With the announcement that Microsoft will be releasing a version of Xbox One without Kinect at $100 less than the current retail package, I'm going to go ahead and say the customers have spoken, and gimmicks aren't going to sell systems.
We've actually been seeing this coming for a while. Even the Wii, which was hugely successful, was a disappointment for a lot of people. Not because it was underpowered and standard def when everyone else was going HD, although that was disappointing enough, but because we never really got that 1:1 experience we all expected to have, where we swung the remote around like a real sword fight and our on-screen counterpart did the same. Instead we mostly got to waggle the controller around a bit and hope we didn't develop tennis elbow. That's not to say the Wii was without any quality software, but most of the games I enjoyed either used very little motion control, or let me plug in a Classic Pro and drop the Wii Remote completely. One area I did enjoy the Wii Remote was FPS games, using the pointer for pixel-perfect aim, and they released somewhere around 2-3 decent ones through the entire console's life. Go figure.
The 3DS was priced too high when it was released and people lashed back, saying they didn't want glasses free 3D anyway, so they weren't going to pay a premium for the technology. Nintendo answered first with a price drop, and more recently with the 2DS, which drops 3D from the system altogether. Personally, I like 3D in most games, and think it adds a bit of depth and makes the experience more immersive in some cases, but I figured I'd make the point that the 3D gimmick was NOT a system seller. It wasn't until the system built a library of some of the best games on the market that people started buying the it. Games sell systems, not gimmicks.
Nintendo is falling prey to this line of thinking once again with the Wii U. "Hey, we have a Gamepad with a touch screen and some cool features" they're saying, while not releasing a single piece of software that sells anyone on the tech. So far the best use of the Gamepad I've seen has been off screen gaming, which is fantastic if, like me, you like to play while someone else is watching TV, but useless if you have a dedicated TV for gaming or something like that. It's been cool to have a map in my hands, and there have been some neat uses for inventory and stuff like that, but there's absolutely nothing about it that screams "you need this to play games!"
Microsoft, as they tend to do, saw another company's success and said "me too!" What they didn't seem to realize was the Wii was an anomaly, and priced to kill when it was released. With Kinect, they have some cool ideas for sure, but 9.9 times out of 10 people are going to opt for the simple press of a button rather than flailing around their living rooms like a spider just landed on their face. And talking to your TV never makes you look cool. If I can quietly press a button to do the same function as yelling at a little black box, I'm going to chose the button, for fear that the men in white coats will come after me. I haven't played around with an Xbox One, but I'm sure the voice commands work wonderfully in a quiet setting, but I have a feeling I'f use them once or twice, then forget about it and go back to a controller for input.
Sony seems to have caught on to this, and just released a super powerful system with a standard controller that just works right out of the box and plays and controls like every game system before it but just looks better. And that brings us to the problem...
After all my ranting and ripping companies apart, what does this all mean for gamers? Personally, I think it's both good and bad. On the good side, I think when developers don't have to worry about integrating gimmicks in to their games, especially cross-platform games, they can focus on just delivering quality content and more resources can go to things like story and graphics. The same thing can be said for the console makers. When they don't have to spend time and money coming up with gimmicks, they can focus on making top quality consoles that are powerful and less expensive. Clearly, with Microsoft cutting a full $100 off the price of their console just for taking out Kinect, there is some room to save costs when you're not paying for a product you're likely not going to use much anyway.
On the bad side, it kind of kills the innovation. If Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony all stop gimmicks and put out ultra powerful consoles with pretty similar looking, standard controllers, where is innovation in the industry going to come from? Is all innovation just going to be graphical? If so, I think we're hitting a bit of a limit. I remember the jump from SNES to N64 and being blown away by real 3D graphics. I remember the jump from N64 to Gamecube and PS2 that smoothed out those rough edges and blocky textures and made things feel more real. I remember the jump to HD with Xbox 360 and PS3 that upped the realism and made things look amazing on my brand new HDTV. This recent jump to Xbox One and PS4... meh. Things looks amazing, don't get me wrong, but I don't think we're even going to experience those types of dramatic jumps where anyone, even someone that's never played a game in their life, can look and say "wow, that looks so much better than before".
That's why I love Nintendo. They don't care. They swing for the fences every damn time, and hope something connects. For the Wii, they had a home run. For the 3DS, it took some time, but they got there. Especially in a world where I can download a great looking game like Infinity Blade 3 to my phone in a couple of seconds, the success of the 3DS is a testament to Nintendo's quality. The Wii U might be flailing a bit now, but if they look at it like the 3DS, consider a price drop, and get some quality software out there, it'll be ok. At least they stick to their guns, and I can't wait to see what they come out with next.
Microsoft, on the other hand, has been just coming off as spineless this entire generation. Last year's E3 was embarrassing. I loved my 360, but have been strongly considering switching to PS4 for this gen simply because MS doesn't seem like they have a clear plan. They say something, get their ass handed to them, then say "yeah, we're going to do what they're doing too. We're still cool, right?" Make a choice and stick with it. Even this announcement is all over the place. I read something basically saying "we're dropping Kinect but we still think it's an integral part of our strategy". If it's integral, leave it in there. If you need to play catchup, drop the price and take a loss for a bit. Don't flop around and make desperate decisions. An art teacher I had in high school would always say "make a decision. Make a choice, even if it's the wrong one, and go with it." and I always try to remember that in life. You're going to make dumb calls. You're going to do things that don't make sense, or that other people don't get right away, or at all. But you made that choice. Follow it through. I think Microsoft could learn from both Nintendo and Sony. Right now, it's trying to have the best of both worlds, and it's not doing the best at either.