Interview: Double Fine succeeds in breaking the Kinect

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Since the initial announcement of the Kinect in 2009, developers have searched high and low for the types of games that “work” with the motion-control technology. It’s not as easy as porting a blockbuster title like Call of Duty to a hands-free system and cashing a paycheck, as some genres just don’t translate to this popular-yet-experimental device.

Thankfully, creative studios like Double Fine have looked beyond the typical uses of the Kinect’s capabilities and, instead, found success through fun exploitation of the technology’s quirks. Microsoft’s camera isn’t perfect, but last year’s Happy Action Theater crammed a handful of silly activities–only possible through Kinect–into one complete package.

This week saw the release of Double Fine’s latest crack at motion-controlled fun, Kinect Party. Brimming with unique content and dizzying visuals, this free downloadable title may not fit the traditional definition of a “game,” but it’s difficult to deny just how fun it can be. We recently had a chance to talk with Double Fine technical artist Drew Skillman, who was the leading man behind Kinect Party. As you’d guess, he had plenty to say about this new collection of bizarre activities.

StickSkills: First thing’s first, let’s talk about the name. I thought at one time it was going by a title more similar to the original game, Happy Action Theater. What was your reasoning behind going with the name Kinect Party?

Drew Skillman: Yup, originally it was going to be called Happy Action TV, and spiritually, that’s still what the game really is. The theatrical stage from the first game is now a TV sound stage. The director turned into the “host” of our show, complete with a late show-style microphone. In fact, the mini games, which were originally referred to as “Activities,” turned into our 36 different television “channels.” This helped thematically in a number of ways and we were really happy with those aesthetics, but there was another challenge we’d always struggled with: explaining what the game actually is. That, coupled with our desire to reach an even broader audience than the first one, is where the name Kinect Party originated.  It’s not as whimsical or DoubleFiney™ as Happy Action TV – but it really explains what the game is about.

SS: Are the “games” found in Kinect Party fresh ideas spawned after the release of Happy Action Theater, or were there some activities present that just didn’t fit in your first game?

DS: Definitely some of the games in the second one came from ideas that we had in the first. Before Happy Action Theater started, we generated fifty-to-a-hundred different ridiculous and crazy ideas for how we could use the Kinect technology. Some of these were napkin doodles, some were short little write ups, some were more traditional pieces of concept art, and others were just hilarious cartoons. That massive reserve of ideas fed the first one and we just kept adding to it for the second. “Puddle Splasher” is a great example of an idea we had during the first game that wasn’t actually realized until the second.  But we certainly didn’t exclude any ideas from either game – we just kept making things until we were absolutely out of time (and then some)!

SS: So… dubstep. One of the activities available blends both insane visuals and heavy drops to produce something wholly unique that I couldn’t stop playing. How did this particular aspect of the game come to be?

DS: This one really did have a crazy gestation! Patrick Hackett, our rock star gameplay programmer, had been exploring different ways of manipulating video so that we could do “Dragon Ball Z” style freeze frames when we break objects in “The Chop Master Kung Fu” channel. That led to a general system where we could temporarily pause, slow down and speed up the raw video feed coming from Kinect.  It didn’t take long before we were laughing at each other dancing all around the office with just that raw video feed (no audio yet).  Around this same time, we were also watching those ridiculous YouTube videos where people take games like “Train Simulator” and “Farm Simulator” and put them to dub step music. So, to be honest, it really all started as a joke to make each other laugh in the office, and just kept growing and growing.

At one point, I honestly told Tim “I’m really nervous about shipping this dubstep channel. Can we actually ship an inside joke in a real game?” His response was immediate and unwavering: “You are shipping dubstep.” Tim Schafer is a smart man.

SS: Schafer really seems to have a grasp on what just makes games fun. Other than giving thoughtful dubstep advice, what role did he play in the game’s development?

DS: Tim is amazingly hands-off and laid back for how much he knows about making awesome games. Or, it could be because of all that experience that he’s hands-off. And like many good leaders, he can really guide a project and identify cool opportunities with just a few words. Often a passing comment made as he’s walking past our development pit to make coffee could have a big impact on our direction. I also met with him regularly throughout development, where we’d have a chance to talk in more detail about what channels were working and which ones weren’t.

