NEW YORK — Mike Chrzanowski wants you to try to break the Marvel superhero game he's working on. Just try. He expects you to fail.
Flick your wrist to shoot Spider-Man's webs and shake your hand to spin Thor's hammer. Five gestures trigger the moves of any one of the pantheon of Marvel heroes included in this fall's "Marvel: Ultimate Alliance." The Nintendo Wii game is published by Activision and developed by Vicarious Visions in upstate New York, where the tall, long-haired Chrzanowski serves as an associate designer.
Five moves do it all, from hurling Captain America's shield to throwing a Wolverine-clawed uppercut. Shake the Wii remote. Jab it forward. Lift it up. Press it down. Or cut it sharply to the side, left or right. On an Xbox 360, the same moves can be triggered with a press of a button or a staccato press of a few. If the Wii controls sound imprecise, well that was a problem a few weeks ago. But on the day of the interview, and the day the game comes out, there will be no — OK, almost no — fooling the Wii.
"Now in some cases people will do something that's not going to work right, and in that case they're probably going to have to adjust the way they do it," said Chrzanowski, a black Wii development controller in hand. "But that's a rare case."
He wasn't talking idly. He said a system developed by a Vicarious colleague, Jesse Raymond, a few weeks ago has been crunching the data of dozens of players who have tested the game on the Wii, analyzing the results of requests for players to do 10 swipes in a row or 10 stabs in a row, recognizing which moves the current version of the game fails to recognize as the intended gesture, tweaking the code, checking the pool of data from the gesture trials again for any new misunderstandings, repeat and recode, again and again. The result? "Within a week it went from being 60 to 70 percent reliable to 97 percent reliable," Chrzanowski said.
Like he said, don't expect the Wii to get confused.
Developers have been coming to grips with Nintendo's motion-sensitive Wii controller for the better part of the year. In the past few weeks, some of the first American teams that have sweated it out for the Nintendo console's upcoming launch have begun to talk publicly about what they figured out.
Last week in a midtown hotel room, an Activision producer showcased the glitzier high-definition version of "Marvel: Ultimate Alliance" for the Xbox 360. Then Chrzanowski took the baton to demo the Wii version. In the near-final build being demonstrated, a pull-down menu on the upper right corner showed diagrams of each superpower's Wii gesture. And every time the player made a move, the diagram for that move flashed at the bottom of the screen, reinforcing Wii rookies' understanding of what they just did. (The latter option can be turned off).
"Marvel: Ultimate Alliance" will be familiar to gamers who have battled through Activision's Marvel adventures before. Players pick a quartet of Marvel heroes from a roster of dozens and, from an overhead view, muscle them through hideouts and hallways, pummeling waves of villains and henchmen.
Opportunity abounded when Vicarious Visions was assigned to make the Wii version of the game. So did temptation. Vicarious' developers were proud how quickly the company adopted Nintendo's last unconventional game system, the stylus-driven DS, and wanted to prove they were quick studies on the Wii as well. More enticing still was the subject matter at hand for the first Wii project: characters known for their memorable gestures. Spider-Man shoots his webs with a flick of his wrist. Wolverine reveals his claws with a forearm shudder. Thor twirls his hammer, and Captain America hurls a shield. Here was a company and a cluster of characters ideally suited for getting the most out of the Wii controller and for maybe pushing the idea of motion control a little too hard too soon.
"Early on I had, like, 20 gestures," Chrzanowski said. His bosses at Vicarious told him to tone things down because they didn't think people could remember all of that. Stripped down to a handful, the gestures were initially really big. To do something super you'd have to make a super-sized move.
"We had an extreme level of effort and you had to whip the controller like that," Chrzanowski said, making a big swing of his arm. "I went home and was like, 'Wow, my arm's stronger.' "
The point of the game, though, wasn't to deliver a workout. And so they made the game accommodate a broader range of moves.
"You can swing the controller around like a madman if you want to and get all immersed in it, or a basic flick of the wrist will get everything accomplished." The analog stick on the Wii's nunchuck attachment controls movement.
Just as the team working on Activision's "Tony Hawk" Wii game messed around with taping the Wii controller to a skateboard and other unusual applications, Vicarious Visions explored some detours of its own. Before focusing the gesture controls on triggering superhero moves, the developers considered making a point-and-click version of the game using just the Wii remote. Then they tried a version Chrzanowski described as "tilt and roll," in which tilting the remote forward made a character walk forward; a tilt back made them move back; and rolls to the left and right made the character turn in the respective direction. "That was cool, but we felt we could have done more," he said.
They're doing more but being sure not to do too much more. Chrzanowski controlled the game like a shy conductor leading a symphony, with small, fluid, consecutive motions. He felt good as he demoed. And he didn't seem to get the Wii confused. Neither did two reporters testing the machine. There will be a few more guinea pigs when the game launches later this year.
More from the world of video games:
Skeptics of the motion-controlled Wii could do worse than check out the Nintendo DS' "StarFox Command," which will be released this week. On three home consoles going back to the Super NES, Nintendo and its development partners allowed gamers to control "StarFox" space fighters with the successors to the joystick: directional pads and analog sticks. Button presses made the fighters roll and flip. For "StarFox Command," steering and rolling is committed with gestures of the DS' stylus. Steering is a matter of sliding the stylus on the lower screen in whichever direction the player wants the fighter on the upper screen to move. A left-right scratch of the screen starts a barrel roll. Continued scratching keeps it going. Sometimes the game requires players to steer and roll at the same time, forcing gestures that feel akin to a frantic signing of a signature. The pleasure of scribbling moves that were once steered with small moves of the thumb should give an uncertain gamer a good clue as to whether the Wii's controller will be for them. ...
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Last week, a federal judge blocked a recently passed Louisiana law that would bar the sale of ultra-violent games to minors. The state joins California, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota in having a recently passed state law blocked — some now permanently — by the federal court. In each case, the court cast doubt that regulation of the sale of explicit games would be anything but a violation of free speech. Of the laws passed to restrict the sale of games to minors in the last year, one Maryland law and a second in Louisiana have avoided a stumble. Both regulate only games that would be found obscene based on the same standards as other forms of entertainment, and both are backed by the video game industry. Future battles over the issue will play out through a pending court challenge to an Oklahoma law against explicit games and the promised countrywide legislation against violent games announced late last year by U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton (D-New York) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut).
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