Thursday, June 17, 2010

Some further analysis of Kinect

So, after my last post, I started wondering if I was too hard on Microsoft's Kinect. The next day, I got a bulk email from Microsoft advertising their new 360 games and hardware from E3, with Kinect front and center. So, I clicked on it to see what their big promotional videos and landing pages looked like, hoping they were going to sell me on their new game-changing peripheral.

I was greeted with 8 launch titles, 7 of which had videos (apparently Sonic Freeriders didn't get their video in on time). So, what kind of completely original and crazy titles are going to convince you to drop $150 on a new camera?

Here are the eight that Microsoft is featuring:

- Dance Central: DDR with hands. Could be fun, but not exactly shocking.
- Kinectimals: Really pretty tamagotchi, clearly aimed at elementary schoolers.
- Kinect Sports: Wii Sports, only with a camera. Should be a fun tech demo. However, I have to say, Kinect Sports doesn't roll of the tongue nearly as cleanly as Wii Sports.
- Kinect Joy Ride: Crazy driving game where you drive with your hands. I have my doubts about precision, and as far as I can tell this could easily be played better with a controller.
- Your Shape: Fitness Evolved: Exercise "game". Wii Fitness was popular, but this isn't exactly a killer app.
- Kinect Adventures!: Looks to be a more "adventurous" version of Kinect Sports. More minigames, should be fun, but again not going to offer a lot of depth. I'm going to lump this in with sports minigames, because the gameplay really is similar.
- Zumba Fitness: Hey look, another exercise game.
- Sonic Freeriders: Don't know much about this one, but based on the title it likely will be a sort of racing game, perhaps having the players leaning to steer Sonic and friends through levels. Might be pretty, but I have my doubts about it being something you can't play with a joystick.

And here are the 7 additional launch titles that appear to have not made the previous cut, possibly by being too early to really tell much about. The comments below are based on a combination of information found and guesses from me.

- Game Party In Motion: This one will likely be terrible. The first three Game Party titles on the Wii have Metacritic scores of 25, 29, and 37 respectively. I suppose it's heading in an upward trend, so maybe we'll get a 45 from this one.
- Motionsports: Another collection of sports minigames most likely. Ubisoft sometimes puts out good stuff, but I doubt it's gonna really stand out from the other sports minigames.
- Biggest Loser: Ultimate Workout: Wow...3 exercise games out of 15 launch titles?
- Adrenaline Misfits: Some sort of extreme sports game. Perhaps of the mini variety?
- Deca Sports Freedom: Wow, this one is the definition of sports minigames. I'm sensing a pattern here...
- Dance Masters: Dancing game by Konami. I suppose this is DDR with arms, and Dance Central is just a poser.
- EA Sports Active 2: Oh, wow...sports mini games... At least the original one on the Wii was well-reviewed.

So, geez, let's do some summary statistics on that staggeringly varied collection of launch titles.

7 Sports Games (mostly mini-games)
3 Exercise Games
2 Dancing Games
2 Racing Games
1 Uber-cute, very shallow Tamagotchi Game.

I suppose it's not surprising that a peripheral named "Kinect" (a portmanteau of Kinetic and Connect, or so I assume) would generate a lot of motion-based games, and sports, dancing, and exercise are the most obvious ways to go. I think my disappointment is that there's just such a lack of creativity from developers. I'm sure some of the games will be cool and have some clever mechanics, but is this really all we can expect from the peripheral? How many different sports minigames is a person really going to buy? Honestly, the Tamagotchi game, as silly and boring as it looks to any post-pubescent player, is probably the most creative entry, allowing you to pet and play with your virtual pets, even having them mimic your movements.

However, this is the first generation. Games always get better with time (assuming they have time - this is year five of the 360 after all), and hopefully we'll see more creativity. But there was something else that was much more alarming to me in all of this. Go check out the Kinect Adventures! video on the Microsoft link I provided. Watch carefully as the little girl moves at the beginning, and at when the avatar moves. Yep, you're not imagining that: there's a very clear delay of somewhere around 1/4 to 1/2 a second. Apparently, the video processing is heavy enough that there's actually a noticeable delay in movement. I worry that this could spell doom for the peripheral reaching anything farther than the most casual audiences. The inability to control quickly and precisely, the loss of an additional 1/2 second of reaction time, is going to make precision and reflex heavy games almost impossible to play.

When I was pondering what to write this post about originally, my idea was to try to come up with some creative gameplay ideas for Kinect despite my negative review. I got sidetracked by the disappointment in the launch titles and the shocking delay in motion control. Perhaps next time I'll offer some new gameplay ideas - it should be a fun exercise if nothing else. I certainly can't do much worse than the current offering. Room for growth might be there, but a weak launch with no killer apps could doom the peripheral at the starting line, keeping us from ever seeing if it actually did have the potential to change the way we interact with our TVs.

