[Gamasutra's Chris Morris looks at how Microsoft's Kinect has found success despite some shortcomings, and how a well-executed plan for the device is needed, as "the novelty will only take it so far."
You'd have to be a fool to argue that Microsoft's launch of Kinect was anything but a success. With sales of the peripheral already topping 10 million (setting a Guinness record for the "fastest selling consumer device" in the process), it's one of those rare items that have actually surpassed people's expectations.
But the more time I spend with Kinect, the more it occurs to me how Microsoft inadvertently followed in Apple's footsteps with the device – finding tremendous success in a new gaming area despite not knowing exactly what it was doing.
Don't get me wrong, Kinect's marketing campaign was masterful. And even from an investor perspective, the company played it perfectly. (Microsoft's last minute "adjustment" of its sales estimate from 3 million to 5 million was really a smoke and mirror trick, as the company had been telling partners 5 million from the start).
But even during launch, the system had plenty of flaws – a relatively mediocre launch lineup, lag issues and lots of grumbling about space requirements. Those deflected attention away from some of the core problems with Kinect, which are starting to shine through now.
Problem one: The dashboard. And Microsoft knows it. The company has spoken with several developers about ways to improve how people navigate the system with their device. Put simply: Using your hand in the air like a mouse just doesn't work. It's slow, clumsy and ultimately frustrating for users who want to jump into an experience quickly.
And here's the real headscratcher: That dashboard is not even in fullscreen HD. The 360 is a console that lives and breaths high definition, but on its most important peripheral, it doesn't bother to highlight that. Lemme know if you can figure that one out.
Problem two: There are no real standards for the way people interface with the machine. Yes, holding your left hand out at an angle will bring up the dashboard in most games, but from there it's the wild west.
Standard actions such as pausing the game or returning to the main menu vary from title to title, meaning players need to re-learn how to play every time they buy a new game. It's sloppy – and something that would have a laser focus of critics if the company had launched the Xbox 360 with the same deficiency.
(And, given that Microsoft positioned Kinect as a system relaunch of sorts, it's very lucky that it didn't face more of a backlash over this.)
Ironically, the best interfaces out there aren't even Microsoft games. Dance Central
are the most natural.
Problem three: By jettisoning initial plans for an internal Kinect processor, Microsoft was able to keep costs down and make its own deadline, but it also wiped out the chance for developers to update Kinect functionality to existing games – something that could have been something that had the potential to be a lucrative DLC income generator - and maybe even spark interest in back catalog games.
Kudo Tsunoda has previously stated the internal processor was unnecessary, but because Kinect depends on the 360's CPU and memory – and because games were built to use as much of those systems as possible - it proved virtually impossible to upgrade titles.
So, six months after launch Kinect stands about where it did on day one: good enough, for now
. But the lack of major new games this year and Microsoft's relative silence about the device (well, until yesterday
) could be a good sign.
Microsoft is too smart to not see that it got lucky with Kinect – and that if it just rides the status quo, the device's novelty will only take it so far.
After all, even Apple finally wised up
to the fact that accidental success was no substitute for having a plan to both improve its standing and move things forward.