Hot on the heels of the Tokyo Games Show and our recent hands-on playtest with the latest features of Kinect Sports: Season 2, we sat down for a quick chat with Rare Studio head, Scott Henson. The ex-Xbox chief spoke about working as Kinect’s core developer, next-gen Xbox consoles and the future of beloved franchises such as Banjo Kazooie and Perfect Dark. Read on for our full interview.
What have you learnt about the Kinect sensor since the first Kinect Sports game?
With the original Kinect we set the bar for what was possible with the sensor. Now we’ve learnt we can raise that bar. There were a lot experiences that time around that were not quite ready, or we didn’t know we could do. So some examples; last year we were throwing javelins, which were done with big, huge arm movements. This year we’re throwing darts with very precise, simple movements. Season 2 will be all about innovation, so with Golf and Baseball for instance you see gestures and poses and interactions that took a lot of innovative software developments to make possible.
What’s more important; getting a recognisable event in Kinect Sports: Season 2, or finding ones that fit well within the motion gaming mould?
It’s not really an “or”, it’s an “and”! If you don’t get the “and” you don’t get a great experience. A lot of times I get asked “why did you choose the sports that you’ve chosen?”. The number one reason is because the gamers have said “hey! These are the sports that we really like to play”. Different sports present different challenges and opportunities in terms of how to make the most of them. We chose the six present in Season 2 because customers asked for them, and we believe we can make them into incredible experiences.
Do you have a favourite sport this time around?
Oh gosh! That’s like my wife asking which of our two children I like most! It’s tough for me as I have favourites for different reasons. For me, I’d play Skiing and Tennis over and over again. But that’s just me playing on my own, and I like very active events. But I have two little girls, my wife and a ton of friends that I play with, and they all like different ones and I still play them all with them and have a great time. My eleven year old is really into the Darts event, and has become very competitive, my seven year old loves Baseball and my wife enjoys Tennis. Every sport here has a ton of reasons to love it, and a lot of that comes from the social aspects of playing with people too.
There’s a big homebrew scene surrounding Kinect. How much attention do Rare pay to it?
Our job is to innovate and push what’s possible in respect to the platform, so it’s exciting to see so much enthusiasm around Kinect and what’s possible with the sensor. There’s an inspiration there that helps feed our drive for innovation. There’s no specific homebrew work that I could single out and say has been a particular influence on Season 2. Most of what’s in the game is driven by what was possible within the sports themselves. Some things we didn’t even know were going to be possible, with the precision of Darts being a really good example.
Has the Kinect hit its potential now then?
I’ve been with Xbox since before we launched the original, and we’ve contemplated that question of the platform as a whole for the last decade. Every year I think “well, that’s probably it”. But you never hit it as there’s constant innovation happening. I gave a talk at Develop a few weeks ago about Kinect 2.0, my way of saying that we’ve hit a new threshold of what’s possible. Do I think there’s a lot more ahead? Absolutely. It’s a big canvas we’ve got to play with here, and that’s what drives and propels this studio.
What are Rare getting right that other Kinect developers are getting wrong?
I don’t want to pick on any Kinect developers, but I think what we get right is really making you feel central to the entire experience. There are moments here where you totally forget that you’re playing a video game and you start to think “wow, I’m actually out on the slopes skiing here”. You’re in that moment. I know I say that’s quite a bit, but there especially I feel really in the moment. The other part I think we do really well with is that no matter who you are, or your videogame skill level, you have a good time. You play Kinect Sports, you feel great.
How would you respond to old-school Rare fans who feel that the Kinect focus is taking the studio into too much of a “casual gaming” direction?
First of all, fans of Rare are appreciated. We hope that what we’re doing with Kinect Sports appeal to people who are first time gamers and life-long gamers. Both. That’s why you see us have casual entry modes like “Rookie” and then scale that experience all the way up to “Pro”. We really want something in there for everyone. And so I would say if you’re a sceptic towards motion gaming; give it a try. Try it with friends, try it with family, see if you have fun. The thing I’m most proud about is that I think we’ve really hit the sweetspot between having something that works for folks who identify themselves as gamers and folks who’ve in the past been intimidated by games, really creating a connection point between both.
Will Rare return to the likes of Perfect Dark or Banjo Kazooie any time in the future?
Our obsession right now is how we’re going to push the boundaries with Kinect. I’m not going to talk much beyond Kinect Sports right now, but we’re very fortunate to have the back catalogue that we do, so stay tuned for more news in the future.
As an instrumental figure in bringing the Xbox brand to life as a whole, how long do you think we have left in the life-cycle of the Xbox 360?
Mmmm…that’s an interesting one. There’s no horizon that I see. I think there’s plenty of years ahead of us, especially when you think about Kinect. We’re just months really into the life of the Kinect sensor. I was there before we launched the original Xbox Live and it’s now still growing and gaining potential. So I think there’s quite a bit of time ahead of us.
What would you like to see in a next-gen Xbox 720?
I’d like to see us continue to improve making it simpler and simpler for people to feel like they’re having a natural experience. So things like voice recognition is a great example. Last year we were doing really simple stuff like saying “Pause” for movie playback. This year we’re rolling out an expansive vocabulary around the world. I want it to be literally so natural that you’re just talking to your Xbox and It responds to you. I don’t think you need a brand new Xbox to do those things. We can innovate with software and services, and I think that will transform the way people interact with their entertainment. You’ll see that not only with first party studios like Rare but with the platform as a whole, continuing to invest to make those things possible.