The Kinect Lived up to its Potential Because it Never Had Any

Dance Central works, and is reason enough to own a Kinect

This week's podcast (http://www.giantbomb.com/podcast/?podcast_id=347) had another brief discussion about how Kinect was a failure of its ideal implementation, and let everyone down based on its inability to deliver on its promise. The seeds of this idea first started germinating around the time Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor was getting diced to pieces, and now I'm finally ready to say it: the Kinect was never going to be what people wanted it to be (unless those people were Harmonix). And I'll tell you why.

What the Kinect set out to do

Taking away a physical controller and putting your whole body in its place, at a glance, sounds like a fantastic step in the direction of player immersion. After all, you're removing a layer of abstraction between what you're doing, and what's happening on the screen, right? Now, before we go any further, let me say that I will make excuses for vendor trash in the name of immersion. I will make excuses for inventory management in the name of immersion. I'll excuse a lot of dumb bullshit on the premise that it brings me further into the game world. But Kinect (and even most other motion control schemes) aren't really serving the purpose of immersion.

What motion controls are good for, and when they fail

Here's the thing: motion controls are great for lowering the barrier to entry. They present a more intuitive interface for someone who isn't accustomed to the abstraction that a controller provides. But for those of us who are comfortable with a controller, and who have cultivated the hand-eye coordination that makes the controller essentially an extension of our own bodies, pantomime is at least as much of an abstraction if not more. Dance games are a great success story for motion controls. It's a type of game that arguably suffered from the digital abstraction that Dance Dance Revolution and its ilk put in between dancing and gameplay. It's an action that makes sense with full body motion, and doesn't require a prop to feel natural. Similar things could be said for Double Fine Happy Action Theater or other "toy" style games, since they don't really rely on control at all.

Child of Eden definitely wasn't "Better with Kinect"

The Wii struck a nice balance by allowing both analog and digital inputs, while at the same time providing a natural-feeling object to hold in one's hand. But the Kinect has neither a natural prop nor a digital input. Which means that, as good as it might feel to paint targets in Child of Eden, you still need to signal the digital action of firing. That's why a controller with analog sticks and buttons works so well. Some things are suited to analog control (controlling reticules, painting shapes) and some things are better done with digital inputs (choosing when to fire, selecting a color). Using an analog motion to signal a digital action doesn't work for two reasons:

  1. Detection -- the software needs to identify whether a motion matched an arbitrary "threshold" to signal the action, which could easily fail by being too sensitive or not sensitive enough
  2. Lag -- that detection process, even when it works, takes more time than the instantaneous response we expect from a controller

This disconnects the player's action from the expected response, and fundamentally hurts immersion. Now, instead of thinking about what I want to happen on screen (in the game world), I'm thinking about how to move my arm (in the real world) so that the game can understand me. I'm mentally translating, which constantly reminds me that I'm standing in my living room. And this disconnect is even more mind boggling in the context of Steel Battalion, which supplanted extremely intuitive digital controls for contrived hand motions. It's one thing when the game wants me to throw a punch in real life to throw a punch on screen. It's quite another when the game is asking you to swipe your hand left and right to look around. That's not how it works in real life, so why would you shoehorn in the motion control? But even in the case where you're miming real actions, you're not getting the physical feedback of actually grabbing something, so it's still going to take you out of the game.

What about Voice?

Choosing dialogue options is a valid use of voice, but doesn't add much to the experience

But motion controls are only half of the equation, right? What about voice commands? Well, we can easily apply the same reasoning to find out what voice commands are good for, and what they aren't good for. Voice commands are good for text entry. I use voice to search on my phone all the time, because it's inconvenient to type in that interface. The same could be said for the 360 (if you don't have a chat pad), provided the voice recognition is good enough on the console or server side. But games don't frequently ask you to input raw text, and when they do, it's rarely for things that would be in a dictionary (character name, etc.), so that's not really a practical application. So you're left with tactical commands and menu selections, both of which fall victim to the same shortcomings as the motion controls -- detection and lag. In the case of tactical commands (like squad management or Skyrim's shouts), it's a huge risk to count on the recognition in an action scenario, especially if the same thing could be mapped to a button or a pop-up menu. In the case of menu selections (like Mass Effect's dialogue wheel), it takes more time than using the controller, and it's unlikely you were using your hands for anything else. Once again, it's Dance Central that provides the cleanest example of how to use voice well, and even then, it's primarily useful because it allows you to avoid using the motion controls to navigate menus. With a controller, it'd be more or less the same.

