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Dis-Kinection: How Microsoft Has Lost Focus

Microsoft are going in the wrong direction with Kinect, producing what appears to be a mismatched product for audiences that don't care, and at the same time drifting away from where their brand is strong. Do you agree

Tadhg Kelly, Blogger

July 12, 2010

9 Min Read

Dear Microsoft,

I know, I know, you look at what's going on over at Nintendo, and what Sony did with EyeToy, and you're thinking "Hey, we're missing out". It's like that episode of Friends where there's two birthday parties, and you're feeling a bit like Monica, trying to force everyone to have fun while guests sneak out under the wire to the other party across the corridor.

I also know that because you're you, you tend to have that "throw it all at the wall" approach to everything you do, from the 10,000 features that sit inside Office and the ten million modules that comprise modern day Windows 7, and you're used to thinking you need to be in every little bit of every little space in order to succeed.

I know. I know this is where Kinect is coming from. But here's the thing. Well, a bunch of things:

1. Kinect doesn't seem very precise

Despite all the big smiles and the obligatory dragging out of a child on stage at D8 to proclaim how fun it all was, the actual demo was stilted, the software seemed pretty unresponsive, the 3D interpolation of that ball floating game seemed less than immediate, and the overall experience looked very random. And the E3 samples seemed the same. I am of course 8000 miles away from California and have never been anywhere near a room containing a Kinect, but my impressions from afar do not augur well.

The movie and chat navigation looks really annoying. It's one of those fun-for-a-demo-but-annoying-in-reality situations. Rather like watching people struggle to point their Wiimotes at the exact spot on the screen to click a menu option the wave-my-arm-and-hold navigation last seen in Eyetoy, now in Kinect, is a tedious way to use software. 

What seems to make a control method long-lived for any console is whether it is capable of complex precision. The reason the Wii has not lived up to its promise, for example, is that the controller is simply not accurate enough for real games, and so it offers little real prospect for mastery. Mastery is what defines a game's real lifespan among players of all stripes, and also a platform's. Ultimately, if I play this for a long time will I still find value in it? Mastery does not have to mean either "hardcore" aesthetics or sophisticated specs. Angry Birds for the iPhone is an example of a game that encourages mastery through precision.  

Kinect seems to me to have a mastery problem. Thus it has a long-term viability problem. In the end of the day, it appears to be registering gross movements of skeleton limbs (so arm and leg flails basically), performing facial recognition and recognising some voice commands. Those are the sorts of inputs that are fun for an afternoon, maybe even a few drunken parties, but you're not going to really want to play through Mass Effect with them.

That means Kinect will be played with for a little while, but then just be forgotten about. Just like the Wii. What it won't do is sell a lot of software over a sustained period. 

2. Your Kinect catalogue is focused on worthy, not sexy

I re-watched the E3 press conference recently, and as your people went through the various software titles, it felt like I was watching a checklist get checked. I could almost visualise the product meeting 18 months ago when people were saying "Sports? Check. Dancing? Check. Nintendogs-alike? Check." and so forth. And that is all that you have to show. Kinect is not cool. I didn't see anything even vaguely approaching a compelling reason to buy this thing. What I saw was barn-door seen-it-before games, like sports and family fun and virtual pets. It's all so very yawn-some. 

These games are so obviously the what-Nintendo-did lineup, but they're hampered by the fact that Nintendo already did them, and the public is pretty bored of them. What you're missing is the sexy.  I wrote about this before, about how developers often choose the path of worthiness (more features, one-upmanship in existing markets, etc) rather than sexiness (doing the thing that everybody else is not doing, creating a stir) because it feels like it's a proven path to take.

Chasing worthiness is usually a mistake unless you really want to look second, or even third place on a list of me-toos. The hit-driven nature of games is such that hits come from being fashionably risky rather than predictably safe. Journalists like to write about risky things, gamers like to check them out if they're cool, etc. 

This trend of worthiness is something that you guys have been struggling with for a while (movies, last.fm, sports, they're all, y'know, a bit obvious). It's all about steady-as-she-goes maturation, and not really about the future. The reason Nintendo owned the casual console trend is because they had focus. You're trying to be a bit of everything, a state highly reminiscent of Sony just prior to their fall from dominance.  

3. Xbox is not the right audience to sell a Wii clone to

It's just not.

Come on, in the dead of night when no-one's looking, you secretly know that nobody in your existing audience gives a damn about avatars, social features or any of the other casual-ification sparkles that you've been trying for ages. I mean it's fun to create your avatar once maybe, but that's about it. Your audience likes action games, shooting stuff, retro games, indie games and achievements. They like to buy "proper" games, and the Xbox 360 is the most "proper" games console we have. What they don't care about is arm-waving flailing trinkets.

