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Missed Kinect-tions - E3 in the time of motion controls

10 Years Ago This Month: Microsoft unveils Project Natal, Sony debuts the Move controller, and optimism runs unchecked

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Answers to Wii

Success breeds imitators, and there was few success stories in the industry of a decade ago like the Nintendo Wii. After the system's meteoric rise upon its late 2006 launch, it was only a matter of time before Microsoft and Sony rolled out their own spin on motion controls.

As it turned out, those fast follows wouldn't be so fast after all, with both companies waiting until E3 2009 in June to show off their efforts. The PlayStation Move was the biggest surprise of Sony's show (considering the PSP Go's unveiling had been spoiled days before the show), but it was a fairly straight-forward product: essentially a Wii Remote with better tracking.

"This is true technology science fiction has not even written about, and this works, now, today"

Peter Molyneux

On the other hand, Microsoft's offering was something entirely new. Unveiled as Project Natal (but eventually released as Kinect), Microsoft's motion controller was a depth-sensitive camera that completely removed the need for a traditional controller. It was clearly cutting edge technology, so cutting edge that it didn't really work quite right yet.

When it comes to truth in marketing, Microsoft deserves full credit for debuting ambitious and unproven technology with a live demo. It perhaps deserves less credit for the prepared demo videos it showed off. One of them featured mock-ups for a generic assortment of standard genres adapted for motion controls with pantomimed gestures. Another more ambitious clip had Peter Molyneux unveiling a Lionhead project called Milo.

"This is true technology science fiction has not even written about, and this works, now, today," Molyneux said about Milo.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that many of the experiences showcased in the clips never came to pass. Hold up your own skateboard so the camera can scan it in and replicate it in-game? Nope. Draw something on a piece of paper and wave it by the camera at super speed so Milo can "grab" it in-game and interpret what's on the paper and then react to it naturally? I'm not sure any part of that was actually realized by Kinect.

Correction: As noted by Paul Jace in the comments, Kinect Fun Labs had a Build-a-Buddy mode that would create an in-game character based on real-world objects held in front of the Kinect. /Correction

"My guess is that where this ends up is: motion controllers end up with half the market"

John Riccitiello

Still, the technology clearly had potential. Microsoft corporate vice president Shane Kim said Natal would "reinvent the industry and revolutionize home entertainment." Take-Two CEO Ben Feder said Natal was looking pretty good, adding, "Every now and then you end up with a real dog that doesn't lead anywhere, but I don't expect that to happen here."

Electronic Arts' John Riccitiello was as big on the tech (and the motion control trend) as anyone, estimating that motion control games would ultimately account for half the gaming market. With Kinect discontinued after an uninspiring run in the current generation, Sony's Move controllers relegated to supporting accessories for its virtual reality headset, and Nintendo taking the focus off motion controls somewhat with the Switch, Riccitiello seems to have whiffed on that call. (He was much, much closer with his E3 2009 prediction for the games-as-a-service approach, which he said would be "nirvana" for EA.)

Vitality Sensor And Vitality Sensibility

While its competitors were playing catch-up, Nintendo was looking for its next blue ocean. No doubt inspired by the success of Wii Fit, Nintendo used its E3 2009 press conference to announce the Wii Vitality Sensor, a small Wii Remote attachment that clipped onto a user's index finger and presumably monitored things like their pulse or blood pressure.

Satoru Iwata introduced the device, saying it would "help you see the information relating to the inner world of your body." Nintendo was developing products to encourage relaxation in users, he said. And even though games to that point had been designed to stimulate and excite people, he foresaw a future where they could instead "be used to make you relax and even fall asleep."

The Vitality Sensor never saw release, and a Quality of Life sleep monitor project Iwata had touted was similarly shelved before launch. However, the late executive's dream of sleep-inducing games may at long last be on the verge of realization. Just last week, The Pokémon Company announced a Pokémon Go companion project called Pokémon Sleep.

Brütal Optics

E3 2009 was a big deal for Double Fine Productions' Brütal Legend. The game was originally set to be published by Vivendi, but after the company merged with Activision to form Activision Blizzard earlier in 2009, the new company dropped the game because it lacked "the potential to be exploited every year across every platform, with clear sequel potential that can meet our objectives of, over time, becoming USD 100 million-plus franchises."

"We doubt that Activision would try to sue"

An EA source apparently unfamiliar with Activision

Electronic Arts then picked the game up and prepared to give it a major push at E3, including a massive banner covering the South Hall entrance of the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Then, in an all-time jerk move, Activision Blizzard waited until the opening day of E3 to file suit against EA to prevent the release of Brütal Legend.

