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.

Television vs. Video Games. Fight!

<BELL RINGS>

“In the red corner weighting in at 110lbs is the TV, undisputed champion of the sitting room since 1954, the darling of countless billions who have succumbed to its simple soporific charms. In the blue corner, the nimble upstart, the Video Game console, weighing in at 8lbs, rocking thumbs since the late 70s, but claiming their first world crown in 1985. The object of parental dismay ever since, and a font of moral panics. TV has been repeatedly bested by the youngster over the years but now is the time for TV to fight back! …”

This fight is far from over and the title bout takes place each year in January in Las Vegas at CES. Las Vegas is more than gin soaked gamblers, lamenting their losses in gaudy palaces of deceit. It’s the battle arena for global consumer electronics giants to fire salvos at each other. Each device is slimmer, faster and more innovative than the next. Want a 4mm thin TV? You got it. A fridge that can chill a can of coke in five minutes flat? Waterproof Smartphone. No problem.

CES is significant as its there that SMART TV is publicly racing ahead. Adoption is yet to reach a tipping point, but the migration is clearly apparent and for the console manufacturers, SMART TV is a spectre that cannot be ignored. App Stores on the device allied with intuitive inputs, motion control, gesture control and voice recognition are all present in the latest TVs. The ‘Killer App’ of Kinect just got pulled into the host, Kinect and the 360 now look like a counterintuitive double act. They’re starting to resemble clutter in the early stages of obsolescence.

It used to be the case that a games console provided entertainment that the TV could not, this hegemony went unchecked for decades as screen manufacturers stood idly by watching Nintendo, SEGA and Sony make a killing, delivering visceral content through adopted hosts. By the time the Xbox came along the stranglehold was vice like and the need for a console to deliver games was unassailable. They were untouchable.

The Wii arrived. Dragging with it new input methods and consumers, who were the exact intersect of the TV/Gaming audience. The lines became blurred primarily as the consumers (primarily) didn’t care which device was delivering the experience. The Wii UI aped TV channels, and recalled an aged CRT screen. The shark had been jumped. The console was invisible. Then the single most seismic event ever to hit gaming came along. The equivalent of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. The App Store.

In hindsight the Wii’s achievements will be all but forgotten, seen as an anomaly, an old model based on hackneyed technology allied with unique ideas.  The App Store opened the wallets of the non gaming ABC1 audience. The iPhone was a trojan horse, silver bullet and a vial of poison all wrapped into one. The games industry is still reeling from its impact. Its clear many will never get up from the suckerpunch.

The App Store explosion legitimized short form content delivery to the mainstream, and awakened every device manufacturer, to the fact they would to become a digital storefront. Many wastefully spent billions in an effort to mimic Apple, few succeeded. In 2012, It’s all about the audience. Samsung and LG command huge global audiences, engaging with them daily. They provide the warm blanket, the reassuring voice and the window on the world. TV is second only to the mobile phone as the ultimate ‘personal’ device. People love TV. Watch as they place them on walls, pushing family portraits to one side. Placed on an altar for the worship of false prophets.

TV as a concept crushes the Video Game a billion times. Video Games are niche. TV is Simon Cowell. TV is a huge metal fist in a velvet glove, the host will defeat the parasite, and the content will migrate into the TV. The consumer has ceased to care. Fanboys are a niche that are no longer the target of the console manufacturers attention.  The irony is that the console manufacturers are driving convergence, with motion control and the drive to turn Xbox LIVE into a ‘entertainment destination’, thereby quickening the infection. The 360 has mutated from a core gaming platform to a set-top box in an aim to capture the lapsed Wii audience. The problem? This audience has already made the jump to mobile and tablet, and they’re not coming back.

To the console manufacturers who think this won’t happen, I have one word. Kodak.

