The State of Kinect

The runaway success of the Nintendo Wii in 2006 solidified that motion controls weren’t just gimmicks anymore. Well, they still were, but they were profitable gimmicks. Microsoft knew that it was necessary to move into this arena of gaming if they wanted to increase profits by reaching an entirely new segment of the gaming audience.

At E3 2009, they unveiled their answer: Project Natal. As silly a name as it was, their concept was brilliant. You didn’t have to hold a controller or make sure to wear a wriststrap, you just used your body to control the game. Once the title was officially changed to Kinect approaching release, the silly “you are the controller” tagline was attached.

And while it was totally laughable, it worked. It was the truth. You didn’t really need to use a controller at all. After you pushed the power button, you could launch a game using only your actions and voice, something that even the Wii couldn’t do.

Microsoft understood exactly why the Wii was successful, too. It wasn’t because of the high-fidelity controls or the appeal to the hardcore crowd. It was successful because it was intuitive. It didn’t require much explanation and even when it did, it was usually a “Yeah, just like real life. Do that.” The Kinect was intuitive in exactly the same way.

This was evident in their pack-in title, Kinect Adventures, which was essentially a polished minigame collection to reel people into the idea that Kinect worked, and that it worked as it should.

The Breakout-style minigame that had players moving side-to-side in an imaginary tunnel to reflect dodgeballs was the easiest way of conveying this; it answered the question of “How do I play if I don’t have anything in my hands” in the most simplistic way possible: you just do. You didn’t have to worry about the things going on around you or what buttons to push. As you moved in your living room, your character moved on screen.There wasn’t any deep motion capture suit that you needed to wear, it just worked. If someone else wanted to join in, they just stood in front of the screen and the Kinect would detect them and allow them to join in the game. It was simple and everything worked well enough, especially for console launch titles.

That simplistic approach didn’t continue though. Fans screamed that they wanted more hardcore games to take advantage of the hardware, but that they didn’t want it to affect traditional gameplay either. That Kinect should add something if players wanted to use it, but not take anything away if they didn’t. The only way that something like this could be accomplished reasonably was to utilize Kinect’s upgraded voice control functionality. It wasn’t what gamers had in mind, but it was really the only way. Games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 implemented Kinect voice commands to an overwhelmingly positive response.

There is no way to use the Kinect hardware to fully control a first-person shooter using only motion controls; that just doesn't seem possible with the hardware being used. I’m sure it’s possible to do, but it wouldn’t be good; even if the sensor was able to pick up motion with the requisite degree of fidelity, I wouldn’t want to spend 30 minutes setting up my room for ideal Halo Kinect conditions when I could just pick up a controller and do the same thing better. However, I would totally pay money to see a multiplayer match of Halo using only Kinect controls. That would be the greatest (read: funniest) thing ever.

With the mass adoption of voice controls in both games and entertainment apps like Netflix, it's becoming the Kinect’s most popular feature. That doesn’t really make sense; it was, after all, meant to be a motion controller. All the while, motion-controlled games continue to nr releasef to lackluster support and critical disappointment. They still srll like hotcakes (or something else that sells much), but they aren't doing much for earning fans’ trust. Here’s a little Metacritic data to elucidate some of the critical views of Kinect titles:

- Kinect Star Wars // 55/100
- Kinect Sports // 73/100
- Kinect Sports: Season 2 // 68/100
- Raving Rabbids: Alive & Kicking // 58/100
- Kinect Joy Ride // 52/100

While that’s not terrible. It isn’t as good as it should be, especially for something so easy. It’s not all bad news though, as Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster and the Dance Central series all released to much praise and acclaim. They used the peripheral well.
They didn’t dumb things down or assume that the user wouldn’t be able to decipher the prompts on screen, they just made it work well and let the player sort out the rest. That’s what Kinect needed more of and both sales and scores echoed that.

Players don’t need the game to baby-talk them, they just want to play games. It says something about the implementation of your title when the iOS port of your Kinect exclusive has better reviews than the game itself, and that’s exactly what happened with Kinectimals. I’m sure there’s a big difference in how people look at a $3 game vs a $50 one, but still the logistics of that situation astound me.

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is a Kinect game with a lot of promising features that ultimately failed to be fun.

The push for a hardcore Kinect title that used the motion controls in a meaningful and interesting way was fully realized with Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. It mixed the use of a standard gamepad and Kinect motion controls in an attempt to bring Steel Battalion to this generation of consoles without the need for a giant, cumbersome $150 controller. It would have been a great idea, if the Kinect integration had worked at all. It didn’t recognize movement as it should have, even under the most ideal circumstances. That’s not good if you’re trying to show gamers that the Kinect is powerful enough to handle more hardcore control schemes. It turned out that the Kinect ended up being even worse than the $150 cumbersome controller, because if you put enough time into it, you could get that to work. It was the most critically-trashed titles in recent memory, currently holding a 39/100 on Metacritic with more than 60% of the reviews below 45/100 and taking home four 1/10 reviews. It was trashed by nearly every major outlet, including myself.

It just wasn’t ready, or maybe it was, and it just wasn’t good. It might not even be From Software’s fault, they could have done all that they could do and just couldn’t get it to work right. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of Steel Battalion’s release is that it might end up scaring away other developers who were planning taking a stab at hardcore Kinect development. We don’t need that, Microsoft is doing everything that it can to persuade developers to try their hand at Kinect, but it isn’t working. In all honesty, why should developers take a risk like that? There’s no need for them to do so, they don’t really gain anything by having Kinect support in their game besides a purple “Better with Kinect” stripe on the box and “all that Microsoft money.”
They’re doing all they can by bringing things like Nike+ to Kinect, but they seems to be getting more of their money’s worth by adding simple voice support to things like Forza Horizon, Halo 4, and South Park: The Stick of Truth.

It will be interesting to see what Microsoft can do to turn Kinect around in the next year or so, because right now, titles like Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor and Fable: The Journey aren’t doing much for my confidence in Microsoft’s dedication to the Kinect’s success. Sure, they care about the numbers coming from Dance Central every year, but do they care about making things better for gamers? That’s the big question that still remains unanswered.

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