Develop 2010: Rare lifted the lid on first-party development for Kinect and what controller-free gaming meanings for entertainment.
At E3 2009, Microsoft’s new motion control technology, known then only as Project Natal, appeared as though the early cousin of the Star Trek holodeck had arrived 50 years ahead of schedule. You interact with the device simply by using your body and voice, with no need for physical controls or buttons. A year later and the device now has a name, Kinect, and with its help, Microsoft are aiming to attract new audiences to Xbox 360.
This year at Develop, Rare, creators of Banjo-Kazooie and Microsoft’s in-house studio for Kinect experimentation, presented two special sessions on what controller-free gaming means for game design and what opportunities lie ahead.
As well as working on the core software for Kinect, Rare are also creating a launch title for the peripheral, Kinect Sports. Nick Burton has been with Rare for over 10 years and now serves as the studio’s Kinect development director. He said Kinect presents “a new way of playing, and a new way of thinking.”
Physical play games have been coming in droves following the release of the Wii. Rare’s experience in this genre actually begins with Super Glove Ball for use with the NES Power Glove. Burton also shared previously unseen footage of the unreleased Fast and the Furriest!, created by some of the Perfect Dark Zero team for the 360’s Live Vision camera. A video showed some pudgy tortoise characters running to the finish in a track race, while in a man could be seen moving his arms in a smaller picture-in-picture view.
The Fast and the Furriest! was their attempt to “remove the barrier for entry, trying to get that fun experience everyone in the family can have, but also trying to get that fidelity of control that gamers like.”
Throughout their history, Rare have been creating games that have broader appeal. “The design of input mechanisms, the design of controllers, has become too core focused,” said Burton, who explained that his young daughter found modern joypads too complex.
Showing another prototype project, Burton took out an object that looked suspiciously like a homemade sex toy – “And, no, it doesn’t included rumble,” he said in a genuine effort to soften the sniggers. It was actually a crude LED-vitamin-tube that could be tracked by the Live Vision camera – similar to PlayStation Move. Soulcatcher was an unreleased shooter that made use of the tracker. For all their past efforts, Rare believe that with Kinect they are truly able to deliver a game that can be enjoyed by all.
Living room football
Designing games for new technology has always been a gradual learning curve, but Kinect is unlike anything that has come before it, and it’s causing developers to rethink their game design philosophies. Not having buttons, or anything to give users haptic feedback was something Burton said “concerned us greatly in the early days.”
The thinking behind Kinect Sports is “to be so simple anyone can play.” But how do you balance the depth that core gamers expect with the simplicity to make it accessible for all players? This was one of the first huddles Rare had to overcome. Burton said because we all produce different movement signatures with our bodies, the technology has to be able to interpret those movements, say, fast or loose, and still provide a fair multiplayer experience.
Kinect Sports features eight sports, including bowling, boxing and volleyball. Yes, on the surface it’s Wii Sports in all but name, but Rare haven’t set out to simply make a me-too clone. For his presentation, Burton focused on football, and said their intention has been to make it “feel like a hyper-real experience.” An early demo of a Rare employee doing virtual kick-ups showed the level of accuracy Kinect can deliver.
Moving about in a 3D world is another challenge that had to be addressed by the development team. They found controlling all of the players to actively run about the pitch would be too tiring. An automatic run was tried where the player focused on weaving, but this still wasn’t satisfying. What they decided was to remove complexity entirely by distilling the game to just kicking the ball. AI takes care of navigation and creates set pieces, leaving the player free to focus on passing and shooting.
“If you can remove complexity, you remove the barrier for entry,” said Burton. Rather than “dumbing down” the gameplay, he’s confident that passing is where gamers will find the depth. At this stage it’s hard to tell without going hands-on ourselves, but it’s clear that Kinect is offering a unique gaming experience to those currently available.
“You have a digital-physical presence in the game and that’s something that’s never been done before,” said Burton. “Kinect Sports has been the toughest challenge Rare has faced… what we started with Slalom, it feels like we’ve really realised with Kinect Sports.”
Developing for controller-free gaming
Microsoft’s heavy line-up of casual titles for Kinect at E3 2010 has left many core gamers disillusioned as to whether the device will ever be used to evolve more traditional game experiences. Rare’s next session was aimed at explaining to developers how Kinect will affect the development process and, while not answering the question, undoing some of the doubts to its potential for core games.
For this session, Nick Burton was joined by Andrew Oliver, CTO of Blitz Games Studios. From their perspectives as first-party and third-party studios, they talked about some of the changes that developers will face making games for Kinect.
When Rare first received the motion technology they worked on several prototypes to gauge what the device was capable of. “We got it earlier than most, but we were mostly figuring out what to do with it,” said Burton. Floor tracking was one such element they had to “invent” while figuring out the technology.
In order to get the most out of the motion control technology, Rare created a select group within their studio to be experts on the hardware. This reduced queries from the design team working on Kinect Sports and Microsoft’s own technology team. Burton advised developers to train their employees to become specialists with the hardware. The development team also created an Avatar retargeting system for mapping player movements to digital counterparts. Microsoft saw the usefulness in this and had it integrated into the core software for Kinect.
Through iterative design and development, with teams working on refining various sports, Kinect Sports started to take shape. Burton mentioned that the game is built on the Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts engine to show how easy the hardware is to program for. “Things that are difficult to [code] with a webcam are trivial with Kinect,” he said. Kinect can augment reality and detect voice sources and their position within the environment.
Andrew Oliver was particularly taken with the hardware’s audio capabilities: “I was incredibly surprised and delighted at how well the voice recognition works,” he said. Blitz Games received their Kinect development unit last September, and have been giving Microsoft feedback to assist future developers. Oliver revealed two new titles the company are working on in time for Kinect’s launch, The Biggest Loser: Ultimate Workout and Yooster 2: Movie Karaoke. He was enthusiastic about virtual fitness trainers now being able to dynamically react to your performance, encouraging you to continue when you exclaim that you need a break.
Kinect’s trial by fire isn’t about to end soon, though. During the Q&A, a developer asked about navigating 3D worlds using Kinect. Burton’s responded by referring to how Rare has got around the problem in Kinect Sports - by keeping it to a minimum. However, for games where navigation is the heart of the gameplay the technology’s capability is still an unknown quantity.
And the questions don’t end there. Microsoft are still yet to confirm whether Kinect will be open for XNA development and details are sketchy on just how well Kinect can track seated players. But, though Kinect is sure to have its teething problems, there’s no question that the technology itself is astounding.
“This is the most natural way you can interact with something - if it can see and hear you,” said Burton. “Kinect offers more creative scope than ever before and we’re only just scratching the surface of what can be done.”
Photos: Aaron Lee