The Many Deaths of the Kinect

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The Many Deaths of the Kinect

Hey, did you hear the Kinect is dead again? No, for real this time. Microsoft is ceasing production of the adapters that power the device. If you wear out your cable, that’s it, too bad. No more juice for you.

This is far from the first time the Kinect has “died.” Looking at the annals of Kinect history, there were similar declarations around the announcement that the Kinect would no longer be manufactured. The decree was also issued (more fittingly) when Microsoft famously separated the hardware from the Xbox One, delivering the death knell just as Fantasia: Music Evolved and the next installment of Dance Central, both device-sellers, was about to be released.

But if you ask me, the announcements are posthumous. The Kinect, for all intents and purposes, was DOA. As one of its biggest supporters, I’m surprised to hear myself say it. I’m still enthusiastic about the full body tracking and its potential for practical application. But the device was never properly integrated or supported, and in a way, never stood a chance in the motion control market. Not because the product wasn’t unique enough or “good” enough: the technology was there, and its uses were many. But because they were playing a catch-up game with a company that had already built simple, accessible motion controls into the foundation of their console experience.

Upon the release of the Kinect, Microsoft (as with Sony and PlayStation Move) were already at a disadvantage in that they were playing a catch-up game. Nintendo had already gotten there first with the Wii. And let’s face it: the motion controls on the Wii took over the world. Not only did they manage to warm up an entire consumer base to an intimidating new piece of technology, they managed to do it so well that they became an ambassador for videogames. All over the world, broader age groups and demographics were purchasing the Wii, and the console eventually sold over 100 million consoles, even spawning spin-off console the Wii Mini seven years after the Wii’s initial release (the Wii U, admittedly a far less popular device, sold 14 million and was no longer manufactured only five years into the console’s life span). At a glance, it doesn’t even make sense. Some of the most risk-averse groups, the demographics most resistant to change and new technology (like the elderly), were picking up the Wii. Nintendo didn’t just integrate the product well into the Nintendo experience—they threw the entire curve.

How they achieved this can tell us a lot about where the Kinect went wrong. First and foremost: first vs. third party developers. Nintendo’s classic reluctance to work with outside parties actually helped them when it came to the Wii. The tight grip they maintain on their games has in the past led to smaller game catalogs and, particularly with the Wii, almost no “adult” titles, but it also served a purpose. By insisting they be a part of the design process from the ground up, they ensure their company values are always intact, and that the core games they release support their latest innovations (a vital strategy in light of their inability to keep up with growing hardware demands). As such, the Wii motion controls were always front and center, built into the foundation of their games, rather than an afterthought. And while some Kinect-incorporated games were built solely with the Kinect in mind, most only offered flimsy integration and support.

I imagine this is because developers did not want to take a risk on building a game entirely around the Kinect, given that it was not yet a proven concept or device. Many games were probably already deep into production by the time the designers were asked to incorporate the Kinect, which also doesn’t help (and may explain why so many Kinect-integrated features were limited to external apps, like with Dead Rising 3, or only offered mic-based enhancements). Most of the games specifically designed for the Kinect on Xbox 360 were straight-up shovelware, in turn adding to a lack of consumer faith towards the device. To this day, the biggest and best Kinect games are IPs that were created specifically for the Kinect, like Dance Central, Fantasia: Music Evolved and Kinect Sports. There are no core titles of any major series that were designed around full Kinect integration. This may have played its part in the Kinect’s ultimate demise.

The motion controls of the Wii, meanwhile, front and center to every game that appeared on the console, evolved and moved on. Nintendo added a gyroscopic element of motion control to the 3DS, which was in turn showed up on the Wii U. While the Wii U, due to branding, inferior hardware, and other issues was more or less a failure, the Switch has been anything but, incorporating the gyroscoping of the Wii U and 3DS and adding the separate standalone controls of the Wii, in the form of detachable Joycons. Nintendo learned to adapt more gracefully as time went on, choosing to correct their course instead of abandon it all together. This maintains Nintendo’s individuality, and thus ensures their place in a highly competitive market where consumer values do not always align with their own.

It seems that when it came to the Kinect, Microsoft could only see a few feet ahead of themselves at any given time. When I reached out to former Harmonix employees while doing research for this article, I was told that leading up to the release of Dance Central: Spotlight, Harmonix (who were admittedly pushing to become the “Premier Kinect Developer”) were assured many times that their DLC-heavy monetization model, already on “razor thin margins,” would work out favorably due to the Kinect’s mandatory inclusion with every Xbox One. Mere months ahead of Fantasia: Music Evolved and Dance Central: Spotlight, Microsoft announced the cheaper Kinect-free version of the Xbox One. An unannounced Harmonix project was subsequently cancelled.

As a dedicated user of Kinect games to improve my health and fitness I still value the Kinect, and I wish that Microsoft would rededicate themselves to the technology rather than abandon it. But I also realize that in the future, the role it played will likely be filled by VR, should VR ever work out some of its own mobility issues. There is just too much potential for practical application for the legacy of the Kinect to disappear completely. But if it does, Microsoft will have no one to blame but themselves.

Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.