Tuesday, June 2, 2009

E3 2009: Microsoft Announces Project Natal, Goes Fishing In The Wide Blue Ocean

If Microsoft has his way, there will be no more controllers. Let me first apologize for the lack of Radio this week.  E3’s barely begun and already a slew of announcements have hit the Internet tubes.  Yesterday Microsoft held their press conference: rumors were confirmed, unnecessary se/prequels were announced, and gauntlets were thrown down.

Before I get to Microsoft’s proposed game changer, I’d like to briefly mention one of the other things they rolled out, plans whose existence is indicative of Microsoft’s cachet in the computer world.  Forget dumping your music library onto your 360; stream some tunes from last.fm.  And you’ll soon be able to Tweet and browse Facebook on your 360.  I don’t know what I’d tweet about while blasting zombies or punching tickets to ride, and I doubt the functionality will be ideal (unless you use this god-awful thing).  But it should be able to take advantage of Microsoft’s slick Live Dashboard and help cement the Xbox brand name in the expanding world of social networking.

But back to that thrown gauntlet: Project Natal.  With their revolutionary motion-capture gaming camera, Microsoft is promising “Controller-Free Gaming.”  Hit the jump for their E3 Concept Trailer, as well as my thoughts on Natal’s potential impact.

"So...you've come back for more, Ian."

I embedded the video so I wouldn’t have to break it down scene-by-scene for you, but I’m still fighting the urge to go shot-by-shot, doling out equal parts mockery and praise of Microsoft’s new baby.  I mean, that racing game at 0:38 looks…well, silly.  Generic Dad must really love Stereotypically-Too-Cute-For-Videogames Daughter to get up and be on her All-Mime Pit Crew.  In all fairness, it’s only slightly goofier than Nintendo’s initial Wii campaign.  You know, the one where strange Japanese men visited unsuspecting Americans and made them waggle remote controls unnecessarily. 

The Wii comparisons don’t stop there, obviously.  With Natal, Microsoft hopes to capture their share of the “Casual” market (e.g. hockey moms and active geriatrics).  Note the emphasis on Family Friendly games in the video: a racing game built around teamwork, soccer, and some sort of trivia contest.  I don’t know how the camera would pick up my index finger as it pulls the trigger on my mimed SMG, and Microsoft wisely ignore that issue entirely (re: the closing tagline “The Only Experience You Need is Life Experience”).  Plus, the legions of Oprah followers now on Twitter will be able to tweet their Motion Capture Soccer high scores before sitting down with their husbands at night to scroll Minority Report-style through their porn movie libraries.

But how will this affect the gaming you (the game-knowledgeable blog reader) and I (the intrepid game blogger) know and love?  In the presser, Microsoft wheeled out Steven Spielberg (sidenote: where’s your damn Jason Rohrer game, Mr. Spielberg?) to tell us that we need a new way to interact with games because controllers are scaring off potential gamers.  Plenty of articles have been written about the evolution of controllers from single-sticked, single-buttoned organisms to dual-stick, dual-trigger, pimply-faced monstrosities.  Then Nintendo introduced the Wii, promising a simpler experience.  I’m sorry, have you played any big-budget title on Wii?  Remember Red Steel?  Do you plan on shelling out more money for Wii Motion Plus?  There’s nothing simple about that whole situation.  Sure, motion controls work well for Wii Tennis and EyeToy Party 4: Let’s Pop More Bubbles, but the bulk of modern games are complicated.  Plain and simple.  This will have to be the most sensitive camera ever invented to match the complex actions required by today’s AAA titles.

The tech demo (thanks Gamasutra) followed Spielberg’s spiel.  It featured a game of 3D Breakout and a painting program where users could select paint colors through voice recognition.  The icing on the cake was Peter Molyneux’s “Milo” demo, a concept video of a woman using Natal to interact with a virtual boy named Milo.  Milo held a conversation with the user, recognizing facial expressions for emotional cues, and the user  “gave” Milo a photo – the camera scanned the image and brought into Milo’s world.  Interesting stuff to be sure.  If even a tenth of this could actually enter a retail product, I’d be impressed.  If games are to really explore how we interact with the world, this type of technology represents the next leap forward.  Imagine a BioWare game unhampered by dialogue trees, a strategy game where you select units by pointing at them. 

But Molyneux’s demo is obviously one part technology, three parts pie in the sky.  How accurate can this image scanning really be?  The Natal promo video shows Zac-Efron-Hair Son scanning his skateboard for use in-game.  Can it really be that precise?  Will users have to go in and crop the image to get exactly what they want?    And has voice recognition software really gotten this accurate?  I’m getting visions of Cool Mom awkwardly yelling “Night!” with over-enunciated consonants to turn off her console.  Would Natal require some sort of Neutral Game Space like Promo Family’s living room?  I don’t want to watch my avatar go skateboarding off a cliff because my dog ran through the room.

Project Natal will cause some ripples in the industry – just look at all the jockeying that followed Nintendo’s announcement of the Wii.  And 1up claims that Natal development kits are going out soon if they haven’t already.  I just can’t figure out how this will actually change mainstream game development.  Most motion capture can be exploited (try flicking your wrist instead of actually swinging your Wii golf club and you’ll see what I mean), which makes it tricky to design for.  Not to mention how glitchy stuff like this always is in its first iteration (see Wii Motion Plus dig above).  It took developers a few years to wrap their brains around the DS, and the Wii is still causing headaches for third-party houses.

But it’s the simpler aspects of Natal (adequate vocal/facial recognition, scrolling menus with your fingers, etc.) that could revolutionize how we interact with our technology, gaming or not.  I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid quite yet, but I’ll admit it’s looking tasty.