Even those that bought Wiis got bored of Wiis pretty damned fast because they realised that there wasn't much shelf-life in them. Your audience wants shelf-life, stuff like Mass Effect or Oblivion or Call of Duty 4 which they can play for months. They think Wii Sports is really lame, and will think the same about Kinect Sports (or whatever it's eventually called), racing, Kinectimals, etc. 

The Xbox is the brand of shooting, killing and prostitute beating. It's called X (as in X-Chromosome, Excelsior, XXX, X-Men and so on) Box after all. Its logo looks a little bit like a wound. Its box packaging is a bit nasty too. Even with the breathe-in sweep on the body and the roundy-font menus that changed Xbox to Xbox 360, its still the boys gaming machine. It's lurid and green, like the Incredible Hulk.

360 feels like the console for guys who used to be sweaty gamers, have cleaned up their act a bit in order to be attractive to women, but deep down inside like to secretly rock out and play air guitar when drunk enough at weddings. 

Moms, on the other hand, are not fooled. Not for one minute. They can smell that air of rancid sweat just under the hood. Even with a huge marketing effort on your part, that Hulk green is what Mom sees. Xbox is not about wholesome family fun in their eyes. It's about shooting stuff. 

Last, even if all of the above were not true, Kinect is three years too late. Casual gaming sort of happened already. Nobody cares about it any more, so there's not really a compelling marketing story. Yet-another-way to do Yoga in your living room or run a party game is passé. 

4. Keeping your eyes on the ball

You are all, I'm sure, far more intelligent men and women than I and you will have all encountered that feeling in which, by taking your eye off one ball, it gives your competitor the chance to come in and steal your lunch. I know you're feeling it on phones and tablets, which Microsoft just missed out on by not paying attention. Apple and RIM came in and made concerted and do-one-thing-wellplays into the WinMobile space and just stole it. 

What you're risking by chasing Nintendo's tail and dividing your attention is essentially repeating the same mistake. See Sony and their collapsed Playstation brand? That's where you're heading. Doing lots of things in many directions is a recipe for poor delivery. The remarkable thing about Xbox is that you managed to really capture that whole hardcore space because of great development tools and Halo, almost despite your usual Microsoft-ness. Xbox has been your one big new success this decade.

You've also been managing to pull yourselves back from the brink with a string of good products (like Windows 7, Office 2007, etc) that are radiating a return to focus and an increased understanding of the value of good delivery. So I know that you can think this way even though you may prefer to think in terms of doing everything badly.

By pursuing projects like Kinect and avatars and so on, Xbox is giving up a lot of ground in the hardcore gaming space. The demands of casual users often contradict hardcore users and put them right off wanting to play some more. That means letting Sony back into the game.

Sony have basically been stuck in the unforgiving middle ground for a while because Nintendo took the casuals out to dinner while you wined and dined the hardcore gamers, leaving Sony with the soft mishmash of people in the middle who were loyal to the brand or fancied trying Blu-Ray. The result for Sony has been unforgiving to say the least, and their efforts to recapture the limelight (such as Home) have not really captured anyone's imagination. They too have a worthiness/sexiness problem.

If you continue to take your eye off the ball and let Xbox fragment into a little-bit-of-everything brand, you'll basically let Sony return to the hardcore heart with renewed affection. The right thing to do to is start talking about Xbox 3. It's even better online console networking focused on better games and better game delivery (and not on avatars etc). It's developing a gaming App Store rather than the overly managed approach of Xbox Live Arcade. It's encouraging young developers to make the next Castle Crashers, the next Halo, and the next Oblivion. Those areas are where your console lives and breathes flame. 


So it's too late to kill Kinect, but do not be stunned if it turns out to be a firework product (bang and it's over) rather than a fire (sustained). What you need to be doing is concentrating on delivering the next generation and getting back to basics. Make the story that your audience wants to hear, and not the story that the Wii audience already heard, because no matter how hard you try Mommy is never going to buy your black-and-green shiny Incredible Hulk console. Get back to what Xbox is about and then push on that to take that story to the next level.

Best of luck to guys,

Twitter: @tadhgk 

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Tadhg Kelly


Tadhg Kelly is a game design consultant based in London. He is writinga book named What Games Are, and you can contact him his blog (http://www.whatgamesare.com) or follow him on Twitter @tiedtiger.

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