If there comes a day when Kinectimals works, it will be better than Nintendogs. That day is not guaranteed.
At E3 last week, I played my first official Xbox 360 Kinect game in the manner one would play with a hard-of-hearing tiger cub: fearless of a mauling, warmed by its cuteness, frustrated it couldn't hear me clearly no... matter... how... CL-EAR-LY... I spoke to it.
Kinectimals is the product of Frontier Developments, a studio that has the right to make a game you or I might gingerly suggest is "kind of like Nintendogs, right?" Hey, before Nintendo made Nintendogs, Frontier made A Dog's Life, a game that lets you play as a dog, living a virtual life with the power of your snout.
It would be fine to think of Nintendogs as your point of reference. Kinectimals' cute beasts are young felines of Africa: leopards, tigers, cheetahs and the like. They appear, cute and cuddly with wonderfully detailed fur, on your TV screen. If you've played the game before, the Kinect sensor on the Xbox 360 — the sensor array that allows for "controller-free gaming" — will recognize you and give you quick access to the little big cat you're raising.
I was starting fresh, so my little tiger was new to me and me to it. Standing in front of a Kinect and a TV running the Kinectimals, I tried to name my tiger, as I was prompted to do by directions on the screen. But Kinect's mic didn't like my voice, or the game didn't, or my clear enunciation wasn't clear enough. Whatever the case, it didn't accept the first name I tried to give it, nor the second. Each time the cat shook it off and the game told me the animal didn't like my name. So I went with Skittles, the name that had been used in an earlier stage demonstration of the game for press. Hmmm.
Past the voice-detecting problems, the body-detecting was much better. In Nintendogs, you scratch at the puppy's belly and wait for the dog to do tricks that you then hope it will re-learn the more times you bark some voice commands. In Kinectimals, you jump in front of the TV; your pet tiger jumps. You stand on one leg; it tries to stand on one leg. That feels good. You can also extend your arms toward the TV and air-pet your little tiger, which doesn't feel as good as scratching the neck scruff of a Nintendog with your stylus, but the Kinectimal reacts so happily on the screen that you don't mind. I can't tell if cooing at the tiger cub while you do this is detected by the Kinect or if it is just detected by the people around you who surely must think you are a sap.
As with Nintendogs, you can bring your animal to some challenges. I brought him to an obstacle course. When I ran in place, he ran through the course. When he needed to skid to a stop, I stopped. When he needed to duck, I ducked. I wasn't reacting. I was controlling, based on what I could tell he needed to do. It's an odd thing. jumping in a room so that a virtual tiger cub can jump a hurdle. It's one of those things that in calmer moments you might wonder is really better than a button-press. Well, with a button-press it would be boring. With Kinect and graphics that make that tiger cub look so real and so cute, it's not boring... it's heart-melting. The thing is too adorable and I made it jump.
Good, Skittles! Too bad you didn't let me call you your real name.
Kinectimals is cute enough. Its voice commands just need to work well enough. If Frontier can get them functioning well, then this will be one of the most magical demonstrations of Kinect's engaging tech on the platform this fall.
(One other tech note: Kinctimals is supposed to support the ability to hold up special bar codes to the Kinect sensor, a feature that should unlock new animals in the game. The Kinect sensor failed to read one such bar code during my demo, though the game's developers said this worked in their studio and still hope to have it working in the final game.)