“By now, everyone interested has seen this year’s Microsoft’s E3 presentation. And everyone’s breath is predictably short. We knew. We knew Microsoft was going to announce a motion sensing camera system for its Xbox 360 gaming console. We still can not but feel excited. And predictably, I am here to tell you why you should be disappointed.“
In two separate demonstrations, Microsoft has presented the work so far on the system and the surrounding philosophy dubbed Project Natal and, as Steerpike put it, this stuff feels like it fell out of Minority Report.
Essentially, Microsoft is demonstrating that it’s taken Nintendo’s lessons to heart. How do you grow in a stagnant market? By creating a new market of course: you stop fighting for the same group of consumers and reach out to other people, seduce them into becoming your consumers. Why is it hard reaching non-gamers with your gaming systems? Because they are afraid of the controller.
Or so the theory goes. Nintendo managed to build a house of WIN following this formula. Their current living room console, Wii is popular among non-gamers (or should we say ‘non-traditional gamers’) because it does away with cryptic controlling gadgets of other gaming systems and in their stead offers a simple, slick controller reassuringly similar to a simplified television remote controller. If your grandmother thinks she can figure out how to use it, your grandmother will not be afraid of using it, says Nintendo and then proceeds selling Wiis to millions of people not known for being hardcore gamers in their civilian life.
So, Microsoft goes one step further. Their Project Natal is a sophisticated (yet cheap – the grapevine has it that the system’s price should not exceed one hundred dollars once it hits retail) camera capable of capturing and processing the image in real time and feeding it to the Xbox 360 so the person in front of the camera can control the game using just her or his body.
If you don’t see why this is revolutionary, you probably have no soul and have never seen a single science fiction film in your life.
Microsoft’s philosophy is simple: The Only Experience you need is Life Experience says the tagline.
In a a nutshell: Microsoft says that you will be able to play all kinds of games: fighting games, driving games, skateboard games, family-friendly quiz games, all just using your own body as a controller. You will have outrageous fun just intuitively moving your arms, legs, face (because, yes, the system has facial recognition) and the sophisticated software will know how your gestures relate to the stuff on the screen. Not only that: you will be recognised every time you walk into the room, and the software will know to address you by name and offer fashion tips.
Clearly, the excitement is more than understandable.
The other video is even more mindblowing as it shows the project Lionhead’s Peter Molyneux (of Fable fame) has been raving about for the last several months saying it’ll blow everyone’s socks off once they are allowed to present it. It’s a ‘game’ using Project Natal’s camera and software to enable the player to communicate with a virtual friend on screen. The said friend is a ten year old boy called Milo who is communicating with the player in a non-scripted, dynamic way. The Natal system is able to not only recognise words and speech patterns but also to discern between the moods and meanings of sentences based on the tone of the voice. It can not only recognise body movements and gestures but also facial expressions. And Milo responds through a non-scripted series of verbal replies and actions.
If Molyneux is to be believed (and the man has been famous for his hyperbole and exaggeration in past) Milo’s strong points are not just his vocabulary of 500 words and a talent for bluffing, but also his capability to learn and evolve. Molyneux claims that this is indeed a breakthrough in electronic entertainment because with Milo (or his female sibling Molly) gamers are getting a virtual friend (rather than a pet that we were getting through Tamagochi and Nintendogs) who they can teach, but also inspire. He also implies that this is some of the most sophisticated Artificial Intelligence known to human race. And it’s all there on Xbox 360.
Now, the handful of journalists who have had the chance to sample Project Natal in person are very enthusiastic, some of them going so far as to say that the gaming as a medium is about to be changed forever. Read how Eurogamer’s Ellie Gibson is shocked learning that Milo actually giggles at her joke. IGN’s Jeremy Dunham claims that Natal actually works and that playing a racing game similar to Burnout felt just right. Not only steering but also braking, changing gears and accelerating.
So what is there not to be excited about, right?
Well, let’s say that I am not just mildly sceptical but actively cynical in relation to this. Killzone 2 and Red Steel are two games that have taught us many, many lessons.
First off, let’s just remember what everyone’s reaction was several years ago to Nintendo’s demonstration of Wii’s motion sensing capabilities. Everyone was screaming that Nintendo just managed to reinvent gaming while playing awesome lightsaber battles in their minds. Yes, we thought, the days of pressing X for a quick attack and pressing Y for a strong attack are over. Finally, my character on screen will follow my movements just the way I am making them in front of the screen.
It’s a wonder what some historical perspective can do to you. Of course, none of it happened. Because, really, for that stuff to happen you’d need awesomely advanced procedural animation that is still years ahead of what the contemporary systems can do and still retain their unexploded form below your television sets. Instead of that we got the same old canned animations, triggered not by button presses but by Wiimote waggle.
