New XBox stuff announced at E3: Natal and full downloads

E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) has suffered through some setbacks in the last few years. The industry show is basically a venue for the manufacturers of computer games and game related products to communicate with the media. Normal citizens like you and I are not allowed to attend. The big vendors like Microsoft and Nintendo decided a few years ago that the show was costing too much money for not enough return, and they withdrew en masse. E3 went through some gyrations to try to re-invent itself, but has basically come back identical to what it was, just a bit smaller. I’m not sure what has really changed, but the big vendors seem to be back.

This post isn’t about E3, though: instead, it is about a couple of interesting (to me) announcements that Microsoft made at the event. Project Natal, a full-body motion interface with no actual controller, and XBox Live full game downloads.

Your body is the controller…

Project Natal is intriguing: note that this is a code name and will likely change to something bureaucratic and unappealing before Microsoft starts selling it. The basic idea: a small box is attached to the XBox 360 and placed somewhere in your room, probably near the TV you play your games on. The box contains an array of sensors: a normal video camera, an infrared camera, and microphones. The combination of sensors is used to detect humans in the room, identify motion points (joints- over 40 per person), and track movement. The people have no special sensors or controllers.

Once identified, the system allows motion of the people to control interaction with the game: if the game requires a sword fight, moving like you are swinging your sword could trigger the same movement in your in-game character. If you are playing a driving game, simply hold your arms in front of yourself as if you are clutching a steering wheel and the game will track the movement of this pretend “wheel”: move your arms the right way, and you steer your virtual car.

All of this sounds like things that have been tried before, with limited success. But apparently Natal actually *works*: people who tried it at the show say that its fidelity was very high, and the only inhibitors were the mental ones of getting used to imagining a controller or object when it wasn’t really there. Supposedly the system is sufficiently accurate to be able to identify people by face and voice: when Kelly walks into the room, the system can say “Hello, Kelly” and log you into the correct XBox live account (assuming you have multiple accounts on your system).

The technology behind Natal intrigues me, but the applications are the big thing here: absent of the need for a physical controller, what completely new kinds of interactions can be created by developers? The potential here is huge: but until we see a generation or two of software using this interface, I am hesitant to call it a really good thing.

My gut tells me that the Natal control system will be most applicable to the kinds of “party friendly” games the Wii excels at. That is, low fidelity “cartoon” sports and strategy games where four or six people can quickly bash out a few rounds of fun. People who like greater complexity and depth in their games and simulations will likely find the control scheme less appealing: I can’t imagine much precision in a system that lacks physical objects to interact with. But it could open a new market of so-called casual gamers for the XBox 360, which I suspect is a market that Microsoft would like to increase its presence in.

Full downloadable games- instant gratification

The other Microsoft announcement was one I’ve long awaited: the ability to buy and download full commercial games on the XBox 360. XBox Live has long had “classic” and “arcade” games available for purchase and download, but none of these are the new and exciting games of today that appeal to me. Starting this fall, however, at least some major titles will begin to appear for download on XBox Live. They will cost the same as normal retail copies, but you’ll get the benefit of having them immediately while avoiding the “retail experience”.

I am not a big fan of shopping. Once I’ve decided I want a particular game, all going into the store does is waste my time and harm the environment. I have to drive several miles, dodge irritating and largely useless sales associates, push past clueless customers wandering aimlessly, hope that I can snag the game I want and it isn’t already sold out, stand in line, interact with a sales person who will ask me inane questions like “Do you realize this is a mature game?” (Yes, you pimply moron: I’m 45 years old, and I buy games for *me*, not some tax dodge brat sitting in my car), drive home, and finally after opening the game and playing it, find some place to store the useless packaging materials. Skipping all of that waste and simply playing the the game minutes after I decide I want to appeals to me.

There is at least one downside that will limit the usefulness of this feature for me. Only “select” games will be available- select in this context likely means “games that have been out already at retail for a year or more and which you have already likely bought, played, and finished”. Unfortunately, the same gene that makes me dislike the shopping experience causes me to be prone to not want to wait months after retail release for a game to be available for download. I want it the day it ships, not six months or a year later after the publisher has decided they’ve made all the money they can at retail. “Select” also means a limited catalog of games: I could imagine there only being ten or twenty initially, out of hundreds (thousands?) of XBox 360 titles.

That said, I suspect I’ll find one or two games I missed on initial release. I hope Microsoft can leverage some of its clout to get a large and timely catalog established: I don’t really see the downside for the publishers, who would get to cut out the production, shipping, and retailer profit margin costs. But publishers/IP owners are weird creatures.

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