Among all the motion control peripherals on the market today, the Kinect stands out. Instead of using a sort of wand or remote to detect a player's movement, the Kinect just uses depth-sensing cameras to track your body in 3D space. While this does impose certain limitations on the control scheme of a game, it opens up an entire set of new possibilities. Heck, the Kinect is actually being used to assist brain surgeons, so you can't deny the power of this genius little device. By looking at past Kinect successes and failures, we can try to draw a picture of what place the peripheral will have in gaming's future.
We all remember the original Project Natal trailers for the Kinect. Gamers were doing everything from playing volleyball to firing rifles right in the middle of their living rooms. It's been a while since the Kinect came out, and while volleyball seems to work just fine, rifle-shooting seems a little less accurate. Why? Well, let's look at some successful Kinect games to find out.
Two of the most innovative Kinect games out there are Child of Eden and Dance Central. Neither of these games are very "hardcore" in the grand spectrum of gaming, but as far as Kinect titles go they certainly appeal more to the core audience. Even though one game is based on shooting enemies in a bizarre alien virtual space and the other is about making a fool of yourself on the dance floor, they both have one thing in common: character movement—or, to be more accurate, lack of character movement. Dance Central never sees your dancer leaving a small space in front of the monitor. Child of Eden is a rail shooter, a genre that has never given the player direct control over character movement anyway. Since neither game asks you to move anywhere, you are instead able to focus on actually controlling the game.
Why is character movement so important in motion controlled games? Because it's nearly impossible to translate actual human movement into character movement on screen. Natural human movement is walking, but if you actually walked while playing a game you would either accidentally bump into your monitor or walk away from the Kinect entirely. So to simulate such movement, we have to use approximations that generally feel weird or unnatural. Look at horror game Rise of Nightmares. Exploration was a key element of this game. To move your character you'd put a foot forward, and to turn you'd twist your shoulders. Unfortunately, this made controlling your character feel more like moving a tank than actually walking.
So how will the Kinect deal with this movement conundrum? Well, it's actually fairly simple. The Xbox already has a device that gives you pretty decent control over a character on the screen. It's called a controller. This will be the key to hardcore Kinect titles in the future. Microsoft can go about this in three ways. They can either A. instruct you to hold a controller in your left hand while moving your body freely, B. come up with a separate wand controller that controls movement without hampering motion controls, or C. simply avoid simulating human movement all together.
Simply holding a controller is a decently elegant solution. Imagine holding an Xbox controller in your right hand, and moving with the right analog stick. You can steady the controller on your arm as if you were aiming a rifle, and the Kinect can allow you to aim simply by moving your body. Then to fire, all you'd need to do is squeeze the right trigger. This might be even cooler if it were implemented in a sort of "Time Crisis" fashion to simulate cover. The Kinect can tell when you are taking cover by watching you duck behind your couch or something, and you'd actually have to pop up in order to shoot. I'm not necessarily saying any developer would be innovative enough to make this work, but it's certainly possible.
Creating an additional wand controller is probably the road that Microsoft least wants to travel. The one thing that set the Kinect apart from the Move and the Wii was the lack of such device. Unfortunately, this is easily the most powerful and flexible option. By creating a lightweight wand controller, they could make it easy to control movement with digital buttons or analog sticks while still allowing free range of body movement.
Finally, they could simply choose to avoid simulating human movement all together. The tank-like controls of Rise of Nightmares wouldn't be so awkward if you used them to, say, drive an actual tank. Similarly, racing simulations with the Kinect work perfectly, and you can easily extend this flight sims or other vehicle simulators.
The bottom line is that Kinect developers will have to find some way to compensate for the inability to simulate real human locomotion sometime in the future. Until then, the most we can home for is minigame compilation after minigame compilation, which all keep their characters in a controlled space.
Angelo M. D'Argenio
Date: March 27, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central. This week's is also purely a work of fiction*