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How Disney and Harmonix tamed Kinect to make the motion game Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved (interview)

Above: Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved is certainly colorful.

Image Credit: Harmonix

Disney Interactive and Harmonix revealed today that the Kinect music game Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved will come out on Oct. 21 on the Xbox One and Xbox 360 game consoles. It’s a reimagining of Disney’s classic animated film, Fantasia, where you get to play the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Mickey Mouse’s iconic role). Using your hands to match gestures that you see on the screen, you can test how good you are at beat matching. But you can also take songs and remix them.

We talked with Chirs Nicholls, the executive producer of the game at Disney Interactive, about the challenge of making a new franchise, one based on a Disney classic, using gesture controls that work with both the original Kinect and the new Kinect on the Xbox One. The new motion game will include dozens of songs, including Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” Drake’s “Take Care,” Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Medley,” The Police’s “Message in a Bottle,” MIA’s “Galang,” and The Who’s “The Real Me.”

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. And check out the new video of The Neighborhood section of the game below. Disney and Harmonix will show the game off at next week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles.

GamesBeat: How long has Fantasia been in the works now?

Chris Nicholls: It’s been approximately a three-year development.

GamesBeat: What’s the hard part? What’s made it take that long?

Nicholls: I think it’s a couple of things. The real hard part is doing something completely new, having to understand and figure out exactly what you want to do, making sure that the game systems and worlds are well-architected. The large part of the last year has just been focused on a lot of user experience refinement.

Two things – one, making sure that the pulse gameplay was accessible and fun, but still supported the skill curve that we wanted to, so that there’s real challenge for players who want to develop their skills down that axis, and second, the adventure itself. We realize that we’re asking people to become very creative and expressive. It was surprising, but you have to be very gentle to people to get them into that space. A large part of the story was almost right to the last minute – polishing that flow and making sure the adventure made sense to people and got them in the right space.

Chris Nicholls of Disney Interactive

Above: Chris Nicholls of Disney Interactive

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: Can you explain the story again, the game in general?

Nicholls: Our starting point was the short Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is the start of Fantasia’s story. A lot of people may not know that Sorcerer’s Apprentice was the first piece. The idea to build Fantasia into a concept feature came directly from the production of what at the time was initially just a stand-alone short animated film starring Mickey Mouse.

That’s the story of a small mouse who falls asleep and dreams about conducting the very heavens, being able to wield this awesome power of creativity and imagination. Of course, he wakes up to find the workshop sloshing with water and everything’s broken, which requires Yen Sid’s intervention to come in and save the day. It’s a very elegant allegory about the aspirations of creativity, but also the need to keep your eye on the details.

That was our jumping-off point. For us, this is an invitation for you to be the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. You’re not Mickey Mouse. You’re on your own journey. We follow similar points in the story, where maybe you get a little ahead of yourself and your skills lead to a bit of an unwinding of the magic of Fantasia. Then, instead of Yen Sid coming out and saving the day, it’s up to you and a character you meet called Scout to figure it out and learn to wield the magic of music in a way that brings Fantasia back to harmony.

Fantasia guide character

Above: Fantasia guide character

Image Credit: Harmonix

GamesBeat: So that character helps you learn things or find things out about the world.

Nicholls: I think the story is that she learns as much from you as you learn from her. She’s certainly there to teach you a bit about the background and the history of the experience. We have another character called Percy who’s the narrator. He’s there to be your friend and guide and sidekick through the experience. But you learn from each other. You’ll figure out how to bring it all back together.

GamesBeat: How do you move forward through the gameplay, then, and make progress in this story?

Nicholls: It’s quite a simple loop. We take you on a journey through 10 realms. All of the realms are very different. You’ve seen the city realm today, which is called the Neighborhood. There are nine others. We’ve shown off about five so far. We’ve done the underwater one, a couple of forests – a winter forest and a storybook forest. They’re all very different, like the film itself. Each segment has its own look and feel and music.

