Move vs Kinect: The Future of Console Controllers?
Wednesday, 01 December 2010
Anything Nintendo can do, Sony and Microsoft can do better, more expensively and too late to make a difference.
Sony recently launched its Super Wiimote (called Move), continuing its long term copycat policy of taking Nintendo's successful ideas and refining them slightly. At $100 to $130 (depending on how completely you want to copy the Wii's control schemes), Move is not going to sell many extra PS3's for Sony, although as you'd expect from a product coming four years after the original it's a quality piece of kit. Reviewers everywhere rightly observe that even with superior sensitivity to Wii Plus, Move is hardly going to be an essential purchase for gamer hobbyists, since no-one is looking for a step down in control precision, and the 'Mii Too' software line-up smacks of a complete failure of imagination.
Against this, Microsoft have released their Super EyeToy (called Kinect). I have to hand it to Microsoft, it's a bold strategy to eschew copying the successful new peripheral in town and instead copy an older, less successful device. To their credit, it's an impressively flashy device, but at $150 it's hardly going to shift 360's by doubling the retail price. I have to say, Kinect would be an outstanding basis for an arcade cabinet – perhaps Microsoft should chat to their old friends at the ghost of Sega about this –but its huge virtual footprint scupper any chance of it becoming a 'must have' for most 360 owners. Right now, investing in a Kinect requires something of a leap of faith (as CNET shrewdly observed) since the device promises more than the software currently delivers.
The bottom line is that neither Move nor Kinect are really about taking on Nintendo in this round of the console squabbles. This bout is already over and Nintendo won a decisive victory, while Microsoft earns an honourable mention for just barely wriggling out of last place, albeit with an ongoing failure to be profitable. The big question, the one that still matters, is 'which input mechanisms will be key to the digital games market in 2012?'
Why 2012? Well, Sony have always been refreshingly forthright about their plans: they run a ten-year hardware cycle with six years between new iterations: PlayStation in 1994, PS2 in 2000, PS3 in 2006, so PS4 in 2012. The timing isn't hard to calculate, but the strategy is harder to fathom. Imagine you're in Sony's shoes... You have to start work on your new hardware but you don't know what interface it's going to need. No console has ever shipped with multiple control mechanisms (nor is any likely to do so, since most hardware already sells as a loss leader), so you have to pick just one of the three approaches on offer, each with very different advantages and disadvantages.
Sony can't afford to lose their gamer hobbyist fanbase, because internal pressure within the electronics giant demands shiny and impressive hardware that doesn't come cheaply. Only the hobbyists are willing to splash out on a console costing more than $250, and appealing to them requires a standard gamepad controller or something with superior precision to that, and nothing makes that latter proposition a likely horse to bet on right now. However, Nintendo have now proved what I've been saying for decades: the standard gamepad is a confusing, intimidating device for mass market players, who need something simpler if they're going to have any fun. (It is not a coincidence that the DS stylus and Wii Remote are the first game controllers since Pac-man that can be operated one-handed). If Sony want to recapture anything like the 120 million installed base of the PS2 – and of course they do – they have to cover both bases in one control scheme. That's why Move is so important to Sony; not to make money now, but to see if this is the way forward for the PS4 controller.
What of the situation facing Microsoft? They don't really want to be forced into a new hardware cycle because they have still only barely recovered from the haemorrhaging of cash their last two consoles inflicted upon the entertainment division. Kinect is an attempt to generate the same kind of 'new way to play' buzz that the Wii enjoyed in the hope of finding the next big interface, but right now neither their technology nor their interface design is even remotely good enough to break into this wider market, especially not at a cost of $300 all-in (50% more than a Wii). The most promising aspect of the new device – voice control – is still a long way off in real terms, and if Microsoft had what was needed in this regard they'd be pushing it out much further than just the entertainment division. As anyone who has been stuck talking to an automated call centre program knows, voice recognition just isn't up to scratch yet.
