Dev explains why Kinect worked so well in Wreckateer

Wreckateer recently released in the midst of this year's Summer of Arcade promotion. Our own Steve Watts was pleasantly surprised by the game's quality. In particular, he enjoyed its crisp Kinect controls. Given how many Kinect titles have been plagued by unresponsive motion controls (Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor and Kinect Star Wars, just to name a few), I had to wonder if Wreckateer makers, Iron Galaxy, had solved the Kinect puzzle that continues to stump a number of game developers. So I cornered the game's lead designer, Dave Lang, to find out. Lang first noted that while Wreckateer was the studio's first Kinect effort taken from original concept to completion, this was not their first time working with the sensor. "We helped the Phosphor guys develop Space Pop (part of Kinect Adventures), and we helped another XBLA game get green-lit at Microsoft. Based on the strength of that work, Microsoft approached us with the opportunity to work on our own XBLA Kinect game." I brought up the numerous issues that Kinect games seem to suffer from -- unresponsive controls, clumsy gestures, the sensor's seeming inability to read leaning motions, and a distinct lack of immersion. These are common complaints with Kinect titles, but issues that most players have not had with Wreckateer. Lang attributes this to time spent researching the Kinect sensor's abilities and limitations. "Kinect is just like any platform in a lot of ways," said Lang. "You just need to put your time in to figure out its relative strengths and weaknesses. On our previous projects, we learned a lot of what-not-to-do-type lessons with Kinect, and this gave us a huge leg up when starting Wreckateer. The lessons aren't really technical, either. We don't have a magic code to make it work better, it's more about designing an experience that caters to Kinect's strengths in a holistic way. The only 'trick' we'd offer to other devs is, in general, track the skeleton data yourselves, and rely less on 'gestures,' as it's hard to teach the player the 'right way' to do any given movement." Even with their prior experience, Wreckateer represented a departure from traditional game development for Iron Galaxy. One possible reason that Kinect titles have yet to live up to their potential is because they are such a radical departure from traditional game design. Lang points out the major differences between developing a Kinect game and a traditional controller-based game, from both a design and quality assurance standpoint.

Blow through castle walls with the right motions

"Most of the time when you're developing a game there are other points of reference to go look at," Land explained. "For example, if the aiming doesn't feel right in an FPS, a good designer can go play any of the hundreds of FPS's out there, deconstruct them, and figure out what they did. For Kinect games, this isn't an option, as you're often the first person solving all of these problems. This is what makes it challenging, but also exciting -- it's not every day you get to figure things out from scratch. For QA, the most important thing is getting a steady stream of people who have never played the game before to try it out. It's amazing how many different ways simple commands like 'reach out and slap the shot to move it mid-air' can be interpreted. If your game is good, you will account for as many of those interpretations as possible, as opposed to trying to make the player do movements a certain way that might be unnatural to them." On that note, Lang is optimistic about Kinect's future, but makes sure to note that the genre of game has to feel natural to the sensor. "I think there's a lot of opportunity to do cool stuff with Kinect," he said, "but it has to be a good fit. It's much better to have an awesome idea for a game and say, 'Hey you know what, this would work better on Kinect' than to shoehorn in any idea to the platform." Lang hopes to offer more content with Wreckateer, but confesses that the game's future lies in the hands of Microsoft. As for whether Iron Galaxy would make a whole new Kinect game from scratch, Lang relishes the idea. "This project was a blast to work on," he said. "It's super exciting figuring things out for the first time, and when it works out in the end it can be very rewarding." In the meantime, Iron Galaxy will put the finishing touches on Marvel vs. Capcom Origins, which is slated to arrive on XBLA and PSN in September. They are also currently working with Twisted Pixel to release upcoming iOS and Windows Phone 7 versions of Ms. Splosion Man.