Stalled Momentum: The Status Of The Kinect Within The Next Generation

Seeing technological fads appear is something that is natural within the games industry.  While we may have a series of pre-set things that appear such as the consoles and their corresponding approach to hardware, seeing a technological flourish appear in the hopes of captivating a bigger audience, all while being somewhat simple or not too bleeding edge in its approach, is something that’s par for the course within the games industry.

Whether it be the massive flop that was the Virtual Boy, or Nintendo’s redemption of sorts with the arrival of motion control via the Wii, fads within the games industry have been around for ages and they come in countless forms.  Yet here we are now, on the cusp of the next-generation of consoles and another element within the industry is still stuck in a near perpetual state of going nowhere despite the promise it holds: Microsoft’s Kinect device.

Since it was first unveiled back at E3 2009 when it was simply known as Project Natal, the Kinect was something that could’ve lived up to the often lofty and somewhat PR buzzword that is being a “game changer”.  In some ways gamers were still somewhat wary about using a motion device let alone their body sans a controller to play a game, though the Kinect exhibited some potential to perhaps elevate the medium of games, change conventional design approaches, and perhaps evolve the narrative aspect of things as well.

Though of course we ultimately know what fate the Kinect had with its first iteration as it played host to games that ranged from being passable in their arcade centric execution (Diabolical Pitch), were pleasing to the casual crowd (Nike+ Kinect Training), or were just abysmal in every regard (Power Rangers Super Samurai).

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The Xbox One Kinect on its own

With the right developer the Kinect could play host to some amazing games ranging from casual arcade based stuff such as Bodoink from Robomodo or even more core centric things such as Kung Fu Superstar from Kinesthetic Games. Yet sadly those games never gained the momentum they needed to actually enter full production due to the less than stellar stigma the gaming audience has about the Kinect, a thing which will likely repeat itself with the Xbox One.

Over the last few months we’ve all seen Microsoft essentially put on a circus of near incompetence and disillusionment with the initial policies they’ve announced for the Xbox One and the slow changes they’ve made due to the backlash they received, whether in regards to having the console be constantly connected to the internet or not allowing indie developers to self-publish on the platform.  Things in the house of Microsoft may seem to be incredibly shaky, but what intrigues me the most is how the company is approaching the Kinect, or the lack of such a thing.

Yes, the new Kinect was shown off with the Xbox One when the console was unveiled since the device is bundled with the console – a thing which is a major issue in itself, but more on that later.  Beyond demonstrating the Kinect as a way to streamline, a word which should be used loosely, the general UI experience of the Xbox One and use secondary apps such as Skype, the Kinect has pretty much been relegated to being nothing more than a high-tech $100 remote/camera.

Maybe I’m being a bit too extreme in liking the Kinect to being a camera akin to one built in with a laptop since there’s certainly much more to the device than that.  People such as I who have played with the original Kinect on the Xbox 360 all know that there were some major issues within the device such as the somewhat less than accurate body tracking or the ever present problem of having the play room environment be set up perfectly through moving furniture otherwise the game in question may think the nearby couch is an extension of your left arm or leg.  Based on the small tech demos that Microsoft showed the press back in May, the new Kinect has some pretty impressive horsepower to it that ought to make for some cool games – the only issue is that there are hardly any to begin with.

With E3 2013, Gamescom 2013, and PAX Prime 2013 now a thing of the past, there’s been plenty of time for Microsoft to show consumers, the press, and the industry in general cool software that makes use of the Kinect, perhaps to make us all rest easier in knowing that we’ll likely paying $500 for an Xbox One merely because the device is bundled with the console.  Yet the only major example that’s been shown to showcase the power of Kinect is that we can use it as a mic to switch between cable channels (which is exclusive to Gold members btw), chat with people, or turn on the console itself.  Is that really what people expected the next-generation Kinect to be used for?

What strikes me the most odd about the Kinect in its current status is that it’s indeed something Microsoft is pushing for very hard as a company.  Such a thing may have been obvious as per the decision to bundle it with the Xbox One, though it seems like the core entertainment hub of the console is intrinsically connected to the Kinect.  Yet here we are in the situation in which some of the major features used by the device will either go unused by consumers or they merely won’t give a damn about them to begin with.

Xbox One console with Kinect and Controller

Xbox One console with Kinect and Controller

In an interview with CVG Microsoft VP Phil Harrison said, “I have an Xbox One at home, and being able to walk in and say “Xbox on”, and for the system to recognize me, launch and load my profile, and put my choices of content on the front page is a very magical experience.”  A bit of product inflating is to be expected upon by corporate brass concerning a product, though Harrison’s comments about the Kinect making things a magical experience when other devices (laptops, mobile phones) can launch user profiles with complete access to apps or social media feeds is a thing which can easily be done today – all without having to activate things with a voice command.

