GamesBeat

Microsoft’s Kudo Tsunoda on broadening Kinect games to hardcore fans (interview)

Kudo Tsunoda is the creative director for Kinect games at Microsoft and chief cheerleader for the company’s motion-sensing system for the Xbox 360 video game console.

Kinect has been a hit with casual game players who otherwise might have been fascinated with the Nintendo Wii. But hardcore gamers are a big challenge for Tsunoda. After a year and a half on the market, Kinect is starting to appeal to hardcore game developers, who have taken a long time coming to terms with making Kinect titles.

Some recent hardcore games such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Mass Effect 3, and the upcoming Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor are exploiting Kinect’s ability to recognize voice and motion. We talked to Tsunoda about the trend, recently. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.

GamesBeat: It’s interesting to see Kinect evolve and pick up more hardcore games. How do you see this evolution?

Tsunoda: It’s always great to see Kinect showing up in all different types of entertainment and gaming genres. Those new technologies — the longer that developers are able to play around with it and develop on it, the better their understanding of how to use the tech in a way that best fits the experiences they want to build is going to be.

You see such a wider variety of Kinect content now. It’s great to see stuff showing up in more hardcore genres. And I think the way that people are using it in their experiences really shows the breadth of what Kinect can do. It enables, I think, creative people to use Kinect in a way that really enhances their experiences in a meaningful way for people who love their franchises.

GamesBeat: Developers have gone down a couple of roads here. You have the voice recognition as one part of it, and then the other is the actual motion sensing, too. Can you tell me about how each one of those has gone for you?

Tsunoda: I always think about the kind of Kinect features we shipped with at launch as enabling not only the motion technology and the voice stuff but also our identity system. That allows people to stand in front of the sensor and then have that integrate or automatically sign them into Xbox Live.

And then you’ve seen since launch a lot of innovation on the software side around Kinect, enabling stuff like finger tracking, our player-skinning technology where you can stand in front of it and it automatically creates an avatar that looks like you, our object capture. And then, you know, certainly stuff like you’ve seen in Play as well.

I think it’s great when you see the voice technology showing up in things like Mass Effect 3, obviously, Skyrim. And then you see the great seated play showing up in stuff like the Forza franchise — things you’re going to see with Fable: The Journey coming out this holiday. You will get a higher fidelity of tracking as well as these new features. I think the constant evolution and innovation that you see in Kinect as a platform — it’s also really helping it to spread out to all different kinds of genres and experiences.

GamesBeat: At some level, the technology still could be more accurate. How that has affected what developers are doing as well?

Tsunoda: In lots of ways you see Kinect, especially in the core areas, in some ways being put into franchises that already exist. I think about a game like Mass Effect 3, and I don’t think necessarily the motion technology of Kinect in any way really dictates what goes into the game and what doesn’t as much as that game is perfectly suited for the voice technology side of things.

Fable: The Journey, coming out this holiday, will be using the motion technology, and it has really good fidelity in the motion technology. It is improving over time to drive a more core gaming experience. I think we’re proving out things in Kinect all the time — building new things. Allowing creative people to use Kinect to bring a different type of functionality in a way that makes sense for their franchises.

GamesBeat: Yeah. Now, it sounded like some of the things that you’re seeing are reflecting some improvement in Kinect. Is that correct, or is it more like the developers are learning how to use what’s already there? Like the seated play, for example: Is that more a case of people learning how to use Kinect, or is that possible because Kinect has had firmware updates or something like that?

Tsunoda: Developers are just learning how to use the hardware and software platform better. I think that’s true. But then I think also it’s people developing new software that enables unique and different things. I think it’s both the evolution of existing Kinect functionality and just the fact that so much of what Kinect is able to do is bring innovations through software development versus having to replace your hardware. Developers are getting better at using it, and then also we’re able to invent new things and update what’s going on through the software updates that we can do over Xbox Live with the existing hardware.

GamesBeat: Is it a parallel to the evolution of graphics on the 360? Call of Duty: Modern Warfare looked decent on the system, but Modern Warfare 2 looked better, and Modern Warfare 3 looked even better. They’re squeezing better graphics out of each new version of the game. Is that the same kind of parallel you have with Kinect here?

