Out of the box and onto the shelf: is it time up for Kinect as a vi­able gam­ing de­vice?


Why Mi­crosoft’s bid to put Kinect in ev­ery home ended in fail­ure

US Xbox One sales more than dou­bled in June, the month a Kinect-free op­tion be­came avail­able

What­ever hap­pened to Kinect? With the de­vice now rel­e­gated to pe­riph­eral sta­tus, only a hand­ful of Kinect games fea­tured on E3’s show floor and with lit­tle in­ter­est from de­vel­op­ers or play­ers, its life on Xbox One ap­pears to be over be­fore it got go­ing.

When the orig­i­nal Kinect was re­vealed as Project Natal at E3 2009, it made Nin­tendo’s Wii Re­mote seem like tech­nol­ogy from the dis­tant past. Some 24 mil­lion units sold and around 100 Kinect-only games on 360 put Mi­crosoft’s am­bi­tious mo­tion con­troller ahead of other late­comer con­sole add-ons such as Sega’s 32X, but with the ma­jor­ity of its soft­ware skew­ing to­wards fit­ness and party ti­tles, and poorly re­viewed at that, the first Kinect never built a rep­u­ta­tion to match its fi­nan­cial suc­cess.

It saw cre­ators in­spired to pro­duce cu­rios such as Rise Of Night­mares and Child Of Eden, but even the best ideas were throt­tled by hard­ware lim­i­ta­tions. Kinect’s weak­nesses were demon­strated best in two of its late-era 360 games: Steel Bat­tal­ion: Heavy Ar­mor and Fa­ble: The Jour­ney, both of which were near un­playable even in ideal con­di­tions, at a time when the hard­ware was at its most ma­ture and de­vel­op­ers’ un­der­stand­ing of it was at its most com­plete.

Kinect’s rep­u­ta­tion on 360 has done Xbox One’s Kinect no favours ei­ther. To date, Xbox One has just five ded­i­cated Kinect games – Kinect Sports Ri­vals, Just Dance 2014, Fighter Within, Zumba Fit­ness World Party and Xbox Fit­ness – with a few other ti­tles sup­port­ing the de­vice in nonessen­tial ways. Har­monix’s Fan­ta­sia: Mu­sic Evolved and Dance Cen­tral Spot­light and Through Games’ Fru are all due soon, but so few ti­tles in 12 months barely jus­ti­fies the $100 that Kinect added to the price of ev­ery Xbox One. Mi­crosoft seems to agree, and just six months after launch the cam­era has been made an op­tional ex­tra once again. The mar­ket has spo­ken, too, with US Xbox One sales more than dou­bling in June, the month a Kinect-free op­tion be­came avail­able to con­sumers. De­vel­op­ing for Kinect has al­ways taken a spe­cial kind of cre­ativ­ity. “There are some con­straints when you’re de­sign­ing for Kinect that you have to think about pretty care­fully,” Kinect Sports Ri­vals cre­ative direc­tor, Si­mon Woodroffe, ex­plained at July’s De­velop con­fer­ence. “There are ex­pe­ri­ences Kinect can do that no other con­trol method can do. I can’t imag­ine a con­trol scheme that would give as good a rock climb­ing ex­pe­ri­ence as the one we did with Kinect. When it comes to shoot­ing, though, it’s fairly clear that Kinect and the ac­cu­racy of it wasn’t a big friend of ours [for the Tar­get Shoot­ing game]. It would have been bet­ter if we had cho­sen a dif­fer­ent sport.”

Rare’s four-part Kinect Sports Ri­vals tear­down at July’s De­velop con­fer­ence was a fas­ci­nat­ing look at what it takes to build a Kinect game, and the stu­dio’s en­thu­si­asm for and un­der­stand­ing of the de­vice was made abun­dantly clear. Yet each ses­sion was at­tended by only a hand­ful of de­vel­op­ers in a room meant for a hun­dred. De­vel­op­ers, it seems, don’t care about Kinect, or Rare’s case for it.

Rare’s is a po­si­tion of priv­i­lege as a Mi­crosoft first­party stu­dio, too. Kinect

Sports Ri­vals’ Cham­pion cre­ation sys­tem feels like magic as the game builds a recog­nis­able car­i­ca­ture of play­ers, but Cham­pion rep­re­sents months of work and thou­sands of man-hours of re­search for Rare’s team, work­ing in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Kinect’s de­sign­ers in Red­mond. Few others are lucky enough to have ac­cess to en­gi­neers who un­der­stand the de­vice’s con­straints so well.

Those con­straints were ev­i­dent even back in the Project Natal days, when Avatars’ knees would dis­lo­cate if the cam­era’s view was ob­scured. At Rare, mean­while, real moun­tain climbers proved

Kinect Sports’ most dif­fi­cult test sub­jects, since they at­tempted to use two-handed grips to climb the game’s sim­u­lated moun­tains, oc­clud­ing one hand with an­other. Ri­vals runs be­spoke code in the back­ground to com­pen­sate for the mo­tions Kinect finds most baf­fling – again, a prob­lem fixed by throw­ing months of re­search and cod­ing at the prob­lem.

