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Project Natal: First (Drunken) Impressions

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00000180-f280-d7ce-a5ec-f7fb708d0000Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 have between them a ton of ginormously successful, and completely awesome games. Despite this, it's no secret that Wii has completely kicked their nearly-combined asses (67 million Wii consoles sold worldwide, compared to 39 million 360s and 33 million PS3s) - for 5 years running, neither have ever been able to best their Magical Plumber Overlords. Of course, that hasn't stopped them from feverishly trying to devise a means of scraping off some of that sweet, sweet Nintendo scrilla.

So what's the secret of Nintendo's power? The brilliant-in-retrospect decision to stop competing with their, ahem, competitors, and go almost exclusively after the casual gamer demographic with a cheap price tag and fun-but-easy-to-play games? Maaaybe, but Sony and Xbox are also betting that the Wii Interface has something to do with it, and both are coming out with their own motion controller later this year1 - Xbox's novel idea is Project Natal, a motion sensor that promises to turn your entire body into a game controller.

It might sound like a ridiculous idea, particularly as Xbox has been surprisingly coy about Natal, aside from promotional vids, and the whole "is made of people!" part. Since it's currently scheduled for a "Holidays, 2010", and E3 only a few weeks away, now would be a great time for Xbox to start, you know, ratcheting up the interest. I got the chance to give it a try at an event thrown by Xbox, last week at the G2 Gallery in Venice, and despite lingering misgivings, consider my interest officially ratcheted2.

With Natal, Xbox hopes not only to convince Wii owners to invest in a new hardware/accessory package, but their own hardcores to give casual gaming a try. Not exactly easy to do, and I went in to the event not fully convinced that Natal will be anything more than a gimmicky status symbol. That preconception wasn't quickly dispelled as I walked into the gallery to find myself surrounded by basically every hipster blogger in LA3, all of us consuming waterfalls of complimentary alcohol and mountains of incredible hors d'oeuvres (Word to the amazing quesadillas.) while the DJ flattered our nostalgic interest in early 90s hip hop. TVs were set up in the gallery's various showrooms and people crowded around them, pretending to be too cool for school while obviously waiting for their chance play.

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As for me? A glass of wine in I suddenly felt uncool enough to re enroll, and having fought my way to one of the setups, this happened:

Me + Natale from Ross Lincoln on Vimeo.

The second my game started, my earlier misgivings were - temporarily - dispelled. Shockingly, it's actually pretty cool. The motion sensor is surprisingly sensitive, equally response regardless of user height, and able to detect whether 1, or two people are standing in front of the TV. Better still, while it didn't provide the ability to make your onscreen avatar flip the bird, it was able to virtually simulate how bad I am break-dancing. The only immediate problem I could find with the interface is that it's almost a little too sensitive - as these players discovered:

More Hot Natale Action from Ross Lincoln on Vimeo.

In case it isn't entirely clear, what you're looking at is the game reverting to the menu screen a little too often. Unless I'm deeply mistaken, Natal is designed to immediately detect when another player has stepped in, and go back to the start menu so player two can verify their intent to play and select their gender. The problem is the start menu appeared to be triggered whenever a player moved a little bit too far in on direction or the other. It also had an annoying tendency to un-set selected settings in the same way. The couple I recorded here weren't the only victims of this effect. I recorded this next video specifically to capture the difficulty a lot of players had simply getting started:

Getting the Natale Game Started from Ross Lincoln on Vimeo.

The secret, incidentally, is to "grip" the circle and slide it side to indicate which gender your player is. Sounds simple, but given what a surprisingly new kind of play experience this is, it's understandable that it took people a while to get the hang of it. It'll be interesting to see how people at E3 do, considering they'll likely not be completely hammered.

After a surprisingly fun night of Xbox related programs activities, and a week to reflect, I remain mostly positive about the possibilities of Natal, but unconvinced that it will live up to them. The thing is, and I'm not the only person to make this observation, the current generation of gaming is defined by a very wide gulf between hardcore gamers and casual gamers, and the systems catering to them respond accordingly. Wii's few forays into serious games have been mixed. Little Big Planet aside, the opposite is largely true for PS3, and Xbox might as well rename their console DEATHBOX30000 ARGJH!, given the emphasis on war games and sports. Sure, there's some overlapping interest, but people who enjoy both casual and serious games generally own more than one console - and multi console owners still they tend to favor one or the other. I own PS3, Xbox 360 and a Wii; typically, I only play with my Wii4 when friends are over. Often, well, especially when drunk, or whenever I need a serious Mario fix. Otherwise I'm spending all of my time practicing head-shots, or liberating the galaxy from the Collector menace.

