Can Move and Kinect save a sagging video game industry?

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Microsoft unveiled Kinect for Xbox 360 Sunday, June 13 in Los Angeles. Unlike Sony's new Move Kinect makes you the controller; when you move your Avatar moves.

In 2006, Nintendo released a slim, slanted console called the Wii. Unlike the Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360, the Wii was a pretty underwhelming piece of hardware.

It didn’t play DVDs or CDs. It couldn’t handle HD graphics or surround sound. And it had a pretty goofy name.

What the Wii did have was the motion-sensitive “Wiimote.” By waving the wireless video-game controller, a gamer could manipulate the on-screen character — one flick of the wrist sent Mario jumping, race cars flying, and golf balls soaring through the air.

The Wii was a risk for Nintendo. Conventional wisdom said that the way to make money was to create more advanced and better-looking games. But Nintendo executives bet that the Wii would attract an audience of so-called “casual gamers,” who have little interest in spending 30-plus hours on the latest first-person shooter, but who might swing at a pixilated tennis ball a couple times a week.

The gamble paid off: The Wii was a sensation.

By the end of 2008, Nintendo had shipped just shy of 55 million Wiis. In 2009 — three years after the console launched — interest remained so high that the Wii outpaced Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 sales, combined. As Nintendo reps are fond of pointing out, the Wii was a revolutionary device, one that opened up the video-game industry to whole new swaths of gamers, from young kids to their grandparents.

Now, Nintendo’s two biggest competitors are hoping to pick up where the Wii left off. On Sept. 17, Sony released the PlayStation Move, a motion-sensing peripheral for the PlayStation 3. The Move works a little like the Wii. The player waves around a plastic wand topped by a coloured bulb (the controller looks a lot like a flashlight or a microphone), and the on-screen avatar responds accordingly — yet with much more precision than the Wii can offer.

Sony says the device will work with a range of PlayStation titles, including Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 and a new wizardry game where you wave the Move wand to cast spells. Price points vary. If you already own a PlayStation 3, you can pick up a Move Starter Bundle — which includes a camera, the wand, and a game called Sports Champions — in the U.S. for $100. Or you can buy a new PlayStation 3 with Move and Sports Champions for US$400. (A new Wii costs US$200.)

Sony is positioning the Move as the device-of-choice for hard-core gamers. Whereas the Wii had cute, fuzzy animals and go-kart racing, the Move will bring motion-sensing technology to shooters, adventure games, and graphics-heavy studio spectaculars.

Meanwhile, the Xbox Kinect doesn’t require any controllers. The hands-free device, set for release on Nov. 4, consists of cameras that read your body movements and microphones for voice commands.

In some ways, the Kinect is the real successor to the Wii — thus far, the bulk of Kinect titles feature sports, fitness or colourful kids stuff such as “Kinectimals” and “Kinect Joy Ride.” Xbox 360 owners can pay $149 for the Kinect sensor bar and a copy of “Kinect Adventures;” newcomers can opt for one of two Xbox 360 bundles, both of which include the console, the sensor bar and a Kinect game.

The Move and Kinect arrive at a crucial time for the video-game industry. Sales have slumped across the board: Hardware sales are down, accessory sales are down, and game sales are down. Retail analysts at the NPD Group say that overall video-game revenue in August dropped 10 per cent, year over year.

Colin Sebastian, an analyst at Lazard Capital, says that traditional consolemakers are losing out to the creators of social-media games, cellphone games and apps for tablets such as the Apple iPad. People are playing more games than ever, says Sebastian. “They’re just not playing them all in front of their television,” he says. “They’re playing on their phones. They’re playing on Facebook.”

Sony and Microsoft are hoping that their next-generation motion-sensing devices will be enough to rip casual gamers away from their iPhones — while still appealing to experienced gamers who already own an Xbox or a PlayStation. Jesse Divnich, an executive with the California-based firm Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, predicts that the Kinect and Move will be vital to the fiscal health of the industry.

Microsoft and Sony certainly seem to be banking on a blockbuster holiday season. The companies have blanketed the Web with advertisements for the Kinect and the Move, focusing much of their marketing muscle on the platforms. And video-game studios are starting to play along, releasing a crop of titles that take advantage of motion-sensing technology.

“The Move may finally prove whether someone who plays a ‘Killzone’ or fighting game can like motion gaming as much as their grandma likes to use motion gaming to bowl,” says Stephen Totilo, deputy editor at the gaming blog Kotaku. “If Sony nails that and makes motion gaming cool for the traditional PlayStation gamer, that will be a big breakthrough. Kinect, on the other hand, has the potential to be the next Wii-like gaming device you wow your family with at Thanksgiving and that they then buy for Christmas.”

So are we edging closer to the world envisioned so vividly in the movie “Minority Report” — where remotes and keyboards are obsolete, and everything on screen moves with a wave of a hand? Well, not so fast. Totilo wonders if the price points on the Kinect and Move could be prohibitively high for most families — and that, he says, “could kill all of this potential.”

To a large extent, the future of the motion-sensing market is likely to depend on the quality of the games associated with the motion-sensing peripherals. Yanier Gonzalez, the founder and editor of the popular gaming website Destructoid, says that there aren’t currently “any killer apps for either the Move or Kinect. Both were playable at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo” — a video-game conference held in Seattle and Boston — “and the consensus seemed to be ‘I’ve already done this on the Wii, though this is nice in full HD,’” says Gonzales.

He is not alone. In the months since the Kinect and the Move were first announced, gaming blogs and forums have been flooded with complaints from traditional gamers who worry that companies are putting too much emphasis on overly simplistic or formulaic motion games. They would prefer that Sony and Microsoft — and the major gaming studios — concentrate on the meat-and-potatoes of the industry: the big, sprawling, expensive-to-make-and-expensive-to-buy titles.

But Christopher Grant, the editor in chief of Joystiq, a gaming website, sees no reason why committed gamers couldn’t, in the future, have both good games and motion control. “As hyperbolic and outspoken as gamers may be, there’s one truth behind all of it: They like good games,” he says. “If those good games use motion controls, you’ll see that ‘sedentary’ gamer leap out of his recliner in no time. It’s not a lifestyle issue, it’s a quality issue.”

Organizations: Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft NPD Group Apple

Geographic location: U.S., Seattle, Boston

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