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The Player Becomes The Producer: Natural User Interface Design Impact

February 24, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

[Blitz Games Studios studio design director John Nash takes you through the process his team devised for coming up with Kinect game interfaces during the development of titles such as Yoostar 2 and Fantastic Pets 2.]

Though we could spend many moons debating what a designer actually does and perhaps even longer debating how we teach designers, one thing is certain: the designer's job is getting harder by the day.

Of course the constantly evolving face of the game development landscape is an issue, as is the polarization of the gaming marketplace, but these problems boil down to a few basic issues. The one I will be focusing on here is the recent proliferation of gaming hardware interfaces and the subsequent challenges that the different pieces of hardware pose for designers.

For 30 years the triumvirate of the mouse, button, and joystick has ruled the roost as the preferred gaming interfaces between us and the video game.

Recent proliferation in the accessibility to gaming platforms, general global gaming demand and first party brinkmanship has meant that new ways to interact with digital entertainment have been developed. The goal of these new interfaces is simple: to reduce the entry barrier for everyone whilst still including traditional gamers.

This contemporary profusion of new interfaces has had a profound effect on gaming. The new interfaces have created a new breed of mechanically simple, often aggressively-priced games that have in turn attracted new groups of players to the world of gaming. This technological chicken-and egg-cycle means that we are now able to interface, control, and design games in a number of novel ways.

The impact on designers from this interface explosion has been huge. Not only do they have to learn to adapt to these new interfaces, but they must also adopt a more pragmatic approach to the entire design process. The market is changing, the gamers are changing, and so must our mode of development.

The good news is that although the challenge is great, there are a few easy-to-adopt approaches to make the creation process simpler and more rewarding.

To illustrate my point, consider the following diagram:


(click for full size)

With the help of my good friend Wikipedia I have selected a few key events in the chronology of gaming interfaces and dropped them on a timeline. Even though the choices I have made are relatively arbitrary, two things are glaringly apparent.

Firstly some interfaces were developed surprisingly early on and secondly, in 2011 there are an awful lot more of them to deal with. Other more esoteric or one-off interfaces have come and gone, and contemporary interfaces like Kinect blend several elements to create a new interface.

Motion Control and Natural User Interfaces

In a bid to avoid a "geek-speak" fueled war of semantics, I thought I'd define a few interface types to make sure we're all on the same page (at least for the duration of this article!) Broadly speaking, it's useful to think of the new interfaces (in the sense that they have become part of the core gaming landscape, not necessarily brand new technologies) in three categories:

  • Multi-touch - this covers all of the touchscreen interfaces seen on the current raft of phones and tablets.
  • Motion control - I'm defining these as hardware devices that are held or attached to the player which translate body movement into game control signals. A great example of this is the Nintendo Wii.
  • Natural User Interface (NUI) - remote-sensing devices that allow image, gesture and speech recognition in various configurations, to be used without the player touching any hardware interface. The obvious candidate here is the Microsoft Kinect sensor.

Why This Subject and Why Now?

The main trigger for this article and its rather sensationalist title is the Microsoft Kinect sensor. With its innovative combination of hardware sensors and software processing, Kinect is the first truly mass-market NUI for the global video game market. Blitz Games Studios are one of the world's leading Kinect developers, having been developing games and technology demonstrations on this platform for nearly two years.

Throughout that time we have developed new ways of thinking in terms of game design, a healthy respect for the pitfalls and a love for the experiential space of possibility that the Kinect offers.


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