Say this for Kinect: It fucking gave meaning to swear words.
Kinect would get you a technical foul in NBA 2K. It could get you sacked from your managing gig in FIFA. Xbox's all-seeing, all-hearing sensor debuted to grand ideas and cooing tech demos four years ago, but Kinect's unique impact — in the mainstream video game genre best positioned to showcase it — was recognizing and penalizing the filth-flarn-filth people utter in the privacy of their homes.
Last week Microsoft threw in the towel on Kinect as an integral component of the Xbox One, announcing it would offer a console bundle without the peripheral. Uncoupling the Kinect may be the right move, but it's another humbling U-turn for Microsoft, which abandoned ideas like mandatory Internet connections (or "check-ins") and a means of sharing games digitally (which would have placed restrictions on used games) before the Xbox One even launched. In all of these cases, Microsoft wasn't able to articulate a convincing benefit to the gamer, much less one that could supersede the self-serving reasons for such policies.
If any video game could have made a compelling case for Kinect's capabilities, it should have been a sports video game. Of all mainstream genres, it's the most natural fit for voice or gesture-based commands. "Imagine calling audibles from the line in Madden," Peter Moore then the president of EA Sports, said in an unusual appearance at Microsoft's E3 news conference in 2011. In 2013 his successor, Andrew Wilson, told Eurogamer, "We still don't see a place for motion to be additive to the core game experience." Wilson now is CEO of all Electronic Arts.
If you think it's annoying walking into a silent room and intoning "Xbox on. Xbox ON," when you could just pick up the controller, try barking commands at your offensive line in Madden NFL 13 with less than 10 seconds on the play clock. Supposedly I could call a receiver's last name before ordering him into a streak route on the fly. It rarely worked. On defense, I could more precisely tell a player to stay back in pass coverage or to blitz, but it still required cycling over to him with several presses of the B button. In no case was it faster or, more importantly, more certain than simply keying in the command from the gamepad.
The simple fact is Kinect needed sports much more than sports needed Kinect.
Analysts both professional and armchair had been calling for the Kinect's uncoupling from the console for some time. But anyone with an interest in sports video gaming were more certain than anyone else that this decision would be made. The simple fact is that Kinect needed sports much more than sports needed it. With developers dealing with codebases going back more than a decade, and the serious, simulation titles now all geared toward twin-analog gameplay, there was never any real hope Kinect would become an integral part of someone's gaming experience, much less something that rated mandatory inclusion.
EA Sports gives every new concept at least one shot with its glamour franchises, FIFA and Madden. After a one year trial on them, Kinect — like the 3DS, PS Vita and Wii U — didn't get much in the way of additional support. Their functionality is still present in the Xbox One edition but the features offered are identical to what was introduced in 2012.
Even a natural game for motion controls — Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 — needed a significant post-release patch just so people could play video game golf the way they expected to: Facing the screen as they finished their swing. By the time that upgrade arrived most everyone was still sitting on the couch using a twin analog controller. It was off-putting for a sport built on precision to show your virtual avatar pulling his club back and forth even when you were standing still getting ready to swing.
Arcade sports titles couldn't make a compelling case for Kinect, either. The downloadable Home Run Stars should have been a slam-dunk for motion gaming. For baseball fans who mimic batting stances in the mirror, what could be better than a home run derby? Whenever I played it, my avatar stood with the bat pointed at the ground, like he was a batsman awaiting the bowler in a cricket match. The Kinect Sports series was a middling experience on Xbox 360 and not much better — in some cases worse — with Kinect 2.0 on the Xbox One.
Kinect's three-year track record of indifferent support and inconsistent execution - Kinect Star Wars is a great non-sports example, and Ryse began life as a Kinect concept before pursuing a traditional route - made me think gameplay never was much of a priority for the sensor's mandatory inclusion on Xbox One. Back in October, Yusuf Mehdi, the top marketer for Xbox, told a room full of advertisers that a Kinect-enabled Xbox One "can essentially work like TV that watches you, bringing marketers a huge new trove of data," and that trove "could have a big impact on [advertising] pricing," even if a fraction of Xbox One users shared the data Kinect collected. He went on to say that Kinect's ability to recognize what users were doing as an ad played "could have a big impact on pricing" those ads to marketers.
Microsoft PR tried to walk back Mehdi's statements after Ad Age, the industry's daily bible, reported them, offering assurances of privacy and opt-in data collection. The core message remained unchanged: Nielsen ratings only assume eyeballs are on the screen when an ad plays; Kinect can more precisely tell you if they actually were. A focus group might say an advertising concept is amusing; Kinect can evaluate body language responses to determine if it really is. People just couldn't shake the idea that Kinect was put upon them for reasons benefecial to Microsoft or those doing business with it — so much that a third-party TV mount for the unit comes with a plastic slide to cover up the eye.
Divorcing Kinect from the main console doesn't signal the death of the peripheral or the end of its utility. There have been some solid experiences on the Xbox 360 with Kinect — Dance Central is probably the best example, followed by things like Fruit Ninja Kinect or The Gunstringer. Honestly, the best sports video game I played with it was the silly Red Bull Crashed Ice Kinect, a piece of speedskating advergaming that didn't review well but gave me a solid cardio workout.
Yet absent a serious commitment from sports video game developers to create, support and refine features that use its capabilities, Kinect will remain what it always has been: an optional piece of equipment. On the Xbox One, it's what it should have been all along.
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears on weekends.
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