Video Games consoles are laid on the canvas bleary eyed, as the referee stands over them counting …

< … 7, 8, 9 … Its time to throw in the towel … >

Welcome to the Slaughterhouse: What the new Xbox Dashboard means to developers

At Develop in 2010, Sean Murray from Hello Games described XBLA as a “kind of a slaughterhouse for smaller developers” (his reservations have clearly been overcome as Joe Danger will soon be published by Microsoft Studios). Murray pointed to PSN as a more egalitarian channel for those looking to self publish. Murray isnt alone in noticing the role the dashboard plays in securing the success of download titles on Xbox Live. Before we demonize, we need to understand what role the dashboard plays and the pivotal role of UI.

Xbox Live has always had a fundamental problem. Text Input.

Microsoft has chosen to avoid the input issue by enabling voice search. It works, but doesn’t overcome the primary issue for developers – The fundamental importance of discovery. Potential customers can only search for something they are already aware of, and whilst it makes it easier it is a thousand miles away from a mechanic such as Amazon recommends, or Stumbleupon, which are both highly effective as driving discovery (PSN already utilises this feature).

Controller based input of text is arduous. The solutions are simple (keypad or USB keyboard), but the barrier to discovery (however slight) remained significant. This led to a pervasive influence of the dashboard. This is common to all digital store fronts as iTunes and Steam both have a huge bearing the success of promoted titles. The AppStore and Android marketplace further amplify the problem due to lack  screen real estate. The issue therefore is the consumer, most are passive and  are happy with what is deemed to be ‘preferable’ – ‘The Editors Choice’.  Within a walled garden (as all these storefronts are), promoted content is chosen by the platform holder, based upon potential of commercial  success, platform alignment and fit within the current portfolio. In the case where platform holders are also content creators, the support of Third Party content also has to align with support for First Party titles.

The final piece of the puzzle is paid advertising. XBLA and PSN differ from iTunes and Steam in that they accept advertising. Vocal critics have been vociferous in damming the new Xbox Dashboard as being driven by advertising. These criticisms are a little late in the day, as the previous dashboard was built around advertising, the fundamental difference is the advertising is now more persistent, every slot is currently occupied and clearly labelled. As a Gold subscriber it feels ironic that consumers pay to remove ads from services like Spotify, yet they remain on Xbox Live. The argument would be that the consumer is paying for a subscription service, whereas Spotify is an ad-supported service. That’s a point for another post.

Content creators therefore have a mountain to climb ahead of getting the content live on the service. Awareness. Achievement of supply chain objectives isn’t enough. The chances of success are supported by the few titles that confound sales expectations.

The predefined release schedules of XBLA (usually two titles a week as part of a managed portfolio) provide a focus for consumers, but also create a meat grinder that provides a short window (that is actually reflective of consumers attention spans). XBLA’s pre-requisite for trials for every title, also foster and support a ‘demo culture’ where 90% of consumers are only playing trial versions. This strengthens the platform as it provides a pipeline of free content, and adds value to the platform. This creates a robust consumer offering of varied content that is all try before you buy. A belief this is free to play is misguided as it’s a segment of the full product, whereas free to play is ordinarily a fully realised game, where additional features are purchased for a supplementary fee. XBLA is more akin to being given a free piece of chocolate at the supermarket. The final sale is purely related to the experience of the first taste.

Developers, Independent or otherwise must be cogniscent of the role of the platform and the role of the trial experience they are delivering. A second-rate trial is usually indicative of the quality of the final product. Xbox Live does not owe developers a living, but similarly it owes a huge debt to the content creators who keep the platform alive. Without the content Xbox Live is a server architecture and box of components. Developers can question the restrictive nature of the service architecture and the business models it currently supports, but criticising a platform for being competitive (and therefore destructive) is missing the point, Digital distribution empowers content creators to deliver straight to the consumer, albeit through controlled channels. The alternative is the Wild West of P2P. Ask the Music Industry how that worked out for them …

Whilst there will always be a puppet master, its more about learning how to pull the strings rather than cut them.

How GameLine foreshadowed Xbox LIVE [by Twenty Years]

Meet the GameLine

In 1983, the prospect of downloads to consoles was unthinkable to many.

