Epic, Bungie playing with Project Natal

E3 2009 Q&A: Microsoft Game Studios head Phil Spencer talks about the origins of Microsoft's motion-sensing device--and how two top developers have been looking at its technology for "quite some time."

LOS ANGELES--On Monday, Microsoft fired a massive first shot across the bow of its competitors during its E3 Press Conference . Besides announcing several new Xbox 360 console exclusives, such as Halo: Reach, Crackdown 2, and Left 4 Dead 2 (also on PC), the company took the wraps off its long-rumored motion-sensing controller.

Project Natal capped a jam-packed Microsoft event.

Code-named Project Natal, the device differs from the Nintendo Wii and the experimental technology Sony unveiled at its Tuesday press event. Instead of relying on a motion-sensing controller held by a player, it tracks the movements of the player's body. According to film director and Boom Blox executive codesigner Steven Spielberg, its simplicity will remove the last barrier for mass acceptance of games.

"Since [Microsoft senior vice president, Interactive Entertainment Business] Don [Mattrick] and I met over a decade ago, we have asked how we could make interactive entertainment as accessible as books or music?" the director asked, "We realized the only time we could do that is make the technology invisible."

To learn more about Project Natal, GameSpot caught up with Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft Games Studios, and asked him a few questions about the device, which will be compatible with all Xbox 360s past, present, and future.

GameSpot: How long has Microsoft been working on Project Natal?

Phil Spencer: Project Natal is the combination of a lot of software work that's been going on within the company for quite a while. If you think about the different technologies at play--you have facial recognition, voice recognition, skeletal tracking--you have things that Microsoft research has been working on for years.

Some of this stuff, like voice recognition, you've seen in the past, and it's a continuation of that work. It's based on strengths we have. We're a software company that's focused on research and development. As content creators at Microsoft worldwide studios, we've been thinking about the barriers to people playing games for a while. We've thought about controller-less gaming and how we'd interact--Dimitri was something we incubated at Lionhead many years ago--and what you see in Milo today is sort of the culmination of platform innovation working in sync with a lot of our content creators and content leaders.

Former Fight Night creative director Kudo Tsunoda is heading up the Microsoft studio making Natal games.

GS: We've heard some CEOs from third-party publishers that the next-generation of hardware is coming sooner than we think, but with Project Natal, it seems like Microsoft is trying to show that the 360's life is going to extend far beyond what everyone thinks.

PS: I just think they were talking about Natal [laughs]. We're a software company. I think we somewhat reinvented our platform last fall with the new Xbox experience. We rewrote the OS for our platform and gave people completely new experiences. You didn't have to go buy a new piece of hardware to do that.

For us, generations start when new experiences hit the market and not when we try to sell you a new console. When we launch Natal, the content, fun, and creative work that people will get to interact with…I think for those people that will be the next-generation. Other companies might define it differently, but for me, it's about people doing things in a new way--things that they've never done before, and I see that with Natal.

GS: Any details on a price or launch date?

PS: We're using this E3 to show the progress we've made. We have a firm belief that we have the technology and creations that will define the market when they come out for this space. As first party, we've always been about tentpole games, call them showcases or hero experiences, either for Live or for the 360, or for the original Xbox when it came out.

The work had come along, and we felt that we had a solid plan with a solid launch portfolio and a portfolio for the next few years, so we thought we should start talking about this publicly. We're shipping dev kits out, which clearly--when you start shipping dev kits out…the chances of leaks and everything go up. But frankly, I thought we were ready to stand on stage and show off our work, and I thought it held up pretty well.

GS: Who do you see as the target audience for this? Are there a wide variety of games in development or is there a push for a specific audience?

PS: It's about everybody. I know that's kind of cliche coming from a platform holder, but we chose to highlight three experiences that were opposite ends of a triangle. We showed Ricochet, and that was a very active experience--a very physical experience. Then [we showed] Paint Party, which is much more creative and collaborative. Is that a game or just an activity? I don't think it really matters because people have fun playing with that.

Watching Milo in action came close to a trip down the Uncanny Valley.

Then, we showed Milo. Here's something completely different to throw you a curve--something that is completely making use of the technology but is not overt. It's not playing to the physical nature first. It's playing the game experience. We've talked with our partners, like Epic and Bungie, and our internal studios about the technology for quite awhile. You're going to see a range of experiences when we finally come to market.

GS: Are software companies confused about how to integrate Natal into traditional games? We've seen everything driven by a controller, but now that people are able to do things with their bodies, are developers going to be able to take that next step into immersive gameplay?

PS: I do think it's a challenge, but a good challenge, for creators to remove some of the learning that you have. I spent a couple of years in England…I came back in October, so it was around when we were incubating Milo, working with the team at Lionhead and some of the unveiling of thinking that needs to happen. Teams, especially third parties as they start seeing this for the first time and start working on it…there will be a new learning process.

