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Why Kinect is the future of game story

Kinect is finally here, and now you can do things like dance, jump, and pet your baby tiger without a game controller. There's a dual reaction to this: it's amazing that it can be done, but is that all there is? Why there will be more...

John Sutherland, Blogger

November 3, 2010

11 Min Read

The new movement-based consoles from Microsoft and Sony (though Nintendo deserves props for being the advance guard here) have caused a lot of excitement in the industry. This is particularly true of Kinect, because of its empty-handed skeletal tracking. But the initial enthusiasm should be taken with a rock of salt; at least, compared to what these platforms can do down the road.

Having worked on Kinect games well before the public announcement of the platform, there's plenty I'm not allowed to say. Fortunately, what I have to say has nothing to do with confidential information about the project, only the possibilities for projects that haven't been dreamed up yet.

I’ll speak mostly of the Kinect, for a couple of reasons: it’s the one I’m most familiar with, having worked behind the scenes on it, and it’s a fair argument that the complete lack of a controller is the superior (and riskier) technological trick in this field.

I don’t wish to be dismissive of the PlayStation Move, however; it’s only tracking hands, not the full body, and isn’t an enormous leap beyond the Wii. The great news about Move is that players who prefer Sony-like content over Nintendo-like content will now have that available in a movement-based system, and that makes a huge difference when we’re talking about story in games.

But like any new platform, both Kinect and Move are going to go through some common stages of evolution. If we look at the changes all video games went through, or even what moving-picture cameras went through, or (what the hell) what the printing press, or even quills and parchment probably went through, we see certain patterns.

First, it's a marvel. People look at what the new technology can do, and they're amazed it can be done at all. And for a moment in time, that's enough to hold the attention of millions.

Then, it's a toy. People mess with it, see what can be done, try new things. But most likely, they'll try the same kinds of things they're used to from older technologies, because that's the way humans operate. That's where many Kinect and Move games are now: you'll see a mix of new experiments, testing the boundaries. But frankly, we don't know where those boundaries are yet, and you'll see a lot of things that are just translations from the old ways of doing things thrown into the mix. That's normal. Don't panic.

Then, it'll be a brave new world, and those older habits will get filtered out. We'll wonder why we ever did them. The techniques with the platform will be increasingly natural. The games on Kinect will work just the way the players would want them to the first time around. The best of the current Kinect games are touching this phase of evolution, at least in part.

Ultimately, inevitably, the platform will evolve into a story device. Not a story telling device as much as a story experiencing device, at least from the player's point of view. Why? Because after the novelty wears off, people will crave depth.  Story is central to human experience, and both the Kinect and Move systems, even more than video games in general before them, are connected to human experience in a full-bodied way.

We’ve now seen what Kinect is doing in its first generation of games: it’s asking the legitimate question, What can players do with their bodies in a game? And we see the current set of answers: they dance, they exercise, they play sports, they pet their cute baby tigers. You know, the obvious stuff. And we might legitimately ask, Is that all there is? before returning to the amazement that such a thing can work at all.

PlayStation Move’s line-up is, like the platform itself, more cautious: there are sequels to controller-based games, like Kinect, there are sports and there is and dancing. And caution does have its advantages, which I’ll get into later.

But both platforms are in the early phases of evolution, it’s safe to say. The big question is, where are they going?

Glimmers of the future

As the games continue to expand, there will be deep stories, but probably not new ones at first. The best, most immersive stories in the next wave of games will probably not be planned with the game movements woven into the plot from the ground up.

This is okay, temporarily. The announcement of the relationship with between Kinect and the Star Wars franchise, for example, has drool-worthy possibilities. Who doesn’t want to use the Force with their own hands and see the immediate effects? This is one of the areas where Kinect has a strong advantage over the Move. But a different activity in the same franchise leans toward the Move platform: when you play with light sabers, it may well be more satisfying to have something in your hands. Context is everything.

Stepping back to step forward

As these games evolve, I should also observe that, like any evolution, they won’t progress along a direct path. Strangely, it may well be from translations of controller-based games that we can get a real glimpse of the future. Adapting an existing game like Heavy Rain is great practice for developers who will walk this tightrope later without the net of franchise familiarity. It won’t be until the development of movement games becomes second nature that game studios can relax and just create new games without being so self-conscious about using the new platform correctly.

Power to the Player

Every story platform does certain types of stories better than others.  Novels can give lengthy internal introspection, while movies can give colorful flights of visual fancy. The type of stories that are likely to excel on the new movement platforms are likely to be the ones where the protagonist gets to exercise significant power. This is true of all game stories, but will be true in spades here.

The Star Wars example of using the Force is a good demonstration of this. Games that give characters fantastic (in the literal sense) powers are likely to be deeply satisfying. And these are not just powers of destruction, but equally, powers of creation. Can you imagine creating a bridge with a wave of your hand? Snapping your fingers and having a city appear? Solving a game problem by drawing a new object with your finger, and then using it? (Think “Harold and the Purple Crayon” on steroids.)

