Let me tell you about Kinect. I just spend a week in Los Angeles during E3 and had a blast hanging out with new and old friends. We were invited by IndieCade and showcased B.U.T.T.O.N at their curated exhibition in the West Hall. I didn’t spend much time at E3 away from the IndieCade booth, but did take some time to play a few Kinect games with Ivona from IndieCade.
My first impression of the system was that it was terrible. I played WB’s Game Party: In Motion and it was creatively, technologically, and bodily insulting to me and mankind. How can such a piece of software become a launch title? It felt like a terrible Eye-Toy game from 10 years ago. In one of the minigames, we were jumping from side to side between counters, serving root beer to customers in a shameless rip-off of Tapper. Very tellingly, the game showed three pictures of us after playing the game, not having fun at all. None of the minigames that WB showcased succeeded in demanding anything else from the player but frantically waving arms and legs in a 2D plane in front of the screen.
The second Kinect game we played didn’t utilize the promise of a 3D camera either. Dance Masters, from Konami, impelled players to move their hands in circles to the rhythm and strike poses at specific moments. The most awkward part of the interface was that the players were projected into the gamespace as backup dancers to the avatar. You didn’t play the cool dancer doing all the awesome moves; instead, you were the dorky backup dancer that couldn’t follow the action. Seeing yourself in the game doesn’t bring anything to the experience, but is a constant reminder of how stupid you look. It’s also a source of all sorts of mirroring errors: if the avatar is raising her right hand, should I mirror her raising my left, or should I perceive the game from my projected point of view behind her and raise my right arm? I never figured it out.
The ironic part is that just before playing Dance Masters, I tried Just Dance 2 from Ubisoft on the Wii. Without any fancy 3D camera, Ubisoft managed to pull off a much tighter experience. You play a dance game to dance and have fun. We don’t need a game system to police the players’ exact body movements. What Ubisoft does is to suggest a series of moves that we happily reproduce, even though we know that it is only the acceleration of our right hand that is actually monitored. Just Dance 2 also asks the players to sometimes yell or strike hilarious poses, which cheerfully reminded me of what we do in B.U.T.T.O.N. by asking our players to sing or strike poses that are never policed or scored by the system.
Bad technology or bad game design?
The post-E3 debate about Kinect has centered around the question of whether these broken promises are a technical limitation or just a question of bad game design. I think that is a false dichotomy – there is no such thing as technology! All hardware is experienced by users through software. If the software fails to give the users a good experience, the hardware essentially fails too. Technology is only a tool; yes, the products we make are shaped by the tools we use, but the tool as such is nothing. People that defend Kinect by saying it is at least an interesting technology are wrong – it is not more interesting than a garbage bin. I can make a great game with a garbage bin and I guess I can also make a great game with Kinect. But drooling about technology brings us nowhere.
Is there a hope?
Yes, of course it is possible to design fun experiences for the Kinect. I have some concerns about the possible range of the z motions, body recognition when people are touching each other or crawling and rolling around on the floor, voice recognition when multiple people yell at the same time, etc. These limitations might be a show-stopper for some particular ideas, but there might be tons of other fun experiences waiting to be designed – ideas that work around these constraints. The only thing needed is that Microsoft open up the development tools for small independent studios and let them go crazy. The sad sad launch titles that big publishers and Microsoft have put together leave me little hope of seeing something good come from that part of the game industry.