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Interview: Twisted Pixel's Muehl On The Gunstringer, 'Core' Gaming On Kinect

Gamasutra speaks with Twisted Pixel game director Bill Muehl about the Kinect-based action marionette title The Gunstringer, and creating a Kinect game that caters to the "core" gamer.
[Gamasutra speaks with Twisted Pixel game director Bill Muehl about the Kinect-based action marionette title The Gunstringer, and creating a Kinect game that caters to the "core" gamer.] 2011 has been a busy year for Twisted Pixel. After playing the bigger man role against Capcom mobile's MaXsplosion copycat antics, the team has been hard at work on new Xbox Live Arcade titles: the explosive platforming sequel Ms. Spolsion Man and a Kinect-supported marionette action game called The Gunstringer, all while staying in touch with the local Austin, TX indies with events such as Juegos Rancheros. Twisted Pixel announced The Gunstringer in February this year, positioning the game as one that is more "core gamer"-friendly than typical mass market Kinect fare -- in other words, gamers won't be jumping up and down and flailing their arms to advance through game. Instead, the game is playable from a sitting position, with gamers using their hands to mimic the movements of a puppeteer. Here, The Gunstringer's director Bill Muehl explains how Twisted Pixel is creating a Kinect game that attempts to attract a gamer audience as well as more casual Kinect owners, and the philosophy behind making a gesture-based game. How did Twisted Pixel come to realize the Kinect could be a device for hardcore games? While we had some ideas about core mechanics and gestures, we took the high level concept of a gun-slingin' cowboy puppet and just dove in with prototyping to see what would work. The gameplay up to now is the result of us running with the cool stuff that rose to the top, namely the gestures that translate to moving a puppet and our targeting/shooting system. What other hardcore genres do you see ripe for exploitation with present-day Kinect? Other than twitch-based shooters or fighters where every frame matters, I wouldn't say any genre is off limits. It's all about the level of integration that makes sense for the genre. There are risks to forcing gesture controls into a game or mechanic that was originally designed for a standard controller or keyboard. The key is that devs approach the Kinect hardware and software as an integral part of the game concept and initial design rather than bolt it on later in development. In what ways would finger detection further the hardcore experience? Five fingers would provide more input but it comes down to the balance of depth vs. accessibility. For example, it might be cool to have a marionette game where the marionette reacted to every tiny movement down to your fingertips but there's a danger of pushing past hardcore and into simulation territory. There are certainly companies that specialize and excel in sim genres where a bunch of inputs might make sense, but we favor character personality and accessibility in our games. Related to this, we have an amazing custom marionette of The Gunstringer made by the crew at Puppet Kitchen, and I can tell you that there's a reason none of us can make him move anywhere close to as well as a trained puppeteer -- it's really difficult and takes a long, long time to master. So, on the game side where most people want to jump in and feel like they're making a character do awesome things, it usually makes sense to abstract things a bit. In The Gunstringer, the swiping motion sounds like a simple way to play. Are there any bonuses for gamers who attempt to hone their accuracy? You're right, people who we've just dropped in front of the game for the first time have picked up the swiping to target motion really quickly and, yes, we've designed several of our game scenarios to reward players who hone their accuracy, and the accuracy can apply to both aiming and traversal timing mechanics. Gameplay shows a prerecorded hand rolling a boulder at The Gunstringer. What possibilities are there with using a second live player's data to create similar obstacles while the first controls The Gunstringer? Kinect's ability to record audio and video opens up a bunch of new ways for the player to be incorporated into the game. I'll say we just might have something in store on this front, but I'm going to keep it under wraps for players to find when they play through the game. What feedback has there been from The Gunstringer's live action segments? Many of us at Twisted Pixel are big film fans and pairing them with our games via homages or integrating live action has been a lot of fun. That's not to say it's a technique that will be in all our games but it was a natural fit for The Gunstringer with its "game as a stageplay" theme. The feedback we've received up to this point has been really encouraging from both a style and thematic perspective. What doesn't Kinect presently do well that you'd suggest for future a firmware update? If you asked me last summer, I would have said reduced lag would be a big help, but, once we got settled in with our internal code and the updates from Microsoft, the responsiveness has improved a lot. I don't think any dev would turn down higher fidelity, but that's nearly always the case with any interface - there's going to be a cost/benefit threshold for consumer products. What are your thoughts on integrating a Kinect mod community for XBLIG/XBLA? How could this further hardcore game development? I think it's great that Microsoft has embraced the mod community, and they've started to roll out official support for Kinect on the PC. Most companies have a negative knee-jerk reaction to anyone modding their products. On one hand, it's understandable that they often try to maintain complete control but, on the other, it's hard to sympathize with them when they decide to lock down or prosecute experimental modders, effectively cutting the legs out from under the fan base with the most enthusiasm for their product. These people are not only creating a bunch of free marketing buzz, they're doing a bunch of free R&D. Thankfully it looks like Microsoft is embracing the mod community. In terms of XBLIG/XBLA specifically, if Microsoft supports it through the indie XDK, it could be a huge opportunity for both hardcore and casual game development. The more people geeking out with hardware like this, the better. How does one combat any prolonged physical stress Kinect causes? The Gunstringer can be played sitting down; players can even set their elbows on the armrests of a chair if they like. We also periodically change up the gameplay so players can vary their gestures rather than the same motion over and over. Finally, we've designed our gesture detection to allow players to use more subtle motions if they want to keep it lower key. Nintendo's Wiimote seems a clever design to accommodate gamers with one less hand. How does Twisted Pixel consider those gamers when developing for Kinect? We'd love to support as wide an audience as possible but we ultimately need to work within the capabilities of the hardware. Basically, if the Kinect sensor detects your body, you should be able to play our game. In what ways do you believe accessibility is the concern of the software or hardware developer or both? I don't think you can separate the two. You mentioned the Wiimote as an example of clever hardware design. When I turned the Wii on the first time, it was immediately obvious that Nintendo had to make the software complement the hardware. To see how much software accessibility has changed to accommodate a new hardware interface in one console generation, just compare the big buttons of the front-end user interface of the Wii with the rotation and scrolling text of the Gamecube. In the same sense, a developer could write the best voice recognition code but if it's paired with a crappy headset, that code isn't worth much. Can gamers go from a sitting to standing position mid-stage? At what point do they have the option to recalibrate? Sure, players can change position at any point during gameplay. No calibration is necessary as long as the player is still in the Kinect sensor's field of view. What accessibility concerns are there for creating a hardcore gaming experience for Kinect and how did you address overcoming them? The phrase "hardcore gaming experience" means different things to different people, but I think most people familiar with video games picture a hardcore gamer sitting on a couch or chair, focused steadily on the screen rather than standing up making broad movements. We've found that Kinect supports both styles, so we made it our mission to support players sitting down during gameplay, which allows accessibility to a wider audience. We also wanted to support more subtle movements and we've been tuning The Gunstringer in that direction. We're really looking forward to a wider audience getting their hands on it soon.

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