But, let's face it: The games we play today do an amazing job of taking a physical activity onscreen and mapping it through this somewhat obscure device called the controller. I might feel like I'm shooting a basket or kicking a soccer ball or driving a Ferrari, and to me as a core gamer, it feels natural. If they can do that, I think they have the skill to say, "How do you hit a ball? Well, you go like this." I think we'll get there, but there will be some learning that they go through."

GS: What about Final Fantasy XIV? You got Final Fantasy XIII onto the 360 and now XIV is a PlayStation 3 and PC exclusive. Is that a bit of a kick in the teeth for you guys?

PS: Final Fantasy XIII, seeing it running on the 360 as a long-time gamer, was a pretty special moment. Just given that a true Final Fantasy game working on our platform is great. Square is obviously a great partner, and our work with them in the future…I'm sure there will be something to talk about down the road.

GS: We're seeing all three platforms pushing nongame entertainment services far more than was done previous generations. As the head of Microsoft Game Studios, are you worried about focus moving to services as opposed to just games?

PS: I'm not that worried about it. Take 1 vs. 100, something we announced the beta for here that opened on Monday. We put a self-imposed cap of 50,000 people and we hit that cap in the first hour. Those were 50,000 people playing one game--not split off into multiple games. They were playing one game instance. Is that a service or is that a game as people log in to play? I don't know. People seem to be having fun doing it and, lucky for us, we have something like Live that facilitates those kinds of games. Things like people watching movies together and listening to music--the lines are blurred between what's a service and what's a game. And I think we're set up well to leverage that with Xbox Live.

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Discussion

229 comments
Jaccal
Jaccal

anyone else like the fact that he completely went around the question about price or launch date.

gedbyz
gedbyz

You could move your head to look different ways on the screen but eventually you would not be looking at the TV screen so.

gedbyz
gedbyz

It is an interesting concept but I do not know how it will work with Halo or Gears.

invictuslemming
invictuslemming

I'll reserve judgement on both the MS and Sony technologies until they've matured a bit more. Right now we have to take a marketing team's word on how awesome both their technologies are... I'd rather wait until we have a neutral party evaluate these techs before jumping to any conclusions. It is intriguing though, I'll admit that.

shanem_69
shanem_69

As a gaming thing this doesn't interest me at all, it's like an upgraded eyetoy which I though was cool for about the first 10 minutes (though I did like the game show thing). No I'm more interesting in it as the technology it's self, it's the first step in a huge leap in technology, having interactive AI. The whole moving your hands to do stuff reminds me of Minority Report. And many many years from now they could even turn it in to something like in so many SciFi movies, kind of like Hal.... but hopefully nicer.

Ardrius
Ardrius

Natal has to be 1:1 before I'll even consider it.

thenephariouson
thenephariouson

similar technology that was used in 'Minority Report'

thenephariouson
thenephariouson

the only real issue i foresee is 'Latency' (the time delay difference between your movement and the in-game character), which brings me to my next point, will this connet via USB or Ethernet i wonder, as bandwidth will obviously play a big part.

tealtib03
tealtib03

gameking5000 - They have said it will work with all previous and future games. Essentially all the Natal is doing is interpreting the data it reads and relaying to the xbox just like a controller. That's why it's not some big new that that's gonna to eat up the cpu's on the 360. As far as FPS games it should work out great. It's a lot easier to do a lot of things than to try to tell your controller to do, or instead of just sideways dodging think we could finally be able to just move your head or your body over. It would take Halo and others to a whole new level.

gameking5000
gameking5000

How amny games are going to support project natal?

themvp15
themvp15

one step closer to skynet

NoLifeGamin
NoLifeGamin

hm...for an FPS game....the movement would look...really retarded if you want to run, hide behind cover,dodge,or something like crawling...those probably jsut wont work because you would have to move the position of your body over a large distance to perform those actions......so for running...well i guess you'll have to run in place.....for cover...well thats pretty easy to do since all you do is perform a movement that looks like you're behind cover...dodging..i guess you'll have to do like a quick side-step or something.....and for crawling....i have absolutely NO idea how that works out....but if theres gonna be a FPS Natal game then that would be AWESOME....and then it would be used as a simulation exercise for the military....heck this can also be used for business presentations....WOW i just realized how much project naval could impact how some the things we do OUTSIDE of gaming...just goes to show that technology is really moving on..cuz lol...talking to someone in real-time with this seems like something out of a sci-fi film!....i guess there arent enough words to explain the awesomeness and influence that this project can bring for society!