Tsunoda: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. People understand better how to develop on any kind of technology. You’re going to get better performance, better experiences, new inventions over time. I think that’s why you see Kinect branching off into all different genres of games now. It’s because developers are able to do more with the technology as they’ve become more experienced in working with it.

GamesBeat: What are some of the different ways that people have overcome the toughest challenges here? Having played Kinect Star Wars, you get really tired playing that game, right? Somehow, there must be some kind of workaround for people like me [laughter]. You need help finishing the game without completely getting exhausted. Have you seen some of this clever thinking here?

Tsunoda: I think we have a bigger concept now of how you do gameplay ramping through an experience. That isn’t just difficulty ramping, but it’s energy ramping — if that makes sense.

We are learning how to build a narrative and a story around a Kinect experience that allows for different types of interactions. One of the things that we’re super excited about is how you can use a combination of facial detection, motion detection, voice recognition, and tone of voice recognition to allow somebody to participate in a narrative like an actual character inside the scene. So much of how you communicate is through body language and tone of voice, and being able to incorporate those things into an interaction with a digital character is stuff that only Kinect can do.

When you think about those types of mechanics and experiences, they are ones that require a lot of full-body motion even if it’s just conversational, like you and I are talking now. I think that a lot of how we’ve started thinking now about games through how you do a mixture of experiences — full body experiences — with play mechanics that don’t require much motion as a way of allowing a more immersive and in-depth and lengthy play experience that I know a lot of gamers really love.

GamesBeat: What are you expecting to see this year? Do you have an expectation that many titles on the hardcore side will use Kinect? Are you expecting something like dozens of titles, or is it still an experimental thing that’s in a handful of titles?

Tsunoda: I don’t think I have exact numbers. Even just from a Kinect portfolio perspective, we had a lot of titles at launch. I think it’s something like four times the number of experiences today that we had at launch. We’ve seen a huge increase in the breadth of the portfolio.

I think more than anything, it’s really seeing how many different implementations of Kinect that are out there today. Whether that means using different features of Kinect, inventing new features of Kinect, controlling or combining Kinect with controllers, combining Kinect with other types of objects that you can have as far as object scanning, the avatar generation — so many of these different ways that Kinect is showing up in all kinds of experiences.

I think that you’re going to see a lot of variety in the types of experiences, a lot of new invention. And then of course, like you’ve seen even in the last year or so, four times as many Kinect titles out there as there were at launch and seeing a big increase of all types of titles as we go forward.

GamesBeat: Do you think we’ll see a lot of those features in one game, or do you think we’ll see a game like that original Milo [artificial intelligence] demo?

Tsunoda: You know, the exciting thing is seeing a lot of those things used in combinations inside single experiences. So not so much just one experience doing one thing as much as how people can start blending all the different capabilities of Kinect in an immersive experience.

Whether it’s exactly like the Milo demo we did or not, I do think that the next evolution of the experience will come as developers get better and better at working with Kinect. I think right now we’re in an area where you’re going to start seeing some amazing Kinect experiences based on things like using voice or using full body or using identity. And then I think going forward you’re going to see a lot more people really blending all of the different features of Kinect together to build some really rich and immersive new types of experiences.


GamesBeat: So Steel Battalion looks like it’s one of maybe the highest — the one that uses the most Kinect features?

Tsunoda: Yeah, I think Steel Battalion — it’s a great example of taking an experience that had already been done with controllers and completely reinventing it in a way that really uses Kinect as the center of the experience. I think you can see — when you’re really reenvisioning an experience built from the ground up for Kinect, the kinds of deep, rich, immersive experiences that core gamers love can totally be achieved. I think you see that both in the Steel Battalion game and in Fable: The Journey coming up this holiday as well.

GamesBeat: I assume there are some unannounced games here that are also interesting to you.

Tsunoda: [long pause] Yes. There are.

GamesBeat: That’s good to know.

