I must admit that I’m completely hyped for the Xbox team’s new “interaction system” Project Natal, especially since this guy has been part of the team (Microsoft sure knows how to grab the relevant people). One has to look through the silly demos though (using a car racing game to demonstrate “controller free gaming” is kind of stupid when in the real world you’re sitting *inside* a huge freaking controller, which has a much more complex interface then any input device used for gaming and requires extremely skillful use of both hands and feet…).

It’s fascinating to think about how much more information a game suddenly has about the world on the other side of the wall. With mouse/keyboard, a game pad, or even a Wiimote, the button presses, pointer positions, analog sliders and acceleration vectors only provide a handful of values, a few hundred bits of information maybe. That’s like a few tiny lights in a vast dark ocean. But if the currently available infos are somewhat correct, Natal provides per-pixel color and depth-information as well as a microphone array for spotting sound sources, everything pre-processed in meaningful ways by the software (that’s the important part which differentiates it from something simple like a web cam). That’s like a sunrise in the dark ocean! The game is suddenly able to see and hear what’s happening in that strange parallel universe called “real world”, and the software (which is hopefully provided with the 360 SDK) is the brain which interprets that information. That’s another great thing, all the interesting stuff happens in the software and can be improved with a simple software update, instead of trying to sell another hardware addon like the Motion Plus to baffled players.

Now the only question is how to prevent walking into the Wii trap and not flood the 360 with stupid mini-games (IMHO mini-games are to game designers what the crates are for level designers: their last resort if they run out of ideas). It would be a terrible shame if this great technology is only used for Wii Play clones and silly “family games”. If Natal is rejected by the 360’s native hardcore crowd (yes I said the dirty word, there is no such thing as a “casual Xbox player”), it will soon fade into oblivion just as the current Vision Camera. I really doubt that Natal will cause casuals to forget about their Wii and convert to the 360 en mass. That ship has sailed long ago, maybe it could happen with the next console generation, or if Microsoft does a really big re-launch of a theoretical “Natal 360” which needs to look a lot slicker and sexier then the current 360. Any way, for the games audience, I think Microsoft should first try to sell Natal to the hardcore, and that’s not done with some silly ball catching or tennis demos, but with full-frontal science fiction shit like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUuRqzVhJmA (although this is a conventional multi-touch device, not Natal, but you get the idea). For marketing to the casuals, concentrate on the 360 as a media device (now that was the right step in one of the demo videos, demonstrate how to watch a movie without having to the mess around with remote controls – because the one thing that’s much more complicated then a game pad is a remote control with dozens of tiny buttons).

I think the best way to design a Natal game is to pretend that gamepads, keyboard and pointing devices never existed, go back to the 60’s or even the 50’s and create some sort of alternate future without keyboards, mice and gamepads. This is hard and will take a lot of time, since our current gaming genres are the result of decades of joint evolution of game play and input methods. Simply putting a new input scheme over existing games won’t work very well (I think the Wii has shown this already). But on the other hand, the first thing that you’re telling a PC game designer or programmer is to forget that mouse/keyboard ever existed when he’s starting to work on a console game and fully embrace the platform’s controller as if it would be the only input device in the whole universe. Switching to this new state of mind can be incredibly hard and some will never be able to do it, but with an open mind this often works surprisingly well.

Some unrelated stuff:

  • Man, I hope 70 Euros isn’t becoming the new standard price for Xbox360 games in Germany (that’s about 100 US-$!). 60 Euros was already a shocker when the 360 launched. 70 Euros is waaayyy beyond impulse-buy-territory for me, especially when there’s only a few hours of entertainment in a game which is becoming more and more common. I’m currently extremely selective when buying new games, I think I only bought one or two new games this year, instead of almost one game per month in the past. I can’t imagine that this pricing strategy is good for the 360-platform in Germany, since people will only buy the very few big blockbusters and skip everything else, or get the cheaper (and most often better) UK versions.
  • Very cool news: Bethesda will offer the Fallout 3 DLC on discs! I have skipped all but the first addons for Fallout 3 because they’re only available in the German language version. With the disc release I can finally order the proper English version and don’t have to live with the poor German localization.
  • My wish from last year has been granted! Full game downloads on Xbox Live starting August 2009! Maybe I should consider a career as a fortune-teller or analyst hehe…
  • We got a couple of those slick new PS3 devkits (the new ones in standard PS3 cases, not those older 19” rack monsters) and have started the Nebula3 PS3 port already. We’re putting a proper team of 4 behind this so the circle will soon be complete :) I’m quite happy with the progress so far. The SDK is very complete, the tools are nice enough (pretty good VStudio integration, thank God). Not quite as cool as the 360 stuff, but that’s more a question of personal taste and probably not objective. The PS3 SDK seems to have made great strides since the PS3 launch, and I think many of the negativity on the internet surrounding the PS3 development stems from those early days (which we haven’t experienced ourselves).

That’s it for now, I’m going to nose around the PS3 SDK docs a bit now, perfect activity for a Saturday afternoon :)