With just over a month to release, all eyes are on Microsoft's motion control technology Kinect, with the platform holder pushing the system as a brand new hardware experience and insisting it can change the videogame business and extend the Xbox 360 lifecycle for another five years. But until the system has been on the market and in the hands of the public, there are many questions about just what Kinect is truly capable of and how far it can enable different interactive input and experiences.
GamesIndustry.biz sat down recently with Rare's Nick Burton, development director at the studio responsible for launch title Kinect Sports, to discuss the evolution and prototyping behind the hardware and software for Kinect. And to also answer some of the niggling doubts about lag, the rumours of sign-language recognition and whether we'll ever get used to a button-free controller.
Q: Can you talk us through your experiences of working with Kinect - was Rare working on this tech before it was a solid, defined platform, as it was evolving through years in R&D?
Nick Burton: Yes. Going back two years to the beginning of October 2008 we'd been hearing rumblings from time-to-time, as you do as part of first-party development team, about new technology. And this one sounded pretty interesting, there's this guy called Kudo (Tsunoda) who was ringing and saying, "you really ought to come and have a look at this stuff." We'd been prototyping a game and we thought the two might work together - we do lots of different prototypes. So we flew out to their office and it was like some Heath Robinson mad scientist thing. We fired up one of the early prototypes, this was on an early sensor with wires hanging out the back, and there's this skeleton on screen. At the time you had to possess the skeleton by walking into it, it changed colour and then we were off. It was pretty amazing but it was very early. It was exciting but we were just going to play with it - that's what we do as first-party, we take a kit and just play with it. We sat in Kudo's office and he let us take back - you can't really call it a dev kit, but it was 'kit' - that we took back to the UK. Were just spent some time proving out what we could do and some of the designers were starting to think that a skeleton is all very well, but what about if it's an in-game character, or an avatar. And quite stupidly at the time I thought it would be easy to do.
Q: Was it tough incorporating avatars into Kinect games, because Rare is the Microsoft avatar studio, right?
Nick Burton: I wouldn't say it was tough, more than lots of really interesting bite-sized challenges. It's never been one insurmountable mountain, but lots of head scratching because we couldn't look it up because no-one had done it before. Eventually you get a head of steam and march through the problems, 'we've figured that one out, gimmie the next one...' And a couple of years later we're showing it at E3 and we're actually still really excited by it.
Q: Have the technology, the design, the functions of Kinect changed significantly?
Nick Burton: The best way I could describe it is that it's been productised. It's gone from an incubation project, a research project, to being a proper product and all the things that entails. So a lot of the features have got more robust, more focused. You've got to do that, you can't have it doing 50,000 things okay, it needs to do ten things fantastically. When the 360 was on the cards, we were involved in that, it was the same thing that happened - not the same kind of challenges because it's more of a pure hardware challenge with a console, but Kinect was more of a design challenge. I remember those first few weeks of us having the tech in November 2008, we were going "but you've got to have a button!" To the extent that we built little buttons that you could hold in your hands, just to try it. But we realised we didn't want the buttons.
Q: It's interesting that as a game designer your first reaction is that you want to hold something, you want buttons. A criticism of Kinect seems to be that a button would come in handy just for simple menu navigation.
Nick Burton: You fall back to what you know. It's the same in the gaming enthusiast press, they go through the exact same emotional journey that we went through. For us it's quite funny and a little bit frustrating because we're thinking, 'no, you don't'.
Q: We're willing to try something new and different, but we also want the reassurance, the familiarity.
Nick Burton: The button argument is a brilliant one because that's what we did. They worked 'okay' but there were two many prototypes - and we were doing tonnes of prototypes - insane things, like giving it to a programmer for 48 hours and telling him to do whatever he liked. One guy did a seagull simulator, being able to poo on passers by. But they were the kind of things we wanted to play with. The acid test turned out to be a couple of prototypes we worked out quickly. We weren't thinking about sports, these were just ideas we were chucking around for three or four days at a time. We had a little goal kick game that was to test accuracy of avatars and it worked well because we could place a virtual ball in front of the player. We took it a little bit further and within a couple of days his office became somewhere he couldn't work. We realised we had something there.
And at the same time as that, we realised that kicking doesn't involve a button, there doesn't have to be a button press. So from that we went for a table tennis prototype, with two or three days work. It was wireframe people, table tennis table and a ball, but you could walk back from it and side to side, but it also proved the hand-eye co-ordination worked. And it almost felt like you could feel the ping pong ball hitting the paddle. Perceptually that was really weird.
Q: But that's crucial, to feel like you're touching items in-game rather than just waving in space and things happen.
Nick Burton: Totally. That was the shared moment where we realised we don't need buttons. At that point it really evolved for us. It turns out there are lot of ways to interact, it's just a case of finding the right way to do it for your product. I like the hover select we've got in Kinect Sports. It was interesting at that time to go from the assumption that we've got to have buttons to the realisation we don't need them.
