E3 2009: Project Natal
Posted at 23:03 on 1st June 2009 - permalink

A few hours ago Microsoft held their E3 press conference. It was a low key affair as these things go. A slate of solid-looking third- and first-party games were trailed, with a couple of surprise announcements that were vague enough to be enthusiastically overstated. (The MGS reveal, for example – obviously not an exclusive, possibly not helmed by Kojima, and not entirely clear where it lies on the spectrum between a whole new game and a Substance/Subsistence-style re-release, but extravagantly touted as the fall of the ‘last’ franchise still holding out from the 360. And how many discs is it going to be on?)

The highlight of the presentation for me was the unveiling of Microsoft’s new controller peripheral, codenamed “Project Natal”. This device could be summed up as Eyetoy on steroids. It was presumably commissioned as a response to the Wii Remote and Wii Fit (the runaway success of the latter no doubt emboldening Microsoft to consider an expensive peripheral that is sold separately from the console).

The technology that was shown (gesture, voice and face recognition) was undoubtedly impressive. But as the demonstration went on I began to suspect that the strategists who had overseen it (the same people who were up on stage last year enthusing about Lips, Scene It! and You’re in the Movies perhaps?) have tried to find rationales for the technologists’ ideas rather than making decisions from the users’ perspective.

The Wii Remote wasn’t a success because it had a long feature list. Like the Walkman, it was a product of taking away anything that got in the way of the core functionality. The result was a device general enough to support almost any existing game genre (fighting and racing games being problematic), while still offering enough accessible motion-based control to be engaging to a non-gaming audience. Essentially, it’s a mouse you can use from the sofa.

Wii sceptics love to characterise the Wii’s controls by going on about “waggle”, as if every game forces you to shake the controller violently every five seconds. The reality is that developers can use the motion controls for good or evil. Super Mario Galaxy uses them all over the place, and it would be hard to argue that the game would benefit from (or be unaffected by) their removal.

Project Natal, by comparison, bins off most of the Xbox 360’s key genres. I can’t imagine playing an FPS with it. Not only will games have to be radically retooled to support it properly (and all of this fancy technology is likely to be more resource hungry than tracking a couple of dots and accelerometers), but players will also have to adapt their behaviour to accommodate it.

All the worst-case scenarios that people feared with the Wii Remote (that you’d have to hold your arms out and perform exhausting physical gestures) seem to be a reality with Natal. We see a ‘mum’ holding out her arms to drive an imaginary steering wheel. A ‘family’, sitting, silently, close together, in plain view of the camera, rigidly miming gameshow buzzers with both hands. A ‘couple’ extraordinarily labouriously navigating a menu of videos and turning the machine off by saying “goodbye”. A lot of protocol, and for what pay-off? The supposed ‘inconvenience’ of having to physically hold/stand on a controller hasn’t stopped tens of millions of new gamers from buying into Wii Sports and Wii Fit.

We’re left with unanswered questions about lighting and calibration (the bane of previous camera-based systems). It’s annoying enough having to get an idling Wii Remote to ‘find’ the screen again, it could be even more aggravating to have a system that’s forever being distracted by unconscious movements and noise. Perhaps the technology is robust enough that these won’t be issues, but we weren’t given a live demonstration that proves this yet.

I think that any console control system that gets away from the dual-stick joypad is a step in the right direction, but unless you can sit back on the sofa and use Natal to move a cursor as easily and accurately as you can with the Wii Remote, it’s probably an evolutionary dead end as a general purpose controller. But then the Wii Fit board or the Rock Band guitar aren’t general purpose controllers either – I expect that there will be Natal-specific games of some kind or another that justify its existence.

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