Drew Skillman and Patrick Hackett, Double Fine
Double Fine has dabbled plenty in motion control games, with games like Happy Action Theater for the Kinect, and Dropchord for the Leap Motion -- and it's not stopping there.
Drew Skillman and Patrick Hackett head up the recently-formed "Future Tech" department at the studio, and have been playing around with the Oculus Rift, the Razer Hydra Motion controller, and more. The pair tells me that when starting a motion control project, developers should just start throwing out prototypes.
"It's critical to begin building prototypes as quickly as possible using whatever tools you can get your hands on," Skillman says. "That way you can see where the technology shines and where it falls down in minutes or hours, rather than days or weeks. We often use Processing, Unity, or our own internal 'Buddha' engine to get ideas off the ground as quickly as possible."
Rapid prototyping in this way allows studios to explore the capabilities and limitations of motion control hardware more quickly, and find novel ways to use it -- much like what Double Fine regularly does as part of its Amnesia Fortnights.
"Don't just test the controls internally with people on the team," Skillman warns. "Playtesting is always important for game design, but when dealing with new motion control technologies it's absolutely critical."
The main issue is that as you iterate on your initial motion control concept, you begin to tailor them to your own experience, rather than what players in general would enjoy.
"New players have none of that background and don't even know what's possible with the new technologies," he adds. "There's nothing more disheartening than working on a control scheme and convincing yourself it's awesome, only to realize you're using the tech in a way that is utterly lost on the average player."
So how does a developer decide whether the motion controls that they have pieced together are "good enough"? This was be incredibly tricky to pinpoint, admits the Double Fine man.
"Since they don't have the precision of a gamepad or touchscreen, you can't expect to get them to 100 percent reliability," he says. "But if they're not reasonably solid and consistent they will certainly ruin the experience of your game."
He continues, "The key, in our experience, is to aggressively iterate and re-work the control scheme until people essentially stop commenting on it. At that point you'll often notice players begin to have a natural interaction with the motion controls - one that doesn't feel forced or confusing. We're always putting our games in front of new players, and when they start commenting on game mechanics instead of the motion controls, that's a pretty sure sign that you’re in a good place."
For example, on one of Double Fine's recent PlayStation 4 motion control projects, the team went through four or five massive redesigns of the control scheme over several months before it settled on the final control design.
"When we finally noticed our coworkers picking apart shadow artifacts and subtle game mechanics rather than motion controls, we knew we had found a natural and intuitive solution," notes Skillman.
I ask Skillman how a studio can decide whether motion control is a valuable addition to a game, rather than being thrown in for the sake of it.
"I'd consider the source of the push to include those motion controls," he answers. "If it's an idea that sprung up internally within the team and feels like it fits the game, then it'll probably work and be awesome. Often you'll find new hardware that complements the vision of the game - and in those cases even if it is just a side dish, it can still add a lot to the overall experience."
However, if the momentum to add motion controls to your game is coming from outside pressures, such as a publisher's marketing initiative, and the team isn't actually all that excited about adding it, then it can have a negative impact.
"At best it won't add much, and at worst it could seriously hurt the rest of the game," says Skillman. "However, given enough time and a flexible design, adding motion controls can lead to new experiences and sometimes entire new areas for developers to explore. That's certainly been true for us here at Double Fine, where we've been vocal about our love affair with exciting new technologies like the Leap, Kinect, DualShock 4, and Oculus."
He adds, "As an aside, if any hardware developers are reading this, hook us up! We want to make games for your hardware!"