De­vel­op­ing a Kinect game “is dif­fer­ent on many lev­els,” says Mat­tia

Traverso, pro­ducer and de­signer of in­de­pen­dent Kinect game Fru. “First and fore­most, your de­sign must con­sider the op­por­tu­nity of play­ers tak­ing a break and sit­ting down, and [re­mem­ber that] ev­ery per­son has a dif­fer­ent size and height.

Mo­tion ges­tures are not per­fect ev­ery sin­gle time, and the player de­tec­tion bugs out if the play­ers are too close to each other. It’s not too com­mon, and it can be avoided once play­ers learn how to move, but it can be an­noy­ing at first. It’s not re­ally Mi­crosoft’s fault; we can’t ex­pect Kinect to see be­hind play­ers.”

“You’re deal­ing with so many dif­fer­ent peo­ple’s phys­i­olo­gies and their ex­pec­ta­tion of what an ac­tion is,” says Rare’s new tech­nol­ogy lead engi­neer, Nick Bur­ton. “When you put those two things to­gether and you’re de­tect­ing an ac­tion that’s very small, while [seasoned play­ers] could do it fine, there’ll be a por­tion of your au­di­ence that can’t be­cause they’re maybe too small, they’re a long way away, they might have gloves on… You have to deal with all those prob­lems in ma­chine vi­sion. If you need some­thing that needs to be 100 per cent...”

“Use a con­troller,” Woodroffe in­ter­jects with a laugh. “[With Kinect], you are not the con­troller; the con­troller is the con­troller, Kinect is Kinect, and a touch­screen is a touch­screen, and you should use the right in­put method for your ex­pe­ri­ence. Even though we’ve got much in­creased ac­cu­racy and much in­creased re­li­a­bil­ity [with Kinect on Xbox One], it’s not 100 per cent [ac­cu­rate]. Things that sep­a­rate the world into a bi­nary ac­tion like shoot­ing, if it’s not 100 per cent, it’s an­noy­ing, right? Us­ing [Kinect] for things that are very spe­cific like that is of­ten quite haz­ardous, be­cause you will never, ever get 100 per cent.” Per­haps it should be ob­vi­ous, but Kinect games must be Kinect games to their very core. Ports never work, which made de­vel­op­ing for the pe­riph­eral on 360 – as pop­u­lar as it was – a gam­ble for any pub­lisher. The orig­i­nal Kinect’s lim­i­ta­tions were fi­nan­cial, with its lim­ited user­base; they were tech­ni­cal, with its la­tency and de­mands for space and op­ti­mal light­ing con­di­tions; and they were cre­ative, with few de­vel­op­ers able to make it work even when they wanted to.

The scep­ti­cism gen­er­ated by the lat­ter two ar­eas might have been ad­dressed by Xbox One’s Kinect up­grade, with an IR light, faster re­sponse times, greater res­o­lu­tion and a wider field of view. And from a fi­nan­cial per­spec­tive, ev­ery Xbox One owner was sure to have one, guar­an­tee­ing de­vel­op­ers could sup­port it with­out fear of wast­ing ef­fort. In­stead, Kinect be­came a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to PS4’s early lead over the con­sole, and a boon­dog­gle Mi­crosoft would side­line.

Cir­cum­stances didn’t help. Just two weeks after Mi­crosoft an­nounced its new con­sole and plan to put a cam­era in ev­ery owner’s home, Ed­ward Snow­den leaked the large-scale spy­ing ef­forts of Amer­ica’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency, and Mi­crosoft’s co­op­er­a­tion in the PRISM sur­veil­lance pro­gramme. Sud­denly, Kinect’s cam­eras be­came short­hand for the US govern­ment’s own evil eye in your liv­ing room. Worse, Mi­crosoft ex­pected play­ers to pay for the priv­i­lege with a $100 markup over PS4.

The new Kinect al­ways faced a bat­tle against the tide. Mo­tion-con­trolled gam­ing is a dy­ing scene, a form of play all but aban­doned even by Nin­tendo, which un­suc­cess­fully at­tempted a re­treat to the hands of the core gamer with Wii U. Mo­tion con­trol’s mo­ment was brief and largely cen­tred around Wii, and though it burned bright enough to cre­ate mil­lions of new play­ers, it was un­sus­tain­able as a phe­nom­e­non in its own right.

In­stead, the ac­celerom­e­ters and cam­eras at the cen­tre of the mo­tion revo­lu­tion have been re­pur­posed. “What about Ocu­lus Rift? What about Mor­pheus?” Fron­tier boss and Kinect de­vel­oper David Braben asked at a De­velop round­table. “They are mo­tion con­trollers. There are whole rafts of things to come in wear­able tech. Just be­cause one piece of tech­nol­ogy hasn’t worked as well as we’d hoped… you can still buy it; it hasn’t gone away, it’s just not bun­dled in the box.”

