Microsoft’s latest attempt to take over the video game market was revealed in Los Angeles at the weekend with the launch of Kinect, a completely hands-free device designed to woo gamers away from the hugely successful Wii.
Nintendo’s Wii has trounced its rivals since its release in 2006, with about 70m of the consoles sold worldwide — 30m more than Microsoft’s Xbox 360. But with its new motion-sensing gadget, Bill Gates’s firm hopes to win the gaming battle by focusing on the “living room” market for non-fiddly, family-friendly games.
Previously known under the codename Project Natal, the Kinect plugs into the Xbox 360 console. It uses a video camera, infrared sensor and microphone to track players’ actions and commands and convert them into on-screen movement.
So while the Wii requires players to wave around plastic controllers as they bowl, box or play tennis in their living room, Kinect goes a step further, by removing the need for any sort of handheld input. Players simply move their own bodies and shout at the console in order to control their on-screen characters.
The easy setup is designed to appeal to casual players and newcomers, rather than hardcore gamers, analysts said.
“There’s only so much headway you can make until you bring mums into the equation. There’s lots of kids and mums who want to have an interactive experience together,” said Mike Delman, vice-president of global marketing for Microsoft’s interactive entertainment division.
Philip Oliver, CEO of the British developer Blitz Games, which is working on Kinetic titles, said: “Xbox 360 did serve the hardcore gamers well with racers and shooters but they didn’t capture the family market, the market that Nintendo captured so well with the Wii. Now [Microsoft] have got a very powerful machine with the functionality that they hope will make incredibly great casual games.” At a pre-launch event in Los Angeles on Sunday, Microsoft showed clips from several Kinect games, including an athletics simulation in which participants run and jump to compete in the hurdles, throw an imaginary javelin, and play football with kicking actions. There was also a yoga simulation, white-water rafting and a dancing tuition game called Dance Central, which gets users to perform a series of steps and moves in time with pop music, including tracks by Lady Gaga.
Several Kinect games will be closely compatible with Twitter and Facebook, allowing users to send screenshots of themselves playing the games. Microsoft has so far delayed announcing a price for the device, but expects to release it in the autumn, and is ready to launch a redesigned slimline version of the Xbox 360 console.
Gaming, once considered a transitory pursuit for teenage boys, has now become a mainstream entertainment medium, with games such as Wii Fit, Rock Band and Professor Layton and the Curious Village attracting a vast new family audience. So far, however, these so—called casual gamers have been put off by the Xbox, with its reliance on hardcore shooters such as Gears of War and Halo. But Microsoft did not completely ignore its traditional audience at the event; perhaps the loudest cheer of the night erupted when a demo was shown of a Kinect-compatible Star Wars game, in which players will be able to flail their arms around in order to compete in light-sabre duels with Darth Vader and his stormtroopers.
And, in a break from the usual recipe of awkward upper—ranking execs lurking on stage while game demos play to deafening rock music, the audience at the Kinect launch was treated to an astonishing performance by Cirque du Soleil, who used dance, lights and special effects to communicate Microsoft’s brand vision.
Kinect is likely to enjoy a multimillion-dollar marketing push in the runup to Christmas — but is not alone in its desire to steal Nintendo’s audience. Sony is set to provide the PlayStation 3 console with its own motion controller, named PlayStation Move. The wand-like device, which more closely resembles the Wii’s remote controller, is also due out later this year.