There’s a line from Men in Black that I have always been quite fond of, spoken by Agent K to a shocked and awed New York police officer who has just learned that humanity is not alone in the galaxy, that alien life is commonplace on Earth. It’s a response to a simple question from the cop; why keep this a secret? After all, people are smart, right? Agent K’s answer;
“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”
I am a fair bit more an optimist than Agent K, but, yes, people can be dumb, panicky, and dangerous. When put into a group, the sense of group identity can take over. Groupthink, I believe, is the psychologically correct term, more commonly referred to as “hopping on the bandwagon”, and Lord knows I am not above it in any way, shape, or form. It is the nature of being a fan of things. We, as gamers, creatures of the Information Age and people who can safely say the Internet is more or less a second home, are especially familiar with these feelings. We, well, we like things. Cool things. And we like them a lot.
That love is forever and always a good thing. We should never stop liking and loving the things we like and love. And before I write myself into a corner, let me say this; I am not going to ever advocate the position that loving things is bad. Love them to death. Get freakishly wild when new cool things that you love come out, and don’t ever stop loving them.
But that nature of loving the things we love a great deal breeds a distrust of the new.
A slight change to a mechanic in our favorite franchise. A new patch that re-balances the weapons of an online shooter, a small thing, is a dangerous change to the status-quo. A change in developer, a sequel or spinoff handled by someone else, these things send great waves of discord out in the wild yonder of the Internet. It is the nature of loving things to be worried for their future. This is, again, not a bad thing.
The bad thing comes when we let those feelings of protectiveness take over. When we let our love get too far ahead of us, we cannot, to borrow an old saying, see the forest for the trees.
And in 2010, Microsoft learned this firsthand with the release of the Kinect.
Oh, the Kinect. It’s very nearly a punch-line at this point. Debuted at the 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo, then still under the code name “Project Natal”, this was intended to be Microsoft’s first response to the Nintendo Wii’s runaway success with motion controls and the final word on Microsoft’s place in the console industry; they would push the newest technology as far as it could go and make it an integral part of their plan for the Xbox going forward. It was the vanguard of the future. Full bodied motion control straight out of Minority Report. True blue future technology designed to change gaming.
Of course, this is not what came to pass. What happened in the year following the announcement of Natal, later named Kinect, was a vicious cycle of disaster. Prior to release, the Kinect was burdened with an immense amount of negative commentary from the gaming public. This was the end of controllers, of the traditional games. The cries of the hardcore who disowned the Wii as casual for its focus on motion control howled in fear of the technology spreading to the other consoles, cries I cannot help but find similar to those of gun rights activists; “Don’t take away our controllers!” and such things.
Then came the critical reviews, and the goat was got; the Kinect simply did not work well. Its detection of movement was less than adequate. The microphone was spotty and imprecise, picking up background noise and slurring voice commands. Multiple people confused the hell out of it. Riddled with technical issues, public perception of the Kinect deflated further than it already had. Consumer confidence dropped. The Kinect may have sold well in its early days, with Kinect/X360 bundles accounting for half of X360 sales in December 2010 and two-thirds by February 2011, but those days were soon to be seen as halcyon. It fell victim to the same flaws that the Wii underwent; falling consumer confidence shooed away top tier developers from working with the Kinect, leaving the hardware to be drowned in shovelware like Game Party: In Motion and Hulk Hogan’s Main Event, big franchise titles that were flaccid disappointments like Fable: The Journey, and more fitness and dance games than can accurately be counted on human hands. Of course, the key difference between the Wii and the Kinect was that the Wii had excellent first part support; outside of The Gunstringer, I cannot think of a first party Kinect title that was actually worth anything resembling a shit.
So when around came the time of the Xbox One reveal earlier this year and the announcement that the Kinect would be a mandatory part of the Xbox One’s systems, the resulting trepidation was understandable. A machine that didn’t work that no one liked is now a mandatory part of a console that was probably a hundred dollars more expensive because of it? How was this not a bad thing? And so, the calls were there from the beginning; remove the Kinect from the Xbox One. And if the most recent rumors are to be held as truth, it looks like Microsoft may just do that.
That is a bad thing.
There is a second vicious cycle at work responsible for the failure of the Kinect; because no one actually bought the damn thing, developers lost interest in developing for it. Because they lost interest in developing for it, no one actually took the time to work through the problems and figure the hardware out. And because developers didn’t figure the hardware out, all the games sucked and Kinect continued to have a reputation for being a shoddily made piece.
So kudos to Microsoft for going all in on the Xbox One and making the Kinect a mandatory piece of kit. That must have taken some gall. If they ditch the Kinect now, it will all be for naught and there will be a mass-repeat of the last console cycle.
What packaging the Kinect into the Xbox One does it give it is an install base. An instant one-up from last time. Everyone who develops for the Xbox One now knows that every single Xbox One owner has a Kinect. That frees up one of the main restrictions developers had; no fear of selling to a tiny install base, giving developers room to breath. If developers have room to breath, then that means they can spend the time necessary to develop the kind of experiences that can change how the world perceives Kinect.
Of course, this is dependent on two things; First party support worth a damn, and the Kinect remaining in the box at retail. There may not be precisely Game of the Year material out on the market right now or maybe even in a year, but someday there could be, and we’ll never get there if we become like Agent K up there says we are.
I said earlier I considered myself more an optimist than Agent K. I say that because I think he’s wrong.
I ask this; Give the Kinect a fighting chance before resigning it to the graveyard of gaming’s broken dreams. Give Microsoft the little bit of credit it is due for sticking to its guns, and instead of demanding that the Kinect be removed, demand better games that take proper use of the technology, make it worth the price of admission. Take inspiration from the incredible number of PC modders who have done miraculous things with the Kinect. If they can build great experiences, developers can too. Stay the course for now, because three years ago we knew the Kinect was nothing more than garbage. Six months ago we knew Microsoft had jumped off the deep end, that there could never be a Kinect game that was truly living up to the great technological promise of its hardware.
Imagine a gaming industry in which we have those games. Imagine what we could know then, what we could be playing then. I haven’t the foggiest fucking idea what that could look like. That is exciting to me. I want to see that come to pass. And I think gaming will be better off for it.