What Project Natal actually means …

Kontrol

Ever since the emergence of the Wii, there has been a continual movement away from, and criticism of, the ‘traditional’ methods of game input/control. The tail end of 2006 was the point where console designers decided that the control pad were redundant and defunct. This was amplified by the desire to capture the casual/mass market that, many think are intimidated by the spectre of the control pad:

“It has everything to do with breaking down barriers and getting to the mass market, where controllers are barriers and they’re intimidating. It’s awkward for some people to learn to use a controller.” Shane Kim – Microsoft

This was writ large across the stage at the Microsoft E3 2009 press briefing with the announcement of Project Natal. Speculation has suggested it will be called ‘Xbox Fluid‘ at launch and it is predicted to be released into the wild in Autumn 2010. A day later Sony showcased their take on motion control, that felt crude by comparison and all but had been revealed in their patent application. Sony, like Nintendo before them is reliant on a controller, albeit covered by rendered graphics in Sony’s demonstration. So whilst E3 2009 doesn’t bring a new home console platform to play on (PSP GO excepted), it seems to be focused upon ‘new ways to play’. That of course presumes that the previous iterations were failing us in some way …

Natal breaks down the line, but immersion can be achieved through a pad. The inherent problem is built around muscle memory and the belief that a ‘casual’ gamer needs immediate immersion, and without that they will walk away. I believe this may be a misconception and that the content of most games is the barrier not the input method. Natal like the Wii remote takes the fear out of the control method, thereby lowering these psychological barriers for entry. Paradoxically it could also alienate those familiar with the controllers we have now. I am quite sure that I could perfectly visualise the 360 controller in my mind. Indeed, thinking about it now I have a memory of its dimensions and its weight. The 360 controller is unique and I would argue is as close to perfect as any controller I have used. Case in point occurred when I used my PS3 for the first time, my exposure to the DualShock had been extremely limited, and at first I was wrestling with the dimensions and the button placement, even now it is by no means second nature.  So, it would appear even for a core gamer that Shane Kim has a point. It seems that familiarity does not always breed contempt.

Watching the Natal demo reminded me of being in a drama class as a child and being asked to ‘be a tree’. Dismay and confusion broke out with the ubiquitous snickering and lack of attention. The basic point was that when the parameters of interaction were removed, the default setting was confusion. Natal was presented as being entirely intuitive, but games and their architecture are bound by rules and convention. One of the demos being shown behind closed doors at E3 is Burnout, and Natal is being used as the control mechanism, but the brake and accelerator are configured in a different way to those in an ‘actual’ car, so the method is not wholly intuitive (for now) and requires adaption. Such acceptance of game world norms would be a small step for gamers to take but belies the premise of purely intuitive interaction.

Natal’s greatest challenges are therefore:

  • Can it create an experience so immersive that even the self-conscious act of interaction is forgotten?
  • Does Natal rely too heavily upon the users imagination, as it requires a leap of faith to ‘mime’ the action being depicted on-screen? A controller gives the audience a prop. The staggering and continuing success of Guitar Hero et al is testament to the power of plastic.
  • What does Natal actually mean for game design and the future of games as whole?

Peter Molyneux explained Natal with passion and enthusiasm. Even the most disinterested in games  have connected with his brief eulogy to the merits of its potential. Molyneux, like Spielberg, is a modern day Gepetto who seems preoccupied with creating a digital being that is sentient, moral and autonomous. Milo is not this creation, but gives us a tantalising glimpse of what Natal could hold for the future. Natal’s current status as vaporware overshadows all other discussion about motion control methods, and ensures that the Xbox as a platform remains vibrant and relevant.

The name is, of course, not accidental. If we turn  to the dictionary for a moment:

na⋅taladjective
1. of or pertaining to a person’s birth: celebrating one’s natal day.
2. presiding over or affecting a person at birth: natal influences.
3. (of places) native: nostalgia for one’s natal town.

Is Natal a flag in the sand for the generation that will follow the 360? Does this represent the future evolution of the Xbox? If Natal is due to arrive in Q4 2010, that would foreshadow the anticipated ‘When Gen’ that is predicted to follow in 2015 (this is the lifecycle as predicted my Microsoft). Natal seems more at home as a control system for an entirely new experience and it’s success on the 360 is entirely dependent on software. Lionhead and countless others are more than capable of delivering rich and powerful experiences using Natal but the question of whether Natal will make you cry is entirely erroneous. Games still need to make you smile, care and hope in the first instance. The time when they evoke real human emotion and not digital empathy is still some time away, irrespective of the complexity or apparent simplicity of the interface.

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