While Microsoft claims 70-80% of all publishers in the world are currently in the process of developing Natal-based games, some developers are disputing the merits of Microsoft’s motion-control peripheral. It’s certainly disheartening to see Microsoft dropping horsepower from the device, but what’s more disturbing is seeing developers — the people responsible for the games we love — question it. How will Natal fare when it launches this holiday season?
Traveller’s Tales director Jon Burton has already given his thoughts on the device, saying it has a fundamental problem. “[Natal is] exceedingly clever, but the lag on the input and lack of physical buttons is really going to restrict the kind of games that can be done with it,” he commented. “[However,] the software behind Natal stunned me, to be able to take effectively a bump-map of a person and turn that into a fully articulated and rigged polygonal skeleton is an incredible feat.”
“Whether Natal becomes a real game-changer – evolving the Xbox 360 into a new software platform – or simply remains an amusement, will relate heavily on its ability to find its ‘killer app,'” said Weaseltron Entertainment Adrian Hirst in Develop’s recent “Jury” feature. “Microsoft need to start showing some real killer games/applications for Natal before people really start getting interested in it as a platform.”
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: my greatest fear is that Natal will seem like a cheap gimmick at worst and a tech demo at best. Microsoft didn’t demo Natal at this year’s CES (at least not publicly), so it’s hard to know just where it sits on the continuum. Is it really an immersive experience, or will the lag truly pose a problem? Jon Burton isn’t the only one concerned about Natal’s latency issues, so it’s definitely something that should be addressed if it’s significant. We’ll surely find out more about it at E3 this summer.
I guess it comes down to how developers harness the device’s capabilities, as Hirst said, but I imagine it will take some time before they fully understand all of its intricacies. You can’t release it and immediately expect someone to come along and create a killer app for it within the first year — let alone the first few months — that it’s available. Developers have hardly had Natal dev kits long enough to create AAA games. Nevertheless, it really is the developers’ responsibility in terms of selling Natal.
Andrew Oliver, Chief Technical Officer for Blitz Games Studios supported this by saying, “Pushing out cheap rubbish can alienate the very people the industry is trying to attract. Developers and publishers need to act responsibly for the longer term.”
Many developers are unsure of Natal’s ability to bring experiences that both hardcore and casual gamers can enjoy, even though Microsoft’s Robbie Bach has said before that hardcore gamers will “love Natal.” Skepticism is arguably Microsoft’s greatest challenge in terms of marketing the peripheral to studios.
“I’m just not convinced that people can enjoy the same range and fidelity of games as they do on the Wii without at least some physical connection to the experience,” added Proper Games developer Andrew Smith. “We’ll see some cool stuff, no doubt about it, but I remain thoroughly skeptical as to whether it’ll do much business, and as such I’m personally quite reluctant to dive into it yet.”
Despite the skepticism and even small criticisms, there are some developers in the industry who are optimistic about Microsoft’s interface. It will allow them to create new, immersive experiences, opening up a whole new avenue of games. “Natal is a lot more immersive [than the Wii],” stated Lightning Fish Games’ Simon Prytherch. “It will allow us to do games not possible on the other platforms.”
What do you think? Will Natal be a hit for Microsoft or a flash in the pan? And what of Sony’s motion controller? We’d love to hear your thoughts!