Microsoft's Natal/Kinect problem: Who wants to play these games?

Kinect games demoed ran the gamut from driving a car to driving a boat to driving a mine cart--all with graphics that would make a Nintendo Wii blush. But cool hardware aside, who's going to want to play these games?

A scene from the Cirque du Soleil performance introducing the Kinect camera peripheral. Microsoft

LOS ANGELES--Having just returned from the Microsoft world premiere event showing off the newly named Kinect camera for Xbox 360 (formerly known as Project Natal), we're left with a burning question. The games demoed at the event ran the gamut from titles that let you drive a car, boat, and mine cart--all with graphics that would make a Nintendo Wii blush. But cool hardware aside, who's going to want to play these games?

Behind the pomp and circumstance of packing a college arena with white-robed journalists and an entire troop of Cirque du Soleil dancers, the real stars of the evening were the Kinect camera and games. About half a dozen were demoed by a collection of faux families, some suspended upside down or in mid-air, but all the footage shown was clearly pretaped, and not an actual live use of the Kinect camera (which we admit would have been difficult with the light show and acrobatics going on at the same time).

However, as impressive as the event itself was, the first round of Kinect games demoed seemed, well, exactly like first-generation games. There were several variations on using your hands and body movements to drive a vehicle, from a car to a raft to a kind of mine cart (with your avatar body on top, contorting to grab icons).

More promising was a yoga app, as well as a virtual pet. At the event, we actually snagged a tiny stuffed animal, which included a scannable code--we assume it would then place that particular animal in the game (which is called Kinanimals). Somewhat more strained was a follow-the-moves dance game, but given the success of television programs such as "So You Think You Can Dance," we may be on the wrong side of the cultural zeitgeist on that one.

But after all those game presentations, we're struck by how similar they are to games we've already seem for platforms including the PlayStation EyeToy (which originated on the PS2 in 2004) and Nintendo Wii. The EyeToy is a particularly apt comparison as it also used only hand and body movements, not a control stick like the Wii or upcoming PlayStation Move.

Scan the code on the back of this tag to import the animal into your game. Dan Ackerman/CNET

Like the software titles for the EyeToy (and actually a good deal of Wii software as well), these are all good proof-of-concept demonstrations, but they rarely translate into compelling gameplay, or the type of retail software you'd want to purchase and play. With the advanced nature of sophisticated games such as Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption, or even ModNation Racers, does adding a new hardware interface mean the games themselves have to take a five-year step back?

Unless Microsoft can create a compelling slate of games that do more than show off the excellent space-sensing camera in the Kinect hardware, it's not going to become a must-have add-on for Xbox owners.

It would be shortsighted to think Microsoft doesn't already know this, and a couple of games hinted at during the presentation showed more potential. A very brief allusion to a partnership with Disney was made, but with no game footage or even titles, and, in the most crowd-pleasing moment of the evening, a Star Wars game made an appearance. The untitled game showed the player operating a light saber with his bare hands, and although it seemed to be essentially a rail shooter (almost like a classic light gun game), it ended with a confrontation with Darth Vader himself.

At the very least, even if the initial run of Kinect games seem overly derivative and more like tech demos than anything else, Microsoft knows the golden rule of appealing to a room full of jaded twentysomething and thirtysomething gamers. When in doubt, cut to Darth Vader.

 

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