Thoughts
Leveraging Kinect to Capture New Gamers

By Seán O'Sullivan - January 3rd, 2012

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Today’s post is a guest piece by a new video gaming friend that I met at a “gamer’s night out”. He’s a cool dude with interesting ideas! Check it out!

Halo is a prime example of a multi-million-selling games property with vast casual appeal and a backbone of vocal hardcore players who petition for the stewardship of future installments. They love Halo the most, and their only wish is to see that it doesn’t lose what makes it great. Sometimes this means that they are hostile to new developments, such as the Kinect integration in Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. When it was announced that players with the right hardware would have the choice of yelling ‘grenade’ or ‘reload’ to perform these actions, comment-sections and forums overflowed with chagrin from gamers eagerly awaiting ‘real’ news on the updated edition.

The knee-jerk reaction to casual gimmickry encroaching on hardcore turf is understandable, but gamers need to take a step back and consider their personal journeys that lead to their first Killtacular before such vocal dismissal.

Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64 introduced me to the analogue stick. After years of exclusively gaming on D-pads, it took some hours before my thumb grew accustomed to this novel new input method, during which time Bond lurched towards enemies in clumsy left and right arcs, spraying bullets wildly in a manner that suggested he had indulged in a few too many martinis. I share this memory because it’s one I often have to revisit when I hand my girlfriend a dual-analogued, twelve-buttoned, vibrating lump of plastic and wonder why she needs to be told the controls for the umpteenth time.

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“I see you have figured out how to use your analogue stick, Mr. Bond.”

Controls are a sticky subject in gaming today. Most gamers have a favorite controller and a tendency to express polarizing opinions, leading to much disdain for the recent efforts of console-makers to explore methods that deviate from the traditional input methods of old. What many gamers in their twenties and thirties lose sight of is that they grew up with a much simpler setup that evolved as they did. Extra buttons, analogue sticks, shoulder buttons, and analogue shoulder buttons have been grafted onto controllers over the years and quickly been adopted as industry standard – even the practice of cramming buttons under the analogue sticks themselves is now de rigueur!

If a totally inexperienced adult picks up a controller and tries to play a console FPS like Modern Warfare 3, it’s going to be overwhelming. Successfully navigating the character through the environments is enough of a challenge, let alone shooting, reloading, jumping, and aiming-down-sights while under fire – add in the distraction of a vibrating controller and you instantly have a recipe for sensory overload.

The fact of the matter is that this person has not forged the same neural-pathways that you rely on when you interface with a games console. Failing to get something right immediately can be hugely frustrating for adults – this won’t be too much of a hindrance for kids born into the dual-analogue world (if you want proof of how much more patience you had as a nipper, go back and replay some of your old games – many of them will be unfair, trial-and-error exercises that would be considered ‘broken’ by today’s standards – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the NES is the worst offender for violating my rose-tinted notions of the days of yore).

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Games from ye olde days will cause a cussing streak if played nowadays.

Modern games are making concessions by acknowledging that not everybody is going to be able to complete all of the content. On repeated failures of action sequences, L.A. Noire offers players the chance to skip ahead, assuring them they won’t be punished for not doing it themselves. Similarly, Nintendo has been rolling out the ‘Super Guide’ into more of its games, offering to play through the bits you have been repeatedly dying on, relegating gamers to spectators for a few moments.

These efforts are merely a band-aid, not the solution to this long-standing problem. When I learned to cycle, my father didn’t put me on his bike, explain what everything did, only to insist on doing it for me after I bit the dirt a few times. He gave me stabilizers so I could get familiar with the basic mechanics of propulsion and steering without having to worry about balancing myself.

Watch a gamer in training when they hit the wrong button – many of them will yell at the TV in the heat of the moment. “Don’t jump, you idiot! Reload!” 343’s recognition of this instinct and use of the Kinect to take advantage of it may well be a development worth getting excited over, even at this nascent (gimmicky) stage. Similarly, Mass Effect 3 will allow gamers to issue verbal commands to squadmates. The less button-functions one has to remember while struggling with the fundamentals the better – eventually new gamers will learn that a button-press is faster and begin to keep pace with the old-hands.

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“This is the worst party ever. There are no appetizers.”

More Kinect-integration like this needs to happen. Let users ask, “How do I open this door?” and present context-sensitive information. It’s the kind of hand-holding that the hardcore can ignore or disable, but will prove an invaluable learning tool for those in need of assistance. A tutorial that walks through jumping and crouching in the first few minutes doesn’t suffice to get newbies ready for battle. Implementing these systems won’t be a cheap undertaking, but the Halo series is a cultural phenomenon with a big budget and enough gravity to pull curious new users into it; such features may well keep them around in the long term.

With video game growth continuing to outperform other entertainment forms, it’s safe enough to declare this a golden age for gaming. That said; the deeper experiences currently require the use of a traditional control method, which is a major barrier to entry. The Wii’s visceral control method had immediate mass-market appeal, but is now gathering dust in many neglected toy-closets around the world. By supporting new users of traditional game pads with redundant, intuitive controls, Microsoft are taking baby-steps to ensure that more casual gamers are converted to hardcore consumers, which right now is the holy-grail of the games industry.

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    3 responses so far:
  2. By James
    Posted on Jan 6, 2012

    Enjoyed that Sean, keep up the good work!

  3. Posted on Feb 20, 2012

    Very interesting in theory and all jokes aside there is a realm where I can see this working but the goal is still to teach the player to use the controller and this is still your Dad dusting you off and then riding himself. The player who ends up yelling reload doesn’t learn how to feel for the reload button. They just learn how to do something without the controller. Now if that’s your goal then fine but (given the Halo example) I think we have to consider that the controller is still one of the more ideal means of input and having Kinect as a backup system is only going to do so much.

    This might work if it started scaling back. Say Kinect does the complex things and then later on you start doing them yourself. But then you’re designing a game to remove controls and that’s probably a bad idea. Say what you will about Link to the Past it is a fantastic example of teaching thru gaming. You start off with pretty much most of the controller non functioning and you gain new buttons as you gain new abilities all without an overt “Tutorial stage”.

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