Jason Alexander, Terminal Reality
Jason Alexander was the designer for the Jedi Mode in Kinect Star Wars, and as such, found that he had to compete with player expectations of fighting with lightsabers.
Although it didn't work out as well as the team was hoping, Alexander says that the base prototype had plenty of promise -- unfortunately, they leaned a little too heavily on "gestures = buttons."
"I think one of the biggest things to keep in mind with motion controls is that there is almost always an inherent degree of subjectivity that comes along with them," he notes.
"'Press the A button' is a predictable input, and pretty much everyone will 'Press the A button' in the exact same way," he continues. "But 'Lean forward quickly to dash'? How fast is 'quickly'? What counts as a 'lean'? Does that include a step forward? Is this a bend at the hips? How far do I have to bend? And so on."
Taking all of this into account early on -- and spending plenty of time researching and testing these ideas -- is key to victory, Alexander reckons.
He adds, "Getting this type of early feedback from outside sources is pretty comparable to any type of design ('what do you mean this game is too hard? I can beat it just fine!' says the designer of the level...), but it's even more important (and weirder) when motion controls are involved."
Alexander says that one of the best ways to approach a motion control game is to consider fun physical actions outside of a video game, and then attempt to transfer these into a video game context.
"For example, kicking isn't necessarily the highest priority attack in a Jedi's arsenal," he says, "but we found that it's one of the more inherently fun motions to do, therefore we wanted to get it into the game. And even as I play it now, it's often my favorite attack to use."
"With controller-based games, the actual physical thumb manipulation or hand movement with a controller, joystick, or mouse/keyboard are usually not the highest priorities," Alexander continues. "But the motions for a motion control game definitely are, in my opinion."
Alexander agrees with my other interviewees, stating that "'Gestures to replace buttons' are almost never the most fun method of motion controls, but they're relatively easy to implement and use as a fallback, so they tend to be pretty popular."
Unfortunately, this has led to the notion that motion control tech is inherently "laggy", Alexander muses -- when in fact it's simply the poor implementation of the tech that is causing the visual lag, rather than the tech itself.
"It may also help to avoid trying to pile on too many control inputs simultaneously," he adds. "For example, on Jedi there were a lot of motions that, by themselves, are responsive and fun to do. But when all 10 of them are active at once, that can lead to a lot of missed inputs, and the general response of 'these controls are busted and laggy.' Of course, the other extreme to worry about is whether a motion controlled game is too simplistic, so balancing that is definitely a tough goal."
With regards to Kinect Star Wars, some modes were notably more fun than others. I ask Alexander which elements appeared to appeal to players more.
"I think the modes that tend to allow more freedom in motions tend to be more well-received," he answers. "So the Rancor mode, while sometimes janky, still could offer some of the most silly fun. It's mostly 1:1, it's not something you do a ton of in games (become a giant monster, destroy buildings, throw and eat people), and the in-game response to all of your motions are pretty satisfying, since something tends to explode every time you walk."
Managing to get across this feeling of being a giant monster worked great as a motion game, he notes -- "my secret wish is that someone greenlights an Xbox One Pacific Rim game using Rancor mode as a base to start from," he laughs.
"When it comes to player expectations, it helps when you're working on a motion game that has no clear and obvious controller-based game to compare against," Alexander continues. "With Rancor again, although there have been other giant monster games, they're not super popular or mainstream, so one could say that people are more open to different ways to playing them."
Dance games, on the other hand, are a proven successful genre for motion controls, so Kinect Star Wars' Dance Mode was, unsurprisingly, better received.
"Pod controls were somewhat well-received since the motions for it are relatively subtle, and 1:1," he adds. "Most criticisms tended to come when you were called to do secondary actions that interfered with the primary one."
"Jedi, on the other hand, immediately brings to mind numerous controller-based third person melee action games like Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, God of War, and even another Star Wars game, Force Unleashed)," Alexander reasons.
"And also, of course, the most popular characters and weapons in the movies. So from the beginning, players will likely be wondering in the back of their mind 'does this play as precisely as those?'. Combine that with the rather vocal 'Where's my Battlefront 3? Where's my 1:1 hardcore lightsaber simulation game?' crowd, it's definitely a tough thing to go up against. And unfortunately, if it doesn't work well, it's very easy for someone to then say 'this is why controllers are superior, and motion controls are lame.'"
Alexander admits that his team was still tweaking and adjusting the motion control for Kinect Star Wars quite late into development.
"Unfortunately, there is no existing design bible to point to for how to do a third person 100 percent motion controlled action game, so it was very easy to keep iterating much later than usual," he notes. "There are still things I would have personally loved to try as separate control options, but at some point, as everyone else knows... you have to stick with something good enough, and ship a game. Unfortunately, 'good enough' wasn't enough to get better review scores!"
For those studios considering introducing motion control into a game, Alexander says you should ask yourself one question: Could this action be done with a button press and still be just as fun?
"If yes, then motion controls are probably not needed," he reasons. "To be clear, there are fun games I think that support both traditional controllers and motion controls (Child of Eden comes to mind), but that's because the actual physical motion and response (pushing forward with your hand, seeing pretty lights and music synced to your actions) is still fun (more fun, in my opinion), even if it technically works fine on a controller."