Bottom line

I'm not a fan of motion controls. I think the steady flow of comparisons to Minority Report ignore the fact that movies try harder to imagine cool-looking future technology than actually useful implementations of future technology. I think the Wii does it well in a few cases (namely Wii Sports), and even then, it benefits greatly from the addition of buttons to punctuate your actions. Maybe I'm just an old man shaking my cane at those darn kids, but I just never saw the huge potential that everyone else did for motion controls in digital entertainment. There's just far too little that actually benefits from full-body analog control, and good control should be about removing barriers between intent and action, not shoehorning in new technology and awkward mechanics where they don't belong. Innovation is one thing, but there's a case to be made for "if it ain't broke."

The Kinect did absolutely as well as it ever could have. It wasn't ever going to be the revelatory game-changer that Peter Molyneux wanted it to be. It's good for dance games, and if that's not enough to justify the price of the device, I have to wonder what would have. What use cases were people dreaming up that wouldn't have ended up clunky and awkward?

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Paying for Console Online Services: What do we Expect?

With the recent triumphant rise of PS+, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the comparative value of the major consoles' paid online services. There's a lot of speculation about where they can go for the next generation, but the landscape has changed considerably even during this cycle. Though PS+ is a relatively young service, it's following a similar trajectory to the way XBL was viewed during its lifetime.

The Timeline, as I saw It

I never used XBL with my original Xbox, so I don't know what it looked like then. This is mostly an examination of how things have looked this generation. And in this generation, the console warriors on the side of the PS3 always thought it was farcical to pay for online gaming. Personally, I thought the service was competent enough to justify the cost; it made for a seamless user experience that was painless and transparent for finding and playing with friends. But the fact remains it was a joke to those who didn't partake, and easily justified its expense to those who did.

Similarly, I know of few people who didn't laugh at the idea of PS+ at its outset. Why would you pay a monthly fee for an assortment of random games that vanish into the ether the moment you decide to stop paying? Wouldn't that money be better spent on the games you're actually interested in? Of course, as the service matured, Sony started to put real muscle behind it, and now it's objectively doing right by its members. I still don't pay for it; I don't have the time to play all those games, but much like XBL, I can see the value in the service being provided for the money being asked.

Gating, and how Not to

It's pretty much impossible to move content behind a paywall if it was ever free. Only a crazy person would risk the public backlash for that action. So I can understand the manic obsession with which Microsoft slaps an "XBL Gold" label on every new service that gets added to their all-purpose media streaming hub that was once a dedicated game console. But I can also see that they're pushing it to absurd limits. Flimsy pretenses of server costs aside, it's pretty clear that Microsoft's primary motivation for requiring Gold for these services is because they haven't been free yet, so it's best not to paint themselves into a corner. Even in cases where they cannot offer services at all because of their model (BBC), they're resolute in the idea that no significant new feature can be added to the Silver membership. Now they're even hamstringing their own browser by putting IE9 behind the paywall.

Since the PS3 had free online play from the outset, we all knew they couldn't charge for it in their premium service. But that doesn't mean they were strictly limited to discounts and free games, either. No, they could still put features like automatic updates behind the wall. Philosophically, they're a similar place to Microsoft, but they've already made so much free that they didn't have as many options for gated content.

What's particularly interesting to me about Microsoft's trajectory is how the market has changed in the meantime. At its inception, XBL Gold seemed like a decent investment in the ability to play games online. But now, it's standard practice for games with online functionality to include a pass or require an additional charge for that feature. The opportunity cost is the same, so it's fair to say you're paying for the feature with a new game as well. So now the publishers are trying to get money for your playing online as well. Granted, it's less about server infrastructure and more about cutting used sales, but the fact remains that customers are being charged twice for the same capability -- or worse, in the case of Silver members, being effectively charged for something they can't use because Microsoft requires a Gold membership to use it. Now obviously Microsoft has no qualms about double charging its customers; Netflix requires an external membership, Hulu+, and even ESPN all have apps that require some financial input outside of the XBL Gold membership. All the same, though, the value proposition has changed since the online pass has been introduced.

Where am I going with this?

Hell, I'm not psychic. But I'd be willing to wager that neither service changes drastically with the next gen, at least as far as current features are concerned. Sony will keep online play in front of the paywall because their service is more about a subscription to games, and Microsoft will probably beef up XBL Gold to better suit the inevitable torrent of media streaming options that will be on their next console, while keeping every single thing they can possibly justify locked away behind it. I'd like to think they'll transition it entirely to a media streaming membership, and nix the requirement for online gaming (in light of the prevalence of online passes), but nobody will make them, so there's no reason they should.