Contrawise, I have a lot of friends who have almost zero interest in other systems, but play pretty much everything Wii brings out with the devotion, if not the time commitment, total hardcores bring to Halo. About the only overlap between the systems is in the various incarnations of Rock Band and related games.

Only one game was available to play at the G2 event, and it was fun, but it's going to be a challenge for Microsoft to get Xbox owners to pony up some $$$ for a new accessory. And that's just people who already want to give them money. People who prefer casual games already own a Wii. Convincing them to invest in an entirely new hardware package is going to be rather difficult. The Wii overcame that problem not only by making it the basis of an entirely new console, but by making certain that their popular franchises would be available to play. It isn't like they introduced Wii Fit as a Gamecube add-on.

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If Microsoft isn't run by total fools, here's what the need to do to ensure that Natal isn't Xbox's Power Glove5:

  1. At least one Xbox Franchise game for Natal on or very near launch. Xbox has a signature franchises of their own, and while most of them have no business being converted to Natal-compatibility, there's a lot of games that are absolutely made for it. Halo, for example, would fucking rule if you could stand in front of your TV blasting space enemies with your hands. Ditto Left 4 Dead. In fact, I command Xbox to release a version of Left 4 Dead for Natale upon pain of death.
  2. Natal-only games that aren't just gimmicky exploitation. As I said, there was only one game at the G2 event. It was a dodge ball-break out mashup that, while fun, was fun in the same Wii sports is fun... drunk, and in a crowd. Natal needs more than good party games if they expect to compete with Nintendo. Something that players will want to do by themselves or with a crowd. A boxing game, for example. Or a fighting game. Maybe an old school rail shooter. A one-on-one hoops game. The point is that they need to give dedicated game addicts a fix that only Natal can feed.
  3. Let a player use their Xbox avatar as their in-play character. One of the best non-essential aspects of the Wii is the ability to use your Mii in games like Wii Play and Wii Sports. And Wii owners don't put even a fraction of the time into their Miis that Xbox owners put into their avatars. Hell, people actually spend real money on clothing upgrades for them! Surely, surely Xbox plans to finally give 360 owners a reason not to feel totally pathetic for caring if their Avatar represents Fallout 3, right? Well, I asked the media rep about this possibility and all she could tell me is that "such a feature isn't confirmed." Microsoft, listen to me: It's worth it. If you ignore such an obvious feature, you should fire everyone who makes development decisions and replace them with people who actually play video games.
  4. Don't make us want to punch you in the face with our wallets. We already spent a few hundred dollars buying your damn console. You'd better not launch Natal with a price tag that feels like an personal insult. And it better come packaged with at least one multi-game disc. My advice: Natal costs about the same as a couple of games bundled together, and definitely no more than $100.00.

Misgivings and sure-to-be disregarded advice aside, Natal has a ton of potential. It's really impressive tech and even the meager game on hand at the demo was addictive in the same way Wii sports is. It didn't hurt that the food and drinks were copious and delicious. I'll be checking it out again during E3 and I'll likely have more to say afterward. Until then, I'll leave you with the most amazing combination of awesome and douchebaggery ever recorded. It looks like two bros, bro-ing it up but I promise you the payoff is well worth it. Just watch all the way through.
Wait for it... Wait for it... from Ross Lincoln on Vimeo.

NOTE: In addition to the very excellent food, Xbox gave attendees, including myself, a very nice Flip video camera, which was used to record all vids in this post. I promise that the free booze and food influenced my review far more than the camera did. Even so, awesome camera.


Photo from Xbox 360's Flickr stream.

1) PS3's idea is the "Move" controller, which basically looks like a Wii wand with a clown nose. I'll refrain from judgement until E3, but I suggest something slightly less mockable be devised before Christmas. That said, it does look incredible.

2) But not Oklahoma, Arizona or Alabama.

3) Yes yes, myself included.

4) Like you haven't made that joke about 10,000 times.

5) I loved the power glove. It was so bad.