Studio head Scott Henson on Kinect, Avatars and the future of motion sports
For many years, Rare was synonymous with Nintendo, producing a number of defining titles for N64 including Donkey Kong Country and the classic FPS Goldeneye. In 2002 that all changed when Microsoft paid a record $375 million to acquire a controlling stake in the company. Since then the UK studio has played an important role in the publisher's gameplan, designing both Microsoft Avatars and the continuing dashboard updates.
More recently, the company's attentions have turned to Kinect, producing top-selling Kinect title Kinect Sports. Brought in to oversee that new direction is Microsoft veteran Scott Henson, who has been invovled in the development of Xbox Live since day one. Below, GamesIndustry.biz quizzes him on what's next for Rare.
Q: Congratulations on winning the BAFTA with Kinect Sports. Especially good to break into what is perhaps not really traditionally Microsoft home ground.
Scott Henson: We are very honoured to win it. Thank you very much for that.
Q: How has it fared, in terms of sales units? I know it appears in the top ten and I believe it was the best selling Kinect game in the opening week. It's hung around a bit longer than a lot of the others. Without going into specific numbers and details, how do the sales of it hold up compared to another flagship Microsoft product?
Scott Henson: What I would say, we are the number one Kinect title. I think you also know the sales of Kinect, right? We have sold more than 10 million units of Kinect. We are very pleased with the progress so far. I'm also someone, who's not only a big fan of video games, but also a big fan of sports. I'm optimistic about the category, in general, being a very evergreen category and continuing to invite people in. In terms of first party products, it's exactly I think, what you would consider a hallmark. It leads in innovation. It's doing very well in the market place. It's showing what's possible with this rich canvas, that I would call Kinect, doing great.
Q: Do you think this success is going to turn into an IP rather than just a title? I would presume there are at the very least thoughts about a sequel or DLC, if those things aren't already happening?
Scott Henson: You know, the first thing I would say is we are very pleased with the success. You've seen DLC that we did in December to extend the life of it. Obviously, Xbox Live is a key part of what we do, both multiplayer and adding on to the experience. Without getting into specific details of things that we haven't announced yet what I would expect is that we will continue to investigate and explore and innovate with Xbox Live experiences, with Kinect experiences. As I said, the category of sports in general, gives us an opportunity to explore those areas.
Q: And how are things going with Avatar Chat? I understand that is your big project at the moment.
Scott Henson: I can't comment on that. Because, we are actually not leading the development for Avatar Chat. We obviously did lead the development for Avatars - and it's exciting to see all the different experiences that have been created with Avatars. I think there are some really exciting things that team is doing.
Q: Do you see more applications using Avatars? Is it something you are trying to integrate more fully with the gaming experience? I know you did it to a certain extent with things like Keflings and a couple of other games. Is that something you want to see involved in more games and projects?
Scott Henson: Before I came to Rare a few months ago, I was working on Xbox Live, the new dashboard, the hardware, software, industrial design. A big part of that partnership from the top down perspective of avatars was to enable all different kinds of experiences for avatars. And so, from my old job, if I put my old hat on, it's very gratifying to see all these different experiences. Whether they're on the phones, whether they're on the PC, whether they're on the Xbox, whether they're games. Whether they are, what you might call, an application. Yeah, it's exciting. It's exciting from a Rare perspective. Thirty million members are all connected into this avatar universe of experiences.
Q: We talked about the sales of Kinect earlier. It's probably fair to say that they exceeded the expectations of a lot of analysts. Was that in line with Microsoft and Rare's projections for sales? Or were you kind of pleasantly surprised with those as well?
Scott Henson: Well, I don't remember a conversation about a Guinness Book of World Records. That's what I would say [laughs]. It's an honour to be able to say after 60 days we've sold 10 million units. That's pretty fantastic. You never know, I've been on Xbox for ten years. Before the original Xbox, before Xbox Live, before Xbox 360. We are always cautiously optimistic. We think we've got something. We think we are building something for the future. We think it's got great legs and a great future. And Kinect was very much that same way. We're pleased, that's what I'd say.
Q: The stuff that's currently going at Rare, I presume there's general Kinect focus at the studio now, as well as the dashboard. Is that set to become the main studio focus, or will you perhaps start moving back into what are more traditional or historical Rare properties?
