In the center of the E3 show floor in the Los Angeles Convention Center's South Hall, Microsoft gave attendees demonstrations of Kinect games in transparent rooms, outside of which visitors routinely clustered to watch participants haltingly jump, squat and flail.
The expressions of the onlookers were often rapt, periodically puzzled, and at times amused -- although those expressions were most likely directed at just how bizarre players looked angling their bodies uncertainly in communication with the device.
Kinect for Xbox 360 promises to make "you" the controller, but rather than the fluid physical recognition hinted at in demonstrations, the device needs broad, decisive gestures. Rather than naturalistically simulating real-life movements, players seem more to be communicating with Kinect in some kind of full-body sign language.
It's not without its moments of absolute joy; it's fun to be silly with friends. The sense of wonderment when, in Kinectimals, a positively adorable creature comes bounding up to the screen in the response to a hand gesture hints at the promise in a device that places no barrier between the human being and the interactive entertainment experience.
But it remains to be seen whether Kinect experiences can truly offer players something markedly more compelling than what the Wii interface and games like Wii Sports and Wii Fit have already handily mastered. Because of the deliberate gesture clarity required of Kinect, playing even stunt driving games or dance titles is enormously athletic -- more than one demo recipient broke a sweat on their tour through the booth.
This is enormously promising for fitness software, especially Ubisoft's Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, which employs the company's "player projection technology" to display a direct, responsive body scan of the user. But it's a lot of work to put in for a simple driving game.
There are limitations, too. A product whose ideal applications are clearly primarily aimed at a more casual audience must be able to offer a party experience -- four players can easily play New Super Mario Bros., for example, but can four people easily fit in the range of Kinect's camera eye? Developer sources Gamasutra spoke to throughout the event aren't so sure, and even if so, is everyone's living room big enough? The "party" would probably be over if one player caught an elbow in the eye from another player standing directly beside her.
Despite Microsoft's tack that sees controllers as a barrier to immersion, it seems gaming experiences are still most intuitive and most comprehensive with an object in hand -- media seemed to respond more positively to Sony's PlayStation Move games, and certainly the pleasant, glow-topped controller appears at least for now to be much more easily oriented to a wider variety of gameplay experiences.
Both Sony and Microsoft have positioned their motion control solutions as a mid-cycle "refresh" for their consoles, and both will now have to go all in with their respective initiatives. The major takeaway from the E3 show floor regarding motion controls is that it's really too early to answer two key questions: will the most likely target consumer -- whom before now we called "The Wii Audience" -- find these experiences new or compelling enough? And will they offer a value proposition that the traditional consumer desires or understands? Marketing will be key, and 2011 will act as a proving ground.
With motion controls arguably at the center of E3 2010, it's important to conclude that our first contact with these solutions raised more questions than they answered -- they haven't launched the battle, only seeded the field.
Another core pillar of E3 was 3D; some gawked at startlingly immersive stereoscopic looks at Killzone 3, others seemed overwhelmed. Such rich visual depth could change the way consumers think about gaming, but there's clearly a constituency that won't be sold.
However, Nintendo's 3DS was widely perceived by analysts and fans to be one of the biggest winners at an event with few surprise announcements -- except, of course, those that came out of Nintendo. The company has had something of a curious media strategy nearly since the launch of the Wii, making gangbuster successes with its evergreen casual titles, but stirring resentment from its long-term fanbase.
This year, rather than present a puzzling presentation of executives riding Wii Balance Boards and strange peripherals like the Vitality Sensor, Nintendo was in top form, virtually concussing core fans with a barrage of announcements of beloved properties, from Zelda and Kid Icarus to Kirby. The booth was swamped, and smiles were plentiful.
E3 hasn't been Nintendo's show in years; in fact, last year some even joked that the company should stop presenting here and instead stick to toy fairs. This year, the company was far and away the clearest winner, delighting the hardcore consumer with brand-new title announcements and the exciting 3DS while the other two platform holders looked to be clamoring for marketshare Nintendo has been dominating for the past few years.
The showfloor was at its finest form in years, however -- after a few years of wiggling for a sweet spot, the event seemed to strike a perfect balance between glitz and glory and cool professionalism, despite the fact that there were relatively few titles on display of which fans weren't already aware (except those from Nintendo, of course).
Sony and Microsoft have clearly begun something new here, just as they intended to, and Nintendo looks like a company flowering, coming back into its own after putting down solid, if unglamorous roots in party games and fitness software. The main takeaway from E3 2010 seems to be that among the Big Three, the playing field's been leveled, and the next few years are anybody's game.