Before we begin, of course I apologize for that pun. But you’ll see far worse in days to come, and it was almost the intention of Microsoft’s marketing anyway.
It’s been two years and two months, almost to the day, since I first wrote of the rumors of Microsoft’s motion controls. A year later they defied expectations by focusing on an enhanced camera-based system for the majority of their input, making it a point to shun traditional controllers, something Sony has actively mocked. Microsoft spoke of developers excited with new ideas and possibilities, but as we all know and have seen, real creativity takes time. Cheap cash-ins off basic concepts can be ready for launch.
I’d like to run down some quick thoughts on the Kinect presentation specifically, by not only Microsoft’s conference, but also the current showings by third parties. Remember that this article is being written at a very late Monday night, so it can’t include show-floor revelations, or any drastic attacks by Sony or Nintendo at their conferences. I’m also going to avoid talking about the Poncho Show, that’s been covered and I could do it no better justice until we all see the edited version on MTV tomorrow.
Right off the bat, the name is strange and awkward. The comparisons to “Wii” and the reactions on that glorious day have been made, but Wii and Kinect were picked with two very different philosophies in mind, it’s clear. Wii was picked to be iconic, simple to say, global, unnecessary to abbreviate, and so on. Kinect is a rough jumble of two words, Kinetic and Connect, with many people initially making the mistake of calling it Kinetic, making comparisons to EyeToy products with the name Kinetic, and so on. Another confusion lies in Microsoft’s recent push of a Kin-branded line of phones, which have no direct relation other than a PR staffer perhaps citing a “People Focus” if pressed on it. Two very important brand lines from the same company, with very similar names, at roughly the same time, with no relation. They were asking for confusion.
But what really matters isn’t the name, isn’t the purple game case, and in some ways isn’t even the price, rumored to be hefty though it may be. The big issue is that since last year, people asked how certain important experiences were going to be reflected by Kinect, and instead of facing those hard questions, they trotted out the most basic concepts they could think of. Despite citing Kinect as a game machine for everyone, no one could argue that their presentation at the Microsoft Conference was that of a “family games” platform. Titles were almost completely themed around sports and fitness programs, most a direct reflection of reality, even if the outfits were cornball. Even a fantasy game like Sonic Free Riders could be argued as an extension of the sports genre. The only games on display that bucked that trend were Kinect Adventures, and Skittles the Tiger Eats People, er, sorry, that’s Kinectimals. As for the hard questions of what do you do past yoga and undirected dancing, the best answer surprisingly came from Ubisoft, with Child of Eden (jump to 1:23:30), the spiritual sequel to Rez. Deca Sports Freedom attempted its own gunplay in the Paintball mode, but does so with such a clear lack of polish it’s unwise to use it as a meter of any sort. Ironically, Fable III would’ve undoubtedly been a good showpiece for the platform, but all that was shown was an underwhelming trailer with hardly any hint it was a Kinect game.
One other thing on clear display with almost anything Kinect-related was false enthusiasm. The painfully-clear kind that isn’t fooling anybody, yet we all have to cringe through. Yes, they must demonstrate their product positively, to the wide audiences paying attention. But the shallow “excitement” at the on-screen happenings was a constant irritation at best. Sometimes the developers or actors went the extra, unnatural mile to promote the product, such as a little girl who was just miming to a pre-recorded video acting like she was really being licked by her digital tiger pet. That may be something you as a player could feasible “Aww” at, like a cute kitten video, but with an audience full of jaded adults, like those that filled that theatre, brains just screamed “Fake.” at the display. Even if that’s what a real little girl may do after months of playing the game, it was one unnecessary detail to make Kinect seem that much more real, when it actually cheapened what that presentation had accomplished so far.
Other stage demos were filled with the most forced surprised cheers and yelps, the softest trash-talking this side of a Nerf stadium, and an overwhelming attempt to push just how much designers who spent months working on these games already were really-reals having fun right there on stage, instead of just demonstrating a product. It’s technically the smart thing to do, but as it’s been clearly demonstrated, if you don’t get it just right, you’re left with a bunch of adults pretending they’re six years old in front of other adults who don’t buy it for one second.
The functions of the hardware impressed me. UbiSoft’s Your Shape: Fitness Evolved featured a very raw output, but did so with an impressive accuracy. Other games synced Avatar movements well to human movements, despite the proportion differences. Even the basic video chat on display used the camera’s motorized tilt to automatically track the speaker, which I’m sure will be used to the inappropriate enjoyment of some late-night Uno players. The price, not yet official but leaked by retailers, is something that will require justification, but it is a nice sign that they’re putting expensive tech into the unit, because even with Microsoft’s ridiculous peripheral pricing, there’s no way $149 would be their ideal target pricepoint.
Ultimately the games have to push the technology in compelling ways, and developers, both first and third-party, launching the platform with overlapping offerings overusing the most basic concepts available do nothing to instil confidence in a market wary of a $149 USD camera. I don’t want to sound like one of those tired individuals who carry on about a need to focus on the core games market, as if there’s automatically nothing enjoyable about what’s presented in these titles, but Microsoft can’t be letting the third parties do it for them at their leisure; they have to demonstrate the platform can do more than just yoga and dance. Cribbing notes off of Wii Sports isn’t going to cut it, either.