Can Microsoft's Kinect finally deliver for gamers?

May 23, 2013: 2:19 PM ET
xbox one kinect 2
Microsoft touted its new Kinect for the Xbox One. But there still aren't any great games that take advantage of the hardware.
REDMOND, Wash. (CNNMoney)

Everything about the Xbox One's new and improved Kinect camera sounds amazing.

It has a larger field of view, which means it will work in smaller rooms. It can detect the most subtle motions, like the rotation of your wrist. It can even tell you your heart rate by reading the color changes in your face.

The possibilities for how these features might find their way into games are endless. But we all felt the same way four years ago, when Microsoft (MSFT)introduced the original Kinect and promised next-level gaming free of controllers.

What happened? It turned out that the Kinect hardware wasn't quite as advanced as we thought.

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All our living rooms were too small to really work well with the Kinect. And the Kinect arrived at the end of the Xbox 360's life-cycle. Even if developers wanted to build their biggest titles around the technology (which they didn't), there was no way Microsoft could get its new hardware into the hands of its existing gamers within a reasonable time frame.

So we got one disappointing Kinect game after another. There were a few highlights, such as "Dance Central" and "The Gunstringer," but what we mostly got were fitness trackers and inevitable letdowns like "Kinect Star Wars."

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But now Microsoft is promising that everything is different with the new Kinect and the Xbox One. Marketing execs showed off some neat voice command tricks, and pointed out that Kinect will be a mandatory part of the console from day one. Engineers touted how they've addressed all the original Kinect's shortcomings.

Everything sounds great. Everything looks great. But we still don't know if there will be any great games for the Kinect.

Only a few games were previewed at last week's Xbox One. And not a single developer -- not even one from Microsoft's own studios-- promised a big idea for the new Kinect.

I asked Andrew Wilson, head of EA Sports, about his thoughts on the Kinect, and EA's future plans for the Kinect. I ended up with little more than a canned response about how impressive the hardware is, and a vague promise that EA (EA) games will make use of the technology in the future.

I also talked to Yusuf Mehdi, the man tasked with marketing the Xbox One, about this. Not even he would go so far to say that major games would make substantial use of the Kinect, but he does think the new Kinect will complement traditional gameplay more regularly.

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One example he imagined was the Kinect camera tracking your torso leaning left or right as you played with a controller in your hand, or detecting and integrating action from the surrounding environment, like someone walking up behind you while playing.

But is having the right hardware in the right place at the right time really enough to entice developers? Considering the big budgets, high expectations, and tight deadlines that major game studios run on, it's not hard to imagine them opting for the comfort of the familiar, instead of venturing out into the Kinect wilderness where the threat of failure is palpable.

There are indie developers, whose reputation for being true innovators has grown over the past few years. They would seem like the perfect group to court for Kinect-centric gaming. But from the sounds of it, Microsoft is as cold as ever on the idea of indie gaming on the Xbox One platform.

This means that the responsibility of pushing Kinect gaming forward may fall squarely on the shoulders of Microsoft's own in-house developers.

Nintendo has done this over the years, leading by example when introducing radical new ways of gaming. Though this worked out better on its handheld DS device than the Wii, Nintendo's own games provided a blueprint for other developers looking for ideas on how to use the hardware.

It might be time for Microsoft to borrow a page from the Nintendo playbook and do the same. Otherwise, we may never get that crop of cool games that really take full advantage of the Kinect.


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