SHIFT: Why Project Natal is future of gaming (and how Microsoft could screw it up)

If you've ever played any kind of video game, you'll find it hard not to be excited watching this demo video of Project Natal — the much-discussed controllerless gaming system for the Xbox 360 that Microsoft unveiled this week. Once you're done with that, check this even more impressive (and vaguely creepy) one. Microsoft bills Natal as more than just a peripheral, but a revolutionary leap forward in gaming: a system that finally makes the controller invisible, opening video games to anyone who ever looked at a joystick and said, "What the hell am I supposed to do with that?"

As testimonies come in across the Web, it's becoming clear that Natal is more than just hype. It could be as game-changing (if you'll pardon the pun) as the Wiimote. But remember, this is Microsoft we're talking about. Creator of the Zune. Maker of Windows Vista. Author of PlaysForSure. Given the company's checkered past (the Xbox 360 being a very relevant exception), there's a chance it might screw up Natal, too.

Natal is too promising a system to go to waste, though. After the jump, read a breakdown of why Natal could be what everyone's playing in the future, and some cautionary supposition about how Microsoft still might blow it.

1. No Controller = No Intimidation

Natal takes the idea that made the Wii a success — that using natural, motion-controlled movements will make the system more accessible to nongamers — and brings it to a logical conclusion. Just as Wii Tennis and Bowling opened up gaming to people who'd never touched a joystick, Natal's full motion capture is even more inviting. Instead of "take this stick," now it's just "stand over there."

How Microsoft could blow it: If the motion capture isn't sophisticated enough, things might get awkward. But Natal boasts 48 points of real-time motion capture on a human body, in three dimensions, so if anything the problem might be that it's too sophisticated, with too many things to consider while you're moving, or possibly complicated calibration. And dare I say an almost disgustingly PC question — what about the disabled?

2. Promising Gameplay, but Titles…?

The demo video shows a family playing various games, and it all looks great. Natal looks surprisingly adaptable: The bit where the kid imports his skateboard design is way cool, though for some reason the part where the girl and her friend pick out a dress via a teleconference seems a little fictional to me. Still, Natal's apparent level of sophistication is so amazing, it's hard to believe it's based on a console that's almost four years old.

How Microsoft could blow it: There's one thing missing in the vid, though: no actual game titles. Fair enough, it's true that Microsoft just unveiled the damn thing, but when it launches, there need to be compelling titles right out of the gate. How many game peripherals have died because there was no good software for them — a million? Remember, at launch, the PlayStation 3 launched with virtually no titles that took advantage of its processing power, and that helped delay that console's acceptance. Fortunately Microsoft looks to be a step ahead on this one with Natal, and has already provided development kits to game makers. Which brings me to…

3. Developer Wonderland

Project Natal has no release date yet, and that's a good thing. It's going to let developers take their time in creating games for it that really pop. The best thing is that the hardware — that is, the Xbox 360 — isn't new, so at least developers don't have to contend with an entirely new system at the same time they're making software for this new peripheral (though if Natal's public release is delayed significantly, they might be).

How Microsoft could blow it: By going all Apple. Nothing against iPhone apps and the App Store, but when Apple finally allowed third parties to develop apps for the iPhone, there were too many things that were off limits (music libraries, for example). Microsoft has to release enough control to the developers so they can make games people want, not games Microsoft thinks they want. That's the kind of thinking that all but killed the Zune.

History's Guidance

Project Natal has a lot going for it, and Microsoft has shown more competence in its Xbox division than in most other parts of the company the past few years. But I've been to my share of Microsoft keynotes, which were often about 90% flash and 10% substance. I hope this time the company's serving up the real deal, since using your body as a controller is the future of gaming. But if the Redmond giant blows this one, the company might scare away others, delaying or even preventing interactive entertainment from truly going mainstream.

If it works, though, bring on the holodecks!