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