Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz's widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial, is a weekly dissection of an issue weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.
Launching a new product is always a nail-biting experience for any company. Nobody but a fool ever has complete confidence in their own internal projections, in their market research and their extrapolated pre-order numbers. The only genuine test of a product's success - be it a console, a peripheral or a game - is success itself, the commercial democratic system in which every consumer can vote by opening their wallet.
Even if we acknowledge that every product launch is fraught, however, there's no question that Kinect's launch is more nerve-wracking than most. It's a product adorned with question marks that just won't go away - the most pertinent of which, "does it work?", is a vastly more complex issue than a simple "yes" or "no", and may fuel damaging confusion among consumers for months to come.
Reviews of Kinect have started to roll in, most of them guardedly positive. Arguably more importantly for a product aimed at a mass-market audience of people unlikely to skim reviews on IGN, GameSpot or Eurogamer during their coffee breaks, the mainstream press has taken a keen interest and generated plenty of coverage. The first hurdle, at least, is being cleared - awareness of the product is growing, even outside gaming circles.
The rest of the hurdles will be tougher, and even Microsoft's well-timed announcement that it was bullishly upgrading its sales forecasts can't deflect attention from that fact. Regardless of how impressive the technical wizardry which underpins Kinect is, this was always going to be a tough sell - a device designed to convince mass-market gamers to engage with the resolutely hardcore Xbox brand, and to do so at a premium price point.
The Xbox 360 has been a remarkable success story - it's worth noting, after all, how crazy you would have sounded 10 years ago if you'd said that Microsoft would be beating Sony on console installed base within a decade. However, it has also unquestionably been a rather localised success story. The console's appeal has primarily been in North America and the UK, and its greatest success has been in selling strongly to the existing audience of core gamers, who have embraced the platform wholeheartedly.
The problems arising from that situation are well-documented - in particular, the drubbing which both Sony and Microsoft have received from Nintendo in the installed base rankings. Less frequently mentioned are the substantial advantages, such as the high attach rate and the powerful word of mouth, which come with having the hardcore audience on board. Microsoft has proved very adept at leveraging those advantages - in its software line-up, in its marketing and most of all in the focus it has given to its online service.
When it comes to Kinect, however, those advantages evaporate. Kinect is a product which is partially designed as a profitable bolt-on to the Xbox business, but primarily aimed at expanding the console's reach. In attaining that goal, the core gamer reputation of the Xbox brand arguably becomes a risk factor rather than a benefit. Where Nintendo's long history of family-friendly titles made it a comfortable choice for consumers buying into the Wii or the DS, the Xbox' carefully cultivated image may well convince similar consumers that this platform "isn't for them" - especially given the financial outlay they're being asked to make to get on board.
Good marketing and solid word of mouth can, with time, alleviate that problem - although whether it can do it without some negative impact on the existing brand image is another question entirely. This, however, is where we run into the question I alluded to a few paragraphs ago - the surprisingly complex "does it work" question.
The answer to that question, it seems, is a very qualified "yes". The technology is great, and as Microsoft has demonstrated umpteen times at various preview events, in an ideal situation Kinect does a hugely impressive job of the things it's designed for. The devil's in the detail, though, and it's the qualifiers on that "yes" which are going to be a major problem for Kinect in the coming months.
Some of those qualifiers have been addressed many times before, by many other commentators - such as the inability of the system to detect fine movements (like individual fingers) and its lack of an inherent ability to cope with games being played in either a standing or a sitting position. Those problems are only really problems if one assumes that, like PlayStation Move, the system is designed as a refinement of certain functions of a traditional game controller.
If one treats Kinect as a totally different sensor, complementing rather than replacing the Xbox 360 joypad, then the difficulties (mostly) disappear. You can't play Gears of War with Kinect; you can't play Dance Central with a joypad. That's fair enough, and as long as there's a steady flow of good-quality Kinect-specific software, it's not necessarily a weak point. Hybrid control games, which use Kinect as a sensor while primarily being controlled by a joypad, will also help to alleviate any serious concerns in this regard.
Other qualifiers are much more serious. The elephant in the room is that, well, most people can't fit an elephant into their room - and a great many people don't have space for Kinect in their rooms either.
Reviewers of the device suggest that it calls for six feet (about 185cm) of clear space in front of your television for a single player, and more like eight feet (245cm) if you want to get two players involved. This limitation reveals a great deal about the thinking behind Kinect's market. That kind of space isn't terribly uncommon in the living rooms of suburban American homes, after all. It's not unreasonable to think that a large proportion - perhaps even a majority - of middle-class American family homes will be comfortably able to accommodate Kinect gaming, without doing anything much more dramatic than moving a coffee table.
In cities, however, that kind of living space is extremely rare - doubly so outside the United States. Japan isn't really a huge market for the Xbox 360, so the often-noted smallness of Japanese apartments probably didn't weigh too heavily on the minds of Kinect's engineers. The UK, however, is practically the Xbox 360's "51st state", the key market outside the United States where the console holds significant sway - and a popularly reported and easily believable piece of research a few years ago revealed that the UK's new-build homes had just surpassed Japan to achieve the dubious honour of being, on average, the world's smallest living spaces.
Even if that research no longer holds true, the reality is still that UK homes, especially in the densely populated south-east, are small. Having lived in London for a decade, I can count the number of homes I've been into which have had six feet of clearance between TV and sofa without running out of fingers (and in Japan, I don't think I've ever seen one). Again, there are large suburban homes for middle-class families where Kinect will work out just fine, but the proportion of families living in that kind of large home is much smaller than in the USA.
I don't doubt that Microsoft has done its homework (no pun intended) and figured out what proportion of households in its target markets can accommodate Kinect's sizeable space requirements. However, the reality of that figure is less important than the public perception. The real risk to Kinect is that this could poison the word of mouth around the system, replacing positive buzz for the stronger launch titles with a torrent of stories about having to return the device due to not having a large enough house to use it. It's exactly the kind of slightly bizarre consumer account which gains huge traction and amplification on the internet, and risks damaging Kinect as badly, if not even more badly, than the negative buzz created by the "Red Ring of Death" failures a few years ago did the Xbox.
On top of all of those factors, there's the simple fact that Kinect has serious competition. The idea that the Wii is on its way out is a popular meme both among gamers and within the industry, but the reality is that Nintendo still dominates software sales charts in a lot of territories, that the Wii's installed base is still immense compared to its competitors - and that, as Satoru Iwata noted recently, the system is still selling better, week on week, than the all-conquering PS2 was at the same point in its lifespan. The idea that Kinect just needs to push over a wheezing rival on its last legs is attractive to the systems' proponents, but simply isn't true - and that's even before you consider the possible impact of PlayStation Move.
Naysayers doubted the technical capabilities of Kinect, back when it was still called Project Natal, and I confess that at times I was among them. On that front, the launch is something of a triumph - the system works, several of the games are solid, and Microsoft's ambition of truly controller-less control has come to fruition. However, that triumph is tempered by the reality of the rocky road ahead.
It's not hard to imagine a future in which Kinect-style control is a standard part of life in every living room. Equally, however, it's not hard to imagine that this is a technology ahead of its time - one we'll look back on in a decade or two as pioneering, but doomed to failure by market conditions and technical drawbacks. That's the outcome Microsoft will be doing its level best to avoid over the coming months. The firm's substantial clout is all being brought to bear behind Kinect - and its success or failure in this attempt will have a serious and long-term impact on the entire console gaming market.
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