Q: So has there got to be a big push on educating the consumer with that, because you yourselves weren't initially uncomfortable without a controller?
Nick Burton: Something that has turned out to be a very shrewd move, and we can say this after the fact, is that we put things into user research very early, because we needed to see if anyone understood it. Once you say to somebody, "that's you on the screen" they realise it does what you do. If you show them a table tennis table and ball coming to them - even if it's a wireframe - they naturally move to hit it. It's in-built life experience. I think we've lowered the barrier because once a user sees himself on the screen having an effect in the world, it clicks. Sports is a no-brainer. You don't have to tell anyone how to play football.
Q: Is that why the launch titles are simple games - sports, dancing, petting an animal. These are simple actions we know how to do in the real world.
Nick Burton: Yes, so the challenge for us is to add plenty of gameplay and discoverability. Not necessarily gamey things to do, but you really can get better at the events, just the way you would in real life, although it's accelerated a bit. There's a difficulty curve and progression there, but I can also play it with my six year-old daughter. We could say the launch games are the obvious choices because they are so relatable but the thing we found was that of all of the different prototypes, people were gravitating to the sports ones. And should it be extreme skiing and mountain climbing or should it be bowling and track and field events?
Q: So is Rare the internal advocate for Kinect in Europe, and how has Kinect - which Microsoft is treating as a new platform - brought all the first-party developers together?
Nick Burton: All of the first-party groups worldwide have all worked together, more so than we've ever done before. And we're like the alpha testers for Kinect with third-parties as the beta testers. I wouldn't say we're the biggest advocates but we're the one's who have done the most work with it so far. Because we've got such a new thing here everyone has got to answer some of the fundamental questions. You don't need to share the code a lot of the time, it's just the concept of how things like throwing and jumping work.
Q: The question of lag isn't going to go away until Kinect is released, and there was also the patent for sign language a while back. Is it frustrating seeing people rip into technology before they've really had a chance to get to grips with it?
Nick Burton: So let's go from the top. Lag is not an issue, at all. It could have been. It's something that we've worked to make sure it's minimised, you can never eliminate it of course. We've got it to the point of less lag now than most games with a joy pad. The interesting thing I do notice is that some people don't get their own biological lag. Move your hand and the avatar will copy you, no problem. But if you're running for hurdles, I've got to set up to jump before I get to the hurdle. In a normal game I can press a button right before I get to the hurdle because it's just a tiny little movement with my thumb. If I've got to stop, set and jump, there's thinking time and the biological process of my brain is much slower than technology. I've got to plan what I'm doing. That involves planning ahead, but if you're playing the old Hyper Sports game you're just pressing a button, you don't need to plan to take a stride. Kinect Sports is exactly the same in that way, but it is your biological lag, not the system. If we had lag the table tennis wouldn't work because you need that hand to eye co-ordination. But that's part of the gameplay, it's learning to play the game. But it's perfectly right for people to question if they're playing the game and doing the work then it has to copy what they are doing.
Q: Is it possible for Kinect to understand sign language?
Nick Burton: It's possible. Kinect recognises gestures. We have a skeletal system and sign language requires very subtle movement of the fingers so you would have to be very close to the sensors. But it's all software based so there's no reason it couldn't be done. There's absolutely no reason why not. Give a couple of developers with computer vision experience 6-12 months and they'd be able to do it.
Q: Is it cheaper to develop for Kinect than it is for traditional console titles?
Nick Burton: I would say it's about the same. Kinect Sports is a fully-featured game. The Kinect titles have been through the exact development process apart from there's a whole new part of the interface. And there's so many inputs on this thing that we're only really just scratching the surface.
Q: Do you expect more hardcore games to show up on the system at a later date, once developers have truly gotten to grips with the technology?
Nick Burton: It depends what you mean by hardcore. Wait until people have played Sports with their family. There's definitely meat on the bones of this thing. It's a proper game. Judging by the stack of prototypes that we've still got lying around and the crazy ideas we've been thinking about recently we could do some really, really hardcore experiences.
Bear in mind a lot of concepts were just a few days work, there were a lot created by small teams of one or two people. The whole idea was quick, short, sharp experiences. We had the seagull game, a horse racing game, alternative reality stuff, platforming games, object digitisation... we've still got a stack of stuff and more crawling out of the woodwork now. We've probably only scratched the surface when it comes to ideas as well.
Q: Is Rare now purely a Kinect focused studio?
Nick Burton: It's our focus at the moment. We're still excited about Kinect and it still offers a lot of possibilities. There's a whole potential for having Kinect with joy pad if you want that, or you could have one game with different interfaces.
Nick Burton is development director at Rare. Interview by Matt Martin.