Once presented to us as a device centered on games, the Kinect has seemingly de-evolved to be a tool for entertainment, one that’s extremely pricey and has way more gear inside it than is needed for what its base function is.  Ultimately I find the newfound direction Microsoft has with the Kinect rather disconcerting since they have the potential to showcase something that’s totally different within the games industry and further help set themselves apart from the competition.

Some cool things may be in the works for the Kinect with games such as Project Spark using the device to allow players to do motion and facial capture for their creations. Perhaps not as powerful as modern techniques used on major films such as Avatar or games like Beyond: Two Souls, it’s still a nice thing to have nonetheless as it’s giving players the opportunity to do something they otherwise couldn’t do.

Yet aside from Project Spark, there seems to be a feeling of no faith for the Kinect despite what can be done with the device. The reputation garnered in the last few years for the Kinect may be one of near negativity, yet it appears as if Microsoft has no major intentions to turn things around from the get-go, a thing which may or may not be fueled by developers who have bailed out on the device.

In a lot of ways it’s commonplace for a game to evolve greatly as it’s in development, more so when it has a four year+ dev cycle, though the sudden sweeping under the rug done by Crimson Dragon and Ryse, two titles which once prominently feature the Kinect – the former of which was actually in a playable state, is rather telling of where things stand currently.

With Ryse completely ditching Kinect in its current iteration, and Crimson Dragon now offering support for regular Xbox One controllers, the Kinect has essentially been placed in the same console tech fad peripheral ghetto in which the PlayStation Move now resides in; two devices that had great potential to do unique things yet have no place to go other than being gimmicks used in shovelware titles.

Things may be meager with Microsoft’s internal efforts for the Kinect on the software front, but I don’t know if it’s more embarrassing to a degree that other developers and publishers are actually trying to do more with the device – however limited it may be. Other than the completely trippy experience that is Fantasia: Music Evolved from Harmonix, we do have the recently revealed Ubisoft fighting title Fighter Within as a launch title for the Xbox One.

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Screenshot from Ubisoft’s Fighters Uncaged

Almost mirroring what Ubisoft did with the launch of the Kinect in 2010, Fighter Within is similar to the rather horrendous brawler that was Fighters Uncaged.  While I have yet to get any hands-on time with this new Kinect brawler, based on the gameplay footage released so far it appears as if the game is closely following in the steps of Fighters Uncaged by being a test to see who can flail their arms the fastest to claim victory.

Seeing such “gameplay” as that featured in Fighter Within may make some think that Kinect once again has nowhere to go on the Xbox One in regards to gameplay since we’re already seeing games that are more of the same.  While I can certainly say that the Fighter Within doesn’t look like a killer app for the console, I still think there’s some room left to explore as far as utilizing the Kinect in interesting ways to deepen our next-gen experiences on the Xbox One rather than using it as a hands-free remote control for TV viewing.

The greatest example of what the Kinect could’ve done for the games industry came in the form of a game that was never released: Milo & Kate.  While it was initially looked upon as a bit creepy in how the player would be interacting with an adolescent boy, the general concept of “molding” someone’s life and interacting with them in a non-action scenario was incredibly intriguing.

Once again falling in line with the concept of allowing the player to become an all-powerful godlike figure that Peter Molyneux had been known to explore in the past, Milo & Kate was a prime example that the Kinect could’ve allowed players and developers to move out of their comfort zone with experiences that not only utilized the tech, but were unlike anything else.

There may have been some obvious issues with Milo & Kate, whether it be technical or from a design perspective, but it still pains me to an extent that we never saw the game surface since it could’ve been the standout title that could’ve helped legitimate the Kinect as something to use other than to keep young children entertained or as a virtual fitness simulator.

Perhaps the current status the Kinect has isn’t one that’s going to draw immediate woe from players considering how lackluster things were on the Xbox 360, though it’s still disheartening to see a definitive lack of interest in pushing the Kinect as a gaming device in the hopes of allowing developers to actually do wild stuff that is intriguing to gamers. Instead, the greatest usage of the Kinect as part of the Xbox One generation is merely to turn the damn console on and keep a child entertained with one of the many now soulless games released by Rare, that while featuring impressive facial capture software still aren’t reaching the great heights that the company used to achieve.

Overall it’s just sad to see the power and potential of the Kinect almost wasted away in meaningless entertainment apps and in titles whose sole usage of the device is as a gimmick rather than as a full-blown controller/design method that could actually changes games and the industry as a whole for the better. With the lack of major software which utilizes it in major ways, it’s clear that the Kinect is an afterthought other than being a tool, albeit a misplaced one, to further the media hub goals set forth by Microsoft.

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