The Great Kinect Hoax

In September 1969 a rumour started to circulate that Paul McCartney had died, replaced by an imposter. A pale imitation of the former or exact replicant? Within the hugely passionate Beatles audience, this was treated with suspicion and curiosity in equal measure. The rumour refused to go away as there was enough of a kernel of truth/curiosity/morbidity in something that seemed impossible. The tale has it that in 1967 Paul had died in a car crash. Fans scoured Beatles albums for references and clues trying to uncover the truth, a 1960’s comparison to the code-cracking Redditors of 2012. The Beatles press editor refuted the rumours. Could such an incredible feat have been pulled off in plain sight of a global audience?

In 2009 Microsoft, the Keyser Söze of the technology world, introduced Kinect to the world with an astonishing display of smoke andmirrors. Promises were made and ideas spread that would never materialise, this was the death of Kinect before the introduction of the imposter that would go on to commercial release. This was the greatest trick Microsoft ever pulled, convincing the world that the potential of Kinect existed. For Microsoft, unlike Paul, the car crash came after the idea died.

But how can this be true? Kinect claimed the Guinness World Record of being the “fastest selling consumer electronics device” be selling 8 million units in 60 days.  posthumously it will become apparent that the great Kinect Hoax of 2010 sold consumers on a promise that could never be fulfilled.

What’s more frustrating? That the promise of Kinect was never realised, or that as consumers we were lied to.

The most damning evidence is the Milo and Kate demo. The demo presented a brave new vision of game interaction, that was the reason I bought Kinect. In hindsight it was a scripted sham, never to be realised. Having lived with Kinect, watching it now feels like an obvious pantomime. In short it was a lie. Kinect is a lie.

What we were offered were a series of shovelware titles that were stillborn, unresponsive and in many cases simply didn’t work. Never has there been a platform with such a dire software catalogue that remained on the market. The average score for all Kinect titles is 64% veering between Dance Central at 86% and Fighters Uncaged at 32%. As it turned out Kinect was ill-suited to pretty much all input schemes. The best ideas utilised in the launch titles have never been matched.

The best Kinect game? Easy. Happy Action Theatre from Double Fine. Aimed at Pre-Schoolers: the only example of exciting emergent gameplay mechanics by recreating the kind of cheap parlour tricks usually reserved for exhibits in ‘futurist’ Science Museums. Even now, three years after the E3 announce developers still cannot make Kinect work: Steel Batallion is a stunning example of how incapable Kinect is as control input and has a Metacritic of 39%. Kinect software simply isn’t improving after three years. A clear indication that Kinect is fundamentally flawed.

Living with Kinect (as a non game input device) is like having a petulant toddler controlling your console, one that doesn’t listen, is impossible to control and returns results and commands that have no bearing on the original input. It make simple tasks utterly exasperating. Microsoft’s insistence on pushing forward with Kinect is a clear illustration of foolhardy reliance upon segmentation data and lifestyle surveys.

Kinect is flatlining. Its time to pull the plug.

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Who shot Kinect? … How ‘The Gunstringer’ went awry

‘The Gunstringer’ infuriates, dissapoints and charms all at the same time. A difficult feat to achieve.

As the poster boy for the only valid pure Kinect mature experience, ‘The Gunstringer’ is the mature breakout hit on the platform that wasn’t.  The fundamental issue for Twisted Pixel was outside of their control, Kinect. Kinect artificially restricts the freedom given to game designers by a control pad. Microsoft would claim this as an oxymoron, as freedom was a central pillar of the Kinect experience.

Ironically, giving freedom to gamers has tied the hands of game designers.

The best Kinect games take gesture based input, or control schemes based upon familiar actions. Finesse and accuracy aren’t fundamental to Kinect (yet); and as such a game based upon aiming and shooting was always going to struggle. Even so, in ‘The Gunstringer’  the reticule is astonishingly forgiving, a little like playing CoD with a bazooka where every enemy is the size of a barn. The most imprecise gesture summons a rewarding lock on. The main problem? It feels hollow and unrewarding. Leaning  from cover is a flick of the left wrist. Is this immersion? Nah. The basics of this game would have improved a thousandfold on a controller. Twisted Pixel nailed the 2D platformer (Ms Splosion Man) with precise, infuriating level design that was punative and rewarding all at once. At no point do you ever feel frustrated by the controller input, just your ability. At every point ‘The Gunstringer’ feels like shadow boxing the Stay-Puft man. However, it’s nowhere near as amazing as that sounds.