And so it went. For years. Until we have actively started to ridicule waggle. Games didn’t become more sophisticated or more immersive. They just replaced button presses with imprecise and tiring hand gestures. Moreover, many games became simpler, some would even say dumber, catering to the unsophisticated movement tracking system (much less precise than good old controllers) and to the non-traditional gamer audience attracted by it.
Now, replace Wii’s motion sensor with a camera. That, you know, relies on light and darkness to tell stuff apart from other stuff. In your living room. Not in a lab. Not in a controlled environment with proper amount of light and good background. In your living room. Imagine having to stand there in the middle of the room and perform full body movements to walk or run or shoot or fight. Yes, for the first ten minutes it might be mad fun. After that? After that you may want to play an actual game to rest and relax. But only if it works as advertised!!
Let’s say it does actually work as advertised. So, playing a First Person Shooter (because, let’s face it, nobody masturbates fantasising about full body movement controls for RPGs and real time strategies, right?) would mean what? Walking when your character has to walk? Jumping when your character has to jump? Ducking? Diving? Come on, tell me you could actually play Quake III or Left 4 Dead for that matter with anything more than your fingers and thumbs and I’ll show you a big fat liar. So, no, you won’t get sophisticated first person shooters with this system, nor you will get sophisticated stealth games. I mean, surely you wouldn’t want to spend your leisure time crouch-walking and crawling across your living room floor, would you?
No, you wouldn’t. So say good bye to those games. And, while you’re there, say hello to awesome new collections of party games. Yes, some of them will actually be awesome in that traditional, non-ironic way. The rest… The vast majority… Let’s politely say they will suck even if the motion tracking system works perfectly.
In reality, you know that its recognition of your gestures, movements and facial expressions will be less than perfect. Far less. You think Wii games are frustrating when they misread your gestures? Now imagine trying to steer a car in some future GTA title by making the same movements you’d be in real life. Backing up, avoiding the fence, slowly making the turn… Or better, try playing a fighting game where all your waving and jumping will be not only misread and ignored but also turned into a set of prepared, canned animations on screen. Because it simply will be like that. No, you won’t get the opportunity to just make the same set of movements like in real life to steer a car: you will instead be trying to guess what set of movements the game is expecting you to make so it can interpret them properly.
Yes, we have been doing the same with controllers for decades, but controller is a closed, discrete system where experimenting with movement patterns is after all rather intuitive and physically far from exhausting. With full body movement, only the simplest of movement patterns will reasonably be useful for controlling games. And those games will probably end up being simple. Because, if Wii has taught us anything it is that simplest games work best with the motion controls. Wii Sports tennis is so much more gratifying than Red Steel because its required movement patterns are simple and intuitive. Complex games requiring complex body movements are not only outside this hardware generation’s technical and mathematical limitations, they are probably too complicated to ever be truly conceived.
The other problem I personally have with Project Natal is simply that I am not that kind of a gamer. Yes, I love my Wii and yes, some games use motion sensing in spectacular ways. Wario Land Shake Dimension or Excitebots Trick Racing – awesome games with excellent implementation of motion recognition. Drops of piss in a goddamn desert, my friends. On the other hand, none of my favourite games would profit from being played using full body movement controls. The magic of games like Shining Force, Persona, Fallout, Disgaea, Devil May Cry, Okami; games like Thief, Deus Ex, God Hand, Total War or even GTA is not in the immersion that can be deepened by making the real life movements replicated on screen. These games are – their occasionally childish stories and wanton destruction aside – more cerebral than that. Yes, even Street Fighter, the game all about precision and quick thinking under pressure, both impossible with full body movement controls.
As for Milo… Let me just say that if I wanted to have a ten year old kid around whom I’d want to teach and inspire, I’d have children and not cats running around my house. I never liked Little Computer People, because after all gaming for me is about the impossible, not about mundane. And this is why I think playing God Hand or Okami using full body movements would be ruinous. And this is why I think that world made for games using full body motion would be less about impossible and more about mundane, despite Peter Molyneux and his boy Milo. Complex worlds, intricate attack patterns, deep conversation systems, available to our thumbs today will be out of our reach once we surrender to the full body movement controls. It’s not that it can’t be done. It’s that it will be too complex, too expensive and ultimately, not what the new market is looking for after all. Full body movement games, the way I see them will be about 15 minutes of fun at a party, short bursts of simple gameplay, nice distractions before you move onto something else. Because, realistically, you won’t be able to do anything either complex, sohisticated or physically exhausting with this system. And if they make games for it that you can play from your sofa, then they are defeating the very purpose of the project, right?
But that might just be me, a cynical, aging gamer seeing the world around him changing and desperately trying to hold on to the world of his past. Still, if the future world (of gaming or otherwise) is supposed to be brought forth by Microsoft, then, hell, Allah help us all.