Saturday, June 19, 2010

Microsoft's Albatross

The more I read about Microsoft's Kinect, the worse it sounds.  The buzz on NeoGAF is absolutely toxic, and the meme is now out - the damned thing doesn't work when you're seated.  This isn't a software issue, and it isn't a bug that can be easily fixed.  This is a fundamental failure of the camera technology itself.  And Microsoft has known about this problem for years.

Developers have been told not to create games that involve sitting, and this is a key piece of information.  Many voices within the development community have been quietly complaining, to bloggers, and to magazines such as Edge.  And this is already raising more questions about the software lineup.  At first, we had assumed Kinect was being overloaded with Wii Sports and Wii Fit clones because Microsoft wanted to copy Nintendo's success with "casual gamers."  But now?  Perhaps the reason there was no Halo Kinect is because it's simply not possible.

The Forza racing demo is rather telling.  Despite the pedigree name of an established Xbox racing brand, this new title removes nearly all control from the player.  Acceleration is automatic.  Braking is automatic.  Shifting gears is automatic.  All you can do is steer, your hands invisibly poised at 10 and 2 o'clock.  Why is this done?  Are these control options - standard in all racing games since the 1970s - simply not possible?  Can the Kinect not even do this much?

And just what is supposed to happen when your legs are tired and you want to sit down?  What's going to happen when the casual family discovers their brand-new $400 Kinect falls apart the second you hit the couch?  This stupid box can't even read your hand movements when you want to use DVD controls.  Even for this, you have to stand.

What exactly is the point to this machine?  What's the game plan, Microsoft?  The company spent untold millions of dollars, and years of research, and for what?  To play Wii Sports four years after Wii Sports?  Is there nothing else?  What if the Kinect can't do anything else? 

These are the basic, fundamental questions that Microsoft needed to address at E3.  They did not.  Instead, they tried to conceal a potentially catastrophic design flaw with no explanation how this was possible, or how it will be fixed.  Instead, we've been given evasions and spin.  But Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat.  People are going to discover one way or another.

The more I think about Kinetic, the angrier I get.  Families are being asked to pay a premium on a product that simply doesn't work.  Instead, they will get an enormously expensive camera that can play exactly three kinds of games the very same games that Nintendo has mastered on the Wii years ago.  A $200 Wii, packed with Wii Sports Resort, versus a $400 Microsoft Kinetic?  Is this some kind of a sick joke?

The final question for Microsoft will be the most foreboding: Exactly what will be the fallout if this machine fails?  How will the company investors respond to a massive failure?  Analysts are projecting three million Kinetics will be shipped to retailers this year.  That is a deluded fantasy.  Kinect is going to crash and the consequences will be severe.

I think we now must consider the possibility of Microsoft exiting the video game market.  Investors are unhappy, the company consumer division has hemmoraged billions, and they want out.  Will Kinect be the straw that breaks the camel's back?  I think that's a question we need to honestly discuss.

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