Scott Henson: What I'd say is that Kinect is in it's early days, even still. It's a huge, rich canvas. We are going to continue to explore that. In the months and years ahead, are we going to be limited? No, we're not going to be limited. We are going to continue to innovate. We are going to continue to look at new areas to explore. Kinect will be a key part of that.
Q: Are there any plans to pursue any of the old IP in the way that you did with Perfect Dark recently?
Scott Henson: Our plans are exploring the way people play. If the IP Rare has apply to that, then certainly we will look at that. Ultimately, we are focused on innovation in the way people play. The great thing about having been in the industry 25 years and having sold about 100 million plus units, or whatever, and having had these great successes is that we have a great canvas both in the studio and outside of the studio in which to work.
Q: I saw recently that there was some data that had been collected from Kinect performance that has already managed to improve algorithms and cut down on the lag on the machine. Alex Kipman has said that he would welcome that - you need people who would be out there toying around with the insides, feeding that information back into development. How much more do you think is left in the hardware?
Scott Henson: I think it's unlimited. I think you're just starting to see the very beginning of it. For a good part of my career in Xbox, I've been partnered with the development and publisher community. The thing that constantly amazes me is how creative that the community is. How people continue to surprise and delight, in ways that you never imagined. It's exciting to see the enthusiasm that people are having, around what you are talking about right now. We are going to hold to that. You are going to see some brand new experiences as a results.
Q: You've just released the Kinect software development kit for PC's. It can loosely be termed as a hacking element to the hardware and that's something you seem to embrace quite strongly with Kinect. That's a very different route than other platform holders with their hardware - they tend to be quite protective. Is that something that you see as a valuable avenue of research? Having people out there messing around with this stuff, and seeing what it can do?
Scott Henson: First of all, I don't see the hacking. I see it as a development in possibilities, and in innovation and exploration, right? What you are seeing from us is us embracing that concept and trying to help harness it and accelerate it. Again, this has been a key part of what I've done over the years. For me personally, this is something very exciting to see. As someone that runs a studio, and someone who cares deeply about the industry, helping enable that innovation is fundamentally what will help fuel the industry and the overall ecosystem. So I think it's a great thing.
Q: There's been a relatively sparse release schedule for Kinect games since the launch. Presumably, there's other stuff that you're aware of that's going on behind the scenes that's going to start filling that pipeline over the next year or so?
Scott Henson: Well, I obviously I don't have a complete view across the entire industry. This is why trade shows like E3 are a great thing, a good checkpoint for us, to go explore your question. In first party, you will see us continue to innovate and push, not just with Kinect but in general, on all the platform areas that we have on the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live. What I would say is that we were very pleased, in general, with the launch portfolio and had tremendous support across the industry. And I am bullish that you are going to see a lot more in the months to come.
Q: There was something of a mixed message, perhaps, at the beginning of Kinect's career. People were saying that there would be core games coming - is that something that Rare would be involved in, that core title development? Or do you think it would be more along the lines of the Kinect Sports packages, the more family friendly stuff that you've been pursuing?
Scott Henson: How I would characterise it for us... We are motivated to create experiences that appeal to everyone, whatever their motivation. If they want something that is more of an individual expression like getting up off the couch and diving in, if they want to invite friends and family, we want to make something that is literally for everyone. What I think you'll see, like you saw with Xbox Live, and what you see with Xbox 360, is you're going to see a whole suite that will be used for the entire industry. I think there will be something for everyone, and no matter what their motivation is.
Q: Given your knowledge of the way Live has been planned out you must be very aware of what the mission statement was with Live at the beginning. How has that evolved since?
Scott Henson: The number one tenet of Live, and in general, is that it would just be this ever evolving, always-on service, right? I think what you've seen over the last; gosh how long has it been in the market? Almost eight and a half, nine years now; is a constant, a relentless sense of progression and innovation, through Xbox Live. I would expect that you'll continue to see that mantra that we've had from the very beginning. That through the power of software services, we are going to continue to excite and delight people with Xbox Live.
Scott Henson is studio manager at Rare. Interview by Dan Pearson.