Do you remember E3 2011? When everything Sony said was underpinned with an assurance that 3D was the future--and PlayStation 3 was going to be right at the heart of that future? Well, that didn’t last long. Sony cannily recognised that its customers didn't share that vision, and quietly got out before it was in too deep. Similarly, you must remember how Kinect has been an integral part of Microsoft’s E3s since Project Natal was unveiled in 2009. You probably see where I'm going with this.
You can't really get 'in' much deeper than claiming 'Xbox One IS Kinect' (opens in new tab) as recently as last August, yet this year's press conference also suggests that Microsoft is getting out while it still can. Consensus seems to be that most people don't want the Kinect future. They just want video games. And Microsoft responded with a conference focused solely on games (opens in new tab). Good thing too--doing so is the only way the company can repair the goodwill of the hardcore gaming crowd.
I cannot emphasise enough how vital customer goodwill towards a brand is to a games company. It's an integral part of the purchasing decision and, whether consciously or otherwise, "What does this product represent to me?" is a question you ask yourself when you're thinking about buying a new console. So it doesn't matter if the product itself is actually great or not. If it's associated with bad things, it won't sell as well.
It's the old Eddie Izzard supermarket thing, where you walk in and see fresh fruit, because they want you to feel that the shop is full of fresh things. Nobody wants to buy from a shop where the first thing you see is toilet rolls, because then everything has connotations of poo. As an example from history, look at this: when Sega unveiled the Dreamcast in 1998, it didn’t even have the name ‘Sega’ printed on the front of it:
At that time, while Saturn was in its death throes, the Sega name had moved away from representing speed, fun and awesomeness and instead represented failed hardware, inferior ports and basically not being as good as a PlayStation. Basically, poo. Eventually, the name was reinstated to the DC unit, but the fact it was ever missing at all demonstrates how serious companies take this sort of thing. And right now, Xbox One doesn’t appear to have as much goodwill attached to its name as Xbox 360 before it, and Kinect is more than a little responsible for that backlash.
It's nothing new, of course. Microsoft is only experiencing the situation Sony was in at the start of the previous generation. Each new brand needs to be built up on its own merits because previous success doesn't guarantee a repeat. Same with Wii U. It is now associated with low sales, few games and last-gen visuals. It just is, and it doesn't matter that the games are often amazing. And the longer it goes on, the harder it is to turn around.
Let's play a game. What do you think of when I say ‘Xbox 360’? For me, my mind's eye flashes up a picture of the power button on the front of the console (and the lights are green these days, not red) and then I think of Achievements, closely followed by Xbox Live Gold. That is a very good association and I’m sure Microsoft would be very pleased that the brand they’ve built up for almost a decade is being linked with exactly the sort of things they would want it to be. Especially in the mind of a professional critic. Good job.
Now, think again: what do you see when I say ‘Xbox One’? For me, I see the VCR-like casing, the confusing front end UI, and that I don’t want Kinect in my home, listening to me all the time. That’s a disaster in terms of brand association and it needs turning around sharpish. And that's why this E3 saw Microsoft presenting Xbox One more like Xbox 360 of a few years ago.
In fact, now you've got your brain into imagining Xboxy things: Do you remember Microsoft showing a single picture of the console itself during this year's press conference? And do you remember a single reference to Kinect? I'll tell you, there was one reference during the segment about Indie development, and another in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it Dance Central Spotlight announcement. And the only picture of the console seems to be this...
...which starts with Kinect in-shot, but then zooms in to crop it out. The press conference was presented almost as though Kinect doesn’t exist and Xbox One is simply a console that has got some excellent games heading its way. A wise approach. But I can't help but think if that approach had been the taken last year at the Xbox One reveal event, then Microsoft and Sony would likely be neck-and-neck in the console war again.
So if Kinect is barely mentioned, surely the casual observer would assume that it is unimportant? An optional extra. And the past few months would seem to back that up. Microsoft appears to be giving up on it, ditching its original, fundamental philosophy of ‘Xbox One IS Kinect’ and instead releasing a Kinect-free version of the console, simultaneously freeing up the space allocated to its future firmware updates and processing overheads to allow developers to make better games. And now it is barely mentioning its beloved baby at the biggest press conference on the gaming calendar. Is said baby being disowned?
Maybe so. And the reason is simple. To be blunt, Kinect has a bad rep. It has so much bitterness attached to it, I don’t see how it can ever recover now. Its name has become associated with privacy invasion, finicky voice control, price inflation and using up precious system resources that are making the competition’s games look better.
I think that’s it for Kinect. I don’t think next year’s E3 will be any different in terms of steering clear from mentioning it unless absolutely necessary. I do think there will be a return to some talk of apps and development for the future, the same way Sony showed its PlayStation Now and Project Morpheus. Right now, I think Microsoft have made a decent start towards positioning Xbox One as a worthy successor to Xbox 360 with this year's show. The new-gen games console with good exclusives. I like that idea and I can picture it. The glowing power button on the front of the Xbox One, achievements snapped to the side of the screen (with game guides from GamesRadar just a button push away), and Xbox Live offering a superb connected experience. I like that picture. But Kinect is not a part of it.