Microsoft’s Kinect needs no introduction. It is a device of such profound influence that it has managed to create a catastrophically divisive reputation in only four years. Introduced as a response to the success of Nintendo’s Wii, Kinect was an all new interactive interface for the whole family. You could play sports, work out, fight a monster, and see the bottom of an avatar’s shoe.
Don Mattrick, then Senior Vice President in charge of the Xbox 360, introduced “Project Natal” at E3 2009 with an ambitious promise. The “controller-free gaming and entertainment experience” was to stand alongside Mattrick’s other achievements alongside the growth of Xbox Live as a means of propelling the Xbox brand further into consumer’s homes. With 8 million units sold in the first two months, the November 2010 launch seemed to reinforce the public’s desire for this sort of interface. The water had been tested, and the future of Xbox was preparing to shift focus.
Newly promoted to President of Interactive Entertainment Business, Mattrick spearheaded the Xbox One project. His goal was to create an all-in-one entertainment device powered by a new version of Kinect. A powerful gaming machine that would gather all of your favorite media and provide you a voice and gesture interface to interact with your content. Xbox 360 was a massive success, as was the experimental Kinect. Xbox One was primed to be Mattrick’s biggest entertainment product ever created. The consumer didn’t exactly agree with him.
In less than a year since E3 2013, the Xbox One has seen massive overhauls to both it’s feature set and forward philosophy. An always-connected and digital-heavy focus was set to help Xbox One house a unique experience over the PlayStation 4. An ambitious dream perhaps a few years ahead of its time. One by one, many of the Xbox One’s touted features were cut as the console was quickly reshaped as a mere extension of what the Xbox 360 already was. The mixed messaging and negative reception forced Microsoft into a difficult launch for what should have been a sure thing. The Xbox One has been a commercial success, but it hasn’t become the dominating force they needed it to be.
Despite the negativity, Microsoft stuck to its guns regarding their vision of the future of Xbox. Kinect is integrated, Kinect is the future, Kinect is Xbox. The final piece of the puzzle was the under-proven peripheral that drove the price of the console above its competitor, and we were told there was no way it was being shucked.
Don Mattrick left Microsoft last summer to become CEO of Zynga, and after a long delay he was effectively replaced by long-time Xbox advocate Phil Spencer. Under Phil’s oversight, Microsoft has been preparing for E3 2014 like no gaming event before. After nearly a year of backlash and diminshing market share, the Xbox platform has taken dramatic lengths to redirect their focus towards what their target consumer cares about the most. It isn’t TV, it isn’t sports, and it isn’t Kinect. And so last month, in May of 2014, Microsoft announced they would be releasing a SKU of the Xbox One without Kinect for $400. Suddenly, Kinect was no longer a driving focus of the platform. In one move, it had become a peripheral just like its predecessor.
A year after the Xbox One’s reveal the Kinect is still an under-utilized peripheral. Without a killer app to prove exactly why consumers need the Kinect, nor with one on the horizon, Microsoft has been forced into making the hardware merely an option. Kinect Sports Rivals, intended to be the flagship title for the device, was met with unimpressed critical response and extremely poor sales. Layoffs have hit developer Rare, with the studio now restructuring their direction. Harmonix, developers of the upcoming Fantasia: Music Evolved, find themselves in an unexpected situation. With an upcoming game that is dependent on this device, they are facing a release for a platform that isn’t as united as Microsoft led them to believe. With nearly 60 employees laid off between them, these two successful studios experience with Kinect doesn’t exactly inspire confidence going forward.
So here we stand on the cusp, with Kinect’s future hanging in uncertainty. Fans are unconvinced and developers are seeing little financial return for the investment. With E3 2014 right around the corner, all we know is Microsoft is preparing for a massive show. This is the year Microsoft shows us why we need Xbox One. If Kinect isn’t a major part of that demonstration, then there’s no turning back. With the consumer ready to leave Kinect behind, and now having the option to do so, this may be the last strong chance to prove to fans it is a device worth owning. If E3 2014 doesn’t make a strong case for Kinect, it may not last the next 5 years.