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How the Diablo III open beta weekend killed my excitement

Background

I can't remember how long I've been looking forward to Diablo III. I've never owned either of the previous games, though I've played both of them, and I feel like I was able to beat the first one on my brother's computer. So between poor details, old memory, and nostalgia, I should disclaim that I might view the earlier entries in the series with rose-tinted glasses. Regardless, ever since I quit WoW (before the first expansion), I've been looking forward to Blizzard's signature brand of loot lust. Torchlight scratched the itch for a while, but ultimately it wasn't the deep experience I was looking for.

I was able to play a little of the beta during the open weekend, once through with a Demon Hunter and a Monk, each, and I came away from it scratching my head. Surely Blizzard knows what they're doing, and I have my own guesses for the reasoning behind the decisions they've made, but I just can't find myself getting excited for Diablo III anymore. Here are some of the things that stuck out to me.

Character Building

Talents

I remember reading the article a while back that said "Diablo III won't be forcing players to unlock skills through the talent tree. Instead, they'll be unlocked through level progression." At the time, I panicked and thought they were getting rid of the talent system altogether. Then I reread it and rationalized that they were simply not putting active abilities in the talent trees. This was corroborated when they released the "character builder" so people could toy around with different builds. I was trying to keep myself from getting too hyped, so I didn't look at it at the time. Had I done so, I would have realized my first instinct was right. In lieu of talents, levels unlock abilities and/or "runes" that can be used (one each) to slightly customize each ability.

I can understand the move away from letting players apply stat points every level; you could spend them poorly and paint yourself into a corner. Likewise, having the stat progression be set makes gear requirements easier. It was always awkward that you might need to wear a ring with +5 STR so you could equip a particular weapon. Now gear is just limited by level. I'm not entirely against streamlining like this, but the negative effects of doing away with talents entirely are twofold:

  • Earning a level no longer means you necessarily get a character-building reward. Stat increases are fixed, and if you only get an ability or a rune you don't want to use, you're playing exactly the same way until your next level, maybe longer.
  • All max-level characters are one global cooldown away from having the same exact build. There's no commitment, so there's no attachment to your character being built "your way."

I like to think of Blizzard as amongst the best at understanding the nuances of effective character building. Maybe they're leaving that style of progression to WoW, since they may feel like they've mined that audience completely there. But it seems like they've sacrificed too much customization for the sake of accessibility and/or action-oriented gameplay. Diablo is still supposed to be an RPG franchise, which leads me to my next point:

The remaining "build"

I glossed over it earlier, but Diablo III does have a fair amount of decisions that can be made to customize a character to play your way. Each character has 6 ability slots, each holding a different ability type. Each ability slot will (over the course of the game) accommodate one of several abilities, each of which can be equipped with one of several "runes" which modifies the way the ability behaves. For example, the Demon Hunter's second Primary attack is a snare that hits two enemies, and the first rune unlocked increases the number of targets to 4.

In a purely mathematical sense, there's a massive number of combinations that can be applied to your abilities, then. But the problem is in the narrow constraint of how to apply them. As a Demon Hunter, I will only ever have:

  • One primary ability, with one rune equipped
  • One secondary ability, with one rune equipped
  • One defensive ability, with one rune equipped
  • One hunting ability, with one rune equipped
  • One devices ability, with one rune equipped
  • One archery ability, with one rune equipped

Again, I can understand the motivation for this simplification. Generally speaking, you're only going to use a handful of abilities anyway, so why not just make the player choose a "loadout" and commit to it, customizing each ability with a single rune to complement the others. The issue here is that, again, because the progression is linear by level, players are probably going to be equipping their new ability or new rune every time they get it, to try it out, or just for a change of pace. This leads to a similar progression trajectory for all players, regardless of playstyle. And even if your playstyle might lead you never to use an entire category of skills, you can't just slot in a skill from another category to backfill. It would make a huge difference to even be able to hotkey a second skill to swap in when needed, and give the swap a semi-long cooldown, but make the skill usable instantly. Instead, you're left planning your abilities before you enter an encounter, customizing with runes that add flavor, but not much in the way of playstyle, and probably, ultimately, leaning on the stuff you unlocked most recently (or having near-meaningless level-ups).

Dual Wielding (WTF?)