Bjorn  Borg had just retired from Tennis, the last episode of M*A*S*H had just aired and most importantly the NES launched. In hindsight it feels like the dark ages.  In 1983 GameLine appeared. GameLine looked like an oversized Atari 2600 cartridge, and was a dial-up modem that could download games to your console. In 1983 the Atari 2600 was six years old, only a  year earlier the ‘Darth Vader‘ iteration had come to market. For the record, this was a nickname.

"Xbox LIVE, I am your father!"

The prospect of downloading games at that point was effectively ‘science fiction’. The English nation was still wrestling with loading games onto the ZX Spectrum from cassette, downloading may as well have been alien technology, and effectively was. Alien tech it appeared was everywhere, as in 1979, Kane Kramer invented the first digital music player, in 1981 he filed his UK patent application. The early 80s was clearly tin foil hats and Mel Gibson all the way. However it wasn’t until 1996 that Audio Highway made the first commercially available MP3 player in 1996. Apple wouldn’t crash the party until 2001. Xbox LIVE wouldn’t be launched until 2002.

So why did it take so long from inception to marketplace success? In simplest terms the infrastructure simply wasn’t there, from a technological and cultural perspective. Dial up connections in 1983 were the preserve of scientists, nerds and maths teachers. The rudimentary wonders of the 2600 were enough visual shock and awe  for a generation. The high street was still king and the internet was ‘never going to take off’. GameLine typifies an inherently disruptive technology that would pave the way for those following it. The challenges GameLine faced are still evident for services like Onlive today, publishers were inherently suspicious of GameLine meaning that many top-tier game never appeared on the service, none of the key third parties at the time supported the service (such as Atari, Activision, Coleco, Mattel, and Parker Brothers).

GameLine went bust in 1983, but key members of the team became integral to the success of AOL. Whilst it didn’t have the connected gameplay features of LIVE, that honour would fall to the Dreamcast in 2001, it did introduce online leaderboards. Almost two decades later Xbox LIVE supported by a global corporation finally nailed the proposition and infrastructure. Relatively speaking, the global Xbox LIVE remains small (35 Million current members), but indicates that the experiments made thirty years ago were entirely on target. R.I.P GameLine.

 

 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Playstation

PlayStation 3 vs. Xbox 360

Affinity is a bitch. Humans gravitate to certain things. Preference.

Gamers like football/music/literature fans globally become torn by affinity.  For gamers the battle lines delinenate by platforms. Platform holders promote and encourage the points of difference. Killer software = system sellers. The marketing mathematics is simple. Gamers are split down the middle … the platform agnostic and the fan-boys. The seventh generation is typified by three viable, concurrent home based platforms. The flag in the sand came from the X360 in 2005, and as an Xbox fanatic it was easy to make the jump to 360. Case closed.

By 2007, the arrival of Playstation 3, my allegiances were already clear. It wasn’t until 2008 that I felt compelled to actually pick up the Dual Shock. Even the launch of Uncharted hadn’t been enough to sway me. The positioning felt too close to X360, and there wasnt a clear and immediate need for me to invest time in another platform. There was also no Gamerscore which by that point had already got me in its insidious vice-like grip. Only Little Big Planet had intrigued me enough to make the leap. LBP was a system seller, a unique experience unlike any other, powered and empowered by PlayStation 3. The game was jaw dropping.

Then nothing … There wasn’t another experience as compelling on PS3. I went right back to X360.

The PS3 served as a Blu-Ray player, then an iPlayer experience that all but eradicated any scheduled TV viewing. The PS3 had become part of daily life, in a context that I had never anticipated. It still struggled to compete for gameplay time. However in post E3 2011, PS3 feels like the vanguard of core gaming. Standing alone with a purity of gameplay experiences that I’d overlooked before.

Two tasks stand in my way. Finding a local meeting of Gamerscore Anonymous and training my hands to accept the Dual Shock. Muscle memory is a cruel mistress …