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Ghost in the Machine: Pt 2

Alex Kipman on hybrid games, what happened to Milo and what we should expect from the Kinect-exclusive Star Wars game

Yesterday we published the first part of our in-depth discussion with Alex Kipman, Microsoft's director of incubation and creator of Kinect, in which he discussed how Kinect's 'brain' works, how much of the 360's processing power it uses and the parallels between it and a human thinking.

In today's second and final part, we continue our chat with Kipman, touching on what he sees in the future for traditional controllers, what's happening with Star Wars Kinect and why we're not scanning skateboards just yet.

GamesIndustry.bizPart of your official Microsoft bio text says that you realised that the 'controller was the greatest single barrier between consumers and gaming'. Is that something that you stand by?
Alex Kipman

More so by the day. I couldn't stand behind that statement more strongly. As I look at technology I find people in my genre of work are busy putting more gadgets and more gizmos in your hand. In this world you're having to take more time to learn technology and you become essentially enslaved to it.

Our world is a world that's trying to turn that on its head. A world that starts to say, 'hey, I can make you the centre of this experience'. I can create technology which fundamentally understands you. I can switch from you having to understand technology to technology understanding all of us.

In that world, the way that you interact with it is a more natural way. I see this happen day after day after day in our playtest labs - when you start using these natural features: voice recognition, full body motion tracking and identity recognition together, the level of immersion and emotional connection you can get with the story deepens, and it deepens in a meaningful way.

That centres on removing this level of abstraction, this level of indirection between you and the story we're trying to tell. Allowing you to have a much more immersive experience. So from that perspective I do think that technology in general and controllers specifically tend to get in the way, and our job as technologists becomes, more and more over time - and this is true not only of Kinect because it doesn't take much to see this monumental shift in the computer industry where conceptual consumer electronics devices are about removing technology and making technology more about understanding you.

GamesIndustry.bizDo you mean that you'd rather see the controller disappear completely? Do you not see it as having a function in many game types as a shorthand to a far more complex action?
Alex Kipman

I think that one of the things I appreciate most about Xbox, and why I love the product to pieces, is that it has choice. It allows us a diversified portfolio where we can have content for everyone. Having content for everyone doesn't mean the same cookie cutter answer for every single experience.

It means instead, highly optimised experiences where we have enough breadth to our portfolio that we have content for everyone. This is where I usually like to say '"hey you know what? Xbox was, is, and will continue to be the number one first-person shooter box out there", and those are games that today are traditionally controller games.

We'll continue to invest in these, we'll continue to have controller-only games. We love controller free games, we love Kinect experiences and we'll continue to grow our set of those as well. What we haven't really talked about, but exist, are hybrid games. Games that are using the controller, which we know and love, and pieces, if not all, of the Kinect experiences to again make those experiences more immersive, more fun and more emotionally connected.

This is where I look at the world, and I know it's easier to look at the world and talk about 'or', but I look at the world and I talk about 'and'. It's about how we take all of these things and fuse all of them together to create unique experiences. This is when I go speak and spend time with creative folk around the industry. I go back and I talk about palette. It doesn't always mean using the same colours, the same paintbrushes - the stories you tell are about using the appropriate combinations of all of the colours and brushes to create something meaningful.

So no, I don't see the controller disappearing altogether, but I do see a world which allows all to exist.

GamesIndustry.bizLet's talk a little bit about Milo, as I think it represents many of the qualities of Kinect which really grabbed and enthused people. I think it's fair to say that perhaps not too many of the launch titles for Kinect share those inspirational qualities in quite the same way - they're perhaps a little more predictable. Would you like to see Milo, or a project with those qualities, come to market?
Alex Kipman

Well, that's a very nuanced question that I'd love to give you a nuanced answer to and give you the story behind. Milo was never announced as a game. This goes back to me spending a tonne of time working with the creative storytellers in the industry.

Peter Molyneux is probably one of the most amazing people I've had the pleasure of collaborating with. So, there's the world of creating paint colours and paintbrushes - that's me. Then there's the world of creating pictures based on these paint colours and paintbrushes - that's Peter Molyneux, it's a give and take. It's a partnership. Peter comes to me and says, you know what Alex, there are these stories I've always wanted to tell, if only I had these paint colours and paintbrushes. And I say to Peter, 'I have a new selection of paints and paintbrushes - what can you paint with it?'.

You see how these things interchange with each other and then collectively we come up with these transformational, revolutionary experiences. Milo was a sandbox. In this world of creating experiences I used voice, gestures, identity together. Milo was the sandbox which allowed us to define how to do these experiences, and what you saw was a transformational experience where you got a level of emotional connection unlike anything you had seen before.

Now, where has Milo gone? It was never really a product, I will tell you that the technology developed in that sandbox, and by the way we continue to develop technologies in that sandbox, has migrated pretty closely to what you see in a game called Kinectimals.

Kinectimals is about creating an emotional, deep relationship between you and this tiger cub. It uses identity, knows who you are. It actually reacts differently when you walk in front of it, because it's your tiger, than when I walk in front of it, because it doesn't know me. It uses voice, so that you can interact with it and play with it, it uses gestures and essentially moves you to this deep adventure on an island where you're finding the secret of a pirate in much the same way as a traditional adventure type game.

This is one of what I would say was one of the key innovations, that captured people's minds with Milo - this idea that we could create an emotion engine, an engine that would fuse these human input behaviours and create a relationship with this imaginary character. What I think you see in Kinectimals is precisely that.

GamesIndustry.bizDo you think it's fair to say that the raft of launch titles is intended as a set of introductory tools and that there'll be a set of deeper experiences later? That these titles are intended to attract a new audiences and that the games for the existing audience are yet to come?
Alex Kipman

The way I would say it is, that November 10 is the beginning of a journey. This is a huge platform release, this is our biggest platform release in the history of Xbox. From that perspective, it is a journey. The fact that we have nineteen titles available for the holiday shows you how much we are putting behind developing a strong portfolio of these experiences. It's our biggest platform launch period. We've never had this many launch titles on any previous launch we've had.

From that perspective, I'll go back and say, we've already shown that we're the number one console for hardcore gamers. We have been, we are and we will continue to be. Part of the explicit design goal with Kinect was to show the range. To show that not only could we be the best hardcore gaming box in the world, but that we could also have other content more suitable for everyone.

It's a managed portfolio for launch, and it's an explicit decision to make sure that all of our content was rated E, for everyone. That's where we start - it's not where we end. You needn't go further than Tokyo Game Show this year where we announced titles that are exclusive to Kinect like Steel Battalion. The next version of that franchise is coming exclusively to our platform. So as our platform moves forward you're going to start seeing the palette, the platform, evolve, much as you saw Xbox Live evolve.

From that perspective you'll continue to see these features showing up in different titles. The titles for launch were explicitly chosen. They were explicitly chosen to be simple, fun and approachable, because look, the line-up for hardcore, we have an amazing line-up as we speak - from Fable to Halo to Black Ops, Gears of War coming up - there's no shortage of hardcore titles coming up, part of Kinect was to show that we had range, that we could start coming up with a more balanced and diversified portfolio. That's where we start. It's by no means where we end.

You should believe that we are going to have more traditional hardcore games that are either hybrid or Kinect exclusive.

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