Activision Blizzard had actually threatened to sue months earlier, but a person at EA told Variety at the time, "We doubt that Activision would try to sue. That would be like a husband abandoning his family and then suing after his wife meets a better-looking guy." That EA source was right about what it would be like, but underestimated Activision Blizzard's willingness to come off like the pettiest of villains.

The suit was eventually settled and Brütal Legend made its October 2009 release date. While Activision Blizzard's legal shenanigans didn't do the game any favors, it seems as through the initial assessment of the game as lacking "the potential to be exploited" was accurate. Double Fine restructured its business away from big budget AAA projects and has spent the past decade experimenting with small- to mid-size projects in search of a more sustainable/less-prone-to-being-sunk-by-a-single-petty-publishing-partner-it-never-signed-a-deal-with-in-the-first-place business model.

Elsewhere Around E3

● E3 may as well have stood for "EA Embarrasses Everyone" as the publisher hired a viral marketing agency to have a bunch of people protest Dante's Inferno on generically religious grounds. Brilliant idea belittling religious people as intolerant moral scolds while fueling gamer outrage and anger as part of a marketing campaign for your game. I see no way in which conditioning the audience to feel persecuted even while they're being directly catered to could ever contribute to an utterly toxic culture-wide atmosphere where criticism of any sort sparks not introspection or reflection but hostility and abuse.

Oh, and then you played off internet conspiracy theories by offering bribes to reviewers, furthering the notion that there was some sort of ethics problem in games journalism? Fantastic. Great job re-enforcing a whole bunch of intractable social problems the industry will be grappling with for decades to come.

● E3 2009 was the first large-scale E3 in a couple years as 2007's show was a down-sized affair held in Santa Monica, followed by a return to the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center in 2008 that only made the venue feel more cavernous as they neglected to restore the attendee count to its previous size.

The 2009 show received rave reviews from an industry that had actually missed the spectacle it once ran from, but I thought the quote from Sony's Andrew House has retained its relevance well. Today's Sony in particular might do well to re-read it as it sits out this year's event.

"I think you get a singular opportunity to have the press and everybody else focus on our industry for a week in LA - one of the entertainment capitals of the world," House said. "That's pretty priceless. As soon as you took emphasis away from that we lost an opportunity to reach the media and by extension broaden our appeal as an industry as a whole, so I'm very glad it's back. It's absolutely worth the collective investment we put into it."

● After the show, THQ's Danny Bilson gave one of the weirder explanations I've ever seen for what a company hoped to accomplish at E3, saying, "We were driving to E3 to show to the world that we don't suck. That we're not an inferior company. And not only do we not suck, but we exceed and we're going to compete with the biggest and the best because our games in that category are fully resourced with very talented teams."

● Microsoft announced it would begin rolling out digital downloads for some full retail games on Xbox 360 starting later in 2009 with a handful of catalog titles. Day-and-date new releases would have to wait a while longer. Digital distribution has come a long way in 10 years.

● Peter Molyneux was promoted to creative director of Microsoft's European game development operations, a position that put not just Lionhead but also Rare under his leadership. At the time he said he wanted to "help Rare have more of an identity." Molyneux would be gone from Microsoft within three years, a span which saw the studio's identity change from Viva Piñata and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts developer to Kinect Sports factory. (Happily, Rare released Sea of Thieves last year, which I'll go ahead and say seems much more in keeping with the Rare identity than the Kinect Sports titles.)

● Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot said game budgets in the next generation could top $60 million. I think we can go ahead and call that prediction accurate.


● Happy 10th anniversary to id Software joining the ZeniMax Media family. At the time, John Carmack said id had more IPs than it was able to take advantage of. With ZeniMax putting other studios to work on Rage and Wolfenstein, it's nice to know at least one part of the id-ZeniMax partnership went the way Carmack had hoped.

● Happy 10th anniversary to the merger of Mythic and BioWare! If you're wondering how that turned out, Mythic was later renamed BioWare Mythic, then de-named back to Mythic, then shut down.

The BioWare name change has been something of a kiss of death for EA studios. The company's EA2D studio was renamed BioWare San Francisco in 2011, then shut down two years later. Also in 2011, EA founded Victory Games to work on a Command & Conquer title, and months later decided to rename it BioWare Victory. It quietly reverted the name at some point between then and the 2013 announcement that it was abandoning the game and closing the studio. Throw in the BioWare Montreal team that was established in 2009 and dissolved into EA Motive in 2017 and EA's track record at expanding BioWare is about as bad as it could be.

● While we're at it, happy 10th anniversary to Devolver Digital, the Twitter account, and cult classic Nier, each one no doubt beloved and respected throughout the industry in equal amounts.

● Finally, a moment of silence for The Matrix Online, which announced a decade ago it was going offline after four years of service.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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