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Waving and Shouting

Kinect is Microsoft's biggest launch since the Xbox 360 - but its bullish confidence can't hide the huge challenges it faces

Launching a new product is always a nail-biting experience for any company. Nobody but a fool ever has complete confidence in their own internal projections, in their market research and their extrapolated pre-order numbers. The only genuine test of a product's success - be it a console, a peripheral or a game - is success itself, the commercial democratic system in which every consumer can vote by opening their wallet.

Even if we acknowledge that every product launch is fraught, however, there's no question but that Kinect's launch is more nerve-wracking than most. It's a product adorned with question marks that just won't go away - the most pertinent of which, "does it work?", is a vastly more complex issue than a simple "yes" or "no", and may fuel damaging confusion among consumers for months to come.

Reviews of Kinect have started to roll in, most of them guardedly positive. Arguably more importantly for a product aimed at a mass-market audience of people unlikely to skim reviews on IGN, GameSpot or Eurogamer during their coffee breaks, the mainstream press has taken a keen interest and generated plenty of coverage. The first hurdle, at least, is being cleared - awareness of the product is growing, even outside gaming circles.

The rest of the hurdles will be tougher, and even Microsoft's well-timed announcement that it was bullishly upgrading its sales forecasts can't deflect attention from that fact. Regardless of how impressive the technical wizardry which underpins Kinect is, this was always going to be a tough sell - a device designed to convince mass-market gamers to engage with the resolutely hardcore Xbox brand, and to do so at a premium price point.

The Xbox 360 has been a remarkable success story - it's worth noting, after all, how crazy you would have sounded ten years ago if you'd said that Microsoft would be beating Sony on console installed base within a decade. However, it has also unquestionably been a rather localised success story. The console's appeal has primarily been in North America and the UK, and its greatest success has been in selling strongly to the existing audience of core gamers, who have embraced the platform wholeheartedly.

The problems arising from that situation are well-documented - in particular, the drubbing which both Sony and Microsoft have received from Nintendo in the installed base rankings. Less frequently mentioned are the substantial advantages, such as the high attach rate and the powerful word of mouth, which come with having the hardcore audience on board. Microsoft has proved very adept at leveraging those advantages - in its software line-up, in its marketing and most of all in the focus it has given to its online service.

When it comes to Kinect, however, those advantages evaporate. Kinect is a product which is partially designed as a profitable bolt-on to the Xbox business, but primarily aimed at expanding the console's reach. In attaining that goal, the core gamer reputation of the Xbox brand arguably becomes a risk factor rather than a benefit. Where Nintendo's long history of family-friendly titles made it a comfortable choice for consumers buying into the Wii or the DS, the Xbox' carefully cultivated image may well convince similar consumers that this platform "isn't for them" - especially given the financial outlay they're being asked to make to get on board.

Good marketing and solid word of mouth can, with time, alleviate that problem - although whether it can do it without some negative impact on the existing brand image is another question entirely. This, however, is where we run into the question I alluded to a few paragraphs ago - the surprisingly complex "does it work" question.

The answer to that question, it seems, is a very qualified "yes". The technology is great, and as Microsoft has demonstrated umpteen times at various preview events, in an ideal situation Kinect does a hugely impressive job of the things it's designed for. The devil's in the detail, though, and it's the qualifiers on that "yes" which are going to be a major problem for Kinect in the coming months.

Some of those qualifiers have been addressed many times before, by many other commentators - such as the inability of the system to detect fine movements (like individual fingers) and its lack of an inherent ability to cope with games being played in either a standing or a sitting position. Those problems are only really problems if one assumes that, like PlayStation Move, the system is designed as a refinement of certain functions of a traditional game controller.

If one treats Kinect as a totally different sensor, complementing rather than replacing the Xbox 360 joypad, then the difficulties (mostly) disappear. You can't play Gears of War with Kinect; you can't play Dance Central with a joypad. That's fair enough, and as long as there's a steady flow of good quality Kinect-specific software, it's not necessarily a weak point. Hybrid control games, which use Kinect as a sensor while primarily being controlled by a joypad, will also help to alleviate any serious concerns in this regard.

Other qualifiers are much more serious. The elephant in the room is that, well, most people can't fit an elephant into their room - and a great many people don't have space for Kinect in their rooms either.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.