Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Can Kinect appeal to 'hardcore' gamers?

Like many hardcore gamers, I have my reservations about the Kinect. On the one hand, it represents a huge leap forward in terms of interface, but on the other, it seems to be targeting a young, female audience. It has occurred to me for a while now that processing power and speed are no longer a problem for gaming systems and interface is probably what will drive technology for the time being. This observation has proven to be true with the arrival of devices like the iPad, iPhone and Nintendo Wii. These devices have concerned themselves with the manner in which the user interacts with them and this change has clearly proven to be a hit with consumers.

Kinect looked to nurture the seeds that had been planted by these innovations and bring a more immersive feel to the Xbox 360. The idea that music, films, photos and games could be accessed and controlled using voice commands and physical gestures made the sci-fi fantasies of Philip K Dick and Isaac Asimov seem closer than ever. Milo may or may not have been a hoax, but the reason it caused such a stir was because of the reality it was presenting. That robotics and artificial intelligence were taking a leap forward and into our everyday lives.

But all of this talk is still fantasy. Kinect is still, first and foremost a way of interfacing with games and, despite its surprising success, Kinect must fulfill its potential if it is going to survive. It is easy to find statistics that would support an argument that the Kinect has already been a success – it sold “a staggering 8 million units in its first 60 days” according to But should the success of the Kinect be measured purely in the sale figures, or should it be judged on whether it has kept the many promises that the technology made? My vote, is clearly for the latter.

Those who have already bought it will judge Kinect’s success by the quality of its future releases. If it is going to change the way people play, it has to appeal to hardcore gamers. 

A 'hardcore' gamer is a player who invests a great deal of time and effort attempting to master a particular game or several different games. They will often compete more formally in game tournaments or even be a member of a gaming 'clan'. This type of gamer takes playing fairly seriously and will have high expectations of any particular title. Gaming, for them, can be a social activity that gives them the opportunity to interact with and compete against other human participants in the quest to unlock achievements and attain higher levels of gaming prestige.

Call of Duty: Black Ops. Will it ever work with Kinect?
The video game industry has quickly become the biggest media industry and new titles easily out-sell all other media products. The recent release of Call of Duty: Black Ops saw make £58m in the UK within 24 hours of its release, according to market watcher GgK/Chart-Track. It has since become the best selling game of all time, generating £224m from US and UK markets. Only very rarely do cinema releases get close to these kinds of figures, but the video games industry is quickly learning to expect them. This suggests that, like it or not, there are a huge number of hardcore gamers out there, and the industry depends upon them for its future successes.

Microsoft developers might argue that it was never their intention to reach the hardcore audience, because this audience is not interested in putting down the controller and jumping around in front of a TV, but, in my opinion, this is a cowardly response. Although it is true that hardcore gamers (a primarily male audience) are looking for a different experience than either 'tweens' or the female audience, it is not true that they don’t want their game experience to be enriched by new technologies. This means that developers must work harder to gratify those needs, not ignore them.

The biggest selling titles on the Xbox 360 have almost all been "first-person shooters" (FPS), and I think it is fair to say that most hardcore gamers are playing games like Call of Duty: Black Ops or Halo Reach at the moment. This genre, however, does not offer games developers an easy task when making games for Kinect. The problem is, ironically movement. Kinect’s main offering is the possibility to use your own body and movement to interact with the game, but three-dimensional movement poses a problem. Games designers have to figure out a way for players to remain in one (2D) spot in their living room, but to be able to control an object or character that can move forward, backward and side to side in three dimensions. This is definitely a challenge, but not an impossible one. It requires imagination and innovation, but it can be done.

I think the biggest problem for Microsoft is their insistence on the notion that you don’t need a controller to use Kinect, because “you are the controller”. While the ambition of this idea is admirable, the reality is a step too far. I believe that they need to find a middle ground. A way for hardcore gamers to hang on to their battle-worn controllers, but also use Kinect to interface in more incidental ways – flipping switches, opening doors, picking up and throwing objects, reloading etc. This is how Kinect can reach hardcore gamers.

The hand of good or evil? You could choose you path in Lionhead's
brilliantly original
Black & White series
I remember playing Lion Head’s excellent Black & White series and one of the things that made it unique and innovative was the gesture system that was used to cast spells. Instead of simple button-clicks, the computer recognized particular swirls and swooshes of the mouse, which would activate a particular spell. It strikes me that this system would work beautifully for the Kinect and could be a way for tiresome RPG control systems to become a thing of the past and give the genre a new lease of life on consoles.

I am still excited by the opportunities that are offered by the Kinect as a technology, but it requires the vision and imagination of talented game designers to save it from the mediocrity of titles like Fighters Uncaged. Maybe developers need more time to work with the technology and understand what it can do, but it is a little disappointing that they don’t recognize the potential that was apparent to everyone in the gaming community. 

1 comment:

  1. This wiki about the games industry blew my mind a little