Are motion controls actually good?

Updated: Sep 11

When it comes to videogames, there are few things more important than how the game feels to play. Good controls can make or break the experience. So, this begs the question, should you play with motion controls, if given the chance? Some say they are clunky and gimmicky while others defend them as immersive and intuitive. Are they right for you? Let´s find out.

Recap: What are motion controls? Where did they come from?


First things first, what are motion controls? When a controller uses real-life movements as inputs for the game you are playing, that is motion controls. For example, in a game like Skyrim, you might normally press a button or click the mouse to make your character slash his sword.


If you are playing with a Joy-Con or a VR controller, however, swinging your hand will do the same action. Other examples are tilting the controller like a wheel if you are playing a racing game, or pointing it at the screen to aim at an enemy; all in lieu of moving the analog stick.

This is done in a variety of ways. The Nintendo Wii used infrared light and accelerometers to determine the position and movement of the Wiimote and Nunchuck. Nowadays, motions are detected by gyros inside the controllers. The result is the same, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy.

Back in the day, there were no such things as motion controls outside of rare arcade cabinets or special accessories like the Eye Toy. You played with normal controllers on consoles and a mouse and keyboard on computers. Motion controls like the ones we know now didn’t enter the public eye until the launch of the Nintendo Wii in 2006.

The Wii pushed motion controls as its main value proposition and succeeded massively, selling more than a hundred million units worldwide. The Wiimote (and Nunchuck) allowed a new audience to play games in a previously impossible way. Games like Wii Sports and Just Dance proved to be massive successes precisely because motion controls allowed the players to play much more intensively and intuitively.

That said, the original Wiimotes weren´t all that responsive and struggled with accurate movements. While the Wii could detect that you slashed your controller horizontally, it had problems telling if you did from left to right or right to left. This limited the use of early motion controllers in games as you could not use them for precise actions. Still, in the wake of the Wii success, many games tried to incorporate motion controls into everything, with (relatively) few managing to succeed at being fun while doing it. This resulted in a stigma being associated with motion controls. A lot of people saw them as nothing more than a gimmick and derided games that made you “waggle” the controller to play.

Waggle notwithstanding, Nintendo was having massive financial success, so much so that its competitors took notice. Sony launched the Move for the PlayStation and Microsoft the Kinect for its Xbox. Nintendo didn’t stay behind and also released the Wiimote Plus, an accessory that increased the sensitivity of their Wiimote. Games that relied on motion controls exploded overnight, each trying to cash-in on the fad. Their development was rushed more often than not, and as such, most of these games weren´t fun at all.

Then, as sudden as it began, the craze seemingly ended when a new generation of consoles made their debut. Fewer and fewer games were created with motion controls in mind. The “fad” seemingly ended.

But the truth is, motion controls didn’t die, they evolved. Nintendo kept them in their latest console, the Nintendo Switch, albeit keeping them away from focus this time. Classic motion controls similar to the Move or the Wiimotes are alive today as the default controllers of many VR headsets, like the Oculus or the Vive. Even the modern Playstation Dualshock and Steam Controller have an integrated gyro that lets developers use motions when needed.

So the motion controller wasn’t abandoned, but rather integrated into our modern generation of gaming. With that in mind, what are motion controls used for today?

Games that require the use of motion controls

When it comes to motion controls, there are two types of games. Games that have them be an integral part of the experience, and those that have them as an alternative way to play.

Games that are made from scratch to take advantage of motion controls tend to either be party, dance or VR games, with the odd artistic title sprinkled here and there.

Party games are games made to play locally with some friends. They usually are a collection of minigames in which the players to compete. Examples of party games are the Mario Party franchise or 1-2 Switch. Since the mini-games are designed to be played with motion controls, going without them is not an option. Same for dance titles like Ubisoft´s Just Dance.

Some VR games have the option to use normal controllers (or a keyboard) over the motion controls. However, unless you don´t have space to move around or the game is badly made, this is not recommended. VR games are immersive by design, and motion controls help immerse yourself further into the action.