(I feel the need to add that the peripheral is well-targeted towards younger gamers. My wife was impressed with the videos and could see family members really jumping into these games. So, from the perspective of Microsoft stealing some market share from Nintendo, Kinect could be a real win. My interest, academically speaking, is more from gameplay innovation. Keep in mind that the Wii is a huge financial success but I still consider it generally a failure from a gameplay perspective.)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Battle of the Motion Controllers

When thinking about where to go with my next blog post, it seemed that a logical follow-up to the previous post would be to look at what Wii MotionPlus has done and make some SWAGs (scientific wild-ass guesses) about where Kinect/Natal and Playstation Move (henceforth PSMove, since I'm lazy, and I'm betting we'll see that become an official name before too long since other gamers are lazy too) will take motion-based gaming.

So, first question: has Wii MotionPlus, the gyroscope add-on for the Wiimote, delivered on what I had hoped? The short answer is no. It has brought new levels of precision and motion control to some games (Wii Sports Resort had some very cool games in it, and golf is actually playable now!), but 3D motion tracking, on the macro scale, isn't happening yet. I'm not sure if this is a technological problem (perhaps a Gimbal Lock is cropping up from the accelerometers?) or just a lack of developer creativity. The design of the PSMove suggests that it is the former.

For those who haven't seen the PSMove, it's almost very literally a Wii controller with a big ball on the end of it.

So, what's the purpose of the big ball? I'll refer you to the Wiki page on the PSMove for more details, but it's actually an extremely clever idea. The short version is that the perfect sphere is a known size to the camera, and with an accurate enough image and some quick processing you can determine a fairly specific distance from the camera very easily. It's basically the opposite process of what allowed Ballz 3D to create a very convincing 3D visual effect without doing any actual 3D geometry calculations...

...and is identical to the technology that camera-based motion capture studios use (albeit usually with more balls and cameras). So, it has all of the sensors of the Wii MotionPlus, and adds an accurate distance calculator. While I still have to wonder whether or not this can be done without the ball, clearly this adds the macro-level motion I was looking for. More importantly though, it puts that type of motion into the minds of developers, so I'm actually very enthusiastic about the potential of the PSMove. It will likely have to break the stigma of being a Wii ripoff, and we'll need to see games that target the more hardcore PS3 audience (WiiSports won't cut it on the PS3), but if it has the games behind it this could be very impressive.

On the Xbox 360 side, we have Kinect (formerly Project Natal), which is a system that uses only a few cameras, and no physical controller. No accelerometers or gyroscopes here, just two cameras (for stereoscopic imaging) and a bunch of image processing to pick out humanoids moving in a scene.
Now, as an (embarrassed to admit it) EyeToy owner, I have some initial reservations because, let's face it, the EyeToy sucked. Still, let's try to ignore any initial feeling of EyeToy-induced nausea and make the assumption that technology and software has improved enough that this thing can actually provide very good tracking of humans with only the images. Under that assumption, what can we expect from the controller?

Even with near-perfect tracking, I still find the Kinect to be lacking in features and control. Yes, it provides lots of freedom and options for free-form, full-body capture. But at the same time, there is zero physical feedback (the Wiimote provides weight, vibration, and off-screen sounds), no buttons/joysticks, and constant opportunity for annoying friends/family to jump into view and confuse the camera. The only input you can provide is your skeletal position, and voice. While this is great for dancing games, I've yet to see any demos (yes, even the Star Wars light saber demo) that really convinced me of its potential.

Another interesting point in all of these cases is that traditionally speaking (since 1990 at least) we see a roughly five year life cycle on consoles, but these relatively major peripherals are being released nearly 4 (or 5 for the 360) years into the life of these consoles. Will the lifecycles be extended thanks to these peripherals, or are these just experiments that will help guide design choices for the next generation?

Either way, since we as an industry love giving scores and grades to things, I'll give the obligatory ratings based on my opinions of the future potential of each of these peripherals.

Wii MotionPlus: The Wii managed to have a double first to market, both with the original controller and the MotionPlus adapter. However, first to market rarely means top dog in the video game world, and so far, despite commercial success, we've seen very little truly disruptive gameplay innovation from the controller. That said, the audience is more casual and has already embraced the technology (and doesn't have to shell out $100+ to get a new peripheral), so adoption of the tech should continue smoothly, even if it doesn't innovate much farther. Future potential: B-

Playstation Move: The biggest hurdle that the PSMove will hit is getting people to buy the new peripheral. We've seen success with expensive peripherals with Rock Band, and if PSMove can have a killer app to go with it I have no doubt that people will stand in line to gobble them up. The technology is the most sound and well understood and offers the best combination of great motion controls and traditional button/joystick controls. This might get me to buy a PS3. At the same time, there's no question that it's a Mii-too product, and without a killer app or two at launch the PSMove has the biggest potential to face plant in a way that only Nintendo has been able to with past peripherals. Future potential: B+ / F (depending on launch software)

Kinect: The 360 will have a number of difficulties getting the Kinect into homes. It seems likely to be the most expensive of the three peripherals, is on the oldest system (meaning it might get lower support before long), has to fight the stigma of previous disappointing camera systems, and seems targeted at younger, more casual gamers than the traditional 360 demographic. It could have a few very nifty tech demos and minigames, but potential for really deep, innovative games to grow from it seems dim. I remain a firm skeptic and sincerely doubt that I'll be getting one, despite already owning a 360. Future potential: C-