‘The Gunstringer’ shines in terms of characterisation;  the premise of  a demented marionette hellbent on revenge is impossible to resist. Sadly, the gameworld is inconsistent. In a world based on the bizarre, its still a mish mash with some levels looking like they were ripped straight out of Little Big Planet, some created from a splash of Monty Python, and then within the game universe itself;  a lack of internal consistency, that manifests in oversized kitchen cutlery and water made from hand-sewn blankets. Its not odd or eclectic … it just feels half baked. Breaking the fourth wall is, simultaneously, the games greatest achievement and folly.

The game feels as though its been stretched to justify a packaged release. Originally slated as an XBLA title the game morphed into a packaged title, its painfully apparent in sections such as a steamboat ride where only the left hand is utilised, or the endless waves of paper enemies who explode into confetti in a dark cardboard environment. The latter feeling so sparse on content that it felt like the scenery would fall over at any moment to reveal the developers sniggering in the background drinking tea. Publisher pressure feels like it influenced the game design for the worse. The reason is simple, ‘mainstream’ Kinect games don’t buy XBLA titles, to broaden the games reach it had to be on a disc. This is incongruous as all of Twisted Pixel’s previous titles had been digital only.

As a digital developer at the vanguard, a packaged release felt like betrayal.

‘The Gunstringer’ feels like the kernel of the right game, botched and rerubbbed then released on the wrong platform for the wrong motives. And that’s a real shame.

How Pixar almost saved the Games Industry

Pixar create something unique and sublime. Intelligent, moving stories that appeal to all ages. They render it … drawing images with computers. They use PhotoRealistic Renderman.  Pixar create believable worlds filled with anthropomorphic characters voiced by familiar Hollywood stars.  The result?: Asinine, trite and saccharine? The very fact that it isn’t stuns me. The films only improve with repeated viewing revealing further humour, knowing references and depth. Pixar movies have replayability. Pixar movies have bloopers. What more can you say?

Games are often shallow, lacking in a compelling reason to return. The second pass is often invalid, as the content lacks surprises and depth.

Buzz Lightyear is a stunning character: funny, overblown, conceited and genuinely engaging. Buzz Lightyear is the greatest character video games never had. The opening sequence of Toy Story 2 still makes me wish for a flash forward to the next-next generation of consoles that can achieve the visual polish of a Pixar movie. By that time we can only presume that software will be a service,  and if my games are sitting on a server somewhere deep in Switzerland (or Redmond for that matter), then I expect that level of visual fidelity pushed back via a high-definition video stream.

Media Molecule are the closest we currently have to a Pixar, creating worlds unbridled by limited imagination. Little Big Planet is a world awash with ideas, constantly changing and evolving  (in a way Pixar cannot do) empowering the viewer to create content and publish.

Media Molecule are content platform creators. Pixar are content broadcasters.

Around 2004 Steve Jobs had contemplated selling Pixar to Microsoft, due to an ongoing dispute with Disney (ahead of their eventual acquisition). What would have happened if Steve Jobs had sold Pixar to Microsoft?

Pixar are the revolution the games industry needs. Lets be entirely clear here, I am not referring to the licensed games rehashing Pixar IP, as a commercial tie-in or brand extension. Empowering Pixar to create games lacking the constraints of technology would astound and engage a whole new audience in an immensely powerful way. The inevitable thought of Pixar and Kinect feels like a secret sauce recipe waiting to happen.

K is for Kinect

Double Fine continually confound expectations.