That said, since VR is relatively new and developers are still figuring out how to properly develop for it, a lot of games don’t have well-thought controls. If that´s the case, a regular controller or even a keyboard might be preferable to avoid dealing with a headache while playing.

Finally, artistic games tend to incorporate motions by design. You don’t have much choice in using them or not, so the question boils down to if you are interested in the game in question.

Pros and Cons

For games that do have the alternative to use motion controls or not, what are the pros and cons of each option? Why would you opt to use motion controls?

Pros


They can be more immersive and intuitive.

The original formula for the Wii´s success in finding a new market is that their motion controls were easy to understand for a new generation of players. A lot of newcomers find it confusing when you have to press different buttons to, for example, serve in a virtual game of tennis. Wii Sports changed this, as you only had to swing your arms like you would in real life.

Motion controls are made to mimic your body movement, made to mimic real life. As such, games use them to be immersive. This is doubly true for VR games, as the headset transports you “inside” the game.

If you are a person that values that kind of immersion, then you should consider using motion controls wherever possible, as they will add to the experience. On the other hand, if you don’t care about feeling that you are “inside” the game, then a regular controller will be fine.

A good example of this is the old Wii game Red Steel 2. In that game, you shoot and slash the screen to attack. Because the game was made from the ground up to take advantage of the Wii Motion Plus, it feels satisfying to hack and shoot your way through the level. In games like these, replacing motions with buttons would be detrimental to the experience, as they were designed specifically for them.

Of course, this is all assuming that you are playing a well-designed game. If the motion controls were tacked on at the last week of development, they are not going to feel right no matter how good the rest of the game is.

If you are used to them, they can feel quite natural

A whole generation was introduced to gaming when the motion control “craze” was at its peak. Back then, a lot of games used motions for just about every action conceivable. This is especially true for the Wii.

Older gamers may deride “waggling” the controls, but for the people who grew up in that generation, that might feel just as natural as pressing a button. It was the norm back when they started playing and they have no trouble with it now.

If you are one of the people that grew with motion controls, then their inclusion is probably not going to bother you when you play.

Better for aiming

When it comes to aiming, motion controls have been a natural fit for decades. Be it in arcade cabinets or even the light gun for the NES, there always have been controllers that allowed you to aim and shoot directly at the screen. Nowadays, the practice still stands. From DOOM to Splatoon, to even games that aren´t shooters like Skyrim or Breath of the Wild, you can use motion controls to guide your shots.

Unlike what happens when you replace a button with a motion, aiming the reticle can be faster and more responsive than using the standard control sticks. While the sticks are good at big sweeping motions, they lack finesse for small, precise, movements. This is why a lot of shooters have aim assist turned on by default on consoles. Motion controls are not hindered by this. They allow the player to make accurate movements that are otherwise only imitated by the mouse.

Granted, they can take a while to get used to and if the controller is not calibrated, aiming can be clunky. But, when it works correctly, they are much smoother for precise movement than an analog stick.

Some games, like Breath of the Wild, have a hybrid system in which you can aim with the analog sticks for big motions and use the motion controls for small movements. You can switch on the fly, so it is the best of both worlds.

If you plan to play a shooter that has motion control support, I encourage you to give it a try. Once you get used to it, you will be able to control the reticle a lot better than if you were playing with analog sticks.

Give you a little more exercise. While this depends on the game in particular (you are not doing much exercise moving your wrist in Splatoon, for example) games that have you swing your body around help your cardiovascular system and let you lose weight. Half an hour of Just Dance is reported to burn some 200 calories.


Even if you are only standing up without any vigorous movement, that is still an improvement. Being on your feet has your heart beating ten more beats per minute (on average). This helps keep your arteries unclogged and it burns around fifty more calories per hour compared to sitting still.


This is not to say that normal gaming can´t use your muscle, because it does, mainly the ones on your wrist and hands, but that is seldom exercise.

