical game called Star Wars: Star Destroyer, in which you pilot an Imperial Star Destroyer. Or alternatively, a Star Trek game that lets you pilot the starship Enterprise could use such a controller! But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Imagine a Battlestar Galactica game, a Colony Wars reboot, Panzer General, or even a game based on the board game Battleship (but hopefully not having anything to do with the horrible-looking movie supposedly based on the game).
But all of this might be moot anyway. Even if the developers wanted to bring back that controller or re-issue a new one, it might not even be possible considering that Microsoft has since mandated that all games and peripherals be compatible with the 360's standard controller. So they'd have to dumb it down anyway, and it would basically be reduced to the two joysticks and foot pedals. All the fancy, illuminated buttons would probably have to go away.
They could probably go through with it on the PS3 though ... ;) ;)
I know Microsoft wants to push Kinect, but I really think that they would be missing out on a huge opportunity to appeal to the sense of bringing an arcade experience back into our living rooms. As a gamer that leans more towards simulation-style games, this increasing simplification of game controls and motion/gesture-based control is really starting to make me sad. I just feel like this generation of gamers are truly missing out on the opportunity to have the sorts of unique and deep gaming experiences that my generation had.