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Harmonix is back to selling Kinect sensors with Dance Central: Spotlight

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Dance Central did three years' worth of favors for Kinect on Xbox 360. No other full-price retail game,much less a series, made better use of the device or a more compelling case for its ownership. Microsoft had many reasons for doing so, but when it made Kinect 2.0 a mandatory inclusion with the Xbox One, one could easily imagine it giving dap to Harmonix and mouthing "thanks."

Then Microsoft went and unbundled the Kinect.

That announcement came the morning after Harmonix showed, under wraps, Dance Central: Spotlight for Xbox One, a game whose structure hints at something that could depend on Kinect selling it, after four years of it selling Kinect. Instead of dap, for those in the know it looked like a knife in Harmonix's back.

Harmonix Music Systems co-founder Alex Rigopulos disputed this perception. "It wasn't a surprise to us," he told Polygon. "We've worked with Microsoft for years, so it wasn't like we read the news headlines and it was a shock. Our interest in bringing Dance Central to Xbox One was in no way predicated on a Kinect bundled in every box."

Perhaps, but Spotlight's format would seem to do much better if Kinect was. It's a downloadable title, coming to Xbox Live in September, and delivering 10 songs. There are a ton of gameplay options inside, but with such a limited base music library, Dance Central: Spotlight is clearly positioned as an a la carte product that gets onto a gamer's screen for a low upfront cost and then, if they like it, they can spend more filling up the song library. Xbox One still has about five million units out there that were sold with a Kinect, but more will be sold between now and autumn, turning an impulse buy for some into a $100 sales pitch to others.

"Our interest in bringing Dance Central to Xbox One was in no way predicated on a Kinect bundled in every box."

"We think people who want to play Dance Central, or Fantasia," Rigopulos said, not shortchanging another Kinect-only rhythm game, "will find a way to get [a Kinect]. It's worth pointing out, even if you're a consumer motivated by the prospect of Dance Central, it's not just 'I have to buy this peripheral.' There's a lot of value above and beyond any one game. From my point of view, if we're doing our jobs, of creating compelling motion gaming."

Harmonix is being a pro about it — hell, they've done deals with The Beatles — and should get dap for that, at least. Minus the intrigue, Dance Central: Spotlight looks like a worthy debut for the series on Xbox One even if most of its value is in the game's structure and not its song catalog. Essentially, Spotlight takes the experience of the three previous Dance Centrals — minus the story mode of Dance Central 3 — and brings it to Xbox One. Where previous editions featured three dance routines, Spotlight will offer eight spread across three categories — core dances, fitness routines, and alternates whose difficulty will range from easy to "fiendishly difficult."

The value Kinect 2.0 will add appears to be more subtle. Dance Central wasn't a game that had much problem recognizing player movement with Kinect 1.0 and, at any rate, it's a game where dancers on the screen respond to those motions, they don't mimic them. Matthew Nordhaus, Dance Central: Spotlight's project director, said Kinect 2.0's camera can better recognize dancers closer to the unit, a plus for those who don't have large living rooms. And the additional hand gestures Kinect 2.0 recognizes — a push for example — means menus can display more songs and take less time to navigate.

Nordhaus pointed out that the dancer avatars will show more facial expression during play and they can perform up to 7,000 dance moves. Still, if all they're dancing to is 10 songs, the game is going to get stale fast. Harmonix says new efficiencies in the way the game is motion-captured, and the way new songs are matched to dance routines, quality checked and submitted for approval, will considerably shorten the process of getting a popular song into the game.

It'll take "days," where it once took months, Nordhaus said. "People want to hear the music they're dancing to on the radio or in the club on their console right now," he said. Rigopulos added that the a la carte nature of Dance Central: Spotlight, though it does mean users might buy more songs, can also make sure everything in their library is something they want.

Furthermore, for those who did buy downloadable songs for any Dance Central game on Xbox 360, those will be free to them in the Xbox One version. Weekly song catalog updates, a hallmark of Harmonix rhythm titles, are promised "for a substantial time" after release. Fifty additional downloadable songs will be available for Dance Central: Spotlight at its September launch.

No word yet if the O'Jays will be in it.