Tsunoda: Because, obviously, I work here making games and experiences with the Kinect, and I get to see a lot of Kinect product. But in the same way, a lot of the stuff that really makes this job fun for me is that I love playing games, and I love seeing other people’s experiences and getting in and enjoying them myself.

Come E3 time, there’ll be a lot of product for everybody to check out, myself included. That’s why I always look forward to getting out to E3, getting to see a bunch of new stuff, getting to try a bunch of stuff out. I think just as a gamer — the time between E3 and the holidays, you get exposed to so many different types of experiences and get to play so much new product, it’s just a super fun time.

GamesBeat: So gamers are always anticipating the next thing. What do you say to the people who want to have a Kinect 2 already?

Tsunoda: It’s funny. I tend to think in terms of hardware updates. As the lifecycle of consoles has occurred, the next big thing always tended to mean the next piece of hardware coming out.

But I think one of the things that’s been awesome about Xbox 360 — you look at things like Xbox Live and how much that service has evolved from when it first launched until now and how there’s always new features and new big things being added.

Like I said before with Kinect, we’ve gone from it meaning motion and voice and identity to meaning those things plus finger tracking, player scanning, object scanning, seated play — all these other great new features. I think that waiting for the next big thing isn’t about waiting for the Kinect 2. It’s more about all the great invention that can be done in software without having to go out and spend money on a new device.

GamesBeat: I was playing the Skyrim demo. If you had your speakers on a little high and there was rain going on in the demo, then it was hard for Kinect to hear the commands accurately. It sounds like, in some sense, there’s still some work to be done — some quality to be improved upon. I think I had trouble with Kinect on my old 360 because the fan makes so much noise.

Tsunoda: It’s always interesting because I think part of the stuff that we’re really trying to push with Kinect is allowing the machine learning, based on real world data, to improve the quality of the experience for everybody.

I think that’s why, just like we talked about — it’s not where you have to wait for Kinect 2 for something to be different as much as the more that we’re able to play with Kinect and update Kinect over time, all of the capabilities in all different types of scenarios, we’re going to keep pushing. I think that, again, it means both the evolution of existing features as well as the invention of new ones.

I think that’s a huge feature of Xbox 360 — is that we’re always looking to improve the experience and always looking to update our work based on how people are playing and how people are having fun and to make that a core part of our company’s DNA. It’s being able to improve the experience consumers have based on what they’re doing. I think that’s stuff we push on in all areas.

GamesBeat: I think both BioWare and the Bethesda folks mentioned that Microsoft gave them some expertise or gave them some engineers to help with the voice recognition? Is that something you do with a lot of the games, where you have your own Kinect experts going out to help everybody create these games?

Tsunoda: We help not only with Kinect, but with Xbox all around. Obviously, we want consumers and people to have fun and have the best experiences possible on Xbox 360, and so we have teams of developers that build the software platform that enables other companies and other developers to then bring to life the creative visions that they have in their heads that they want consumers to enjoy.

We share technology where it is helpful. If there’s ever technology or expertise that we can help share with people to best enable creative folks to build the real vision of what they want consumers to experience in the highest quality way possible, that is stuff that we’re always happy and motivated to do.

GamesBeat: Is that actually an incentive program you guys have, where you’ll throw marketing dollars to match whatever a developer is investing in Kinect? Is it as formal as that?

Tsunoda: The stuff I’m telling you about isn’t so much a marketing or incentive-based thing as just the stuff that we want to do to enable customers to have the best experiences. We make our platform and technology available to developers so they can help build the best things for consumers. I think out of everything, the incentive-based thing that we have is just wanting people to have super, high-quality, fun experiences on Xbox. I think that’s always our primary motivation.

GamesBeat: When you think about how strategic Kinect is, then, how do you look at it that way? Strategic in terms of the whole Xbox 360 initiative.

Tsunoda: I think just from a strategy standpoint, the stuff that we really want to provide both for developers and to consumers is that — no matter which way is the most fun way for you to experience your entertainment content or what type of entertainment content you want to build, you’re able to do that in the best way possible on Xbox.