Dreaming Like Einstein

One of the best ways to create anything new is to imagine the end result you want, and then figure out the steps to get there. This is how Albert Einstein worked: he’d dream of his theories first, and then do the calculations later in the waking hours.

This is wide open. This won’t be based on anything games have done before. This will be the practical realization of someone’s vision of stepping in front of their console camera and vanishing into another world. But this is more likely to happen two or three waves of game development down the road, unless someone gets very brave.

When it does happen, though, all of our talk of immersion with conventional video games will seem laughable compared to the possibilities in Kinect. Research into a variety of somatic movement therapies has demonstrated that things are experienced more deeply in the mind when they are also experienced in the body. Kinect should have a marketing tagline: Immersion – it's not just for the cerebrum any more.

Doing the math, or at least, the script

Now, from a writer's point of view, this is still a story telling device. Everything is. But the way we tell stories has to change and adapt with every new form.

A brief sprint through the major forms will demonstrate what I mean.

Going way back, epic poetry was not even written down at first. That meant it had to have memorable lines linked with rhyme or some other poetic device (alliteration, in the case of Anglo-Saxon) so that whoever was passing on the oral tradition had concrete links in their memory, little stepping stones to keep it from being forgotten.

Written text didn't really count as a popular story form until the printing press came along. Sure, there were monks transcribing things, but the popular stories only really happened in theaters.

With the printing press and the later expansion of literacy, however, printed stories meant that a writer would weave elaborate, vivid scenes that could be written densely, with the assumption that a reader could go over them more than once. Not so with the performed stories in the theater.

A huge shift came in the twentieth century, when movies came along. Writers started to think, and write, visually.  For the first time, we had a performed story with spoken dialog as the minority of the text.  Mostly, it was action and images.

Then we got to video games, a form that is still in its early stages of evolution, even not considering motion-based gaming platforms. Here, writers had to start thinking radically in terms of player choices.

So here we are in the 21st century, with this new platform. How do we fill in the blanks, do the calculations, to get to the new reality of an evolved story vision?

I can speak for the game writers: it’s going to involve a mind shift that’s similar to the one our forebears went through at the advent of movies, when they went from primarily spoken dialog to visual storytelling.

Now that we’ve been living with visual story telling in both movies and games for a few years, and game writers had to change from controlled character action to player-prompted action, we have a new problem: Kinect will force game writers to think in player gestures.

Toward a Language of Gestures

Developing a new language of gestures is a more complex matter than developing a visual language for movies. The truth is, every game writer and game development team will create their own, depending on the needs of the game. Then there will be a period of exchange, and certain tools will make sense in multiple cases, and standards will emerge, just like cuts, zooms, and fades did 100 years ago.

But where controller games have a limited number of inputs that can be defined as a few choices, movement games have a potentially unlimited number of inputs that can be defined any number of ways. Creating the boundaries to impose some kind of order, while still giving the impression of fluid freedom to the player, is the big contradictory challenge.

This will have a variety of effects on game development, not the least of which is the increased interdependence among game writers, game designers, and programmers. Some initial work up front will need to happen among these groups to establish a “box of verbs” for writers to play with.

The Practical Stuff

So the good news is that there are no boundaries, but that’s also the bad news. The correct balance can only be determined by experience. To that end, here are some practical tips from the trenches:

  • Making an enormous set of gestures that are necessary to play the game, especially if they’re not intuitive, will be confusing to players.

  • Making a set of gestures that are similar to each other, with only fine distinctions among them, will be confusing to machines.

  • Always consider the physical toll on the player, and understand that some gestures work better than others. Flying is easy. Running is hard.

  • You should create a small set of required gestures (small, as in three or four), and an array of “background gestures,” things you don’t tell the player, that also work.

  • Avoid situations where the player is waiting for the game to do something, and the game is also waiting for the player. The game has to take the initiative to avoid those moments of “Now what?”

The ideal game will be one in which the player can try any kind of gesture that may occur to them, and get the desired effect (or at least some delightfully surprising effect) in the game.  Not only will this involve the trifecta of writers, designers, and coders; usability engineers will become all the more important. As the array of movements is designed, the reality check with normal people will bring more fluent accuracy to this naturally less structured form.

It will only be when entire teams get comfortable with this new Zen insecurity that real invention of new worlds can emerge. But they will. And when they do, we may well be in for some of the richest experiences of our gaming lives.

The Goal: No Separation

What all Kinect game developers need to keep in mind is the huge advantage over all controller-based systems, including the movement-based controllers like the Wii and Move: there is no separation between the player and the game.

Any story form will have a certain leeway with the willing suspension of disbelief: readers are sitting in a chair holding a book, playgoers are in a theater looking at actors, gamers have traditionally been couch-dwellers holding a controller. But take away that need to forgive the practical limitations of the form, and the story becomes all the richer. When if we could take a patron out of the theater, and put her on the island with Prospero? What if we could make the book disappear, and bring the dream directly to the reader? Kinect is, for the moment, the closest thing to the holodeck. It’s only a matter of time before Hamlet arrives.






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