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Interview: Behind Ubisoft's Aggressive Kinect Holiday Push

In the gaming world, 2010's hot item Kinect is old news going into its second holiday, but Ubisoft's Tony Key tells Gamasutra why Ubisoft has "many more Kinect games than we did last year coming for this holiday."

Frank Cifaldi

October 5, 2011

12 Min Read

Heading into the Kinect's second holiday, Ubisoft is maintaining its strong support for Microsoft's motion-sensing Xbox 360 peripheral, and the company is confident in that decision. Ubisoft is known to support new platforms in their early stages, and the Kinect's holiday 2010 launch was no different. Out of around 17 "launch window" Kinect games, Ubisoft laid claim to three: Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, MotionSports and Fighters Uncaged. A lot has changed since then, such as the fact that the device has sold over 10 million units. At a recent Kinect-centric Ubisoft event, Gamasutra spoke with Ubisoft SVP of sales and marketing, Tony Key, who said, "By getting in early and doing all those Kinect games, we were building an advantage, and you can see we're not backing off. We've got many more Kinect games than we did last year coming for this holiday." Key also discussed Ubisoft's unique perspective, explaining what the company has learned one year into the Kinect's life, what the audience looks like right now (it's still primarily male, he says, even with its fitness games), and whether the market is ready for deep "core" games to emerge on the system. Ubisoft strikes me as what is probably the most prolific Kinect publisher: you've tried fitness, a fighting game, action. It's almost a year later, what are you seeing works best for the Kinect? Every one of these games is a vast improvement over the previous version, if it's a sequel. Technology this year, between the improvements that Microsoft has made and what we've learned by getting in early, we've been working on camera games for years. Having this stuff get out into the market place, getting consumer feedback, seeing what works and improving on that is going to result in much better games this year, in terms of quality. Last year with Your Shape Fitness we found out what people wanted, what worked, what didn't, but you can look at Your Shape 2 and you can see how much better the projection is working. Now we've got people on the floor, because we've developed tracking of the silhouette as opposed to the skeleton. That's a big deal, because as far as I know no other game is doing that right now. But you can go down and do sit-ups and pushups and all those kinds of things. If you really want an all-encompassing fitness game, how can you not have floor exercises? So that's a huge advantage that that product is bringing over its predecessor. Is the silhouette tech Ubisoft or Microsoft? No, that's us. It's tracking projection, which is our tech. It's tracking the silhouette on screen, Microsoft tracks the skeleton. That's what the difference right now for us to be able to do those floor exercises, and a competitive advantage for us over other fitness products. How much of that tech is shared across your studios? Most of it. A lot of the Your Shape advancements being made were an iteration not only of last year's Your Shape but also over Michael Jackson: The Experience on Kinect. We're continuing to improve our silhouette tracking and our projection technology, because that's the one that we developed before we were working with Microsoft on Kinect games. So we're continuing to develop that. It's not easy, but for us it's why many of our Kinect games look different than our competitors'. There's no simple way around it: you do by doing and experience. By getting in early and doing all those Kinect games, we were building an advantage, and you can see we're not backing off. We've got many more Kinect games than we did last year coming for this holiday. When I say this I don't mean it in a negative way necessarily, but as I'm playing your Kinect demos, it seems most of them require very simple gestures. Move your arm up. Strum the guitar. In Tintin it literally shows you an arrow and you just kind of move your arm in that direction to win. We're just ending year one but have we already exhausted the ways you can feasibly interact with this thing? Everything evolves over time, and one of the reasons we don't have core gamers for the Kinect is because of the time and intensity it would take to try and match exactly what a controller does. But then at the same time, why would you? It's a different experience. Not every experience on the 360 is going to be better on Kinect, or even could be or should be. There should be games developed for all kinds of scenarios, whether you're sitting on the couch or you're standing up. Something like Just Dance for example, I don't know how you would play it with a controller. So it's an experience that's perfect for the Kinect, because it uses your body to play the game. This Motion Sports Adrenaline game, sure you could play that on a controller, but I think it's a lot more fun standing up. But it doesn't require super precision tracking fingers and toes and all that kind of stuff. The fact is that the simple gestures are what people want out of a Kinect right now. We're not all ballet dancers, we don't have perfect control over our bodies and stuff. So I think simplicity is what makes the game more appealing in most cases. Sure, I understand not completely mapping a "core" game to the Kinect, but I don't understand why we're not seeing more complex games that integrate the Kinect to enhance the experience. Your Ghost Recon game, for example, requires you to stop playing and put the controller down in order to use its Kinect-enabled weapon customization mini game, then you pick the controller back up and go back to the real game. What's preventing that extra layer of immersion? Why don't games even do head tracking? The gunsmith is an added benefit [to Ghost Recon] that Kinect can bring. Building Kinect functionality into a core game is still something we're all toying with, because we still have to decide how does it really improve the experience? If it doesn't improve the experience, then what's the point? The gamers won't support it anyway. So what we've done is we've added extra things that if you have a Kinect you can do it. But those things are coming, the hand commands and stuff. But what we have to figure out is, is that feasible while you're holding the controller in your hand? You have to have all that balance. Making the game more immersive is the only reason you should use Kinect and those features. And especially the shooter model, is so fine-tuned in how those games are played that to add this layer of Kinect functionality on top of it is a tall order to actually improve the game experience. I do think it will happen, but nobody's figured it out yet. And I'm not sure people are even asking for it yet. And that's part of it too. It's like, will I sell more if I add that to my game as a publisher? That's