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At the end of their E3 press conference, Microsoft had unveiled a piece of impressive technology coined simply as Project Natal. Natal is a camera for the Xbox 360, but unlike the old Xbox camera this one is light years ahead technologically. Microsoft says that the Natal can mimic the player’s movements in a one to one ratio on screen as well as have the ability for both voice and facial recognition.
Essentially Microsoft hopes that Natal can capture the mindshare of the casual audience by bypassing the barrier of physical controls. Even though only a few select individuals have had any meaningful time with the new device, Microsoft has made their intentions very clear. They want a piece of the casual market and believe that Natal is that Trojan Horse that can get them into living rooms.
However a crucial question remained. Is Natal offering an experience that will attract the casual base? Does driving a virtual car without a hefty steering wheel or interacting with Molyneux’s digital friend Milo really appeal to the casual market?
A few E3s ago when Nintendo had introduced the Wii to the world, many from the enthusiast press had berated it due to its virtual simplicity in both graphics and overall design. However, years later the Nintendo Wii would be celebrated by non-gamers because of those same features that the enthusiast press had originally dismissed.
When I look at Microsoft’s Project Natal, I do not see that concept of simplicity that Nintendo had introduced with the Wii years ago. What I see is simplicity in design, but not in function.
What Microsoft has to learn is that by just not having a controller does not make something simple. For instance, waving your hands does not make Xbox’s Dashboard any less daunting for people who are not familiar with videogames. Or just because Milo can tell how you are feeling at a certain moment does not make something approachable. Nintendo figured out a long time ago that the Wii-mote alone does not invite the casual audience to come in droves. It’s the overall philosophy of simplicity that entices them.
Take the dashboard on the Nintendo Wii for example. For those who are not familiar with videogames, the Wii dashboard is a very simple and hassle free experience. For them it is literally just a simple point and click interface that almost anyone can grasp. It is so simple in fact that anyone in your family, from your mother to your grandparents, would be able to navigate through it without trepidation.
There is absolutely nothing daunting about the Wii, which is why the casual crowd has flocked towards it. Enthusiasts of this hobby however, crave complexity and long narratives in their games. Casual players do not. They want simple, bit sized experiences or games that can be enjoyed in a group setting.
The technology that Microsoft has been showcasing through the Natal, shows in many ways the future of gaming. What Peter Molyneux has showed us through Milo, are the experiences that the enthusiasts crave. Yet to casual gamers, these experiences will seem foreign as an Xbox 360 controller.
The flaw with Microsoft’s approach to the casual market is that by just making the device simpler to interact with does not make a game any less daunting. While Natal is a good first step in inviting non-gamers to the Xbox 360, the interface that Natal works on has to become simpler as well.
Right now, Microsoft has only met the casual audience half way in promising them an inviting experience. Little things like easy interaction with the Xbox’s Dashboard and more social games like Rock Band can really go a long way. They have to realize that by having a simpler wheel does not mean anything unless the car itself is easier to drive.As an enthusiast, I am very excited about the possibilities and the new experiences Natal could bring to the videogame medium. Yet if Microsoft thinks that just by taking away the controller will get them into the mindset of the casual crowd, then they are just missing the point entirely.