I love the idea of natural controllers and using 3-D cameras to better interact with games and virtual worlds.
Working Demo, or Just a Tech Demo?
Early this year Microsoft "demoed" Project Natal at E3. I put quotes around it, because a source told me that it was indeed a mock-up. That, and it was abundantly obvious to me watching the video that if they had a working project, they would have had let people play with it. Also, the demo players' actions didn't wholly match up with the games. There's nothing wrong with showing a look-and-feel demo rather than a working one, and Microsoft never explicitly said it was a working model, only that "this technology works now" I believe was the quote. So, whatever. We can still judge the product by the demo.
Enter this video, which, while it's from June, shows what Natal is supposed to look and feel like:
So let's look at this video and come up with some conclusions:
- Like the E3 demo, the space required is enormous. I mean, look at the size of the living room in this video! And it's almost completely empty! Now, there are three theories why this could be.
Big Room Theory 1. It was for filming purposes solely. Nice big space makes filming easier. If this is the case, I think it was a dumb choice. But I do not think this is likely. Let's compare to the original Nintendo Wii commercials:
Notice that each and every play space in the Wii commercial was a reasonable room, with lots of stuff in it. This played into the theme of the commercial, where a couple of presumable Nintendo business men come to peoples' houses and have fun with the Wii. But more importantly, it does an important advertising job: It shows their product how it fits in with your space, your world.
Big Room Theory 2. Microsoft's target audience is upper-middle class suburbanite 30 and 40-somethings who clearly have giant living rooms. This would be a big departure from Microsoft X-Box's target audience of teenage through 30-something hardcore gamers. On the other hand, it would make sense that they'd want to go after the more casual game market, as Nintendo has. This may also indicate that the price of Natal is not going to be cheap.
Big Room Theory 3: Microsoft is going to downplay the space required for Natal, and lots of people are going to have the "it doesn't work quite right" complaint after buying it for their perfectly normal sized living rooms.
The guy in the karate fighting game is wearing a t-shirt, pajama pants, and socks. The rest of the people are a white suburbanite family (but politically correct of Microsoft, there's a black suburbanite family in this ad, as well, for ... oh, literally 2 seconds. 3:06 to 3:08 in the video). The tagline at the end: "The only experience you need is life experience." So, clearly the target audience is "casual gamer".
Racing Without a Wheel
This is what I think is the silliest part of the commercial. First, the "daughter" is playing an indy-car racing game with no controller; she has her hands as if they're on a steering wheel out in front of her. She steers, shifts with her right hand, and then pulls it in for a pit-stop.
If there's any kind of game that you do want a controller, it's a racing game. First, I think it's a stretch to think people are going to sit 10 ... 20 ... 60 minutes racing and be physically able to keep their hands in a steering wheel position. That's one of the issues I have while I play Wii - I'll sit down and brace my elbow for any game that requires any long term aiming. Fortunately, games I've enjoyed - like Metroid Prime 2, Zelda: Twilight Princess, or even Wii Sports - isn't constantly holding up my arms out in front of me, like in this Natal demo. Secondly, for race games, isn't the point to get the feel of being in a race-car? Don't you want the leathery grip of a steering wheel? Or more importantly - force feedback and vibration that can only come through a real controller? It's one thing for say, Mario Kart, where it's a fantasy casual-game type racing game, but the one in the Natal demo is a more realistic type racing game, and naturally X-Box wants to flaunt that it has a more powerful graphics engine than the Wii.
Then there is the issue of the pit-stop. "Dad" jumps up and makes motions to replace the tires on the car. Seriously? I am not a fan of racing games, normally, so tell me if I am wrong, but ... do people really want to change tires in a racing game?
Multiplayer - Or Lack Thereof
Microsoft's X-Box Live has a large, many-millions of online multiplayer community. Yet the Natal demo barely showed any multiplayer, let alone online.
We see the first of two glimpses of multiplayer games about halfway through "mom" and "daughter" are playing a split-screen soccer game. Or, at least, they're playing a soccer goal shoot-out. I'm not sure how you'd control a multiplayer soccer game via natal, but I think a soccer goal shoot-out mini-game would get really old really fast.
The second multiplayer game we see is about 3/4 the way through the video, where four people are sitting on the couch playing a quiz show. The players have one fist above an open hand as a way of doing a "ring-in" buzzer, and the game recognizes "son"'s answer. (I think the question must have been, "Name a US President that your teenage son will almost certainly know nothing about.")
But. Wait. We do not actually see the game respond to his voice - the only time we see the game is when some Mii-knockoff host is standing with a sign of "Dixon" and "Beckett", which I can only presume is names of two teams (the boy is addressed as "Ian Dixon" when he rings in). (Four players and they can only have two teams?) The rest of that segment is just the voice-over of the host and the camera focused on the family.
Might I add that a quiz-show seems like an absurd waste of an X-Box's graphics power?
All in all, considering Microsoft has what I see as the clear best multiplayer gaming of the three major consoles, the Natal project does not seem to think that multiplayer gaming is a priority. The examples that are shown are weak, and there is no demo of playing with someone in another home.
