For Microsoft, the launch of its controller-free Kinect motion sensing device is much more than placing a new peripheral onto the console market -- from marketing to buzz, the company's looking at Kinect's launch as if it were an entirely new platform.
Yesterday, in the lead-up to today's release, Microsoft virtually took over New York's Times Square, one of the nation's most recognizable city blocks.
This morning, key members of the company's Xbox team, like product director Aaron Greenberg and Xbox Live program manager Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb were on Wall Street to ring the NASDAQ's opening bell.
Microsoft president of Interactive Entertainment Business Don Mattrick has promised the Xbox brand's biggest launch ever in terms of unit sales, and the company yesterday upped its holiday forecast from 3 to 5 million units, clearly aiming for the same kind of explosive mainstream response Nintendo's Wii achieved when it revolutionized traditional controls by adding motion.
There's been plenty of cautious skepticism from the core consumer gaming press about the device, however. Although Kinect is receiving major publisher support, with a 17-title launch lineup, Kotaku observes that its initial aim is so broad "Kinect fails to do any one thing excellently," and suggests the imitation of Wii-like racers and sport titles is "shameless."
Critical consensus also seems to hold that the device recognizes input much less than perfectly; in a review with a headline claiming Kinect "sacrifices the controller on the altar of accuracy," PC World called the tech "incomplete and frequently crude, with all the promise of something amazing, but only partial delivery."
A Joystiq reviewer found Kinect had trouble recognizing his face when he had his glasses on, and he also felt the device requires an unreasonable amount of living room space to play games. The site's sum verdict was harsh: "For all the talk of revolutionizing the Xbox 360 experience and making gaming more natural/ accessible, it's bordering on absurd how broken Kinect is when it comes to something as simple as working in your home."
But most critics conceded the appeal that body control could hold for casual players -- Kinect "isn't for me, it's for my wife," said the PC World reviewer. And to play Devil's advocate, it's worth remembering that the launch of the Wii was met with many similar complaints about accuracy and doubts about whether it could appeal to an audience of any significant size.
Of course, Nintendo's console went on to shock the gaming landscape and permanently transformed the audience. And Microsoft recently spoke to Gamasutra about how reaching Xbox Live's 25 million-strong community with interactive multimedia content like movies and sports is as pivotal to its Kinect strategy as games. Thus only Kinect's performance on the market and the reaction that's sure to follow this season can reliably speak to Microsoft's success with the device.
The company's not pulling any punches on the marketing front, backing Kinect with "the largest, most integrated marketing initiative in Xbox history, bigger than [the system's] launch." The company hasn't confirmed its marketing spend, but some reports have placed it as high as $500 million.
Microsoft's all-day Times Square gala yesterday, running from 8:00 AM to a midnight launch, was just the culmination, a venue for the company to host demos, celebrity appearances and even a "massive, choreographed dance routine," to use the company's own description.
Actor Mark Wahlberg was on hand to help promote Kinect and to announce the company's big donation of Kinect units to America's Boys & Girls Clubs, before dancers claimed the city streets with singers Ne-Yo and Lady Sovereign in a "surprise tribute" to the device.
The hype's helping: Retailers worldwide have reported shortages and have placed limitations on pre-orders with an eye toward having enough stock to meet demand. Kinect sells as a standalone unit for $150, including the game Kinect Adventures, as well as part of a 4GB Xbox 360-Kinect bundle for $299 and a 250GB bundle for $399, which both also include the game.