one of the questions I'm asking. What's your answer to that? I don't know! No one's done it. I can try to be a pioneer there, and we are trying to be a pioneer on Kinect, but first of all we haven't put out a whole bunch of shooters. We are looking at it, and we are trying to find that perfect combination, and we're still looking. Who's to say that that won't happen in Ghost Recon? We're still looking at it. There are a lot of comparisons being made to this market and the Wii. The first couple years of the Wii's life, a lot of people were experimenting and trying to put those "core" experiences in there. A lot of inappropriate games were shoehorned to work on the Wii, and I feel like ultimately it's kind of been pushed aside and we've gone back to the controller. Is there a risk of that with the Kinect? It sort of goes back to what we were just talking about: why aren't we putting more Kinect features into the shooters and the core games? Nobody figured out on the Wii how to actually improve the shooter experience via the Wiimote. That's not to say that that couldn't have happened, but nobody figured it out. Nobody figured out how to make any Call of Duty or Ghost Recon or anything better on the Wii because of the motion control. Somebody needs to figure that out on the Kinect too. But I think the thing that the Wii didn't have that the 360 has is it has the graphics that the shooter fans are used to. The fans are already there. So I think there's maybe a better opportunity to figure that out on the Kinect than there is on the Wii because there's more of a will to do it on the Kinect. That 360 shooter fan, we know that's a huge audience. You're obviously tracking Kinect consumers pretty closely. What's the makeup of a Kinect player right now? We can only say what the makeup of Kinect consumers are for the games we've sold. What we expected in the first year of the Kinect was that, because the 360 install base is a huge part of who was going to buy the Kinect itself, that it would be primarily male. Our experience with the games we've sold, even though we have a fitness game that may appeal equally to men and women, it was more male because the install base is there. We think that Just Dance is a huge game changer for the Kinect system in terms of bringing more females into the Kinect space. Microsoft is spending a lot of time, resources and strategy around bringing more families in, bringing more females in. Because they have the male, they've got him nailed. So to really really grow they know they've got to get those people in there. I think Just Dance 3 is an awesome opportunity where we could have a Kinect game with more females playing than males. And that would be a first for Kinect as far as we know. That includes Dance Central? I can't say that for a fact, but that's my impression, yes. There's no question in my mind that Just Dance's appeal is more female than Dance Central's. Is there a fear that perhaps Dance Central has become the de facto dance brand for the Kinect? Well, they put out one game. It was really good. They did well. But Just Dance is a juggernaut, Just Dance is the biggest brand that Ubisoft has right now, and the biggest dance brand in the industry. And Just Dance 3 on Kinect is really, really good. We're really optimistic that we can be the big dance game on that system. And that's going to be good for everybody, because it's going to bring in new customers. One of the key Ubisoft strategies seems to be to jump right on new technology immediately, try everything right away, and then whittle it down from there. It seems like every hardware launch has a handful of Ubisoft titles day one. We love new hardware. Ubisoft has always had a reputation as a creative company, inside and outside. Our production teams love tinkering with new hardware, and so when new hardware comes along, there's always a line of people who want to try it and want to get in there and say "Can I make one of these?" and try out a 3DS system, or a Vita system, or a Kinect system or whatever else. We were the number one third-party on Wii when that came out, number one on Kinect, number one on 3DS. It's no secret, right? We love to tinker with new hardware. Because it's in our DNA, we tend to have a lot of products at the beginnings of the cycles. And by the way the hardware companies like to have that kind of support at launch. So they generally come to us when they're launching new hardware and say hey, what can you make for us? I was going to ask, do you have more clout than other publishers because of that? There's no question that hardware companies, when they're introducing new technology, come to see Ubisoft very early in the process to see how much support they can get from us. So far the answer has always been pretty much all the time. We like it, we love new hardware, we feel like we have a competitive advantage in getting out there early. And the other thing that we like to do is learn by doing. There's a strategy behind being early on a system: not only do you get out there early and you have all these games out there, but you learn. What we're seeing from today's Kinect event is that iterating on your technology is the key to continuing to grow the gaming experience. People who are just putting out Kinect games for the first time this holiday have a much bigger hurdle in terms of learning how to make great Kinect experiences. We've been through it now, and we're iterating on that, and the quality of our games is way better as a result of being early. Where do you see the Kinect a year from now, for both Ubisoft and the industry in general? Well, when the install base gets big, it becomes a more attractive business model for publishers to say all right, I can make money making a Kinect-only game. So I think you'll see more and more Kinect titles coming next year, which is going to support more and more hardware sales. So I see a bright future for Kinect. What kinds of products, I can't say. But I do think the system will continue to grow, and I also think that the amount of games coming out in 2012 will be much higher than the amount of games coming out in 2011. Do you see this as being more third-party friendly than the Wii ended up being? Having the number one game for the last 11 months in a row on the Wii with the Just Dance brand, we feel like the Wii is third-party friendly [laughs]. We've done really well there. I can't speak for the industry, but I can speak for Ubisoft: the Wii has been extremely third-party friendly for us.

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About the Author(s)

Frank Cifaldi


Frank Cifaldi is a freelance writer and contributing news editor at Gamasutra. His past credentials include being senior editor at 1UP.com, editorial director and community manager for Turner Broadcasting's GameTap games-on-demand service, and a contributing author to publications that include Edge, Wired, Nintendo Official Magazine UK and GamesIndustry.biz, among others. He can be reached at [email protected].

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