RolielStarfire
RolielStarfire

Natal has a strong future, not only as a game play platform, but as the first of a category: immersive and intuitive computing interfaces. The next step for computing is to make it invisible, therefore making it eminently usable. Natal has presented several paradigm shifts that have been inevitable and long coming: the removal of the divide between the physical world and the digital world. For starters, Microsoft presented Natal as being able to recognize real world objects, esp. facial recognition. The scanning in of the skateboard is a perfect example. People lead digital lives as well as physical ones, and we love it when the two become one. Couple this with body-contact devices such as what Sony and Nintendo have presented, and we have a real opportunity bring accuracy as well as generality to the computer experience. If you want tactile sensation, then pick up the object. If you just want to choose a movie or try on a dress, then Natal is far more intuitive. The point isn't to throw away the controller, its to remove the seams between activities. Games succeed through immersion, and the future of human-computer interaction lies in removing the boundaries between digital and human, so people use these tools as part of their entire life.

aphexchris
aphexchris

A gimmick. For gimmicky games. I can guarantee there won't be any standard FPS, RTS etc, type games. It'll be like the wii all over again - the best games on that platform don't even use the motion control to any real effect... All you'll see is a bunch of badly designed sport/interactive/gimmick games. Waving your arms around? Kicking? Jogging on the spot? Not very casual if you ask me...

haloshalo
haloshalo

halo: 5yes shovel wars, confirmed

mike62884
mike62884

This didn't really impress me, the motion tracking wasn't very precise, it worked best when they guys were standing still in a pose rather than in motion. Also, while using your body as a controller is an intuitive method for input, it's extremely limiting. I can't see the implementation of this device going further than simple tech demos, despite the fact that Epic and Bungie are experimenting with it, I doubt that a Gears or Halo will ever use it as a form of input. As for Milo, I would have been more impressed if the demo was shown live on stage rather than a prerecorded video that can be easily staged and edited to look like a genuine interaction, and the prospect of interacting an adaptive AI the senses emotion and shape recognition is somewhat unsettling.

G00DANG
G00DANG

This is a sweet piece of kit and i cant wait for it to come out. The innovation with milo and natal is amazing and just goes to show how far technology has come. Only downside is with an estimated price of $200 or £130 this seems like it might be lost within the current economic climate, I mean i certainly couldn't pay for it atm and I am certain many others are like that too.

Junior_AIN
Junior_AIN

Hope Microsoft make better use of Motion controls than Nintendo did, and show some nice usage in some good core games.

msudude211
msudude211

@g_max_ - Lol, not every Xbox 360 Red Rings. The newer models rarely get the RRoD, and when they do, Microsoft has your console back in less than a couple weeks.

gmax
gmax

Just not believing in Natal. But if it's ever delivered, what will happen when your 360 RRODs?

mayceV
mayceV

Ideal cost : 200$ projected cost: 400$ probable cost: 500$ I hope its the first....

Ardrius
Ardrius

Seaman was disturbing to begin with. Leonard Nimoy narrating. But loved the game.

kejigoto
kejigoto

Does anyone else want to see Seaman 2 with Natal attached to it? Just think about it for those of you out there who enjoyed that game on the Dreamcast. Would be freaking amazing to have that coupled with Natal.

BillyHill12
BillyHill12

Actually on second thought, a FPS would work with Natal, and similar to how a game controller works. Just imagine each hand performing the same functions as the joysticks on a controller does. With your right hand you aim by pointing your hand and shoot by moving your thumb or index finger. With your left hand you move by moving your hand away, toward, left, and right. You can jump by raising your hand higher, and crouch by lowering it. I'm sure that you can figure out the rest of the functions. You would not and maybe could not use your entire body to play a FPS with Natal.

BillyHill12
BillyHill12

Well. I can see how Natal would work flawlessly with RTS. You could control everything sitting down and with your hands only. Starcraft 2 anyone? Now an FPS I don't think so. However I can tell though that this is going to be big when it comes out. It will undoubtedly create it's own sort of games.

Uchiha_Zero_9
Uchiha_Zero_9

some of the "demo" games i saw with natal looks interesting, and yes ill admit it, it looks kinda cool but i dont think i would get it. Why? Well this is why: Gimmick. Dont get me wrong, its a new type of motion sensing control, so it doesnt really copy or follow anyone else. Its a front runner in this field. But with that said i dont want to play games this way. Call me a dinosaur or a relic but i like to have something tangible to play with. Be it a wiimote or a wand to simulate a sword, tennis racket, golf club etc, i need something that feels like the real thing. That one demo they showed of the family playing the racing game?! Wow is that supposed to be entertaining???? I want the feeling of a wheel in my hands as i turn. I want to feel the pedals as accelerate or brake. This Project Natal gives me none of those things (from what ive seen so far) so thats why i dont want it. Also how often have u guys come back from a hard day at work and just want to chill out on the sofa playing a game. I love the wireless controller, im laying down as i play halo, relaxing. I dont want to stand up and jump around, crouch, run, jog, whatever. Sorry for the long rant but as impressive as it looks i just dont like these things for games. Hence why i never play the wii. Fun for 2 mins but when ur tired it becomes a chore to play, not fun to play. Anyone else feel the same way?

