By now, nearly everyone with an internet connection has heard something about the Xbox One reveal. Most of my next-gen predictions were proven correct as I read several round-ups on the matter: Usual banter about hyper-speed processing and superior graphics, Check. Profile-specific purchases and the supposed downfall of the used games market, Check. Baffling denial of an always-online console but the need for a persistent internet connection, Check. Every console will ship with a Kinect and there will be a push for more games/features to become Kinect-enabled… wait, really?
At first glance of screenshots and press releases, I had assumed that there would be some sort of Kinect accessory, but I was rather surprised to hear that Microsoft decided to make Kinect ownership mandatory for the next console generation. With the excellent sales and consumer reaction to the device, maybe such a development is not so surprising. Much of this initial shock was based on my own personal experiences with the Kinect.
Last year, Laura and I borrowed the motion-sensing accessory from a friend of ours, mainly to try a variety of demos and see just how different Skyrim was with actual shouting. For the most part, I found the Kinect to be an interesting, but ultimately gimmicky toy. Navigating through virtual environments using my own gestures and movement was engaging at times, but thanks to regular sensor re-adjustment and frequent delays, I never felt fully immersed in the experience. These problems were compounded by the space restrictions of GIMMGP Headquarters, which provided roughly ten feet between the television stand and the couch. Plus, the lack of a controller in hand just felt wrong to my doddering old gamer self. Slashing the enemy with my arms, running in place, and jumping to avoid obstacles just couldn’t replace the comfortable heft of a traditional controller; my anchor to the video game world had vanished.
Long before developers were including force-feedback technology and pushing motion controls for every console, all of the gamers I knew were already having their sense of touch and spatial recognition engaged by video games. The most common example could be seen whenever we would gather to play Mario Kart 64 (or any racing game, really). As each of us steered through a hard turn, we would twist the controllers and lean our bodies into the curve. These motions did nothing to affect our in-game performance, but that didn’t matter; a connection had been made. Controller and screen melted away, and the weight of our bodies in the kart would register with our characters’ movements.
These sorts of spatial connections would also occur whenever I played a game with pushing or pulling. The crate puzzles in Ocarina of Time task the player with moving boxes around, normally under a time limit. Whenever Link would struggle against a block, the resistance he met became palpable. I would lean forward and put extra pressure against the analog stick, struggling against the drag of a massive crate. Watching Laura play Katamari Damacy, I saw her performing similar actions: leaning her body, pushing the controller towards the screen, knowing in her heart that this helped the massive ball of junk lurch forward. With the Kinect, I felt none of these immersions. Even when pantomiming a push or pull, or leaning into a curve, I was met with no resistance; nothing tactile to provide a response. Without the anchor of a controller to translate my movements, I felt like I was flailing about in an open space with no bearing on the in-game world.
From everything I have read about the new Kinect sensor, it seems that Microsoft is trying to enhance the gaming experience through an improved sensor and biometric readings. The upgraded Kinect will be able to better detect player movement and facial features, along with estimating heart rate through a variety of factors. These readings could be used to change game difficulty on the fly, or alter in-game achievements over time to better suit different play styles. While these science fiction nuances may be impressive to some, the thought of a persistent camera monitoring my every move does not scream immersion to me (rather Big Brother and paranoia). Unless the improved sensor can recreate the moments of spatial connection and total engagement that I found from a traditional console, then I will just let a controller stay as its namesake and stick with the classics.