This is not a novel idea. Nintendo capitalized on this phenomenon by launching the Wii Fit in 2007. A “game” that gave the player a collection of “fun” exercises to stay in shape. It also calculated your Body Mass Index to help you keep track of your progress.

Now, I´m not saying that playing with motion controls is going to change the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, but even a bit of extra exercise can make a difference in your health. That might be important to keep in mind when you consider wherever to play a game sitting on your couch or standing up.

Cons


If the game is not developed for motion controls, odds are they will be pretty bad. This is the most common reason to not play with motion controls. Even if the controller itself works perfect and it can read your inputs with no problems, the truth is that a lot of games add motion controls haphazardly. To a lot of publishers, having them is just another box they have to tick before shipping. As a result, their implementation is rushed and they plain don’t work. This happens a lot with quick ports made to cash on trends. The result is imprecise controls that are slow and clunky to use. In a lot of cases, the developers added motion controls were none were needed simply to replace pressing a button. The problem with this approach is that performing a motion takes longer than pressing a button, resulting in a self-imposed delay between the player and the game.

The big advantage of motion controls over the classic gamepad is that they are more immersive. But if the game doesn’t understand what you are doing or can´t read your inputs, then all that immersion is thrown out the window and replaced with pure frustration.

It takes time to get used to them. The first time you pick a game with motion controls, odds are you are going to spend some time figuring out how they work. This is especially true if you grew before they were common. For a lot of people, their first impression is that they are unresponsive, slow and janky. While that is true for some games, others have put thought in their implementation, meaning that they work fine once you get used to them. Shooters like Splatoon, for example, fall in this category.

How much time it takes to get used to them varies from person to person. However, if you don’t like the idea of having to go through another learning curve before you start enjoying the game, then you might want to stick to a classic controller or gamepad.

They may need calibration. If you are using Joy-Cons, or similar controllers, you will need to calibrate them frequently for them to work properly. This is a quick process that takes less than a minute, but it can be annoying to stop your game just for that. Especially if you do it often.

If you don’t calibrate, the controllers may not respond properly and may even drift when you try to use them. The frequency in which you need to calibrate varies, but it should be only once every couple of gaming sessions or so. Faulty or old controllers may need constant calibration.

They are imprecise Are motion controls as imprecise as some people make them out to be? Like it was stated in the list of Pros, it depends on the game, the developer and how thoughtful their implementation is.

For aiming, it can be argued that they are better than analog sticks. For other actions? Well, if the developer simply picked a button at random to replace with a motion, odds are the game's not going to have very responsive controls.

However, if the motion controls are put with a purpose, while they may not be as precise as pressing a button, chances are they will not hinder gameplay and it may make it feel a tad more immersive. Of course, you might digress.

A good example of this is flicking the Joy-Con to toss Cappy in Mario Oddysey. The motion is there to make you feel like you are throwing your hat just like Mario. Some people dislike it, but unless you are trying to pull a very tricky triple hat jump, it´s not likely to fail in normal gameplay.

Conclusion

Should you play a game with motion controls? I believe it depends on the game and genre. For some games, there is no choice. You either play with motion controls or don’t play at all. When motion controls are optional, I would recommend giving them a chance, at least when it comes to shooters, as they are the (arguably) second more precise way to aim, right behind the mouse. It will take some time to get used to, but the result is worth it.

For other games, it depends. If the game was developed with motion controls in mind and they are not a last-second add-in, then you should at least try them. When they work properly, they can add a lot of fun to whatever game they are included with. However, when they don´t work, either because they were tacked in or their implementation was rushed, they can be a constant source of frustration.

What do you think? What has been your experience with motion controls? Is there a game where you prefer them over their analog counterpart? Let me know in the comments.


If you are interested in playing with motion controls, then you might want to buy a VR headset, or some Joy-Con if you have a Switch. We have a collection of VR headsets for the PC here, and for the PlayStation 4 on this other page. On the other hand, here´s our list of available Joy-Cons for the Switch.