Ultimately, I'm doubtful the fate of the next generation of game consoles is going to be determined by a purely gestural interface like EyeToy or Kinect. Make-believe theory suggests that kinaesthetic mimicry is always improved by a physical prop – as CNN observed in their review of Kinect, "games that would be better enhanced with a physical device in hand feel flat." To put this another way: it's more fun to pretend you're shooting a real gun than to pretend you're shooting when you have nothing in your hand, so until gesture detection beats mechanical controllers for accuracy (i.e. sometime between the future and never), Kinect is a novelty and not the next big thing in interfaces. On the whole, this suggests the pressure is off Microsoft for the time being. They have little to gain from being first mover next time around, and everything to gain from waiting as long as possible before committing to a new machine, and a new interface.
My impression is that Nintendo don't have another ace up their sleeve right now, having already played their best hand in twenty years with the Wii and DS, the latter being set to overtake the PS2 as the most successful console of all time any time soon. But no software developer outside of the Kyoto-based global corporation has really dealt with the problem that making games for the mass market means more than just simplifying the interface, it also requires the creation of entirely new development cultures able to make games for people other than diehard gamers. This gives Nintendo a corner on the lucrative wider audience for games, those who play few different games but who consequently contribute to gigantic sales figures with the games that do appeal to the masses. Neither Sony nor Microsoft have the developer talent in this space to supplant Nintendo right now, allowing the venerable company to effectively coast for a few years until they develop something innovative enough to push out the boat again. If there isn't another revolution waiting in the wings – and it's certainly not clear that there is this time – Nintendo can afford to drag their feet when it comes to a new home console, although I bet the distant sound of Sony's bugles can be heard all too clearly in Nintendo head office.
Ultimately, this puts Sony in the uncomfortable position of being forced to move first into uncharted (or at least, poorly understood) waters. The first mover advantage only works when you have something new to offer, and that has never been Sony's strong point. Conventional games industry wisdom tends to think that when all else fails, you just pump up the power – but if that didn't work this time around, you can bet it isn't going to be the decisive factor next time either. What Sony desperately needs is permission to be truly disruptive, to make their new machine better adapted to our schizophrenic new marketplace rather than to simply crank it up a notch. But the electronics conglomerate is neither agile nor prescient enough to move against its own corporate momentum. Hence, PS4 in 2012 – even if Sony don't yet know what kind of controller it's going to have to ship with.
Great read, but I can't help but think that the holiday sales could change how you view this. Both Move and Kinect are selling well enough already, and the general consumer base has been taught for years that "me too" isn't bad - the focus is "Who did it better?" Now that the Wii has competition in terms of motion controls, you will find so many out there saying that one or the other of the new groups did it better despite their obviously trying to cash in.
And early on Sony, who have been known to go back on their word (they are a huge corporation), said that they had a ten year plan with the PS3. It is a sufficiently powerful console with capabilities that plug right into a home media center/network, so there is no big reason to move on just yet. We know that a new console is probably already in the works, but don't expect to see it unless Sony fails turn out a new direction for the 3.
Posted by: Multimediaculture.wordpress.com | Wednesday, 01 December 2010 at 13:02
Gospel X: The new controllers are selling okay for what they are, but an after-launch peripheral is not in the same situation as the controller that ships with a console.
What's interesting to me is not how many Moves or Kinects sell to existing console owners but whether or not either manages to sell consoles to new consumers - and in this regard, I'm extremely sceptical. Given the current installed base figures, Sony and Microsoft would have to show sales figures that were seriously on fire for these new devices to have any significance for the immediate future. I still think they are more relevant as posturing and testing the market prior to the next round.
"And early on Sony, who have been known to go back on their word (they are a huge corporation), said that they had a ten year plan with the PS3."
Yes, and they had a ten year plan with the PS2 and the PlayStation as well. And each of those ten year plans involved the launch of a replacement console after six years. The remaining four years of each Sony console's ten year life span is spent as a low cost-of-entry alternative to the new machine.
It's true that Sony have gone back on their word in the past, but redacting press releases or individual comments is not the same as changing a fundamental electronics pipeline involving vast investments. The PS2's ten year cycle was complete this year (2010), so even with my prediction of a PS4 in 2012 that would still mean the PS2 extended its life span by two years... That was, incidentally, exactly what happened with the PlayStation (released: 1994, discontinued: 2006). The pattern hasn't changed yet. :)
I remain confident that Sony will be the first to announce a new console, and that this announcement will come within two years.
