Microsoft held a splashy launch party in Times Square two nights ago to usher in a new era for the Xbox 360. Hundreds of attendees walked away from the bash with Kinect units, but it’s a safe bet most people didn’t know what to expect when they finally got the thing home and plugged it in. The same can be said for the video game industry. Kinect represents a massive shift, one that takes the once-niche idea of gesture-controlled input and brings it to the mainstream.
For $150, consumers can get their own little piece of the “Minority Report” future and marvel at the voice and face recognition built into the device. City dwellers will need to shift around their living room furniture to actually play the games, and a few of them are actually worth the effort. Harmonix’s “Dance Central” will be this year’s must-have party game and “Kinectimals” will suck in anyone in eyeshot of the irresistible cuteness of its spunky virtual animals.
Still, outside of the individual games available at launch for Kinect, it could forecast a sea change for how video games get played and developed. What follows are some object lessons Kinect could provide and slight predictions of how it might change the game landscape moving forward. And, yes: all of this could be moot is Kinect winds up as a massive flop. However, Microsoft’s pledged to keep pouring money and support into the Kinect idea so the only difference may be in whether its repercussions make for sudden shift or a slower, sustained one.
1. Research Is Its Own Reward
Microsoft’s been very candid about how most of the technologies that have gone into Kinect come from areas that weren’t specifically geared toward gaming. Voice commands, skeletal tracking for movement and connected cameras for depth perception are all technologies that Kinect uses to track people in real-time in a 3D space. They’re not necessarily new innovations but the idea to use them for video games is. The research had already been going on so, when the notion to bundle these thing into one gaming-centric device hit, the production of Kinect had a vast well of knowledge to draw upon. Of course, Microsoft’s deep pockets and many-tentacled organizational structure makes it uniquely positioned to both do the research and manufacture the product. So, even if the research and execution are great, it might be a long time before anyone is able to pull off a feat of this magnitude.
2. Everybody, Do the Twist
With Kinect’s launch yesterday, all the major gaming consoles have motion control options now. Will this parity foster creativity in the space? Or, will it mean that each system gets uninteresting mini-game collections, as with the ones that drop onto the Wii like so many turds.
More important than what kinds of games we’ll get is how they’ll get made. When multiplatform games–the ones that appear on each console and/or PC– begin production, developers need to choose which platform to start working on first. The Wii changed things up for this generation, because its meteoric rise made everyone scramble to make games that would rake in the dollars. But the Wii’s not a hi-def console. For hi-def games, the Xbox has been the lead development platform because its architecture so closely resembles that of a PC, so you’re almost getting a 2-for-1 deal.
Kinect’s arrival throws another wrinkle on top of all that there is already to consider–system capabilities, online connectivity and user base–by making its input so different. The Wii remotes and the Move wands have enough similarities that some development ideas can move smoothly between the two platforms. But the Kinect’s body-controlled gameplay will force developers to choose differently than they have before.
3. PCs: Alone Again, Naturally
Gaming innovation has had a long history on the PC, but motion gaming seems to be one arena where PC-centric developers and even hobbyists have little to no interest.
There’s no reason that a decently functional computer couldn’t be hooked up to a HDTV and be the platform where Wii-, Move- or Kinect-style gameplay happens. In fact, there’s a whole category of machines called HTPCs (home theater PC) that specialize in streaming content or acting as alternative set-top boxes with cable TV access. (Apple positioned its most recent Mac Mini as one such device.) Most of these machines are robust enough to run motion control games with the right software or hardware. Yet this curious gap remains. Hopefully, as a company with a big stake in maintaining the viability of the PC as a game platform, Microsoft will bring out a PC version of Kinect soon.
4. Physical Movement as Gameplay Isn’t Going Away
There’s a subset of people that have seen movement-based gameplay as a fad. And that’s kind of understandable, because it feels goofy to jump, run or gesticulate wildly to make something happen on a screen. But what will most likely happen is that genres where physical movement doesn’t feel as out of the ordinary–like dancing or exercise–will flock to gestural gaming. This shift is already underway with games like Ubisoft’s “Just Dance” their “Your Shape” fitness games and their upcoming “Michael Jackson: The Experience.”
EA’s also had success with its “EA Active” series, so much so that they’re going to go after dudes with “EA Sports Active Training Camp,” a title that aims to replicate the workouts of NFL training camps. Maybe it’ll click with ultra-competitive guys who all want to one-up each other’s time on the 40-yard dash
5. The Race for a “Hardcore-Friendly” Motion Game Is On.
Ever since the Wii hit the scene in 2006, the conundrum of how to lure in the skeptical hardcore gamer has hung over it. The same problem will now vex Sony and Microsoft with regard to their Move and Kinect add-ons for the PS3 and the Xbox 360. The hardcore question begs another question, though. That being, why?
It’s a good question. The most inescapable reality of a post-Wii world is that it split the video game market into two portions. On one side of the chasm are stereotypically hardcore gamers and the mostly unfair accusations against them do have some truth. They can be un-curious, skeptical and fixated on graphics and genre. They were once Nintendo faithful during the GameCube era but the Wii’s preponderance of twee content has pushed them away. Even when a shooter like “The Conduit” comes out–specifically targeting people who want a good-looking, action-heavy and narrative-focused experience on the Wii–the best it can manage is polite applause for even trying to go there. So, again, why try to entice the hardcore gamer to the motion-control pleasure dome? To pull back the hardcore gamer grants a blessing. It takes away the upturned nose and amounts to the reunification of Germany. It takes away the classist subtext in comments like “Sure, it’s good… for a Wii game.” Wiping away that attitude invites the most technologically talented designers to come create in the motion-gaming landscape.
Efforts are underway. The Playstation will be making the next installment of their “SOCOM” military shooter playable with the Move controllers and Microsoft recently announced that certain games will be abe to use both a traditional controller and the Kinect. If any of these efforts prove successful, then the tent of motion gaming will seem more inviting to those who walked by it before.