Your journey takes you to each realm, which has been infected by the Noise. The Noise kind of being the water that’s sloshing around – the Noise is sloshing through the realms and pulling color out and distorting the sound. Really, the only way to bring color and magic back to the realms is by playing songs. It’s about the power of music to transform the world. We put that on screen in front of you.

When you go to one of these realms, you’ll see the songs hanging in the sky. They look like the stars, all tied together by the starfield from the original film, and you literally just reach out and zoom in on the song. You’re taken immediately into the song, play, and the magic you create by playing music flows back into the realm. It’ll transform in front of your eyes.

As you transform these realms, you’ll get access to new realms and new characters. We’ve got singing fish, singing yetis. We’ve got a lot of very strange characters to inhabit the world.

GamesBeat: What are you learning about Kinect 2? Is it more effective or more difficult to use? How do you have to adapt to the quirks that it adds?

Nicholls: It’s been very interesting. We’ve straddled the two generations of technology. We’re on 360 as well. A lot of the initial work was done on very early prototypes in combination with 360. I think overall, we’ve been very impressed by the stability of Kinect 2. We’ve seen a lot fewer problems than we’d seen before on the original Kinect. It certainly gives us a nice wide field of view, so we’re able to do the walk side by side to control the camera in the game. We’ve got very precise depth resolution, which allows us to create these worlds as 3D spaces. You can put your hands in and actually reach out to stuff.

So we’ve been very impressed by its stability. We had some amusing times very early on with the voice commands, where every two minutes or so Xbox would wake up and think that it needed to help us or something.

Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved

Above: Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved

Image Credit: Harmonix

GamesBeat: Even when you’re not talking?

Nicholls: It used to be you’d say anything and it’d be like, “Oh! You must want to talk to me!” It’s gotten a lot better. There was one event we went to where it interrupted us every 30 or 45 seconds. But that was a little ways back. The hardest part for us has been making sure that the two systems offer a very similar play experience for the player. The player shouldn’t feel like they’re getting downgraded on 360. But we also want to make sure it’s as smooth as possible as far as resolution on Xbox One, because that’s obviously the sexy new hardware for people.

GamesBeat: Do you then have more precise control or movement as an end result here?

Nicholls: It is more precise. We have a lot of filtering on 360, which smooths out the player’s motion. That will make it feel very smooth. But what you lose there is a little bit of the instantaneousness of the interaction. As soon as we put filtering in, there’s a bit of lag. On 360, if you’re really paying attention and pushing it, you might notice a little bit of that. But the trade-off there is so you get a smooth response from the input. On Xbox One we were able to do a lot less filtering and approach it in a different way. It feels much more one-to-one and precise, which is really what we wanted.

We’re asking you to move a ball around the screen, so it has to be coherent. If it was really laggy, it would feel weird. In performance gameplay, we need absolutely no lag, or at least we need to manage it in a way that it feels like it has no lag. Everything has some lag – there are milliseconds of delay whenever you display an image – but we’re pretty proud of Pulse. It’s pretty frame-on at 30.

Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved

Above: Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved

GamesBeat: Can you say what the business model is?

Nicholls: Well, Dance Central is going one way. But Fantasia is pretty straightforward. It’s coming out in a box. It’ll be a fixed price. But we do have a DLC program that we’ll be unveiling once we launch. Pulse will have new songs. We’ll have more than 30-odd songs, which means 90 mixes on the disc, because each song has three full versions with multi-track mixes. I think we did the math. There’s something like several million possible outputs from each song. One of the programmers figured out exactly how many choices there were.

Interestingly, we’re not just doing songs for DLC. We’re doing DLC remixes as well. If there are songs you like, we’ll refresh that content by giving you new mixes for that. You may not even have the original in the mix anymore. You could have three remixes of a song that you love, and then you’re really down the rabbit hole creating something very unique.


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