Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Virtual Reality and Natal

When I was in 4th grade, the local newspaper had a section where they would ask kids what they thought of newsworthy events. In one of their segments, they asked kids what they thought the future held for video games. I got in the newspaper for blathering something about virtual reality. I was pretty proud of my answer, and everyone at the time thought virtual reality was the key to future gaming.

A couple of years later, I went to visit New York City and was walking around at Pier 17. They had a virtual reality game up where you could strap on a helmet and try and shoot someone in full 3D. I wanted to play, but my mom wouldn't let me at the time. It looked too violent for her tastes. It didn't take much to realize that this was the Future of Gaming and that Videogames As We Know Them were done.

So, what happened? A couple of things, really. First, VR is expensive. Second, wearing a giant helmet isn't fun, and can be rather headache-inducing. Third, and most importantly, moving around when you're playing a video game is fun at first, but then it's kind of tiring.

This brings me, in a roundabout way, to Natal. Gaming journalists are falling all over themselves to talk about how Natal is a gamechanger. I'll be honest, I don't see it. Now, to be fair, I also didn't see why you would need a touchscreen on a handheld, so I'm usually wrong on these things. But hear me out, please.

Stop for a second and ask how you can use Natal to play games. You can wave your arms around or move your legs. So, what genres can you play with that? Sports games, like tennis, maybe baseball. Rail shooters. Maybe you can draw on the screen, like Yoshi Touch 'N Go. Not a bad selection, but here's the separate question: How do you move?

I don't mean move your avatar onscreen with Natal. WIth that, you can move left and right. You can duck. You can wave your arms. But how will your character move across the screen? How will he move forward? How will he back up? Will you draw a path? Will there be buttons on screen that you touch? You think that waving your hands with a Wiimote is a pain, but imagine having to keep your hands in the air to play a simple platform game. Sound like fun yet?

Guys like Jonny Lee think that Natal will create new genres. That's great, but what are they? Name me some genres that could benefit from this. Name me some game styles that will be better when you have to move your whole body. Dance Dance Revolution? Guitar Hero without the guitar?

Another big issue: This technology is basically some of the same stuff as the EyeToy. Sure, it's far more sophisticated, and has a lot of features that the EyeToy didn't have, like facial recognition, but it's the same principle in play. In the interest of comparing apples to apples, the Playstation 2 sold 140 million units. The EyeToy sold 10 million. That means that 1 in every 14 PS2 owners thought that the EyeToy was a valuable purchase. That's a great number, right?

Consider, then, that the current install base of the 360 is 30 million. By applying the "1 in 14" metric, only about 2 million 360 owners will purchase Natal. That's 10 times less that the owners of Wii Fit. Now, Natal isn't aimed specifically at current owners, but we don't know the cost of ownership for Natal. How much will it be? Will most users also want the standard controller? Will they need it in order to make characters move in a proper way? Also, consider that people bought their 360s precisely because they DIDN'T want to move around and act like morons in front of the TV and then you start seeing that there are a lot more issues here than meets the eye.

Bear in mind that install base means everything. Companies stopped making games for the Gamecube because there were so few sold. Companies are starting to fall off the PS3 wagon because there are so few sold. They're starting to make more games for the Balance Board because of its install base of nearly 20 million. Will a company really push their chips to the middle of the table for a fancy piece of tech that forces them to rethink all of their game-making strategies in exchange for a meager install base?

I could be wrong about all of this. In face, I hope I am because it will force other companies to continue innovating. Natal is really interesting, no doubt. I'm really excited to see it in person and see it in a real-world setting. But does it have legs? Is it going to change gaming? If you're a consumer, is it really worth investing money into? There's no way of knowing for certain, but count me as a huge skeptic.

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