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Kinect 1 month on – What’s the verdict?

One of the most popular lists ever put on this website was the list of “top ten reasons Kinect sucks”. Written half as a joke and half as a genuine critique, it was created before I had played Kinect and before it was even released to the public. On ranker where it was mirrored it received sixty thousand views and was full of fanboy rants, trolling and a lot of genuine anger at my criticisms. Many of those that agreed with the points in the article were just as bad; I found that many of the people who agreed with my views did so not because they understood my points but because they were just as prejudiced towards Kinect as the others, only they were biased against it rather than for it.

So with the voices of a hundred internet commentators ringing in my ears (not really) I had my first Kinect experience last weekend. How was it? Well, it was exactly how I would have expected. Great fun, distracting, hilarious, fun, shallow and complete. The last word is key here, after a great night with Kinect I have no desire to play it again, my Kinect experience was complete, over, mission accomplished. At least for this first batch of games I had no desire to shift coffee tables, sofas or sleeping squatters to get the Kinect set up again.

When it was fun

The most comparable experience to Kinect you will have had is your first experience with the Wii, and in particular Wii Sports. The first experience with the Wii is revelatory, you feel emancipated from the controller, freed to interact more naturally with the game world. As you bowl you feel the new method of interaction is opening up new possibilities, new genres even. As you explore Wii Sports on your own this feeling quickly fades though as you realise how shallow some of the games are and how limited your movement tracking and interaction actually is. Before long the only way to experience the same buzz you had at first is to get your friends to play for the first time. After a week your Mum, Dad, Gran, neighbour and your cousin have all played and the experience is no longer fresh and new. You no longer stand to play, sitting on your sofa and flicking your wrist like a sleepy lion swiping its tail back and forth to brush off flies. There’s no laughter any more, no challenges left to beat and you slink back to “proper” gaming like Mario or Zelda which make limited use of the motion controls if they need them at all.

You go through the same phases with Kinect, but at a much accelerated rate. The joy of seeing your character animate to your own movements is great, but after dancing or grabbing your crotch like Michael Jackson gets boring, there’s nothing left to do but get on with playing the games. Oh Lord, the games…

We started with Kinect Sports. Poor, poor Rare, what have you done to deserve this? The veteran developer does its best to craft an engaging game, but you get the feeling that someone was standing over them saying “Wii Sports HD” over and over until it seeped into their subconscious. The relatively slick presentation seems to just slightly miss the mark. Snippets of licensed music are no doubt (sneaky pun) intended to show how much money and time was spent on the development, but feel tacked on and somewhat embarrassing. When you start to hear the same tunes over and over you realise that the game is intended to sell the system and will not stand up to repeated play.

Some of the mini-games are more nuanced than others. While football (soccer) was a clever implementation that felt fun in multiplayer, bowling was dull beyond compare, boxing was broken and beach volleyball was very basic. Menus were clunky and you spent much of the time yearning for a controller to select options quickly and with more accuracy.

Trying to get menu to work

Kinect sports while basic hardly seemed to justify its retail release price tag, so we should have known how poor Kinect Adventures would be coming free as it was with the hardware. By now there’s many reviews you can read online of this game, but suffice it to say we all thought it was awful. In particular the assault course which involved jumping did not work well for us, frequently misreading our actions and displaying lots of latency between movement and our avatar’s reactions.

It was left to Dance Central to redeem our Kinect experience. Did it validate the hardware’s existence? The answer is: kind of. Definitely great fun, the game is accurate enough to ensure that you must genuinely dance to play and the visuals provide enough feedback to help you learn to play and to gauge your own success. Although it takes a while to understand the game mechanics, its no different to your first experience with guitar hero and while it could potentially make you a better dancer it would definitely make you fitter. Also, I have confused feelings about this strangely alluring digital dancing lady:

Hmmm...looks better in motion

Its not all positive though. The developer seems to know this is a first iteration of a series so you feel they’re holding a lot back. Two player simultaneous dancing is absent and the battle mode is functional but misses out on the opportunity of staging exciting dance-offs. The track list is short and, to my ears at least, terrible. There’s a real skewing towards contemporary stuff that you feel won’t stand the test of time. While I realise I’m not the target demographic, how many people, even twelve year old girls, want to dance to Bell Biv DeVoe’s Poison.

So Dance Central feels a bit like a safe bet for Harmonix, a tentative toe in the water before they dive in and have a really good attempt at dancing game. You can’t blame them. When they sell Rock Band they have multiple platforms (360, PS3, DS, iPhone etc) and with Dance Central they have not just one platform, but a subset with one particular, expensive hardware peripheral. As Harmonix fate seems uncertain, its possible that Kinect’s one good franchise may be in trouble too which is a real shame as its the one that has genuine potential to grow.

Right now its estimated that Kinect is making around $50 profit on each sale at least. This is to offset their massive marketing campaign. While Sony went for a low price point for Move, Microsoft needs to find a way to pay for those Time Square advertisements and appearances on Oprah, and its you, the consumer who’s footing the bill. The price is hugely inflated and there’s a price drop coming, so no ones going to buy it, right? Wrong.

The truth is marketing and adverts work. Consumers are stupid. Individual gamers aren’t stupid and individual consumers aren’t stupid, but treated as a group they can be fooled and convinced very easily. This Christmas Kinect will be huge. The question is how long will the tail be? How many people will rush out to buy Kinect after Christmas? What are the upcoming games that players want to play on Kinect? How will gamers react to future hardware releases if they’re unhappy with Kinect this year? How will Microsoft appeal to the hardcore gamers? If they can’t answer these questions then they will have created hardware that profitable in the short term but may damage the whole of gaming, as well as their own market share, in the long run.

Published inEditorial