Quick question: is anyone here actually excited about the Kinect?
I was totally underwhelmed by it back when it was called Project Natal and Peter Molyneux was telling us that it will change computing forever and be more ground breaking than the invention of a mouse. I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now. Motion control is not ground breaking in any way shape or form – it’s a gimmick. Nintendo has shown that it is a gimmick that can actually make money, but it is a gimmick nevertheless.
Have you ever seen a Wii game that really uses the motion control to do something really cool and innovative? No, of course not. Wii games can be usually lumped into one of two categories: party games and regular games. The former are usually collections of mini-games that make the extensive use of the Wiimote basically aping the Wii Sports formula. The later use standard controls and have one “shake the Wiimote” action that unleashes a special power or whatever. Why is that? It’s because the Wiimote accelerometers and optical sensors are not that accurate.
Actually, that’s a lie. The technology itself is accurate enough. It’s is just not practical. The way we use it is what creates the inaccuracy illusion. For example, how often do you make an awkward swing in Wii Sports that the game does not even bother registering or misinterpret completely? It happens all the time. If you stand at a wrong angle the optical sensors may not register your motion properly. If you swing to vigorously, or start with the controller in a weird position (ie. recovering from a previous swing) the accelerometers may also be fooled. And even if you are aligned properly and your motions are perfectly executed, it is still incredibly hard to make precise motions because you do not have a reference point or feedback. When you use a traditional controller you eventually get a feel for how hard you actually need to push the analog thumb-stick or hold the button for your in-game avatar to do something. You get a tactile feedback so if you want to move just a smidge you just tap the button. Could you be as precise with a Wiimote? Could you roll it or twist it just right to perform a timed precision jump in a platformer? In most cases, the answer is no, not really. And it’s not really because of the technology it can detect small precise movements. The problem is that it is much easier to lightly tap a button than it is to rotate the whole controller a fraction of an inch. While the motion controls attracted non-gamers to Nintendo’s console, the tactile feedback of a button or a thumb-stick turns out to be much more reliable and usable game-play mechanic for anything that is not a casual party-game.
That is not to say people are not doing cool things with the motion technology. It’s just that most games are either full on “get drunk and swing the controller as hard as you can while laughing hysterically with your friends” or “you know, you should probably buy the classic controller for this” and not much in between. The possible third category are the racing games which use the Wii Wheel accessory but since I don’t play racing games, I can’t really comment on that. I’m told the wheel works surprisingly well so there is that.
Now Microsoft has come up with an even less precise motion controlling device which has no tactile feedback at all. They tell us this will revolutionize gaming but I just don’t see it. The problem here is the same. It is not a matter of your hardware detecting precise movements – I’m sure all the new motion controllers can do that just fine. The problem is in making those movements in the way a game can register them, in rapid succession and under pressure (as this is what happens in non casual games). Again, this is not about hardware. Can you, the player, pull it of?
Let me put it another way: have you ever played Dance Dance Revolution? The game looks easy deceptively easy. You just put your feed where the game tells you to put them. But as soon as the song speeds up you realize how hard it is to keep up. This is how I imagine playing a hard core Kinect game would be – difficult and exhausting. And it is fine if you want your game to be like that – if that’s part of it’s appeal. My question is, can you make a game that uses Kinect style controls without actually sacrificing the depth of game play? Can you make a FPS game as engaging as Half Life 2 or Team Fortress 2 without actually using a traditional controller? How about Halo? Are you going to implement Kinect version of Halo?
Here is a little challenge for Microsoft: I want to see the next Halo game to have full Kinect support. Also, I would request an Air Guitar Hero game – you know, like Guitar Hero but without an actual controller. After all, I’m the controller right? I don’t need some plastic wiggle-waggle to play games, no? If you pull this off, then I will truly believe that you have made something revolutionary. Until then, I will treat Kinnect as a very expensive controller that essentially lets you play Wii Sports knockoffs on your Xbox.
The problem with that is that if all I really wanted to play was pretend-bowling, fake golf and pseudo-tennis I could just pay $50 more and buy a whole Wii system – complete with free games. In fact, chances are that I already had a Wii in my house for the last 4 years.
Here is my prediction: Kinect will be the new Power Glove.
Edit: I just learned that Fable III will have Kinect support and that Peter Molyneux had a raging boner for the Natal technology for years now. Considering is involvement, it would probably fair to expect the next Fable installment to make quite extensive use of this new platform. It will be interesting to see how they implement that. I guess that game will be the real test of what can be done with Kinect and to what extent it can be really applied to a popular action-RPG title. Still, I’ll believe it when I see it done.