They also evoke a level of fandom close to worship. Tim Schafer‘s past is well documented elsewhere, this post considers where Double Fine are now in February 2011. As it turns out they are riding high after dropping Costume Quest and more recently Stacking. Double Fine are niche. Costume Quest was a lite-turnbased-RPG released on Halloween; Stacking was a game based on waddling Russian Dolls. Both downloads which caused the online fanboys to swoon with delight and born from what Schafer described as an “Amnesia Fortnight”. Then Double Fine announced Once Upon A Monster, a Kinect game featuring Elmo and Cookie Monster. For anyone else this could have been a disaster for Double Fine it was entirely expected. Listening to Schafer it sounds like this was the game they set the studio up to create:

Sesame Street had a profound effect on me, and many members of the Double Fine team, when we were children. So did video games.

Why wouldn’t Double Fine make a Sesame Street game? Who else is there? It feels like the perfect match, intuitive and shrewd on the part of Warner Brothers. Surprisingly, it raises a valid question as Nathan Martz (project lead) comments:

It’s interesting if you read some of the original interviews when Sesame Street was going on the air – between the chairman of the FCC, [Sesame Street creator Jim] Henson and the educational founders whose general feeling at the time was that television was going in a bad direction – that most of what was on TV was not very enriching … Frankly, I feel kind of the same way about video games right now, that we’re not nearly as creatively broad as we could be

Creatively broad is the mantra Double Fine live by, and Martz comment is entirely valid. However it would be naive to believe that the game could steer video gaming away from its current course. More interestingly it opens a new product category on the Xbox 360:  The Interactive Story Book. It’s a genre that has already seen considerable success on iOS and LeapPad. The iMom has been rising in profile across the life-cycle of the  iPhone and iPad to become a lucrative and attractive consumer. In 2009 Greystripe said iPhone Moms accounted for 29.5% of iPhone users in the US. Intuitive interfaces allied with compelling content can turn them into digital consumers. Once upon A Monster is squarely aimed at the new Xbox 360 audience the Kinect Moms.Thing is, it’s also aimed at me. A core game with two young daughters. All three of us have a love for Sesame Street.

Once Upon A Monster has the rare opportunity to do what Batman: Arkham Asylum did for Superhero games. Legitimise a category. Double Fine it’s over to you.

The Billion Dollar Roll: How Tenpin changed the direction of video gaming forever

The rapid advancement of technology is often characterized by a simple theme. The desire to  communicate gave birth to the fax, mobile phones and the Internet. Video gaming has also had a common theme that has unified families, driven innovation in the arcades and ushered in the greatest step change of the current console generation: The widespread adoption of motion control. The unlikely lightning rod for this continual and unabated drive towards innovation has been the desire to replicate (as closely as possible) Ten Pin Bowling.

Video Game bowling is one of the most played video games genres in the history of the industry. This fact alone is astonishing. And also raises the question why? How is this even possible?

Bowling is cited as having its roots in Germany in 300 AD, with the first formalised rules coming into place in New York in 1895. Bowling for the Atari 2600 was released in 1978. A year later Midway released 4 Player Bowling Alley into the Arcades with a table-top cabinet that had two trackballs that looked and felt like bowling balls, the cabinet evoked the feel of the bowling halls with its wood effect veneers. In the years that followed there was a constant stream of Arcade and Home console iterations of the sport.

Ten Pin Deluxe (Bally Midway) hit the arcades in 1984 and was a shuffleboard bowling game integrating a puck and a monitor. It was also one of the greatest cabinets ever conceived with a faux wood lane and again attempted to replicate the motion of bowling in the best way possible at the time. These crude iterations were paving the way for intuitive motion based controls driven by the fact that bowling was hugely popular as a mainstream leisure activity that has an intuitive and familiar mechanic and a robust and enduring appeal. The formula was attempted over and over. The continued migration away from gimmick to video game simulation culminated in Alley Master (Cinematronics) which hit the arcades in 1986, complete with improved graphics but an ill-considered choice of stick input.

