Sign Off : Do my eyes deceive me? A skeptic’s view of the E3 announcements

markHere we are at the conclusion of another issue of GeekDeck. It’s at this point that cbx33 can breathe a sigh of relief as this month I’m going to sign off. This time around it’s my turn to look back over the past month and find something to moan about (anyone that’s seen my other article in this issue, Me gamer, me angry! will see that it’s something I’ve been doing a lot lately!)

This week I’m musing over the big announcement that Microsoft made at the start of the week at the E3 2009 show. What is usually announced behind closed doors and then reported, blogged, twittered, written and spoken about afterwards, was this year broadcast live over the Xbox live network and straight into your living room. Having sat through what felt like hours of press jargon about the latest ‘never seen before’ game trailers that in some cases I had in fact seen before we finally got to the big announcement, the games were simply the bait; this announcement was the going for the catch.

So, the rumours of a motion controller were true, but what Microsoft had managed to keep quite was the fact that you are the controller. Project Natal is a complete 3D motion tracking, face recognising, emotion recognising, voice recognising control system that I have to admit actually looks rather good. We saw it in action courtesy of someone painting using hand gestures and someone kicking and swiping at virtual footballs to bounce them off a virtual wall. We also saw a video, introduced by Lionhead Studio’s head Peter Molyneux, of woman interacting with a virtual child that was able to react and respond realistically to the questions posed and emotions shown by the woman. We then saw a demonstration of the gestures that can now be used to navigate around the system. Think the virtual computer scene in the film Minority Report and you’ll be some of the way there.

So far so good I thought, but then the doubt set in. This is Microsoft we’re talking about. A company that isn’t afraid to blow its own trumpet about projects that end up delivering far less than they actually promised. Vista was supposed to be the most wonderful, secure, stable and down right brilliant operating system ever and we all know how that turned out. Its feet have barely touched the ground and yet its successor is very nearly upon us. Says it all! Project Natal has already promised so much. It takes the principals that the Wii introduced to great success, and takes them further by throwing many more features in to the mix. No pressure to deliver then! There’s scope for it to fall far short of its goals, or even if it does meet its goals, there’s the possibility that it won’t perform them to the quality that we have been lead to believe. A perfect example was when the host tried to get his avatar (of him) on screen to lift his foot by lift his own in real life. The avatar did it but in a rather jerky, inconsistent and awkward manor. Ok, so it was only a tech demo but compared to the video we’d seen moments before of a kid playing a fighting game with each of his punches and kicks shown as perfect recreations of his actions in his living room, the technology could have a way to go.

“grill the developer and it turns out that it’s ‘in game’ but a game that’s running on a high spec PC at a speed that emulates what it’ll be like on a PS3 in a years time„

Another doubt was about those goals themselves. All the things that it was promised to do were shown through videos. ‘Nice’ I thought, before realising that they were just that, ‘videos’. How do we know that the video of the woman interacting and chatting with the virtual child wasn’t just a pre-rendered video with the woman acting and following a well timed script. Peter Molyneux did, in some ways, acknowledge that people may view what they’d seen as fake and therefore invited people to see it first hand and have a go at it on the Lionhead stand at the show but I’m still skeptical. E3 has never been short of boasts by developers stating ‘this is in game footage’. Boasts that seem rather premature when the game actually comes out a year later. Killzone 2 was a victim of such a boast. ‘It’s in game footage’ they cried at E3. Well, yes it is, but grill the developer and it turns out that it’s ‘in game’ but a game that’s running on a high spec PC at a speed that emulates what it’ll be like on a PS3 in a years time. I’ve come to learn that if it’s not shown in some form of finished format, prepare to be disappointed. The bar for Microsoft’s goals has been set very high by their own PR. I’m not holding my breath.

Since I started writing this piece Sony has now announced that it too has developed a motion sensing control system. This time it’s a combination of what we have already. The Sony system uses two handheld ‘wands’, one in each hand, like the Wii, but these wands are motion tracked by the already existing Eye Toy. So, we have two ‘remotes’ and a motion tracking camera. The tag line should be ‘It’s original, we swear!’ To be fair they have been working on the Eye Toy for quite a while and Sony didn’t wrap this all up in the press jargon and didn’t tie the bow around it using boasts and glossy videos. They showed the system working but using very early, poorly rendered working mock ups and they made no excuses for it. Sony’s aim was to show how it was progressing, not what the end product would be. By not laying out their vision of the finished product and only showing the potential of the product I found myself dreaming of the potential uses, not doubting whether any goals will be met. Different approach, different response.

I’m left wondering, in this day and age with technology where it is, are we to believe everything we see. Think about it, we could be shown whatever they want us to see to get us interested. Ok, so in order not to look stupid there has to be some truth in it but other than that they could render whatever they wanted. Games are made to engage and stimulate through what we see and hear but in order to do this are we all victims of another ‘game’ spun by PR departments?

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