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Will Bugs Bring Down Microsoft's Project Natal?


Slow response times could keep developers away from the next Xbox.


There is little doubt that the Nintendo Wii's unique controls changed how both developers and players view video gaming. The system's motion-detecting controller meant more diverse interaction, less button smashing, and a wider range of novice, older, and female users.

But along with those benefits came a variety of setbacks: developer laziness (why put time and effort into a game if the half-hearted attempts fly off the shelves), halted innovation (Wii MotionPlus merely implements the 1:1 ratio that should have existed in the first place), and delusional manufacturers (Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata doesn't see the point of HD).

While the Nintendo Wii is far and away the top seller of its ilk, the results from its success have actually stunted the Wii's appeal for many gamers and left the door open for Sony (SNE) and Microsoft (MSFT) to grab the leader's reins with a superior product. (See How Nintendo Lost Its Stride).

Enter Microsoft's Project Natal and Sony's Motion Controller.

Due this fall, Sony's motion detector for the PlayStation 3 isn't very different from the Wii's controller: a handheld wand with buttons and directional pad. But Microsoft's Project Natal for the Xbox 360 allows gamers to control onscreen action with no controller at all. Just with their bodies.

Last week, Microsoft demoed the product to several journalists who were eager to test out the controls and note any progress made since last summer's Electronic Entertainment Expo. Unfortunately, there wasn't any. And Brian Crecente at the gaming blog Kotaku reported that one problem was noticeable enough to completely distract him from the gameplay: a split-second lag.

At the heart of Project Natal is a set-top sensor that incorporates your movements into the game. But with less than a year before the official release, the camera suffers from a split-second lag that could render a gamer's quick reactions utterly moot. Crecente explains:

Instead of waving a remote around wildly to smack a tennis ball or knock an in-game foe down with a digital sword, I found myself feeling disconnected from Microsoft's controller-free experience. I realized, as I played around with the Project Natal prototype, due to hit stores this year, that I was spending more time examining the game's reaction to my motions than I was having fun.

Unlike the Wii sensor bar, Project Natal's interprets multiple action points -- 48, to be exact -- on the gamer's body, forcing the system to render every movement as close to real time as possible. The Wii, however, only has to measure the movement of the Wiimotes -- a far easier task. Whereas any lag attributed to the Wii has become imperceptible after three years on the market, Project Natal isn't so lucky.

After experimenting with the system, Russ Frushtick at MTV (VIA) remains confident that Microsoft will introduce a firmware update or hardware peripheral to correct the problem, even if it's after the release. But will that be enough to appease a jittery game developer from jumping on board?

Back in December, Jon Burton -- head of Traveller's Tales, the studio behind the popular Lego video game series -- voiced his concerns over the lag problem plaguing Project Natal. "Lag on the input and lack of physical buttons is really going to restrict the kind of games that can be done with it," Burton noted.

Burton also explained his preference for the PlayStation controller over Project Natal. "Sony's solution will be cheap, accurate, and will put buttons at your fingertips, meaning everything from action adventures to FPSes can be handled with the same input."

But Burton isn't leading a mass exodus from the prospect of working within Project Natal. The writer behind the zombie shooter Left 4 Dead, Chet Faliszek, remarked that the system is "really cool." He voiced only one worry: That fellow developers don't take full advantage of the technology.

"We have these technologies now that let us interact in different, really exciting ways. It's developers' jobs to do something with it. Impress me," Faliszek said. "Don't just make shitty games I wouldn't want to play if I had to use a joystick."

Thankfully, there's at least one developer who doesn't want to make the same mistakes Wii did.

For more on video game controllers, see Peripherals Controlling Video Game Market.

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