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Xbox One’s strengths and weaknesses, through the eyes of Zumba’s developers

Zumba Fitness World Party

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Zumba Fitness World Party didn’t reveal a lot about how Xbox Live will work on the Xbox One. But Ray did have this to say about the online service, giving us a hint at what’s in store for gamers: “I think there’s been a big change in attitude from Microsoft on how they see connectivity. I expect we’ll see more social games with larger pools of players and more developers integrating large-scale multiplayer features.”

Roth agrees, while also avoiding specifics. “There’s more opportunity for some more robust online features,” she said.

Development

Every new piece of hardware comes with its own learning curve for developers. New specs, architecture, operating system (OS), etc. — someone’s got to dive in and figure all that stuff out to make a game run the way it should. The platform creator also has an obligation to make this navigation easy for coders, and no one wants to deal with any technical roadblocks seen in previous generations.

Despite the Xbox One being Microsoft’s third gaming console, however, just by nature of it being so young in its life cycle, it comes with its own set of challenges. “It’s a new platform, and you have all the expected issues of prototype hardware, prerelease drivers, and dealing with a brand-new OS,” said Ray. “With the Xbox One, these challenges were not necessarily more difficult than with previous console releases, but because of the depth of the system, there are lots more moving parts than there ever were before.”

It’s not just the techy stuff, either. With a new system comes a new workflow. “Microsoft implemented an entirely new back office for handling submissions and approvals, and it was a challenge getting the kinks worked out of that process,” said Ray.

Video

Physical-media Xbox One games run on Blu-ray discs. Zumba Fitness World Party not only takes advantage of the extra storage space for more robust video, but it also uses the system’s hardware to do a few new tricks in that department as well.

“The parallel nature of the system presented an opportunity to try some new ideas with film,” said Ray. “We wanted a game that had the look of HD film but would change based on player performance.  We didn’t want to do branching — Dragon’s Lair was cool in the ’80s but not so much today. The solution we came up with was to use layering.”

Picture a video of a live (not computer-generated) dance instructor on your television screen, showing you the moves that you must perform for the game. In the background may be more live video of an ocean backdrop, which the developers recorded separately from the dancer. Then on top of that is more video of other effects — like flowers blooming, skies changing, waves crashing in — and each of these different layers can run independently, changing as the game deems necessary.

“We created a way to shoot lots of film and keep every element isolated but still synchronized,” said Ray. “The Xbox One allowed us to keep these streams separate and work on them in parallel. The result is that we have scores of HD video elements being composited together in real time with layers being enabled or disabled based on the player’s performance.”

Naturally, no developer’s looking to bring back the limited storage space of the soon-to-be-outdated DVD format. Blu-ray’s it … for now. “Having more space on the disc is awesome for us,” said Roth. “On the Xbox One version of this game, you’re getting more songs, more videos, and director’s cuts of some of those videos. None of the other platforms would allow us to put as much video content in as high of a quality.”

Wait — isn’t there already a game console out there that’s been using the Blu-ray format for a few years now? Couldn’t you put all this video content on the PlayStation 3 as well?

“You could,” said Roth. “But then you wouldn’t have the same camera [tracking] ability.”

So it’s not just about the new graphics or video capabilities; the Xbox One, with the new Kinect, will help ensure we do the dance moves correctly and stay in rhythm for maximum calorie-burning in Zumba Fitness World Party.

Maybe the complainers on the Internet were right. Maybe the all-seeing camera is evil after all.

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