Skateboarding: Horrible Idea
Let's go back to just after the racing game, and look at the skateboarding game for a moment. We see "son" playing a skateboarding game, jumping in the air and - I kid you not - sliding his foot across the rug to push his board forward. What numbskull at Microsoft thought this was a good idea? Let me enumerate the variety of reasons this is stupid:
1. A player is going to have to kick-push his skateboard constantly to get around? How long until one gets tired and complains that "the stupid game isn't recognizing my sweet moves" anymore because they're too exhausted to leap in the air?
1a. How long until the player realizes that he can get a real skateboard?
1b. Oh, wait, he does. He scans in his real skateboard to include it in the game. Okay, this is a cool idea. But, I was under the impression that ...
2. ... the majority of people who play Tony Hawk games are people like me - who want to button mash to get the Late 360 Shove-it to Boneless. The point is that it does not take real skateboarding skill. It's the same appeal as Guitar Hero.
2b. Real skateboarders will complain about how limited the controls are compared to real life. Even if Microsoft's Natal team figured out how to perform flips, spins, and hand-stands, I doubt Microsoft's lawyers will let the game be released for fear of lawsuits from kids who snapped their neck playing the game.
3. How long before that giant $1500 yuppie-rug gets worn out by the teenager scraping his foot against the same spot on the floor?
4. How long before "mom" complains about the noise that's being made as the player jumps up and down? Or, if you own Natal and live in an apartment building with a giant living room, before the neighbor below you is pounding on the ceiling and yelling for you to stop?
So, the skateboarding game: Utter fail.
The Great Idea: Not A Game
Finally, we get a really neat use for Natal. From 2:15 to 2:45 in the video, we see "daughter" bring up a live video chat with her friend, and they choose outfits that overlay onto a 3-D rendered model of the girl. This is easily the most impressive idea that is in the video, and the irony is: It is not entertainment. The business applications for a tool like this are obvious: try-before-buy online e-commerce. And clothing is just the tip of the iceberg.
There are a variety of ways Natal's built-in camera system would be perfect for this real-time simulation modeling. A few off the top of my head:
- Augmented reality chat and meetings made easy.
- Try-before-buy shopping for your house, using augmented reality. Why not see if that Ikea desk really fits into your room? Maybe Natal could have the camera be wireless, so that you can scan your entire house?
- Can we say, "virtual world"? Why not log into Second Life using Natal? That would seem the natural extension. Imagine hanging out with friends you cannot visit in real life, and then be in any setting you would like?
Which leads me to my final conclusion:
Microsoft Is / Should Be Making their Own Virtual World
Microsoft Natal will significantly under-perform as a gaming platform, but has potential as a virtual world interface. Chances are that Microsoft has their own virtual world platform being developed. Sony's Home failed. Google killed Lively, essentially an IMVU-clone, when it was barely a few months old. Microsoft is heavily invested in 3-D technology (with their photo-stitch and mapping software, to name two) and they seem like a company with the resources to pull of a virtual world. More importantly, they already have a strong online community of players to draw from, and are developing a tool which seems far more useful for virtual worlds than gaming.
Further, it would make sense that Microsoft going down the shopping-style virtual world route. Given the demographic that they have either chosen or been thrust upon by the technology, these are the people with dispensable income. If Microsoft could make a platform that would monetize virtual world and gaming use into home-item retail sales, that would mean enormous profit.
And, Microsoft, if you for some reason haven't thought of the idea, I want a piece of the action. And if you have, I'm certain my company's rich experience in virtual world development would be valuable for this process. ;)
I love the idea of natural controllers and using 3-D cameras to better interact with games and virtual worlds.
Tonight I'm going to be a guest on the game show "The First Question", hosted in Second Life and streamed to the web. I caught the show for the first time last week, after a large number of friends had recommended it to me. I am very pleased to be on The First Question. Come learn what periodic element I most identify with! See if I can stump Hydra with a random factoid of knowledge! Come root for me to answer nerdy trivia and silly humor!
As I write this, I am simultaneously attending a presentation of AI on a show by Smarter Technology, a business and technology focused show by World2Worlds.
Neither show relies on a unique concept for its appeal; the prior is entertainment, the latter is business-centric, and utilize the qualities that make virtual worlds valuable. They present an opportunity for people to ignore geography when having a same-location type event, and have a rich environment that is both memorable and flexible. There have been a variety of shows before them, but these two shows are ones have a couple of key aspects that are fairly new to virtual worlds: quality, and regularity. Both shows are put on by sets of professionals who have their show tightly run, and both of them run regularly and on-time.
There's a third quality that both shows have, which I'd like to focus on, which is that both stream the show to the web. The question for a while with events in Second Life and virtual worlds was "What is the value of a live event if a hundred or less people can attend it simultaneously?" Streaming the show to the web, as well as recording and archiving the show online, provide ways for the live event to reach a much wider audience. The shows are both decidedly interactive, where the audience is encouraged to talk in chat, ask questions, and discuss the topics.
This format is an idea of where entertainment and media is going. Groups discussing events are so easily created with the Internet and social media. Feedback and discussion after the event can be fostered on discussion boards, blogs, and places like Facebook and Twitter. Look for more of these regular shows to take off, be sponsored, and be directed toward whatever your niche is.