The Xbox Kinect was famous for a couple of things: it could see you without a remote, unlike the Wii, it could take commands without a controller, unlike the PS4, and it nearly caused riots when Xbox demanded it stay on, always.
Xbox. You can’t just do that. But first, lets look at why it was launched in the first place!
The Kinect didn’t need a controller to register your movement, something other consoles still struggled with. Even when PS4 wanted to incorporate more active games into their lineup, they went with a remote that looked a lot like the Wii remote. It fit nicely into the hand, but as some users discovered, cheesing the game by only moving your arm was too easy. Besides, if you executed a dance move perfectly except for your wrist, you wouldn’t be rewarded for it. The Kinect set out to fix the problem by cutting out handheld remotes completely, and provide a bigger space for users to interact with the game. The main problems with this were room detection and movement detection – other consoles didn’t bite because the prototype was fiddly at best. The machine didn’t know how to “see” the human figure, and instead it would try to analyze a movement based purely on camera alone.
If the machine doesn’t understand the way a human can and cannot move, it’s much more likely to mis-detect pieces of furniture and light sources as people phasing in and out of existence. This makes gameplay jerky and difficult, and it’d take time to fix. Luckily for the development team, Microsoft doesn’t mind waiting – in fact, they’re happy to have something that can compete with the Wii in their development lab. They knew right from the start it would be difficult and expensive to do all the research necessary to make the Kinect work. In fact, it was shelved once or twice while software caught up! But it would be worth it. Right?
The Wii was very popular, but Nintendo’s habit of underproducing cut sales. Weeks at a time went by where nobody could find a Wii except from scalpers, who charged two or three times more than the original selling price for a unit. The PlayStation version was a much better seller, but unlike the Wii, the PlayStation was not built around motion games. Its movement-game library was lacking, even though their motion controller was completely fine. The Kinect was going to revolutionize the market with a fresh take on dance games, a commitment to fitness, and a constant stream of new games that would make the Kinect the Christmas gift of the year!
The technology was new – nobody else had taken the initial contractor up on their motion sensing. Xbox had exclusive access to something incredible. They pared down the size and made it more responsive. It could adjust to the room it was in! Nothing like it had ever been seen before, and it was all designed to fit neatly on top of the console or TV. It really was a revolutionary product.
Nintendo was able to produce a whole library of games for the Wii, and Playstation’s modest selection was fine for the price of the PlaySense controller. Xbox only released 5 titles at launch, assuming third party developers might step in. They didn’t. Programming around the Kinect seemed like a nightmare, a time-consuming task that they’d rather not buy into. This was long before VR was a thing, and developers would need a lot of time to even learn this new engine, let alon make something using it. But Xbox could still make that work, right? They’d make their own games on the regular, just like they did for the source consoles, the Xbox 360 and the Xbox One. Especially since they’re thinking about making the Kinect mandatory for the XBone, right? You wouldn’t force people to pay extra for a dance game they didn’t want, right??
The Kinect was completely optional for the 360, but at announcement, not for the Xbox One (also known as the XBone, a nickname intended to peeve off Microsoft). People who didn’t intend to use the device were angry that they were paying extra for ‘nothing’, and people who did want it were angry that the console might not work without it. Either way, it was a bad idea to try and push the two out together to boost a failing product.
The Playstation’s latest launch did no such thing, and shared many of the features of the Xbox One, including all the new entertainment features like a DVD drive and access to Youtube.
Anecdotally, when this was first announced, I remember many people on forums claiming they’d leave Xbox for PlayStation if nothing was done to correct this injustice. Whether or not they actually were going to or even had the ability to wasn’t important. The statements themselves drove newcomers just entering the console market off into PlayStation’s waiting arms. Playstation was a gaming console, where the XBone came with a lot of strings attached. Or it would have.
Companies were already facing backlash for “always on” before this – Xbox shouldn’t have thought it was exempt. The latest Assassin’s Creed was declared unplayable by a sizable portion of their audience, and EA’s “always on” Sims release turned many people off the franchise. In my opinion, they’re right to be angry! Internet connectivity is not guaranteed everywhere, so limiting access to a game because of location is very, very annoying. Instead of getting to continue a story they like, they’re now limited to watching other people play through it, people with better internet than them, on forums and Youtube.
Always on is supposed to allow for updates on the regular, but a side effect is that the game won’t boot until it’s fully updated if you had the console off for a length of time. It’s very annoying to sit down, expecting to be able to play a video game, only to have to wait an additional 40 minutes while it catches up. Because, you know – computers are supposed to be turned off every once and a while. You’re going to restart your Xbox to keep the red ring of death away.
The Kinect would be off to a rough start. But surely for the people who did have access to good internet, this would be a smash hit, right? Always on means games are always bug-free (in theory) and besides, the Kinect was revolutionary!
However, the Kinect could respond to voice commands. It needed to be listening to pick up on those commands. This meant that the Kinect would always be listening, and the camera was always on, too. In a world before the Amazon Alexa and Google’s Cortana, this seemed incredibly invasive! If your console’s in your bedroom, is Microsoft listening to you, even then? Yikes.
The Xbox One, or the XBone, was forced to drop the mandatory internet connection and included Kinect before release – people just weren’t ready to have Xbox’s version of the Amazon Alexa yet. Additionally, PlayStation had gamed them by announcing the exact opposite of what Xbox announced: Where Xbox said “internet required”, Sony said none needed. Where Xbox said “Always Listening!”, Sony said unnecessary. And when Xbox said “Digital only, no sharing!” Sony said of course you can share games. Sony knew what Xbox was doing to itself and simply let it happen. Xbox was forced to retreat and retract ‘features’ to keep up with the newest PlayStation.
That ‘sharing games’ thing was a big point of concern. People saw a future with no retro games and no more local co-op. And Xbox framed this as a good thing! It’s connected to your library so you’ll have it anywhere you go. Yeah, that’s cool! But Xbox would have effectively shut down their part of the game-reselling industry to make it happen and killed a lot of joy in the process.
Long story short, Xbox’s decisions killed some of the hype for the newest console – the Kinect got caught by the fallout.
The supply of Kinect game titles is very small. Trying to shove it into a package with a console that was already on thin ice with consumers was always destined to fail. It wasn’t a bonus; it was a liability! On top of all the other liabilities that they wanted the XBone to have! If workers took their work home, was the company going to have to make a policy of no Kinects? Is Microsoft watching your children and you just out and about in your house? It sounds paranoid, until “Always On” was used to sell ads elsewhere. Not from Kinect, but other companies.
It had far more negatives than positives at the time, and that on top of everything else the XBone was doing wrong led to Kinect’s demise. It just wasn’t fun enough to replace the controller games that everyone – including game makers! – were used to. It wasn’t fun enough to ward of criticism of “Always On” tech. It just. Wasn’t. Fun. Enough.
Besides, the Oculus Rift and other Virtual Reality headsets almost always use controllers. Between the helmet sensing motion and the handles sensing your movement, it was easier to program for, so as soon as they were available they soaked up any demand there might have been. No skeletal tracking, with the added benefit of VR immersion. The Kinect can’t put you in Skyrim like a headset can, even if it lets you interact with the game like you were. It’s a baby step, instead of a gigantic leap. The Kinect was simply too big a step for the time.