Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Motion Control

We're pretty tired right now so this might not be the most focused post, but after watching the entirety of Microsoft's event at E3, the cringe-inducing awkward ants are crawling all over my skin. Some of the worst offenders:

- Tim Schafer debuting Double Fine's next game, Disneyland Adventures. You could feel the collective groan as he talked over the title screen. A purple background for the classic Disneyland logo and some uninspired font for 'Adventures.' Shamelessly hackneyed cash-grab, glossed over with a once-reputable name in gaming to legitimize it in front of the hardcore. It goes without saying that the actors brought on to demo these games are some of the most phony, wooden bastards around but the father-son team for Disneyland Adventures takes the cake. God...I just...want to pull someone's nose hair.

- Linda Tritsworthy 'demoing' Kinect Sports II. The quotation marks should make it abundantly clear that she wasn't demoing shit. Imagine the classmate who greeted everyone at Grosse Point Blanke's 10 year reunion pretending to have fun. "Here's the putt! Oh...OHHHH....Go innnnnn!" ofcourseitsgoingtogoinyousimperingtwatweallknowthisisapreparedvideodesignedwithasoullessdedicationtomakingthisgameseem'fun'.
The sexless, forced enjoyment of a soccer mom will not inspire me to pick up Kinect Sports II.

- Nor will the equally offensive stereotype of bros 'playing' football. A good ol' spontaneous game of pigskin where, by remarkable coincidence, their first play results in a sack and their second results in a Hail Mary TD! What a wonderful piece of luck for Microsoft's marketing team, to chance upon such a dramatic moment in the demo! Buzz Perkins shouting himself hoarse at the line did little to mask the fact that this, too, was totally scripted.

- While unscripted (watching the demo'er fail to correctly force lift a tank was a breathe of fresh air), the Kinect Star Wars was painful nonetheless. It is basically an on-rails action game with a lightsaber. More than perhaps any other game, this demo underscored just how misguided Microsoft was in going the controller-free route. There are many different metrics by which we measure the quality of a commodity. Strong sales can be used as proof of the consumer's enjoyment despite a weak critical reception. But a logical argument should still win the day so let's simplify it with two basic assumptions:

Assumption 1: Good game design requires the controller to be as invisible as possible for the sake of immersion.
Assumption 2: A sense of freedom is integral for the user to assume the identity of his/her avatar.

Based off the Kinect Star Wars demo (and, indeed, all games controlled using only the Kinect's sensor bar), Microsoft cannot fulfill either of these basic requirements with Kinect. The sensor bar simply isn't sensitive enough to make our body as invisible a controller as a piece of plastic in our hands. There is lag. The incidence of misread signals is too high. The depth of immersion that has marked every great piece of software from Super Mario World to Ocarina of Time to Halo to Shadow of the Colossus to the NHL series to Dead or Alive is impossible with the Kinect.

In addition, short of a rather expensive treadmill add-on, Kinect games implicitly cannot offer the most basic freedoms of avatar movement. There can be no exploration in a Kinect-controlled game in which the player assumes the role of a single avatar. There can be no intuitive way to look left or right, no mechanism by which the avatar can run in circles or walk into a wall, no periods of dead time in which a distracted player can entertain him/herself. The Kinect can only read poses at a predefined 'sweet spot' range from the sensor and, as such, limits itself to a very on-rails experience. (Though God-sims or strategy games could be interesting.)

All of this is not to say that fun games can't be crafted using this piece of hardware. Clearly the supplemental effects of headtracking, voice recognition, and even basic gestures can augment traditional games in positive ways (see Mass Effect 3). And, going back to the consumer validation argument, people clearly are still having fun with the device in spite of its two foundational shortcomings. But, logically, the criticisms leveled above are unassailable. The Kinect cannot make the controller invisible and cannot provide the same sort of exploratory freedom that pieces of plastic have been accomplishing since the 1980s. Whatever else it can do, these two short-comings are massive impediments to the flexibility of the hardware to provide any sort of deep gaming experience.

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