Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Natal thoughts

In response to the GameTrailers discussion of Project Natal and competitors...

First, let me repeat that Microsoft stands to leave Nintendo and Sony in the dust if they make Natal useful for general TV viewing. If they can design Natal software that mimics the basic functions of TV remotes, then many non-gamers will bite into an intuitive product which frees them from ever again needing to hunt for a TV controller. Considering that the Xbox's original purpose was to move Windows into the living room, this makes all the more sense.

Certainly, a couple hundred bucks is a lot to pay to replace your TV remote, but not if the same hardware acts as a DVD player and on-demand TV/movie service. How far this strategy would take Microsoft's console would depend largely on the targeting and substance of its marketing campaign. But this basic Natal application could explode the market, attracting consumers far beyond the boundaries of present gaming audiences.

Reliability seems like the main issue to me. I still disbelieve projections that the 360 will remain Microsoft's primary console for another five years. The console has survived its dismal reputation for hardware failure largely thanks to the warranty. Once present owners are no longer comfortable under that umbrella, a new wave of bad publicity will pour down. And, like Windows Vista's reputation could not be saved from the mistakes of its early presentation, the 360 cannot shake its original failures even if new models perform better. The 360 market won't collapse completely when hardware replacement is no longer guaranteed, but it will definitely be shaken. A fresh start will be necessary by 2011.

Pachter has suggested Microsoft might come out with another version of the 360 soon, instead of a wholly new console. It's possible. But, as I said, anything that looks and feels basically like the original 360 will suffer from its RROD reputation.

That avid or "hardcore" gamers are not rushing to buy Wiis just to play The Conduit and Metroid Prime 3 is no surprise. Some people do buy consoles just for one or a few games, but that is certainly not average consumer behavior. The success or failure of hardcore Wii games offers little insight into potential Natal game sales because the Wii is not a comparable console. Even among occasional gamers (such as those who buy only a sport game or two per year), the Wii is popularly defined as a family or kids' console because that describes the majority of its games. Present gamers and non-gamers alike who are disinterested in the more dazzling Wii titles will be attracted to similar content on Natal, simply because the 360 console has a different general focus and appeal.

Really, the more the 360 becomes the multimedia console, offering TV/movies and other non-game services, the less the Wii and 360 will be direct competitors. If Nintendo continues to focus exclusively on games and offer an obviously unique experience, then Microsoft and Nintendo might soon compete only in the way that DVD manufacturers compete with the iPod -- the consumer only has so much money, but buying one product doesn't affect one's desire for the other.

I agree 100% with Pachter that controllers are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Motion control is an exciting alternative, not an unqualified progression. The most obvious reason is that physical activity is not always welcome. Gamers will always want to game from the couch on occasion.

Will some genres always demand a traditional controller? I doubt it. Even a system like Natal, which seemingly enables 1:1 representations of player movements, isn't limited to 1:1 animations. I don't need to wave my arm completely to have my character wave his arm completely. A game could be designed so that a small movement on my part results in an exaggerated movement on-screen. Thus, a game like Mortal Kombat won't necessarily have players leaping and twisting around in their homes. I can't think of any basic style of game which is impossible to translate well into motion control.

Natal's proposed ability to incorporate the unique objects of individual players could play a major role in games. For example, as a guitarist, I own guitars which are different from the guitars of other musicians. If Natal can scan a guitar of mine so that others can see it, that ability to share in an active environment online is a great appeal. Even without the online component, I'd love to play with my own guitar in Rock Band 2.

The scanning function could be applied to many games to match the protagonist's body proportions and clothing to the player's. This would personalize heroes, but there are other benefits. Imagine your character looking a little different every day, just as you do.

Anyway, I've focused mainly on hardware here. I'll probably write another Natal article focusing on potential games. In the meantime, any thoughts?

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