It’s a dull day outside and the street lamps have already started to blink into effect, needless to say Kudo Tsunoda, Microsoft Games Studios’ outspoken general manager, is wearing sunglasses…
Games Catalyst: So, you’re the Creative Director and General Manager of Microsoft Games Studios. It’s the kind of roll that people give their left leg for! What exactly does it entail day-to-day?
Kudo Tsunoda: It’s interesting because from the creative perspective on something like Kinect, and what’s been one of the really good things about Kinect, is from the very beginning it wasn’t so much about the technology – although the technology is really cool – but was much more about what sort of experience we want people playing with Kinect to have when it comes out.
As Creative Director a lot of what you do is to try to work with a bunch of people in different teams to set good, creative principles that you want all the different types of Kinect experiences to really embody.
From the very beginning we wanted to make Kinect intuitive and natural, so that anybody could just jump in and start having fun right away without having to read any instructions; make a very social experience – make an experience that brings people together in a very genuine human way where the relationships with the people you’re playing with are a fundamental part of the gameplay and letting people put their own style and personality into the Kinect experience to create a real communal experience. On the Creative Director side you’re working to get those principles in place, to create a consistent creative thread which works through all different parts of the program.
GC: Do you find yourself actually getting hands-on with the games, or is very much an overseer’s role?
KT: The real good thing is that you totally get to play a lot of the experiences in development. That’s what I got into this industry for in the first place, I love playing games, and I think it’s just as you work on all different parts and look at a whole lot of stuff in development it’s just trying to ensure that those creative principles set out at the beginning are thoughtfully put into each of the experiences. You get to play stuff, get feed back and just ensure that the end product we’re delivering holds true to the principles set out at the beginning.
GC: What are your thoughts of the line up of games available for Kinect now? Have the available games progressed as you envisioned when Kinect was just getting started?
KT: I think the good thing is that a lot of the experiences we had at launch really held true to the types of things we envisioned when we started Kinect, in as far as all the things I’ve talked about, them being approachable, something to put your own personality into and fun for everybody in the whole room.
Those are things that all of the launch content embodied. The cool thing is that we’re going to have three times as many Kinect experiences out this holiday than we had after launch, so now you’re just getting to see Kinect being put into different genres and types of gameplay and the natural thing is, when new technology comes to market, that the more that developers get to play with the tech, the more types of experiences you’re going to see.
We always talk about Kinect being for everybody and I think seeing Kinect in so many types of games and genres is just super exciting.
GC: Working for Microsoft itself do you feel added pressure to be leading the way in terms of showing what the hardware is capable of?
KT: I don’t think it’s a pressure to show others what Kinect can do, with Kinect we feel like we’re just scratching the surface of what the potential of Kinect can be and it’s not about showing other people what Kinect can do as much as always wanting to deliver fun and innovative experiences for consumers. They’re the people playing the stuff so we try to stay focussed on what the consumers are doing, and keeping them engaged by delivering innovation on the platform.
When Kinect was first released it really amazed people and we want to continue to amaze people every year with the things we’re doing with Kinect and here we are, it’s just about a year since launch, and already you’ve seen totally new inventions and innovations around Kinect as a platform. When we launched you had the full body motion technology, the voice technology, have Kinect sign you into Xbox Live – all cool, magical stuff.
Since we’ve launched, and you can see this stuff in Kinect Fun Labs, where we now have Kinect finger tracking, you can stand in front of Kinect and can instantly create an avatar that looks like you, and you can hold up toys and household objects and have Kinect scan a digital version of it in and then be able to bring that to life by using your body and voice. Forza 4 uses head tracking and involves seated gameplay. It’s amazing that it’s little less than a year since Kinect launched but you can already see five or six totally new platform level inventions that have been developed without really changing the hardware; these are all things that have been created through the magic of software and I think that’s the real amazing part of Kinect. Not just the stuff we had at launch but how developers and people all over the world are able to develop totally new things with Kinect all through software.
GC: Do you still stand by Kinet’s launch logo “You are the controller.” Does it seem perhaps overly limiting now, given the way Kinect has advanced to include say sit down gameplay Forza 4 for example?
KT: Well I think the cool thing is that even with something like Kinect head tracking the you are the controller part really is true. If you’re sitting playing and you’re looking around just like you would inside the driver’s seat of a real car then the motion of your head is still a critical part of how Kinect is used inside the game. I never look at a tagline as being limiting; what we want to do at Xbox is try to provide everybody to implement the games that they want to make in the way that best brings the vision they have in their head accurately and directly to the experience that people playing those things get at the end of the day.
