The introduction of the Kinect For Kids initiative certainly sounds wise, given the company's push in that direction. After all, who can argue with creating family-friendly titles
with some of the biggest names in family entertainment?
The problem is: When you look at Microsoft's longer-term goals, things become a bit squishier.
While the company would never come out and say it directly, this push for the toddler and elementary school gamer is as much about making hay today (as the Xbox 360 hits price points that are affordable for the mainstream audience) as it is about setting up future generations of players.
Basic advertising theory holds that brand loyalties run deep when they're formed at an early age. It's why geezers like me argue the merits of King Vitamin and Boo Berry breakfast cereal vs. today's Honey Kix and Banana Nut Cheerios. And it's the crux of the never-ending debate over whether the Nintendo Entertainment System or PlayStation 2 was the "best console of all time".
By offering games from Sesame Street, Pixar and other companies
, Microsoft wants kids to get used to playing with Kinect - and develop a devoted attachment to the Xbox brand.
That might sound a little sinister, but it's pretty standard practice in both the business and gaming worlds. (Let's face it: The Game Boy was one of the more obvious gateway drugs to hit store shelves in the last quarter century.)
Unfortunately, Microsoft might be making its move a little too late to corral the kiddie audience.
Through no effort of its own, Apple has managed to turn the eye of many young gamers today, which could give the company an advantage in the coming years.
I'll be the first to admit, there's not a lot of hard science to back these findings up, but through observation and interaction with parents of younger kids, I'm starting to think that the Nintendo DS generation might be the last that attaches to the big three console makers early on.
Apple's strengths are two-fold. First, because the independent and garage development community is so strong in the App store, there are already a slew of games and edutainment titles for young gamers – everything from the gamification of learning the alphabet to, well, games based on Sesame Street and Pixar properties.
Filling that content hole – and at a much cheaper rate than the $40 or $50 Microsoft is likely to charge for the Kinect kid's games it discussed at its press conference – is one way to turn parent's heads.
The other is the intuitive nature of iDevices. Certainly, Kinect sounds intuitive on paper, but as anyone who has played the early games has learned, something often gets lost in development. It's no secret that Kinect's success has come despite a boatload of flaws.
Microsoft and the development community are working hard to overcome those, but in the meantime, Apple is building strength.
I have a four-year old-daughter – and while I've tried to capture her attention with everything from Once Upon A Monster
to Ready, Set, Grover
, her interest in these games is generally short-lived. But when she gets her hands on an iPad or iPhone, she inevitably throws a tantrum when I decide she's played enough.
One kid doesn't make a trend, but nearly every parent I've spoken with on this subject has had a similar experience. With no instruction, kids are figuring out iOS systems and falling in love with them. And they expect anything with a screen to be touchscreen enabled.
Of course, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony have to continue fighting for this audience – and they should. The introduction of titles like the ones Microsoft unveiled recently is a smart play, but it's not the triumphant move it would have been 10 years ago.
The fight for players who will make up not the next generation of gamers, but the one after that, is well underway. And the console makers, so far, are finding themselves in a very unfamiliar position – at the back of the pack.