In terms of identifying what “just makes games fun,” it was all Tim’s idea to build the original Happy Action Theater on the philosophy that it wouldn’t be a game, but a series of experiences that react to anything you do. That insight became the foundation of both Happy Action Theater and Kinect Party, and in my mind is probably one of the coolest examples of his ability to identify a core design opportunity, convince people it would work and follow it all the way through to a shipping product. I think anyone other than Tim would have had a really hard time getting something that at its core is “not a game” so much great support from a large publisher like Microsoft.

SS: Kinect Party is one of the few games where you feel like you can “break” the Kinect hardware and still have a great time. Do you think something like this can only be achieved through the Kinect, or is playing with the control scheme/player expectation on other platforms a viable option?

DS: That’s a fantastic question, and I think the answer is absolutely “yes.” But it takes some careful presentation to set player expectations appropriately. This is even challenging for brand-new hardware like the Kinect, which is why so much of our messaging has been spent clarifying people’s expectations that Kinect Party is not a game: it’s an interactive experience or toy.  On more familiar hardware, that’s an even harder challenge. But one great example that comes to mind is Feed the Head. That entire experience is built on learning what your mouse interactions can do. It has a loose objective – but it’s mostly just about messing around and learning what’s possible. The indie game Rom Check Fail is another spectacular example of messing with player expectations!

SS: How selective were you when deciding what made it into the final product? There are plenty of channels available, but how much did you cut to ensure the quality of the overall package?

DS: This was definitely a challenge. Another one of the core design principles was being able to present the player with so much content, and so many new ideas, that there would be something for everybody to enjoy. Channels that didn’t resonate with people could simply be skipped, and that led us to include some of our crazier and more ridiculous ideas that would be too risky to include in a traditional game. There were definitely many, many prototypes that just never saw the light of day – some required tracking resolution that the Kinect couldn’t provide, others sounded good on paper but early prototypes didn’t feel promising, and a few were simply not appropriate for all ages. Generally speaking though, if channels weren’t making our friends in the office laugh when they walked by, there was probably something wrong and we’d give them the axe.

Luckily, we made a lot of prototypes, and so we mostly cut early tests and didn’t have to remove anything significant at the last minute.

SS: Even thought it sounds like they all made you laugh, was there a standout game within Kinect Party that the entire Double Fine office couldn’t stop playing?

DS: [Laughs] I think dubstep is probably the biggest hit around the office. But the “Video Booth” channel could be a close second. We’re a pretty silly bunch, so I think anything that lets us make fools of ourselves tends to be a pretty big hit.

On that note, we actually have a special build of the game that comes out at company parties – it contains some of our more… unusual experiments. Maybe someday, we’ll have an opportunity to share some of that work, too.

SS: Man, that sounds great. Do you think it’s a possibility that we’ll see some of the more experimental channels as DLC?

DS: Unfortunately, there aren’t any current plans for DLC, but anything’s possible. Especially if enough people download and enjoy the game!

SS: What are the risks of making the game free for two weeks? I’m sure you’re all getting taken care of in some manner, but do you plan on charging for the product in the future?

DS: We are so excited to be able to coordinate with Microsoft on this holiday promotion. But that deal came together kind of last minute – the original design of the game was always to be free, and that’s what will happen when the promotion ends after the new year. The free “base game” will contain a subset of all the channels, and people can try and buy individual channels for $1 each. The whole thing can also be unlocked for $10. Our real goal has always been to just get as many people as possible playing this game, so if you’re reading this article, please tell your friends! There’s always a business side to making games, but at this point, we’re just really proud of the game and want to see as many people try it as possible.

SS: Are you interested in developing more Kinect games?

DS: Absolutely! At Double Fine, we really just love to make games of all types, and as an independent developr, we get the luxury of doing that on every platform. If the right project comes our way, we’ll happily jump back into Kinect development!

Have you had a chance to play Kinect Party? If so, did you like all of its crazy channels? Let us know in the comments, or post some questions for Drew!

When not writing about all the latest and greatest happenings in the video game industry, you can find Josiah on PSN, XBLA or Steam (Lionheart377). He has a soft spot for classic, turn-based RPGs, but also spends a great deal of time jumping from platform to platform and shooting dudes in the head.