I think with Kinect, it doesn’t really matter if, you know, how you want to do things. If you want to play with the controller on Xbox you can, if you want to play with the controller and Kinect you can and if you want to play Kinect only you can. That’s really what we try and do, just give the widest creative palette possible for developers to be able to implement the experience they have in their head on our console.
GC: We’ve been privy to some amazing behind the scenes tech demonstrations, things which show exactly what’s going at the core of Kinect in terms of depth perception, the joints of the human body voice recognition. Do you think there’s a danger that those huge underlying capabilities might get largely ignored by developers?
KT: I think it’s funny you know, I never think of it as a danger so much as, from a creative perspective, the exciting potential of getting to work with something amazing like Kinect. The cool thing is that even somebody who has worked on Kinect, you know I’ve worked on Kinect longer than anyone in the world, and even I’m not going to be able to come up with every single thing that you can do with Kinect.
I think that’s a big reason why it’s important that you see so much cool innovation going on in the Kinect community; not just game developers but independent creators at universities say. People are just using Kinect in ways that ever we, the people who worked on stuff, never could have thought of. Again, I don’t think that’s a danger, I think that shows the overwhelming potential of the platform and really, what kind of a creative enabler the technology is. To me it’s more about enabling all the work that’s been done out there in the Kinect community to be stuff that people can experience on Xbox.
That’s a lot of what we’re doing with Fun Labs and the website KinectShare.com where independent creators and university people can submit their ideas into the website and the people on the site can vote for the ideas that they think are the ones they want to play with. Then we help those developers bring that over to Xbox inside Kinect Fun Labs. I think it’s super cool that it enables a bunch of different kinds of people to do creative things and we want to get that on to Xbox so that people can check it out.
GC: Kinect is currently an optional standalone extra. If, as seems inevitable, Microsoft bring out a 360 successor, can you imagine the Kinect tech being integrated into such a device as standard?
KT: I think it’s cool that if you think about say, Xbox Live, that was something that was a fundamental part of our platform. We add new experiences and new features to it all the time. It’s one of the things that has really transcended hardware generations, it’s a consistent part of the platform over time. I think it’s kind of the same way that we think about Kinect, as far as it’s evolved a lot since its launch, we add new features to it, new experiences to it and it’s a fundamental part of our platform that I think you could see transcending console generations just like Live does.
We don’t really have anything specifically to say about that right now, but I just think it is a fundamental part of out platform, just like Live, and certainly has the potential to do that.
GC: Kinect Star Wars has obviously slipped now, until some unspecified point in the new year. How does that effect your marketing plans going forward, to lose such a big name going into Christmas?
KT: Obviously it has some impact on the holiday line-up because it’s not coming out at Holiday anymore. I do think that the most important thing, between us at Microsoft and the people at Lucas, is that we really want Kinect Star Wars to be the best envisioning of true a Star Wars experience possible and that’s always been the focus of what we’re trying to do with the title. At this point, moving it outside the Holiday made the most sense for bringing the best Jedi experience to Kinect Star Wars; something both out companies agreed to doing. I don’t have any new date right now to announce, I think at least it’s something really important to everyone working on the project.
GC: Kinect gets many incremental software updates as you’ve touched on. Will small changes be the norm now or can you see Kinect suddenly making a huge leap in a certain direction?
KT: No matter what you do with the tech, it’s really about what you’re doing with the experiences that makes the big jumps. I think there have already been huge experience jumps with what we’re doing with Kinect, as far as the finger tacking, etc. It’s less than a year since launch, there have been those jumps already and there’ll be more to come over time.
GC: How have you found getting support from third parties? Obviously Kinect is an optional extra for gamers, has it been easy to get third party developers working on the peripheral?
KT: I think it’s great that there are so many more Kinect experiences coming out for this Holiday and I think that’s always the thing with new technology: the longer it’s available the more variety of experience you get. At the end of the day I think it’s that Kinect is one of those things that lets developers bring things to games that weren’t possible before. Whether that’s us at Microsoft or third party developers I think it’s much more about really bringing new creative experiences to videogames; get people excited and wanting to work with the technology.
GC: Right now a substantial number of Kinect games are pretty demanding physically and so naturally lend themselves to short bursts. Can you imagine a Kinect game that people might sit down and play on their own for multiple hours?