Kinect’s re­turn to op­tional ex­tra does not bode well for the fu­ture of the de­vice, but it has pos­i­tives, al­low­ing Mi­crosoft to match PS4’s pric­etag and put a halt to the re­sent­ment Kinect in­spired. Play­ers re­sented pay­ing ex­tra, re­sented hav­ing no choice, re­sented the ab­sence of any games jus­ti­fy­ing the ad­di­tional ex­pense, and re­sented the per­ceived in­va­sion of pri­vacy. Mi­crosoft re­lented.

“From a con­sole of­fer­ing point of view, yes, we’ve sep­a­rated it, but we’ve

given con­sumers two op­tions,” Rare chief

Craig Dun­can says. “You can still buy an Xbox with Kinect and you can buy Kinect sep­a­rately. That’s con­sumer choice. I think there’s a mis­con­cep­tion, like, ‘Hey, we’ve stopped Kinect!’ We haven’t stopped Kinect, we’ve just given peo­ple a choice [in terms of] how they buy it.”

While it must be tempt­ing for in­vested stu­dios to hope oth­er­wise, that choice changes ev­ery­thing. “I fear that most indies won’t start de­vel­op­ing for Kinect now that the pe­riph­eral was un­bun­dled [from the con­sole],” Traverso says. “Even though there’s five mil­lion units out there and big com­pa­nies have proven that these games can be suc­cess­ful back in the Kinect 1 era, we can’t ex­pect to sell to ev­ery Xbox One owner any more. You could say that some of the guar­an­tees that used to be there are gone, but if we can work for a year full-time on an idea we love, and the game that comes out is very good, I’d con­sider that a suc­cess.”

Per­haps the fail­ures of Kinect on 360 poi­soned play­ers against the tech­nol­ogy in any form, or per­haps it was naïve to ex­pect de­vel­op­ers to sup­port a plat­form-ex­clu­sive mo­tion con­troller when mo­tion con­trols have fallen to the pe­riph­ery of game de­vel­op­ers’ am­bi­tions and game play­ers’ in­ter­ests, but how much longer can the de­vice sur­vive now it’s un­cou­pled from its host hard­ware?

Xbox One, how­ever, looks only to ben­e­fit. Price, poli­cies, pri­vacy and power are the four is­sues Mi­crosoft has worked to ad­dress over the past 12 months and to­day its con­sole is a far more at­trac­tive propo­si­tion, as that leap in sales il­lus­trates. Xbox One is cheaper with­out Kinect, indies are on board, and Mi­crosoft has be­come an un­ex­pected cam­paigner for pri­vacy. The power prob­lem will de­pend on a magic bul­let from DirectX 12, but even that has been eased by the re­moval of a manda­tory Kinect chew­ing up GPU re­sources. As damn­ing as it sounds, Xbox One may be bet­ter off alone.

What of those who al­ready paid for one, though? Mi­crosoft prom­ises on­go­ing sup­port for the five mil­lion Xbox One own­ers who bought a bun­dled Kinect, but there was lit­tle ev­i­dence of it on­stage at E3 this year. Those early adopters can only hope more an­nounce­ments are made soon; a sin­gle in­die game and a new Dance Cen­tral do not jus­tify the £80 of hard­ware sit­ting by the TV.

Per­haps Kinect will fac­tor into Mi­crosoft’s vir­tual or aug­mented re­al­ity am­bi­tions, but so far it has failed to pro­vide a sin­gle com­pelling gam­ing rea­son for ever in­clud­ing Kinect in Xbox One’s box. Ev­ery con­sole and ev­ery pe­riph­eral needs its own Su­per Mario 64 or Halo: a game so good it jus­ti­fies own­er­ship of the de­vice. Dance Cen­tral came clos­est in idea and ex­e­cu­tion, and was a game that could ex­ist only for Kinect, but in five years Mi­crosoft’s mo­tion con­troller has been home to a sin­gle ex­cel­lent game, a hand­ful of av­er­age ti­tles and count­less ter­ri­ble ones. As a game con­troller, then, Kinect has been on the verge of death for years, but it may take a few more be­fore Mi­crosoft is in­clined to let it rest in peace.

Kinect Sports Ri­vals cre­ative direc­tor Si­mon Woodroffe

and Cham­pion char­ac­ter gen­er­a­tor are all ex­am­ples of Kinect at its best and most in­no­va­tive. Kinect has the power to im­press, but few can af­ford to in­vest the time and ef­fort

Fru, Dance Cen­tral

Kinect Sports Ri­vals’

Rare sin­gles out Tar­get Shoot­ing as one of Kinect Sports Ri­vals’ mis­steps, but em­pha­sises the hard­ware’s strength with other events

Mat­tia Traverso, pro­gram­mer and de­signer of Fru

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