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Full-body dance game promises moves and more

When played with the body-reading Kinect sensor, Dance Central from Harmonix Music Systems teaches and also entertains. When played with the body-reading Kinect sensor, Dance Central from Harmonix Music Systems teaches and also entertains. (Harmonix Music Systems Inc.)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / June 16, 2010

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Harmonix Music Systems Inc. in Cambridge is launching a new version of its popular Rock Band music series at the E3 video game convention in Los Angeles this week, one that uses real instruments as game controllers. But Harmonix is also showing off a new game that needs no controller at all.

The game, Dance Central, is one of the first products to take advantage of Kinect, a new hands-free gaming technology from Microsoft Corp. that plugs into the company’s Xbox 360 video game consoles. The Kinect sensor, which contains a video camera and an array of microphones, lets users control games solely with gestures, motions, and speech.

“We really were never able to make a full-body dance game until Kinect,’’ said Tracy Rosenthal-Newsom, vice president of production at Harmonix.

Traditional dance games like Dance Dance Revolution use a plastic floor mat plugged into the game console, and on-screen symbols that tell the players where to step. In Dance Central, players simply try to mimic the on-screen moves of expert dancers. The Kinect sensor, which can track 48 different points on a human body, watches the players. The game awards points when they get a dance move right, and offers visual hints when they blunder.

Rosenthal-Newsom said that Dance Central will contain more than 90 different dance routines and more than 600 specialized moves. But with a music library of pop and hip-hop tunes, it’s not intended for fans of ballroom dancing.

Michael Pachter, gaming analyst at Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles, tried out Dance Central along with his family. “My kids and my wife, I could not peel them away,’’ Pachter said, adding that the game could be a massive hit, but only if Microsoft can sell enough Kinect sensors. “It really depends on how much Kinect retails for.’’

Dance Central will sell for $60, but Microsoft has not revealed how much it intends to charge for the Kinect device, which goes on sale Nov. 4.

Analyst David Cole of DFC Intelligence in San Diego said that controlling games by gestures would appeal to casual players, like those who have bought Nintendo Co.’s popular Wii console. But the Xbox 360 is favored by hard-core players of violent action games like Halo and Gears of War. He doubted such players would be interested in Kinect. “I’m a little skeptical on it,’’ Cole said.

Kinect will work with the 40 million existing Xbox 360s, as well as a new version of the console that Microsoft will launch in November. The new Xbox, priced at $300, will feature a bigger hard drive, a sleek black exterior, and a quieter cooling system to reduce noise.

Harmonix also demonstrated the newest edition of its Rock Band game series at E3. Rock Band 3 will feature a number of improvements, such as the ability for additional players to join a song at any point. But the biggest change is Rock Band Pro, allowing players to plug in a real electronic keyboard or electric guitar and get on-screen guidance on how to play them.

“This is essentially bringing real musicianship into video games,’’ said the lead designer of Rock Band 3, Dan Teasdale. “We’ve had people come in, and within an hour, have been playing simple chords.’’

The new Rock Band game, due out in time for Christmas, will face off against another locally developed game with the same concept. In October, Boston-based Seven45 Studios plans to release Power Gig: Rise of the SixString, which also features a playable guitar. Power Gig will cost $180 with the guitar included. Rock Band 3 software will sell for $60, but Harmonix hasn’t announced guitar and keyboard prices.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.