The Kinect is an unmitigated failure. Microsoft's motion-tracking and depth-perceiving camera, first introduced for the Xbox 360 and updated for the release of the Xbox One, always seemed like a neat idea—play games by moving your entire body—but never found a purpose.
There were some dancing games, an ambitious fitness app (now defunct), and a ton of cool-looking experiments, but never a good reason to buy it. That is, until Fru, a brilliant puzzle-platformer, which will release on July 13.
It's unlike anything I've played before. Like many of my favorite games, Fru's genius is in the simple premise at the core of its design. It looks and plays much like Nintendo's 2D Mario games, but the Kinect captures and projects the player's silhouette onto the level. Depending on the level, the silhouette has a different effect on the game. It can reveal parts of a level, make parts of it disappear, and, in later chapters, it has even weirder implications I don't want to spoil here.
Is the gap between two platforms too wide? Simply stand in between them to reveal a bridge. Can't get through that wall? Simply hold out your hand so your silhouette creates a hole that your avatar can pass through.
It starts with simple puzzles like that, but quickly escalates to challenge both your mind—and in what is a rarity for video games—your body. There was one level in particular where I had to reveal a platform with my silhouette in one part of the screen, while avoiding a different part of the screen where my silhouette made a platform I needed disappear. I had to reach back with my leg, while reaching forward and over with my arm, and hold this position while I moved my character across the screen with one hand.
That's Fru at its best: a kind of platformer-yoga hybrid. It's the rare game I can recommend to everyone, even people who don't normally play games. But, sadly, not many will be able to.
Following its first iteration on Xbox 360 as an add-on device, Kinect for Xbox One was initially bundled with all versions of the console. When the console was first announced in 2013, Microsoft also said that the Xbox One wouldn't work if it wasn't connected to a Kinect.
After a negative reaction from fans and a steady beating in sales from Sony's PlayStation 4, in June 2014 Microsoft unbundled the Kinect from Xbox One, dropped the price of the console from $499 to $399, and allowed users to play their consoles without it. This means that developers could no longer count on Xbox One players owning a Kinect, which made developing games that relied on it extremely risky. Microsoft hasn't shared the total number of Xbox One Kinects it sold, but we know it's in the area of five million because that's how many Xbox One units it sold before the great unbundling. The audience for Kinect games was just too limited.
Like many developers, Fru's game designer and producer Mattia Traverso was already knee-deep in the project when Microsoft announced that it was decoupling Kinect from the Xbox One.
"I don't mean to bash Microsoft, it was a smart decision [as sales numbers showed], but it wasn't super well organized," Traverso told me over a Skype call. "We read it on Kotaku when it happened. We're in the middle of development and we thought [the Kinect] would be there."
Rock Band developer Harmonix, which was working on a Kinect game called Fantasia at the time, was in the same boat. It released the game in 2014, and it was the last major title to require a Kinect.
Traverso and the rest of the team at Fru developer Through Games could push on because there wasn't as much on the line. Around 15 people worked on the Fru overall, but mostly it was a core team of six people, some of which, Traverso told me, graduated the day of our call.
"The budget was low," he said. "If this was a real studio where everyone got a salary it wouldn't happen. Fru got made because we didn't have to pay ourselves."
This low overhead, Traverso said, is also part of what made Fru great. The majority of games that required Kinect came from big game publishers. These companies have a proven strategy for releasing games on consoles: They invest a lot of money and energy in game genres they know are popular. That strategy works if you're making the next Call of Duty, which will look and play a lot like the last Call of Duty, but it doesn't work with new and different technology like Kinect, which fundamentally changes the way players interact with a game.
"I feel like that's why most games didn't work," Traverso said. "They require a new paradigm. Like if you think about the iPad, at first everyone were making virtual joysticks. Eventually it evolved to tapping and sliding. It takes time. You have to fail. Kinect didn't have enough people failing . . . Over the two years we made the game, we made a lot of mistakes, and a lot of research, and watching a ton of people play the game."
The games that publishers and Microsoft were pushing on Kinect couldn't take the same risk. They were the same old games, but now with a weird, gesture-based control scheme that didn't fit them at all. They took what was familiar and made it frustrating instead of rethinking the whole endeavour from the ground up.
The tragedy here is that Fru is the first really good Kinect game, but also the last. Microsoft continues to strip features from Kinect, which at this point is basically an abandoned piece of hardware. Traveso told me that he's still interested in exploring strange new input methods in future games, but that he'll never make another Kinect game. It's too late.
"The next thing will have to be much safer," he said. "It's too risky to make another game with Kinect. If I could go back I'd do it again. But I would not make another one."