A decade later the next major innovation happened in the handheld space when Virtual Bowling made it on to the ill-fated Virtual Boy in 1995. Nester’s Funky Bowling followed it up in 1996. Through the 1990s iterations hit the PC, Playstation, Gameboy, Nintendo 64, SNES and Xbox in the 2000’s Bowling came onto mobile and iOS in the form of Midnight Bowling and PC browser-based oddities like Polar Bowling and Elf Bowling bemused rather than amused. Konami brought Simpsons bowling into the arcades in 2000, and rather than make a bold attempt to deliver the depth of lane found on the Virtual Boy Konami made the interaction more visceral by utilising a trackball.  Michael Jackson was such a fan he owned cabinet number 42145. Silver Strike Bowling revolutionised out of home trackball ten pin in 2004 and 2010 changed the game with a connected LIVE experience throughout the United States. Trackball Ten Pin had reached a high watermark that it looked impossible to surpass.

The definitive moment in the evolution of video game bowling came in 2006, 28 years after the release of bowling on the Atari 2600. Wii Bowling shipped with every Wii outside Japan. Globally the mainstream fell back in love with Video Game bowling. Wii Sports is the best-selling video game of all time which (at time of writing) had shipped around 76 million copies. 85-year-old John Bates is currently the Worlds Greatest Wii Bowling Player having bowled in excess of 2,850 perfect games. He pwns on Wii Bowling.

Kinect perfected the formula further, to a point where the experience delivered by Kinect Sports is rewarding, intuitive and great fun. The Nintendo Touch Generations dream had finally become a reality, sadly not on a Nintendo platform. Pwned. Finally it seems as if the abolition of the prop has defined the genre. This memo was clearly not received by CTA digital who smelt gold in them thar video gaming bowling hills and created peripherals across all three current gen machines.

Microsoft went all in with a marketing budget for Kinect of half a billion dollars. I can’t help but think this is because they knew they had the video game bowling crown in the bag.

Let’s hammer the pocket.

News Just In!

Cory Archangel has an installation called Beat The Champ running at the Barbican, London until 22nd May 2011. I can’t wait to see it. It’s an installation based on the sounds of Video Game Bowling

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How Peter Molyneux can transform Kinect

Kinect needs to keep moving forward.

There isn’t a  problem with the sales, the visibility or the share of mind. People know what it is, they can pronounce what it’s called (in some cases with ease), and those who have played Kinect Sports are probably of the belief that it currently represents the high watermark in Video Game Bowling. In many cases that was probably was the main battleground that Microsoft were looking towards, the middle ground. Kinect is a step change.

Like many I’ve been impressed at the fact it can recognise me and annoyed by the fact that direct sunlight affects Kinect the same way it does Vampires. Effectively bringing it to its knees, screaming and billowing smoke as it claws its way back to the darkness. I’m baffled as to why it feels compelled to nod at me, but I kinda like it.

I’m impressed. I’m not amazed.

It we consider the new Kinect audience, they’re all set. Kinect Sports, Dance Central and Kinectimals for the kids. Kinectimals contains stealth exercise, be aware of that fact before you stumble into it thinking it’s like being a digital horse whisperer. Star Jumps, Kinectimals contains Star Jumps. I would have love to see the way they snook that into the game concept documentation.

I blame Pete Molyneux. Shit, everyone has been doing that for years. When you Google him the fourth suggestion is ‘Peter Molyneux is a Liar’. Molyneux is a lightning rod of creativity, genius, frustration and bullshit. He’s also the closest we’ve got to an alchemist, a soothsayer and a true fucking creative genius in games. Molyneux makes Cliffy B seem like a frat boy high on glue with a dildo filled with stupidity rammed up his arse. Cliffy B reimagining Kinect is like a CoDtard with an MBA, unthinkable. Molyneux is the key to Kinect.

Milo is the Project Blue Beam of Kinect.

Consider the facts:

  • Step 1: The breakdown of all archaeological knowledge (The Fable series)
  • Step 2: A gigantic space show merging every deity into the Antichrist (The Natal/Milo video)
  • Step 3: A belief their God is talking to them through Telepathy (Molyneux on Twitter)
  • Step 4: Chaos leading to rapture giving way to a New World Order (this also co-incides with Project Milo shipping)

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.