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.

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.

Does File Size Limit Creativity?

Xbox Live Arcade in 2004

The current file size limit for XBLA is 2GB. Since the service started on December 3, 2004 the file size has been slowly creeping up. Previously the Xbox Live Arcade file size capped titles at 50 MB to accommodate consumers who purchased the hard drive-less Xbox 360 Core SKU (those consumers had to use one of Microsoft’s memory cards). As consumers migrate to larger and larger hard drives (a 250GB Xbox 360 slim retails for £159.99 in the UK), the file size restriction of 2004 are starting to become increasingly irrelevant. But its clear these users are the whales as the Kinect bundle for 360 only comes equipped with 4GB of storage. Having said, this represents a huge leap forward from the fact that 360s we retailed as an arcade bundle with no hard drive at launch.

Storage is ubiquitous, accepted and dropping in price each year. Yet again, Moore’s Law flexes its influence.

So if, conceptually storage represents no issue for the consumer and home users are frequently leaping to 2 terabytes and beyond (2TB now retails for as little as £60), there is no real issue about keeping XBLA title throttled at 2GB. The issue is that Xbox currently only supports a maximum hard drive of 250GB, whilst PS3 has supported 500GB hard drives since 2010. The 360 Elite launched with 120 GB.

These artificial restrictions to supported storage capability are becoming increasingly redundant as the migration to the cloud becomes inevitable. Cloud storage is not the silver bullet for games consoles, as the ability to stream the game world from a server-based source could dictate the experience. The solution would be to ensure that local storage and broadband speed compensated for any degradation in game experience. Onlive and Gaikai overcome this issue by pushing back video feeds delivered from remote servers. Onlive is dependent on local area connections. The issue with Onlive is can it deliver an experience comparable to disc or local storage? .

All of these points are symptomatic of growing pains in an industry destined for the cloud. Physical manufacture is irrelevant, storage is disposable, and the primary issues surround the continuing acceptance of the consumer to accept ownership that they cannot touch, or in the case of the cloud, cannot even see as a retained file size.

In the case of XBLA and PSN file size has been of little consequence to the innovation and development on the platform delivering some of the most compelling game experiences of the last decade. The questions now remain about the role of pricing, physical retail, customers perception and delivery speed.

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.