NuKkU
NuKkU

i dont really like this Natal and all this motion controller craziness(god dam the wii) i actually like the controller i think games need a controller

Oni
Oni

Natal doesn't seem like the "controller killer" It seems like it could be used as an "extension". It's going to be another tool for the experience. Voice, Facial recognition alone is the beginning of something great. The possibilities are endless. I can only imagine what Nintendo or Sony's rebuttal to Natal would be if Microsoft is successful with it. Time will tell.

Wolls
Wolls

@ Ardrius- I disagree, we already heard about it being used with Burnout with some sucess and that was only ploping it in a already exising hardcore game so that gives hope for an all new game built from the ground up with Natal in mind. Even so i do see a problem with an FPS. Personally i would ewant a gun periferal with it or something.

LakeFPownsu
LakeFPownsu

Imagine playing Halo with a controller, but the camera is tracking your every move. If you want to, you can wind up to throw a grenade or punch to melee. Pretty interesting.

Ardrius
Ardrius

What is with people wanting it to work with FPS games... How do you plan on moving forward? Are you really going to jump, every time you want to jump? Are you going roll, and slide for cover? Natal is only good for... Casual games, and interactive tech demos.

Zloth2
Zloth2

"Not sure how motion sensing of any kind really kick off for traditional games: at least until everyone has the physique of star athletes and can play for long periods of time." Given how much time I spend playing games, that'd take about two weeks. Assuming I survive. ;)

georgeo10yal
georgeo10yal

this would be cool if it could work with halo 3!

SSBFan12
SSBFan12

I hope it comes out pretty soon. It sounds really awesome.

pakhair
pakhair

Cool Looking......... @tmorri603 I agree ..........

tmorri603
tmorri603

Project Natal does open up so many ideas. I was thinking of one were you are the Hulk taking a city apart with your bear hands. Use different hand motion to cast spells in RPG. If you think about it, this will let you into the game like never before. The only think I think about is the people that have a handicap. They can't stand, move their legs and arms, or have lost a limb. I just hope these companies don't forget that these people are here. There may not be a lot of them but that is no need to cut them off from playing games, too.

umbrae
umbrae

I bet Natal won't be the only means of controlling. Imaging mixing this with an normal 360 controller. You could have some very cool game layouts. Not sure how motion sensing of any kind really kick off for traditional games: at least until everyone has the physique of star athletes and can play for long periods of time.

gatsbythepig
gatsbythepig

It's very cool looking. I bet we don't see it until the next xbox comes out.

snarple_basic
snarple_basic

It looks cool and I was really impressed but I think there going to need some kind of controller (magic wand) just for buttons. I would like some light gun games on the xbox 360 and if they put a wand device into a gun (like that other popular system) maybe we can get a copy of House of the Dead 4!!!

hassy94
hassy94

"There's only one gripe which I have with Natal, and that's that there is no way for you to move your character, okay yes you can as long as it's only a small space but as far as I can tell there is no way for you to move around an open-world, or even through corridor's :\ Still this is only a minor problem I have, otherwise roll on Project Natal!" Hmm, I'm sure they have a solution, they wouldn't spend that long on it and not do anything to prevent that problem. They'll probably either make you jog on the spot (tiring after running across liberty city lol) or just stick your foot/leg out in a certain direction, making you run that way. The latter seems much more likely.

shrkbt814
shrkbt814

Im sure ms will put some kind of free roaming system in for movement, but think elder scrolls for a sec. Imagine moving a rock to find a secret cashe or reaching in water for a certain aquatic plant for a potion, the though of all that gives me goosebumps :)

olle1990
olle1990

I cant wait for Natal it will pwn ps3 new eye toy thing

Shadow-Koopa
Shadow-Koopa

There's only one gripe which I have with Natal, and that's that there is no way for you to move your character, okay yes you can as long as it's only a small space but as far as I can tell there is no way for you to move around an open-world, or even through corridor's :\ Still this is only a minor problem I have, otherwise roll on Project Natal! :D

ffviiifreak
ffviiifreak

guess before it was released it was PRE-Natal haha

shrkbt814
shrkbt814

Natal will be great with rpg exploration!

eajj220
eajj220

It would cut down on my battery purchases. LOL.. But on the real, if it does half of what microsoft is saying it will do, I will be pretty much happy. By the way anybody catch or see anything about possible price point? or release date?

fazterstyle1
fazterstyle1

WHAT THE FULL BODY MOTION WITH GREAT GRAPHICS!!!!!! microsoft is doing a great job...this natal was luking awesome...they will beat the wii..ps3 motion controller sucks against this natal!!!!! cant wait for this...i m 360 fan!! microsoft is the best!!