Microsoft Kinect E3 Hands On: We're Missing the Point

Kinect Adventures

After putting Microsoft's Kinect motion-sensing camera for the Xbox 360 through its paces, I've come away a true believer--that it isn't for me, it's for my wife.

I like complex, hard-to-master games with lots of fiddly parameters. My wife likes games that actually aren't games, and that instead help her twist around like a pretzel on a yoga mat. I want to play games that drop me in virtual worlds flush with hyper-intelligent opponents out for my skin. My wife just wants to save $50 a month on pilates classes.

After spending time with Microsoft's Kinect at various E3 parties and venues this week, I'm convinced: It's probably not for me. It's for her, for kids, for whole families, and you know what? I'm totally fine with that.

Kinect is basically Sony's EyeToy with higher resolution tracking and audio input. It's a camera with a microphone that does a pretty bang-up job mapping your body parts and responding to voice commands. Just stand in front of the camera (back about half a dozen feet, ideally) and "you are the controller," even though you already were the controller with the EyeToy back in 2003.

My first experience with Kinect occurred Monday night at a special press event in an unassuming building a fair distance from the convention center. After taking an elevator to the top, we were ushered along low-lit halls past rooms filled with people twisting and waving in front of large flat screens. I grabbed a seat in a room where they were demonstrating an experimental build of Forza, which you'd think--given that series' advanced racing pedigree--would involve some pretty sophisticated arm and leg waving.

Well, you'd think. In fact--to the obvious dismay of others in the room--the Forza team stripped the control interface down to just two hands in the air, held at 10 and 2 o'clock, respectively. Acceleration was automatic as you grasped an imaginary steering wheel and pivoted left or right, racing past other cars for points. The developers explained that they'd tried mapping acceleration to placing one leg forward or backward, but that this confused gamers who started with one leg already forward, then had nowhere to go but back.

This trend toward simplification continued as I moved between demos, testing Kinect Sports bowling (it's a lot like Wii bowling, albeit slightly less precise), Kinect Adventures (a generally forgiving multiplayer river rafting game), and Joy Ride (a stunt-oriented racing game that reads body movements for flips and speed boosts).

In fact a sophisticated Kinect game was nowhere in sight, and if I'm reading Microsoft's intentions correctly, that's just fine, because we already know how to play sophisticated games: With controllers. Microsoft's obviously aiming this thing at party gamers, kids, casual players, families, and getting back to consumers like my wife: Anyone looking for a full-body, peripheral-free home fitness coach.

Will casual gamers snap it up? "They already own it," argue most in the press--meaning, of course, Nintendo's Wii.

That's a problem for Microsoft, no doubt, but losing the controller adds a kind of casual interactive flexibility the Wii and Sony's PlayStation Move simply can't match.

So while I'm not that interested in the technology as a gamer, I think my wife will be, and denying that just because it's probably not how you'll want to play Metal Gear Solid Rising or Gears of War 3 is just missing the point.

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