Another week, another Xbox One U-turn. Wait, I'm sure I've written that sentence before.
This week, though, comes the revelation that Kinect is completely optional.
"Like online, the console will still function if Kinect isn’t plugged in, although you won’t be able to use any feature or experience that explicitly uses the sensor,” Xbox One architect Marc Whitten has revealed. “You have the ability to completely turn the sensor off in your settings. When in this mode, the sensor is not collecting any information. Any functionality that relies on voice, video, gesture or more won’t work. We still support using it for IR blasting in this mode."
“You can turn the sensor back on at any time through settings, and if you enter into a required Kinect experience (like Kinect Sports Rivals for instance), you’ll get a message asking if you want to turn the sensor back on in order to continue.”
Over the course of the past month or so, Microsoft have basically spent their time contradicting their big Xbox One reveal. After all, that was a presentation all about how incredible it would be to have a console that was always connected, linked with a camera that was strikingly more powerful than that of this generation, affording Xbox customers functionality that could not be found anywhere else.
Of course, that might still prove to be the case. There'll undoubtedly still be a whole bunch of things you can do with this super-powered Kinect device if you have it that will delight gadget hounds no end. For the record, many gamers I've spoken to have been rather more excited about the futuristic possibilities of a console so intrinsically linked with this superior Kinect tech.
Microsoft made a big deal out of placing Kinect front and centre when it came to the original pitch for the Xbox One, a move that was understandably met with derision. After all, Kinect has been little more than a family-friendly accessory for dance games and Wii knockoffs. The Minority Report-esque functionality never really arrived on Xbox 360, the tech simply wasn't up to scratch, and the fact that the device arrived so late into the 360's lifespan meant that the core never really took it seriously. Its imprecision in terms of motion control meant that it was something of an all-or-nothing device: either you made a Kinect game, or you made a "normal" game, maybe with some voice commands that people would use once or twice for novelty's sake.
It was a novelty. Nothing more.
So there's the reason for the derision. "But this new Kinect is so much more powerful!" Microsoft said, without showing us any reason to believe such a statement or get excited about the implications of that for next-gen gaming. It didn't help that Ryse, a game originally intended to be a Kinect-based game on Xbox One, turned up to E3 with nothing to offer but some cutscenes and a bunch of ham-handed quick-time events. What little faith Microsoft and Crytek must have in this new Kinect camera if its flagship game is deemed better with QTEs than some kind of replication of swordplay.
Ryse points towards the sort of future the new Kinect camera will have now that it's been pushed out of the limelight and shunted to one side again. Once again, Microsoft appear to have dealt in absolutes. Just as with the DRM fiasco and the "choice" between a draconian digital future and the status quo, no middle ground in sight, so too has this come to light as a decision made between to extremes. Just as they failed to show us why we should be excited for a permanent connection between console and cloud, Microsoft failed to show us why mandatory Kinect could be of service to us as gamers. Time is running out, sure, but it smacks of capitulation rather than trying to work it out.
The question on every consumer's lips is now, "Why should we pay for something we don't need?" If Kinect is mandatory why should consumers front up an extra £70 or so for a device they don't want? Microsoft adamantly denied that they were readying a Kinect-less SKU for next year, and that looks rather like a porky to me now. But if they do drop Kinect for an Xbox One standalone SKU, then they're assuredly consigning what must have been an enormously expensive piece of hardware to develop to relative obscurity, not just for consumers, but for developers as well.
A month ago, when Microsoft as a company fell on its sword over the DRM PR nightmare, a figure purporting to be an anonymous Xbox One dev took to Reddit to answer some questions, no doubt appalled at the way their company was botching communication. The developer revealed that the camera reportedly cost as much to develop as the Xbox One itself, and discussed the mandatory nature of Kinect:
"The goal with having a Kinect ship with every Xbox is to guarantee to game developers if they implement Kinect features into their games, everyone who has an Xbox will be able to experience it. I often see people dismiss the Kinect instantly because they haven't seen it work like I have. It is an integral part of the Xbox One experience.
"The majority of the masses care only about the console, except that the success of the Kinect carries much more weight to us. The sensor costs almost as much as the console to make."
Pressed on the matter by comments arguing that Kinect could still be included without being mandatory, the alleged developer gave the following response:
The number of features on the Xbox One that uses the Kinect is almost too many to count. I can't imagine using the console without it. To me, I see two ways to deal with this.
1) Not require the Kinect to be always plugged in and have all these features turned off by default.
2) Enable these features by default and turn them off if people choose to turn off the Kinect.
The first choice would undermine our guarantee to game developers.
That last point is the most important one. With an uncaring consumer base who've been burned once and have no desire to waste their time on the new camera, no matter how powerful it is, why would developers bother wasting time incorporating features into their games that only a few people are going to use? And if no-one's making games that make use of the Kinect camera, what's the point in having one?
The price of the PS4 is basically that of an Xbox One without the camera. But as much as the vocal minority made plenty of noise about Sony winning E3, the Xbox One has had its fair share of supporters too. All Microsoft needed to do was show us what we were getting for our extra £70. But they haven't. Outside of a few cool OS features, they've once again failed to illustrate the ways in which the Xbox One might have been set apart from its direct competitor.
The original design for the Xbox One set it apart from the PS4 in a number of ways. Some were controversial, others were simply new. But this isn't an industry that does "new" very well. We look critically upon precedent, we are an entitled bunch that demand proof, and Microsoft should have known that. Instead, we're all paying the price once again for poor communication. "Why should we change?" we asked. "Why do we need these things that you're offering?" And instead of answering, Microsoft have scurried away and returned with a meek and hurried, "Oh, you don't. Not really."
Microsoft have weakened themselves with this one, and only some serious firepower at Gamescom will steady the ship. We need justification -- as Jon put it earlier today, Microsoft have dropped the stick, but where's the carrot? As I write this, the Gamescom timetable is bulging at the seams. We've got the best part of a whole day already booked in to see Sony and the PS4, and they've already sent over the embed code for next week's presser. There've been showcases, explanatory events, reams of first-party videos and blog posts and developer conversations. Microsoft, on the other hand, have been quiet as mice, aside from falling over themselves. It's no biggie, of course, unless you consider the largest consumer show in the world to be a big deal. I mean it's not as if they're trying to peddle a new console in a few months...