I think this is what’s great. If you’re a consumer, you love entertainment, digital entertainment, you love playing games, and you want to do stuff with a controller — we can do that. If you want to do stuff controller free, we can do that as well. If you want to do a controller mixed with Kinect, you can do that also.

I think that means that, really, we give consumers the widest experience choice possible, so you can enjoy your entertainment in the way that is most natural for you. And then from the developer perspective, if you want to build games with controllers, if you want to build with Kinect, if you want to build a mix, you can do that also. It allows developers to really bring the stuff that they want — build the stuff that they want to build — in the easiest way possible.

I think that’s always a kind of overarching strategy of what we’re trying to do — to just allow people to do things in a way that’s the most fun and natural for them. Whether that’s how consumers enjoy their entertainment or how creators develop it.

GamesBeat: How much credit do you give Kinect for your success in the last year? The 360’s been the top-selling console platform for more than a year now.

Tsunoda: It’s great that Kinect has really given people a new way to experience their entertainment. I think that’s been awesome. I just think that the best thing that Xbox 360 has is that the experiences are super fun. And I think that’s always our main objective. It isn’t about a particular technology as much as having the most fun experiences and the best entertainment for consumers.

Kinect helps to enable a lot of that. The great work on Xbox Live helps to bring a lot of that to life. Our console and our controllers help do a lot of that. I think at the end of the day it’s a combination of all of these things that are unique to Xbox that allows people to have more fun on our console than on any others. I think people’s enjoyment and people being entertained is always the thing that drives sales. It was just nice to see that people are voting with their dollars for where they feel their entertainment is.

GamesBeat: The price has stayed the same [Microsoft has since started offering a $99 bundle with Kinect for those who sign up for a two-year subscription for Xbox Live Gold]. Could you explain the thinking on that as well? I suppose as long as you’re on top and demand is high, there’s no reason to change the price on a product.

Tsunoda: I work mostly on the creative side of all this, certainly. I think we don’t really have anything to talk about as far as the pricing side. Again, it’s been great to see the success of the console, and it’s great to see so many people having fun with our experiences. But we don’t really have anything to announce about the pricing or anything like that right now.

GamesBeat: Is the hardware also something that, like the Xbox 360 itself, you can constantly improve and lower the cost side of it at the same time?

Tsunoda: I think no matter what, we’re always looking to improve what people are able to do on Xbox. Whether that’s from a hardware perspective, a software perspective, or a services perspective.

I think at least with Kinect, you’re still seeing so much invention and creation through software versus hardware. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to realizing the full potential of what the existing Kinect sensor can do. And I think there’s still lots of room for invention through software. Right now, that’s really our main focus.

GamesBeat: Have you looked back at the usage, and is anything interesting to you there? Is anything surprising? Is it clear that you beat the other guys in terms of the way their motion-sensing devices have been used in the home?

Tsunoda: Some of the stuff that’s really been the most awesome data is not just how much Kinect is used for gaming but how much Kinect is used for the all-up entertainment that is available on Xbox Live. It’s been great. You start seeing stats out there now like how — over Xbox Live, people are spending more time with broader entertainment content than just multiplayer gaming.

I think you see a lot of Kinect usage in the entertainment space as well. Stuff that has been the most surprising for us — it’s not only how Kinect is being used in entertainment but the widespread use and creative expression being done with Kinect in all different types of industries. You see Kinect being used in the medical field, you see Kinect being used in education, you see Kinect showing up in all these different types of places.

It’s one of those things that I think is super exciting about Kinect for Windows. You’re starting now to see Microsoft really providing that same level of support — not just to people building games or entertainment. It’s how Kinect can unlock new kinds of experiences and invention in all different types of fields.

Out of everything, it’s great to see Kinect being used in entertainment, not even just gaming. But the most surprising thing has been how much it’s been used in other fields for purposes we never would have thought of even as one of the original people working on Kinect.

GamesBeat: What about the expectation that gestures are going to be a big part of the user interface for everything in the future? Do you still see Kinect as just the beginning of this kind of vision?

