Monday, 4 October 2010

Eurogamer Expo: The Kinect Report

When reading various forum posts by avid gamers you get the impression that many people seem to want Kinect to fail, whilst many industry journalists tend to brush over the obvious issues with the device in the hope that the final experience will be on par with what they have been promised.

Complaints usually centre on the high levels of latency and inaccurate pointer tracking, both of which make the whole experience a rather flawed one. And while this is in fact very true, I can’t hep but feel that at least some have forgotten about the fun factor - the reason we actually gather round and play these things in the first place. Because whether or not Kinect actually works technologically as it should – which it doesn’t at the moment, at least not consistently – there’s no denying that the software can be incredibly enjoyable to play, especially for the casual crowd, in which latency is just another tech buzzword being thrown around in another write-up of the device.

That’s not to say Kinect’s lack of precision and pin-point accuracy doesn’t put a downer on things, because it clearly does. It does affect the gameplay, and it does reduce the feeling of immersion you get from almost being in the game.

Some experiences fare better than others. Kinect Sports for example, does in most of its games provide decent, and reasonably accurate full body tracking. Sure, there is noticeable latency, and the game does make allowances to compensate for the users actions in accordance with its own somewhat limited physics system. But it also delivers a more in-depth experience than anything the Wii has to offer in terms of similar software.

Compared to the PlayStation Move however, it feels like a backwards step. Sony’s motion control solution has completely proven itself with regards to featuring 1:1 accuracy with low latency precision. Kinect on the other hand, even now just over a month away from release, still has much to prove. And a load of promises, and conceptual gameplay ideas to deliver on.

The likes of Volleyball and Table Tennis in Kinect Sports actually shows some of that promise in the device. They’re both very fun to play, and feature pretty accurate tracking of your movements.

Table Tennis stood out more in this regard being comparative to its PlayStation Move counterpart in Sony’s Sports Champions. Latency was clearly higher of course, and like for like precision definitely seemed paired back in comparison. However, it wasn’t as far off as I originally expected. And using your entire body in combination with just your arm for movement and positioning seemed slightly more natural for me. Reaction time and accuracy was clearly reduced compared to the Move, and a lot of the time the tracking wasn’t as smooth or quite as precise as it could have been. Controlling the paddle in Table Tennis on the Move showed how much better the tracking was in Sony’s solution.

The same could be said about Beach Volleyball, in which your actions don’t always translate well into real-world physics in the game environment. The downside: It felt like the game was slightly on rails, slightly more in control than it should be. And the upside: It was both easy to get into and pretty enjoyable to play. Though, it remains to be seen how much depth each experience provides. However, this is something we won’t find out until the device actually comes into homes, away from controlled demonstrations, and limited playtests.

The worst game I played at the event for sure was Joyride. There’s very little to the experience as a whole. You play the game standing up, like with other Kinect titles, so there is no way in which to accelerate or to brake – the game does both for you. Instead all you do is steer your car around the track using both hands held out like you would when holding a steering wheel. Hardly inspiring, and overly simplistic. Occasionally you get the opportunity to boost, in which case you hold both arms close to your chest, and then thrust them forward in unison to activate it. You can also grab bonus items by reaching out to the sides whilst racing, and that’s about it.

Latency was noticeably higher than in Kinect sports, with there being a unmistakable amount of delay between your actions, and seeing them represented on screen. Whilst this may be understandable given the complexity of the full body tracking involved, and the processing required to pull it off, it was clearly apparent that most of the software just didn’t do it all that well. Joyride being one of the worst offenders.

Of course, Kinect isn’t aimed at the core gaming market. It’s currently aimed at the casual audience. And for them I think that it will work quite nicely. There’s no question that the amount of latency may be quite frustrating for some – think Motion Plus enabled Tiger Woods on the Wii and you have some idea of what I’m talking about - and that will definitely spill over into the people MS is aiming Kinect at. Though it certainly won’t be the be all and end all of the discussion.

Saying that the software on test at the EG Expo was clearly work in progress. Whilst I was surprised that Kinect was quick to scan in additional players, I was also disappointed to see how slow and inaccurate using your arm as a pointer was. It’s downright buggy at this point. In game things were noticeably better in all the titles I tried, though at this point in time, polish definitely needs to be made with regards to the smoothness in the overall body tracking, with less in the way of pre-scripted movements representing your actions on screen.

Disappointingly, nothing has really changed on the software side in nearly two years since the Kinect was first unveiled, since it turned from being a cool design idea into a workable reality.

The overall latency is still the same, and the errors in tracking are still unresolved. The only real difference is that Microsoft seems to have lost much of its initial imagination with regards to planned software for the device. This appears to have happened in conjunction with the reduction of tech powering Kinect. The lack of internal processing capabilities in the device, and a lowering in camera resolution does seemed to have limited what is really possible, to the point that many of the originally extensive, and rather creative experiences once planned are just no longer viable.

Saying that, software is still rampantly being worked on, having last minute touches added before release. Plus what we have here is just the first batch of titles taking a stab at using the technology. If it is indeed true what developers have recently said; that it’s squarely down to the software, more so than the actually hardware (though a little at odds with what we know about how the Kinect actually works), then things should change for the better with second and third generation games. I wouldn’t expect hardcore types experiences like Gears Of War and Halo however, as they would need a Nunchuck or Navigation Controller style add-on to work. But certainly something more fully featured than what we are seeing now.

Ultimately, the very nature of how Kinect works limits its potential compared to the PlayStation Move, which is not only considerably more accurate, but is obviously more versatile as well. Though it will no doubt over time find its footing with specific genre types, and different kinds of experiences outside the traditional ones expected, it has much to prove before it lives up to expectation. That is, if more developers actually get creative when working on new software for the device. Rather than dishing out the same old stuff the Wii crowd is beginning to tire of.

The one area in which Kinect currently does succeed is fun. However you feel about the latency, or mixed results of early body tracking, you can’t argue that although bizarre, and at times rather pointless, it still brings something mildly enjoyable to the table. Maybe Kinect isn’t the deepest motion control experience around, being initially quite shallow. But some of the games are in fact very fun to play, and will no doubt bring both friends and family together for some loose and decidedly non-serious gaming sessions.

I’m willing to bet that this will be one of the most popular things in gaming this Christmas. It’s different enough from the Wii in order to make it interesting, and not bad enough to be utterly forgettable. Despite not living up to it’s initial claims of truly ‘making you the controller’, and delivering on the promise of having new innovative experiences, it is far from the disaster many people on forums are making out it out to be.

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