KT: I don’t think so much of it as a solo experience versus multiple people playing, I just think there’s all different kinds of Kinect experiences. Some of them are certainly physical, like running the 100m dash in Kinect Sports, but it’s just a different kind of gameplay than if you’re sitting down and doing something. I think you can already see with the seated gameplay that’s coming out in Forza 4 and Fable: The Journey and with Mass Effect 3 with voice commands – where voice isn’t really physically tiring at all – there’s all different kinds of experiences.
There are physical ones that really are good at getting people up off the couch, but tonnes of Kinect experiences coming that are either seated or voice-driven that I think also provide a different kind of gameplay. Whether you like playing seated or standing or single or multiplayer or anything, all those things are possible in the experiences coming this year.
GC: What’s Microsoft’s stance on Japan right now? It’s well documented in terms of sales figures, etc. that the Japanese haven’t adopted the Xbox. Is that a concern or are you happy to concentrate on the EU and US?
KT: Again, I think it’s something that obviously you would love for Xbox and Kinect, just from a creative perspective, wanting everybody all over the world to be able to get those types of experiences. I don’t live in Japan and I just think it’s good to have Japanese developers super engaged with our console and with Kinect. I think it’s one of the exciting things, even at Tokyo Game Show last year, that we announced a lot of Kinect experiences that are being worked on by Japanese developers.
To me, I think it’s exciting to see developers all over the world getting interested in building experiences with Kinect, as that’s what’s going to get consumers all over the world interested in playing. I think it’s the wrong way of looking at things, to assume that the games made by developers in the US or Europe are naturally going to be the same sorts of things that the people in Japan are going to want to play.
GC: So, you’re taking the long view on it? That the Japanese market will grow organically over time as the Japanese developers release Kinect titles?
KT: Yeah, and I do think it’s an interesting perspective that if you focus on building something like Kinect, that is super interesting and engaging for developers to be working with, you’ve going to get all different kind of experiences; not just different genres but different viewpoints on how to use Kinect to build that types of experiences that people all over the world enjoy. I think that’s what you’ll see happening as all different kinds of developers engage with the platform.
GC: Are you worried that Kinect might go down the route of the Wii in having an oversaturation of casual games? The associated impact being that the so called ‘casual gamer’ might pick up such bargain basement games and be put off gaming in general due to the poor quality of many such titles?
KT: I think the hard part is, and I’ve been playing games since I was a little kid so I’ve been through a lot of different consoles, that games are super hard to make and I don’t thing it’s just a particular type of game, where, oh you know, there’s good games and bad games, as much as that’s true everywhere. No matter what console you look at there’s super high quality games and games that aren’t as high quality as others. To me it’s not so much about somehow having the magic formula for only making high quality games come out because, I mean, that’s just impossible to do.
I think the real key is to continue to deliver new experiences that really amaze people, things that wouldn’t expect and things that really get that kind of delight from seeing something that you never could have thought was possible. I think that’s part of the reason why Kinect has been so successful, because it is something that’s totally new and amazing in that way, I think the important that is pushing Kinect as a platform so that every year we have new experiences that continue to deliver that kind amazement that we were able to generate around its launch.
GC: Do you think it’s about growing the audience? Somebody who buys a ‘casual’ game for example, might gradually move into more diverse and mainstream genres and so buy more games.
It’s interesting to me that everyone likes playing games, even if it’s not videogames, everyone is a game player right? And, a lot of experiences you have on consoles right now are hard for people to get into, not because they wouldn’t enjoy them, but because the interface is hard to master.
I do think it’s something really interesting that the more that different kinds of people are now playing games on Xbox, that it is something where you look at games like a Mass Effect 3, that’s very story driven, very character driven and its really something now where you can use Kinect to be just talking to the characters and pushing the story forward in the game.
I think that’s something that could be totally compelling to all different kinds of people, and I do think it’s a really good thing that as Kinect brings in more people and makes Xbox, not just the games but all the entertainment on Xbox, something that’s easy for people to get in and enjoy. There’s going to be all different kinds of games that people can now discover that they might not have thought they’d play before, but can now start getting into.
Take Forza 4, lots of people like cars, it isn’t just core gamers that are into driving super fancy high performance vehicles. With the new features in Forza, and how they’re using Kinect to really build a compelling relationship between people and the vehicles inside the game it’s going to be a big title that, not only people that love Forza today, but a lot of the new people playing on Xbox are going to love checking out.
For a closer look at Kinect’s first year on shop shelves check out out ‘We Need To Talk About Kinect’ feature in issue #2 of the Games Catalyst ezine.