Microsoft held their press conference for the Electronic Entertainment Expo earlier this afternoon in LA, effectively kicking off the event as they have traditionally done.* The big news to roll out of the conference was the true reveal of Project Natal the Kinect (at least it grows on you faster than the Wii did, despite both attempting wordplay through misspelling).
As with Natal, the Kinect uses only an object-and-motion detecting camera and a microphone (as well as some very sophisticated software) for the player to interact with the console. Nick’s linked to video of it here on the Lure before, if you are interested. The main new information, beside the name and new look, on the Kinect/Natal emanating from the presser was on the games. So far I am mostly unimpressed. For example, people were getting all excited about “Kinectimals” (this, my friends, is a bad name). To me, it seems like an unfun tech demo version of Nintendogs, with the added benefit that it encourages children to think of man-eating critters as adorable playthings. I know the on-stage demos can not show all the depth any one piece of software possesses but seriously, the game doesn’t even hint that there might be any more depth than just “OMG cute cat!!”. And the cat isn’t even that cute.
Kinect Sports is the obligatory Wii Sports-esque game, with bowling, boxing, tennis, etc. all along for the ride. The problem of course is that the original Wii Sports sports, aside from boxing, were chosen specifically for the Wii Remote’s specific strengths and weaknesses. Tennis, bowling, baseball, and golf all require the player to hold an object and outcomes are dependant on small-scale changes in wrist angle and movement, in addition to the bigger stuff that accelerometers (and one assumes the Kinect software) can handle. One wonders how they will add the subtle variations in spin, angle, or force that the Wii Remote was able to provide using simply a camera (not to mention the loss of the tactile feel and heft of holding an object during the mimicry). The new sports they add look either boring (see running in place and occasionally jumping using awful form for track and field) or simply befuddling (Football? With no ball? No other players? And still no way to convey spin or trajectory? Seriously?) One hopes that the Brits at Rare are referring to soccer using their silly provincial lingo, though that makes things only marginally better.
All of these motion control systems also have to have a wacky racing game too. Joyride, formerly the barren looking arcadey-racer whose main gimmick was pulling mid-air stunts shown at last E3 to general disinterest, has been repurposed into Kinect Joyride, the barren looking arcadey-racer whose main gimmick is pulling mid-air stunts and motion controls, to fill the void. Unfortunately the motion controls look to be quite awful. Last year at this time, we saw a concept video of a racing game where different incorporeal pedals were simulated for acceleration and braking, a nifty idea even if it would decimate my Achilles. Now, acceleration and deceleration are handled by leaning forward or backward, which sounds both unwieldy and uncomfortable. Plus, the lack of something to hold between one’s hands seems like it will making driving quite straining indeed.
Other software shown was not nearly as transparently disappointing, especially when they stuck with things the Natal is inherently good at. As I hinted at earlier, the boxing in Kinect Sports will likely be far better than the Wii Sports variant, though moving around the ring will still be a sizable problem. The Kinect Adventures look like they might contain a gem or two and the raft of dancing games look quite well suited for the Kinect’s strengths (they will likely lack in the buttslapping category). And the Lucasarts Star Wars game, though it will certainly disappoint, has me excited for now because there are somethings one cannot help but be irrational about.
But the more software I see for the Kinect/Natal the more suspicious I become of the whole enterprise. It has a lot of buzz and people talking because its new and different and a bold move (unlike the tepid Move). But of course change is not always progress and newer not always better. One of the big complaints during the earlier years of the Wii was that developers were overusing motion controls, especially in areas where a button or a joystick would have served much better. Kinect leaves developers no other choice but to go down this road, leading to painful control choices like that of Joyride, which has only been made worse by resurrecting it for Kinect’s ends. I cannot fathom how developers will tackle the problem of moving one’s avatar in Kinect games (all of the demos so far have been able to avoid that quandary). We have seen some running in place stuff, but that is quite exhausting and disallows any finite movement. Further, as Joyride and others also demonstrate, there is something to be said about holding something (anything) to assist in the mimicry instead of forcing your mind to imagine everything from thin air. Last year there was some teased Natal/360 controller integration, which would partially combat these problems, but nothing we’ve seen so far has delivered on that implied potential.
Thus, going on what we know now, I cannot see Kinect being all that enjoyable, and likely not that big of a hit (especially if it is selling at the rumored $150). It is an idea that has more potential in abstract than in reality, something that initially causes you to assume endless possibilities but then, upon reflection, few come to mind. For what it’s worth, I suspect the Kinect will fare better than Sony’s Move (a product born not so much out of imagination but obligation), which seems to be trying a little bit of everything on the hardware side (a camera+microphone and a motion controller+nunchuck) but lacking even Microsoft’s software ingenuity. It is simultaneously four-years too late to Nintendo’s party and out-freshed by the Kinect. Thus, it seems content to be a more generic HD Wii with more (and yet less) functionality, at likely more than double the cost. I cannot imagine who the market for the device includes, especially amongst non-PS3 owners.
As for the rest of the show, there were some interesting reveals. This was probably what made me most happy, though perhaps relieved is a better term. Producing a huge database for a customer to use, but then denying them a search function or even access to most of the catalogue except through a PC seems to be an incredibly harsh oversight. I got some shadenfreude from the Xbox 360 Slim announcement over the predicament of a certain co-blogger, but that certainly has little bearing on the merits of the device, which seems, like all hardware reissues before it (but especially like the PS3 Slim) to punish current customers in pursuit of greater future sales. None of the game reveals really tickled my fancy, but I suspect that is as much my fault as it is theirs (except for Fable 3, where it is Peter Molyneux’s fault entirely). Thus I can’t say I feel terribly excited about the next year or so of 360 releases, which is in some ways a good thing, as I have a sizable backlog to plow through.
Thoughts on Nintendo tomorrow, but prediction: Microsoft will not be alone in disappointing.
*Insofar as something that as only happened like 6 or 7 years in a row can be considered tradition.