Tsunoda: I never really think of it just as gestures as much as like a really full, natural user interface capability. With full-body motion, not just gestures but full-body motion, voice, and the identity stuff. Because it’s important that we’re able to understand not just what you’re doing but who you are. I do think it isn’t just a question of gestures as much as this really being one of the first steps towards fully immersive, 3D input and being able to match that with the initial steps that you start seeing in 3D display technology. It’s totally a bit on the nerdy side, so I apologize, but it’s super interesting.

I watch a lot of science fiction shows and movies, and there’s always been the kind of like, you know, the Star Trek Holodeck experience that you see in a lot of sci-fi. It’s interesting because the holodeck is a fully realized match between immersive 3D visual display and completely natural humanistic input. And while I don’t think we’re going to be there any time soon, I do think that you can see with Kinect and with 3D display technology the very initial building blocks and first steps of something like a Star Trek Holodeck experience coming together. Because the things that you need for that, we’re just now starting to bring it to life.

I guess that’s the super exciting thing for me: Not just where this is going to be in a year or two but the understanding that the creative tools that we’re developing, both on the input and the output side, are so revolutionary that it really is leading us down a path to something that is cool. I think people feel like it’s so far in the future, and it’s such a kind of made-up science fiction, and yet the building blocks are falling into place to allow us to start getting there. I think for somebody like me who’s dreamed about that stuff as a little kid, seeing something like Kinect as a real fundamental building block to those types of experiences is super exciting.

GamesBeat: Very cool. Like Minority Report or Star Trek, as you say… It seems like we’ve still got to catch up with all the sci-fi movies here.

Tsunoda: Yeah, exactly. It’s always the fun part of working in this industry, to me. Hopefully we do good work and we’re able to start getting things to catch up a little bit faster than people would have expected.

GamesBeat: Is there an indie Kinect project that you’ve found to be interesting?

Tsunoda: Yeah, the stuff that we’re doing with Kinect, especially around Kinect for Windows and then also Kinect Fun Labs, is really fun. We’re sharing a lot of the Kinect community work and allowing people to experience it on our console.

This might not be the exact answer that you were looking for, but probably for me one of the coolest things I’ve seen was we had one or two people who developed a Kinect app that helps rehabilitate people who had traumatic brain injuries. They’re using the science of understanding brain functionality and brain injuries and using physical rehabilitation steps through Kinect as a way of helping people to overcome these types of injuries faster than in ways that people currently use.

Out of everything, it’s those kinds of things, to me, that are so amazing.  Seeing something that was built primarily for entertainment purposes being used in a way that is really helping people overcome enormous obstacles in their own lives. That’s been the most surprising and also the most rewarding.

GamesBeat: I didn’t even go down this road earlier, but one thing I thought was interesting is what you see as a casual use of Kinect and what you see as a hardcore use of Kinect. Is Kinect Star Wars one or the other?

Tsunoda: That’s a good question. Star Wars is such a massive intellectual property, and it has spanned 30-plus years of existence. It’s super funny because I have an eight-year-old and a 10-year-old nephew, and they’re super into Star Wars. And then when I talk to them about Star Wars, they’re super into Clone Wars, they’re super into the later movies, and then they aren’t as much into the first three Star Wars movies that came out. Whereas I’m all about the first three movies, and I like the other stuff as well. Depending on what age you are and what entry point you had into the Star Wars IP, your iconic memories and the things that are important to you about Star Wars are so different.

Really, with Kinect Star Wars, the awesome thing about that title is that it can be a Star Wars experience that appeals to all different types of Star Wars fans. It isn’t so much about “is it core, is it not core, is it casual, is it something else?” But really it’s a lot more about understanding what all different types of Star Wars fans are interested in and allowing people to really live out their iconic moments of the Star Wars IP within the title.

GamesBeat: Do you have any comment to wrap up everything we’ve been talking about: Kinect and the hardcore?

Tsunoda:I think the really great thing is just seeing so many more core experiences coming and how they’re using Kinect in really interesting ways. I just think that over time, you’re going to see so many different genres and experiences no matter what kind of gamer you are. But if you’re a core gamer especially, it’s just a super fun time. You’re going to be seeing a lot more stuff with Kinect.


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