Thanks for commenting!
Posted by: Chris | Thursday, 02 December 2010 at 08:14
I've no real insight but, FWIW, my observation is that the strongest interest I have seen in Kinect comes from people who don't necessarily even have an Xbox but see it as an interesting controller for a range of (e.g. musical) applications.
We might anyway expect strong initial sales from die-hard enthusiasts with cash to burn. It will be interesting to see the sales figures in 6 months time.
Posted by: Sandbags | Thursday, 02 December 2010 at 12:55
Matt (Sandbags): The form of interface Kinect represents will continue to improve, and may eventually become a significant player in the interface market; if it does so, it might be on the back of applications outside of games, as you suggest here.
But at this time, Kinect is being sold by Microsoft as an interface for play, and as with its predecessor, Sony's EyeToy, it's currently operating as a novelty. It would have to see astronomical success to affect the decisions facing the next generation of consoles, and I think that unlikely.
But this doesn't mean we won't see further developments in this line of interface devices - the core value being offered i.e. control without a tool in hand - has a definite appeal.
Thanks for your comment!
Posted by: Chris | Monday, 06 December 2010 at 07:22
If they're searching for the next big thing that people will attach to their TV, then they're going to miss out on the next big thing. Whoever wins mobile gaming will be the winner, and it will probably be a phone device, not a dedicated gaming device. Short term iphone has the best games and developers, but who knows what's going to happen with Phone 7 and Android in the next 3 years.
Posted by: Jethrolarson | Tuesday, 14 December 2010 at 03:43
Jethro: I agree that phone devices are gaining ground in the mobile space over dedicated handheld consoles, but this has very little to do with the battle over home consoles, which are not at this point significantly threatened by the handheld/phone market.
While televisions continue to sell, there will be a battle over the multimedia device that supplies content to it - both games and other media - and I'm not seeing any slowing in the market for television sets.
Thanks for sharing your views!
Posted by: Chris | Tuesday, 14 December 2010 at 11:11
Just as a data point:
Today at CES Microsoft announced that it sold some 8 million Kinect sensors in the first 60 days that the gadget was on the market.
Posted by: Sandbags | Thursday, 06 January 2011 at 13:39
Thanks Matt; that's about twice what Sony have sold with Move so far. What I'd really like to see is not total sales, but number of new Xbox 360s sold with Kinect - this would tell me how many new users they reached with it. If there were none, 8 million is about 16% penetration into their existing market.
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | Friday, 07 January 2011 at 13:07
That would be an interesting number but it wasn't in the CES announcement. Which is interesting because it's exactly the kind of statement, if it were present, that stockholders would love since it would mean that MS was opening a new market.
We might choose to infer from the absence of such a statement that MS is currently mining the XBobx fanboy segment. I guess the next Q's numbers will help us figure that out.
I can well imagine they're outstripping Move. Beyond you talking about it I haven't seen or heard anything. And I did go out shopping this christmas so I haven't been completely hidden from commercial reality.
Posted by: Sandbags | Friday, 07 January 2011 at 14:11
Well looking at sales of 360 this year versus last year over the Winter Festival, they are significantly up - almost double last year (although still selling less vigorously than Wii). If we assume this is entirely due to Kinect, that would suggest they reached approximately 2.4 million new users. This is hardly an awe inspiring figure, and you can understand why Microsoft would prefer to wave a flag over "best selling peripheral of all time" rather than give the specifics. :)
Over the last eight weeks, Wii sold 9 million new units, while 360 sold just under 6.5 million. This is a strong performance for Microsoft - and an embarrassment for Sony - but Nintendo are still king of the castle right now.
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | Monday, 10 January 2011 at 10:16
Just out of interest, is that units sold? Or units stuffed in the channel?
I've seen MS picked up in the past for reporting the latter number to make it look like their sales are better than they are.
Of course those units can then sit in retailer inventory for months.
Posted by: Sandbags | Monday, 10 January 2011 at 17:50
Matt: I'm pretty sure those figures are units sold, not units shipped. But you're right, platform holders do like to talk about units shipped when it sounds better. ;)
Posted by: Chris | Tuesday, 11 January 2011 at 08:35