Project Natal and Music Simulation Games

natal

Everybody’s talking about it, it’s the next big thing to hit the XBOX 360 and, according to the lucky fellas who’ve seen it in action, it will kick major butts. Yep, Project Natal’s coming and, according Scott Guthrie:

“The Harmonix development team are working on what is effectively the next game, or ‘Rock Band 3’. We aren’t standing still – we will keep moving into new areas and look at new technologies that our platform holder partners are also developing, such as Project Natal from Microsoft. We’re working with them to pull some things together. So it’s pretty exciting time for the future of our music game business.”

To read the whole interview, click here.

Alright, so Rock Band 3 is going to use Natal’s technology. That’s awesome news, I’m sure you’ll agree with me. Right off the bat, there are a few functionalities that come to my mind:

1) Being able to just SAY the name of the song you wanna play, instead of looking for it in your immense library.
2) Being able to draw the logo of your band and let Natal scan it.
3) Being able to show Natal the tattoos you want inside the game.
4) If you’re a musician, you could show Natal your own real instrument and it would scan it.

Those are all really cool features… but of course, when you think about Project Natal, something else comes to your mind, right? I mean, the biggest functionality would have to be… having your own antics appearing in the game, of course! That would be awesome, right?!?

Well, not so fast. As a plastic guitar player, let me say something first. I suck at stage presence. When I’m playing my songs, I’m generally staring with eyes wide open at the TV screen, usually tapping my foot and only rarely doing something weird like changing facial expressions in a funny way and dancing. So that functionality would definitely fail with me. I mean, look at this posts’s title picture up there. Do you see that guy doing a high kick? I can’t do that while playing my guitar, unless I wanna miss a bunch of notes.

Nowadays, the characters of the game already have some really awesome animations. The guitar player breaks his guitar, the singer jumps into the crowd, the drummer throws his drumsticks in the air. We, poor mortals, having to pay attention to our note tracks, barely even move around. Most of us don’t jump and play our intruments backwards, that’s for sure. So what could Harmonix be planning?

Now, I’ve thought about this and the singer could have a better time being tracked. I mean, think about it. It’s much easier to sing and move around, change facial expressions to deliver a passionate interpretation of the song, dance and all that. But the other players… I’m not so sure.

So right now… I still don’t know how Natal is going to be used in terms of motion capture. I don’t think it’s gonna be an obvious solution, unless they want people to play like really lame blasé bands who don’t care about their crowd. Remember, real musicians know all their songs by heart, they don’t need note tracking. It’s their jobs to know how to play their songs. Therefore, since they don’t need to look at a TV screen while performing, they are free to do whatever they want onstage. We gamers play the game to have fun, we don’t memorize all the songs we download every month, so we need to pay attention to our note tracks.

So how could it work?

I feel the developers are going to start to have some good ideas as soon as they start testing the technology with real people. I’ve read in a magazine that the Activision developers once thought that the peripheral for DJ Hero should have 2 turntables. But when they tested it with real gamers, they noticed people tended to look more at the controller than the screen, which fatally killed the whole experience. So they designed a peripheral with only one turntable instead.

Project Natal has a lot of potential, that’s for sure. But since it’s major innovation comes in using the whole player’s body as a controller, voice included, a lot of real human simulation is in order. There’s no easy way out of it.

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