North Wind And Sun

A step towards the holodeck, and why I’m cautiously optimistic about Microsoft’s Project Natal

Posted in Video games by Ricardo Bilton on 5-June-2009

A number of emotions took hold of me as I watched (and re-watched) the various demonstrations of Microsoft’s new Project Natal “controller.” Shock gave way to amazement, amazement, to disbelief, disbelief to skepticism. Eventually, that skepticism gave way to an acute sense of cynicism: Project Natal couldn’t possibly work. It just couldn’t.

And yet, somehow, it does. Microsoft, as it would seem, has successfully deleted the controller.

In the process, the company has leapfrogged over Nintendo, presenting consumers with yet another solution to the Casual Gamer Conundrum: How can we get more people to play games? Nintendo’s response was, simplify the controller, make the games less daunting. Microsoft’s answer was remove the controller entirely.

And they did just that. But while Microsoft’s ostensibly revolutionary device speaks to the rapidly evolving gaming climate, their entry into the brave new world forged by Nintendo raises a few questions.


Nintendo's Wii Motion Plus

For one, is anyone really ready for it? If there is anything that the Wii showed, it is that developers still have quite a bit of ground to cover before they truly deliver the type of experiences Nintendo teased way back when the Wii was revealed. Brilliant and awe-inspiring tech demonstrations have given way to half-baked executions of seemingly perfect ideas. Red Steel, for example, was supposed to show off the Wii’s capability to create a true sword fighting experience.  It didn’t, and the game itself was largely horrible. Sloppy and oftentimes unplayable, it the title was rushed out the door in time for the Wii’s holiday launch.

Later titles reinforced much of the same pattern. Developers had the ideas, but lacked the vision to seamlessly execute them. Title after titled faltered, and most came across glorified tech demonstrations rather than full-fledged games.  Even Nintendo’s flagship franchises – Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda – largely failed to capitalize on the Wii’s possibilities. Hence why Nintendo announced Wii Motion Plus, an add-on  intended to fix many of the most blatant drawbacks about the original Wiimote hardware.  But advanced hardware doesn’t create games, developers do, and there have been few titles thus far that have done what many have been anxiously hoping for since 2005.

Thus, some of my hesitations about Project Natal come to the fore: How long will it take for developers to really take advantage of the hardware? My prediction is  that it’s going to take pretty damn long. This is a caliber of motion-sensing far more advanced than many thought companies were capable of at this juncture, at least on a mass-consumer scale. I’m still not quite convinced that Project Natal (can we call it X-Cam?) will either be affordable or compelling to most of the casual gamers Microsoft is attempting to corral. It’s an add-on, which hardly bodes well for it in the first place, but it’s also an add-on for a console that caters almost exclusively to the type of games – and gamers – that would not in the slightest benefit from its inclusion. Perhaps if Microsoft made the hardware the center of a future console, it would have a better chance at achieving universal success. As unlikely as it may seem, this console generation has already been decided, and the major console makers are certainly turning their attention to the next five years with a great deal of intensity.

And it shows. Nintendo’s announcement of the Wii Vitality Sensor might just be an inkling as to what the company will be attempting next: Games that feel you. Rather than remove connections, Nintendo might just be aiming to add them, opting for technology that allows gamers a more physical connection with the games they play. Consider the possibility of games that respond to your pulse and body temperature rather than just your movements. Nintendo’s slightly bizarre announcement can certainly be taken as a hint that they are taking the issue of immersion a bit further than simply movement.

Microsoft’s “Project Natal” is certainly a step into the future and a brilliant piece of technology. As uncertain as its status currently seems, what is certain is that it will give way to a plethora of new gaming expereinces. But its creation also reflects Mircosot’s bitterly intimate knowlege that Nintendo has had it right all along: The casual gamers really are the key to all of this, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: