Microsoft has said little more about Project Natal since its unveiling at E3 next year. Developers have been trotted out to speak about the technology's potential, but right now, Project Natal remains largely that: potential. It's the mere potential for success that's keeping Gearbox Software CEO and president Randy Pitchford from committing to a big-budget game entirely reliant on Project Natal.
"I like playing with tech," said Pitchford during a DICE interview with me last week, as the loud noises of the busy just-off-the-strip Las Vegas Red Rock casino whistled away in the background. "I'm a technophile, but you can't build a business around guys like me -- so I'd be careful with that. [laughs]"
Pitchford's personal feelings, however, are vitally important -- he's the head of Gearbox Software, after all. With the critical and commercial success of Borderlands under his belt, Pitchford's in a position to take some risks going forward. But he needs to see something more tangible from Project Natal.
"No one can sanely rationalize an investment that's Natal-only that makes me believe that I can sell five million units, right?" said Pitchford, speaking from an independent perpsective. "So I can't spend the money that requires five million units in order to break even. What can I do? Can I do a million units? Can I do half a million units? How many units can I count on with [that] promise?"
Pitchford has been and continues to be briefed by Microsoft on the development progress of Project Natal and Sony's unnamed motion controller. But my conversation with Pitchford sounded as though he remained convinced about the exciting things that could happen with Project Natal, while currently unwilling to risk his studio's financial positioning trying to make Project Natal's potential a reality.
"It's a gamble," he said. "We all have to look at it. We're all putting side-bets there because it's fun and it's part R&D and what if? What if? But nobody can cross their risk tolerance. Microsoft, in this thing, has the most risk tolerance because they're the ones with the most skin in the game. We'll see what they do with it. So far we've seen -- we've kind of had some implications of premise but we haven't had any direct ones. I think the most direct is Milo."
With Milo, Pitchford argues, designer Peter Molyneux is "humanizing Seaman." Seaman was an experimental game released for Sega's Dreamcast with a microphone. Users could (primitively) speak with Seaman as he progressed from birth to a disturbingly humanoid-looking fish capable of conversing with the player. There were a few sequels never released over here.
"Okay, I'll play with that," admits Pitchford. "I'm a total technophile. Will that [Milo] reach a mass audience? I'm not sure. That's so far the most tangible premise we've got with Natal. That's Microsoft's investment so they're certainly going to tell us more soon."
What "soon" is remains to be seen. It's not expected Microsoft will blow out Project Natal at the Game Developers Conference next month. At CES, Microsoft pointed to E3 for Project Natal's proper unveiling. The moment would be fitting, as a year would have passed from its announcement.
"I love being creative," he continued, "that's all I do is creative. But if I'm creative into a hole, then I burn up my studio, we don't have anything to show for it and then we don't get to keep going anymore and then we're creative once for nothing. I wanna be making games till they put me in a box and I gotta make sure that we're making [good] bets."
"I can't produce a triple-A [game] with a Natal-only promise. Maybe that can change."
This is a guy who needs to be concerned about the bottom line. In an industry continually affected by the global recession, people are counting on Pitchford's judgement. Games from Gearbox need to succeed. Gearbox would be in a very different position if Borderlands had not experienced such surprise success last year. That directly plays into when Pitchford decides to make a full-fledged effort into motion control -- Microsoft or Sony.
With Project Natal pushing his technophile buttons, that's where most of our conversation steered towards at DICE. For the time being, Pitchford is keeping his eye on when Project Natal crosses Gearbox's risk tolerance threshold.
"We play the board," he said. "We're not a one-trick poney. Even still, our risk tolerance is such that I can't produce a triple-A production value [game] with a Natal-only promise and be able to rationalize the cost right now. Maybe that can change. To change it something has to exist that shows that model. Microsoft is probably the one that's gonna have to bring it. Is that going to be Milo? I'm not sure. What else they got? We'll find out."