E3 2010: Microsoft’s Waterloo

Kinect is watching you watching me watching you.

The fact that, after spending over an hour talking up their new camera-based, hands-free motion controller for the Xbox 360, Kinect, Microsoft failured to address the question of price is not only conspicuous, it’s damning. Perhaps no one would have noticed had the software demonstrated for Kinect been surprising or revolutionary, or even interesting. Since last E3, Microsoft has promoted the technology behind Project Natal as nothing short of a paradigm shift. Turns out there were more right than they realized. Unfortunately for them, the paradigm being shifted is the management at Microsoft’s grip on reality.

So, after all the hype and all the promises, Microsoft is attempting to take the world by storm with slight refinements of games Sony was doing on the PS2 7 years ago with the Eye Toy, the most blatant Wii Sports clone humanly possible and an impossibly generic virtual pet title. But wait, there’s more! They also have shown Skype-style video chat app that only connects to other people with a Kinect device or your more backwards friends still using Windows Live Messenger. And if you’re a bumbling idiot who has never been able to figure out how to work a remote control, you’re in luck! Now you just need to memorize a series of voice commands and physical gestures. All for the low, low price of…

$189. At least, that’s the rumor. All signs have been pointing to well north of $100 for some time. If Kinect was a $99 device, they’d just say so. If less, even better! They’d be crowing from the roof tops. Instead, they’re doing their best to delay the sticker shock as long as possible, like an online retailer that won’t show you the price of an item until after you add it to your shopping cart. You’ve come this far, right? Too late to turn back your purchase intent now!

So the truth is out now. After a year of blind faith from certain fanboys, it’s more clear than ever that Kinect has a lot of severe limitations. Sure, you can jury rig a thin-air steering wheel into a driving game, but there’s really no indication that improves your control in any fashion whatsoever. Based on the Joy Ride demo, I’d say it’s a good bet holding your arms out like that is a lot less accurate and responsive than just using a game pad. But Microsoft, as a corporation, is simply blinded by the idea that a tactile object used to interface with a game is some kind of terrible barrier. But they’re just wrong about that. They throw out canards like “controlling the game doing just what comes naturally to you.” But the problem is, games are an interactive medium. That interaction should go both ways. Even if it’s abstracted to the point of a button press, the tactile feedback of knowing you’ve pressed a button is surprisingly integral to the experience of feeling in control. Rather than drawing you closer to the game, Kinect actually divorces you completely from the virtual world.

So that’s the rub. Kinect doesn’t do anything original. It doesn’t really provide new experiences. Kinect control is likely detrimental to most traditional game genres. Oh, and it’s more expensive than anyone was anticipating. This begs the question, what the hell is happening at Redmond? Robbie Bach and J Allard’s recent departures are starting to make a lot more sense if this is Microsoft’s new directive. They are putting all their eggs into one basket, chasing a demographic they may well have only imagined.

What’s worse, they’ve clearly deemphasized the hard core in order to do so. They only shows five non-Kinect titles during the event. Two of those were multiplatform. One exclusive was a CGI teaser that told us nothing about the game other than it’s being made by Crytek. The other two exclusives were both announced earlier in the year and are literally the third game in each series. Sequels get less and less exciting as time goes on. The coolest thing they showed was gameplay from Metal Gear Rising, and that’s a multiplatform game that stars the most despised character in the history of the franchise. Prominent, exclusive games like Crackdown 2 weren’t even shown! Of course not, had to make sure there was plenty of time for that girl from MS to have an awkward, scripted conversation over video chat with her “twin” in Texas (who may or may not have been pre-taped footage of the same girl wearing a wig).

After their press conference this year, it’s hard not to feel like Microsoft is in for a long, painful downward slide. The reaction from the enthusiast press to Kinect has been outright hostile. MS may have hopes that it will appeal to the mainstream better, but it’s difficult to gain traction there if everyone who “knows about videogames” tells all their parents, wives, girlfriends, sisters, children, nieces, nephews and grand parents not to waist their money on something so lame. And the desperate move of handing out free 360 “Slims” to everyone in the audience was one of the most transparent attempts to curry favor imaginable. It was genuinely the first time in about an hour you could hear the audience cheering, and that wasn’t being generated by one of the Kinect games. The lucky slobs who talked their way into the conference may be grinning, but hopefully the journalists recognize thirty pieces of silver when they see them.