The class selection preview for the Demon Hunter shows him/her holding two one-hand crossbows. It's a slick look and plays to the fact that the Demon Hunter is the only class that can use one-hand crossbows at all. So the entire time I was playing through the beta, I was looking forward to picking up a second one-hand crossbow so I could dual wield, sacrificing the defensive potential of my shield for much greater damage potential. Imagine my surprise when I equipped a second crossbow only to find my DPS go down. So it turns out if you have two 1H weapons, you alternate attacks, meaning you average the damage of the two weapons. So unless the stats on your second weapon are SO AMAZING that it's worth giving up a shield, a 2H weapon, and/or a powerful class-specific off-hand, there's never going to be a good reason to do it. I can't fathom what the logic was behind this decision. Even in WoW, they balanced OH weapons by reducing their damage, but it was still additive to your original weapon. As it stands now, I can't imagine an off-hand weapon that has good enough stats to overshadow the damage output of a 2H weapon or the potential stats + defense of a shield. In the case of the Demon Hunter, you can even equip a quiver (passive OH) while using a 2H weapon. Why would you ever use 2 crossbows in that case? I'm hoping I'm missing something here, but it's not like there are talents to change the way off-handing works.

The Monk class is kind of dumb

I'm risking nit-picking here, but after my first playthrough as a Demon Hunter, I decided to try a melee class. I like the idea of the Monk being a spiritual melee class with healing abilities, like a light-armor Paladin, so I gave it a try. The Demon Hunter's abilities are all ranged, so you can't use them with melee weapons equipped. Similarly, the Monk's abilities are all hand-to-hand techniques, so I expected there would be restrictions on what weapon types (fist, staff) would be supported by them. So imagine my surprise when I can equip an axe for the stats and have my Monk character run around punching people while holding an axe. I understand that they didn't want to lock an entire class out of most of the weapon loot in the game, but if you're not going to make custom animations showing how the monk uses the weapon, don't make it so compelling to equip it just for stats. It feels incredibly silly and takes me out of the game. It didn't seem like there were any bonuses being applied to use of fist weapons, which would have been a very elegant way of incenting use of the class-appropriate equipment.

A smaller issue was the first rune unlocked for the Monk's first primary skill. It allows the player to teleport to the enemy on each attack, making distance-closing a non-issue. It's a cool ability, from a practical perspective, but there's no animation for it. You just blip around, and it's very disorienting. My co-op partner thought it just looked like I was lagging. Maybe these will be things that are addressed in the final game, but as of now it's really making the Monk feel like an afterthought of a class, just a collection of abilities with no real tie to the in-game lore.

Loot (of course)

So the loot is still strong. And given that it's the best/only way to truly have a character be uniquely yours, that's a good thing. I'm a bit confused about the new item identification mechanic, though. Maybe this is another placeholder thing that will be addressed in the final game, but unidentified items can be identified by right-clicking them. That's it. One extra click to equip them. What's the point of this? So you have to clear out room in your inventory before you can decide if you want to keep something? I mean, it takes a couple of seconds to do, so there's a bit of suspense, and you can't do it in battle, but who is equipping things they just picked up in the middle of battle anyway?

Closing

Ultimately, I had a good time with the beta, but it was pretty short and I had a lot of built-up anticipation pulling me forward. I don't know how much the systems they've built into the game would keep me interested, and for how long. And even though I'm still considering purchasing the game when it comes out (or after reading a few reviews), I can't say I'm as excited as I once was. I know it's not fair to judge a game or make a purchase decision based on beta code, but the biggest issues I have are fundamental to the structure of the game they've built. It's not the game I thought it was or wanted it to be. Is it close enough? Maybe. Or maybe I'll hold out and see what Torchlight II does before I commit.

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Dead Rising 2: Be careful what you wish for

I played Dead Rising obsessively. I S-Ranked it and loved every minute of it. So when I saw the first trailers for DR2, I was excited. I wanted more. Then I got worried. What if they caved to the pressure to change the save and time-pressure mechanics? That's what made the game unique! 
 
(to be continued...)

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The new 360 hardware is real, and out THIS WEEK?

At first I was amused at the leak just before E3, scoffing that Microsoft doesn't know how to keep a secret. Now that I see the hardware is already shipping and will be on shelves this week, I'm pretty darned impressed that they managed to keep a lid on it for as long as they did. How do things like that work? Stores need to know what's coming, right? Hardware manufacturers have been assembling them for months, right? Wouldn't there be too many points of failure to be able to reasonably expect to keep a secret like that? I'm sure the penalties for leaking are swift and severe, but it's still hard to wrap my brain around that many people keeping a secret that well.

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The line between amateur and professional games journalism

I've been thinking about starting a game review/commentary blog for some time, but I've always worried that, as a part-time side project, I'd never be able to commit enough to it to make it worthwhile for anyone reading it. The blog feature on Giant Bomb makes the barrier to entry lower, but it also lowers the signal-to-noise ratio. I daresay people are even less likely to read blog posts by any given GB community member than they would be to stumble upon a stand-alone blog page. 
 
Anyway, I still haven't decided what I'm going to do yet, but I figured blogging about it here would be a good way to test the waters.

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