Inside Rare: Why Kinect Sports Rivals is rebooting the promise of controller-free gaming

Inside Rare: Why Kinect Sports Rivals is rebooting the promise of controller-free gaming
Aaron Lee

By Aaron Lee

March 17th 2014 at 1:00PM

As Rare opens its doors for the first time in years, Develop went behind the scenes to find out why its confident its upcoming Xbox One title could change perceptions of Kinect

“Would we be better off if Rare was building an FPS?” Kinect Sports Rivals’ executive producer Danny Isaac ponders.

That’s not a question likely to cross the minds of the dissenting voices that have been unhappy with Rare’s new direction of late.

“I don’t think so. You’ve got Halo, you’ve got Titanfall, you’ve got Call of Duty, you’ve got Battlefield... Great experiences like that. If we did one, okay, it would be different, it would be innovative, but we’d maybe only move the needle slightly. Here we’ve got a whole different experience that you can’t really get outside of going to the old-school arcades.”

The foyer in Rare's main complex

Develop is at Rare for the studio’s first major press junket in three years. It’s also the coming out party for Kinect Sports Rivals, the game that Microsoft is banking on to show sceptical consumers and developers that the new Kinect really can make for more involved, interactive experiences.

“It’s always tough working on a Kinect title. People have preconceived ideas of what it is,” Isaac tells Develop. “As a company, I think we had some unfinished business with Kinect.”

He’s right. The studio, famed for Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye, Viva Piñata and a laundry list of others, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2010. That same year it released Kinect Sports for Xbox 360’s troublesome glimpse of our controller-free future. Limited in its field of vision and ability to accurately recognise human gestures, the original Kinect never quite managed to become the gateway into gaming that it was marketed as. So now, with Kinect for Xbox One, Rare is confident that it has built not only a showpiece title for the sensor, but also one that that can satisfy newcomers and core players alike.

THE STUDIO: REBELS ARE WE

Roaming about Rare’s custom-made studio space in Twycross, the uninitiated might assume the Microsoft-owned developer has been making casual sports games all its life – KSR posters and banners winked at us around almost every corner. A gallery of gold-framed artwork adoring its main corridor was one of the few reminders of its platforming heritage amid the whitewashed walls, oak-effect veneers and floor-to-ceiling windows.

A rhombus-shaped foyer protrudes from the studio’s central complex, creating a disjointed outline against the woodland that surrounds it. The building’s rooms have been converted into playtest suites, with KSR’s six sports games – bowling, climbing, football, jet-ski racing, target shooting and tennis – spread out on decorated Xbox One terminals between the canteen, auditorium and breakout space. The latter, known as Rare Labs, is an open-plan area with whiteboards where ideas can be thrown around and moulded.

Concept artwork of Rare's past icons

Inside one of Rare’s barns – separate mircostudios connected by glass corridors that are used to house different game teams – we find a handful of the studio’s 150-strong staff. They don’t look busy, but this is the quiet period after finishing up a game. Elsewhere, in the barns that we weren’t allowed access to, studio head Craig Duncan hints that Rare is working on “a number of secret projects”.

Duncan isn’t about to open up on what those projects are. Not yet. But he is willing to tackle some of the presumptions he feels people have about the studio.

“I think there’s a perception that, being a Microsoft studio, we only play Xbox One or 360 games. Look at our games room downstairs. There’s a PS4, a Wii U and a couple of iPads. Our teams play everything. We’re always looking at what everyone else is doing,” he says.

Kinect Sports Rivals' designers (L-R): George Kokoris, Mike Chapman, Paul Collins, Andrew Preston and Shelley Hodgekins, by Emma Riordan

“When we knew Xbox One was coming, it was pretty easy for us as Rare to say, ‘we built the best Kinect game for Xbox 360, we are the right people to frame what Kinect can do on Xbox One’.

“If you think about Kinect Sports, not only is it a recognised franchise, but because it’s sports you take away any abstraction so that people intuitively know what to do.”

In order for the new rock climbing game to work, Duncan explains, the sensor had to be able to recognise open and closed hands. So the KSR team built a prototype early on to push how much data it could get out of the new Kinect sensor.

THE TECH: WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS

When it comes to uses for the technology underlying the sensor, which has ended up in all kinds of places, from car showrooms to operating theatres, head of Kinect technology Nick Burton says: “So far, nobody has comes up with something we haven’t thought of.”

An absurd amount of column inches were devoted to the tech last time, and we could be in for a repeat. Kinect 2.0 is based on machine learning technology developed at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. A Doppler-like radar effect is how Kinect ‘sees’ you, while four finely-tuned mics are its ears. Even the gap between the body and its plinth has been worked out to the precise millimetre.

KSR demonstrates Kinect 2.0’s power as soon as you boot it up with Champion Scanning – a custom avatar creator that aims to do away with the fiddly sliders of Elders Scrolls once and for all.

Producer Harry Robinson discussing KSR's Champion Scanning, by Emma Riordan

Overseen by producer Harry Robinson, the system is a stroke of digital magic. Planting yourself in the sensor’s sight, you choose your age and gender (with aptly named Achievements for those in the mood to see their chromosomes rearranged), let it assess your physique, before bringing your face up close to the camera for the final stage. The whole thing takes no more than three minutes, and Burton says Kinect is capable of scanning your body in 35 seconds, thanks to its built-in lasers making approximations at “the speed of light”.

All told, the feature works surprisingly well, especially the facial capture, which decides on the suitable skin tone, jaw bone structure, mouth shape, nose, whether you’re wearing glasses or not and so on. All the little Develop's man on the ground, Aaron Lee, after going through Rare's Champion Scanningelements that make you different from the next person. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. Twice Kinect failed to spot our writer’s glasses and managed to replace his freshly shaved cheeks with a fetching mat of stubble. But, as Robinson assures us, a few tweaks in the customisation menus and most Champions should come out looking scarily familiar. (See our own right)

“It just makes competition much more meaningful. I can see you there. I can play against you and I can recognise you,” says Isaac. “And it fulfils one of our pillars to make meaningful competition. Not just in the quality of the sensing and the fidelity of the sports, but putting that against people that you care about.”

Having your avatar’s actions and play style recorded and upload to Xbox Live so friends can asynchronously challenge you, and vice versa, is perhaps one of the most significant differentiators for Kinect Sports Rivals. But what of the sports at the heart of the experience?

THE GAME: MORPHING BETWEEN CORE AND CASUAL

“Our mantra here is to ‘inspire everyone to play’,” offers Isaac. “Whether that’s a family or a dorm room full of guys, or whoever. We built KSR to be accessible, but allow more depth and mastery than we’ve had previously.

“Some of the comments we got about our previous Kinect titles was that the kids want to play it, but dads can’t really get into it. With KSR, we’ve still got that accessibility, but dad can now try and get his best times against the world.

“You saw KSR’s climbing game. I get up the wall in a minute-one. [Game designer] Andy Preston gets up there in 32 seconds. I could play for the next six months and probably not get to the level he has.”

Tennis on KSR is a thrill to play now that Kinect can recognise the orientation of your swing

Opinions will rage about the quality of each of the six sports, but there is clear competitive nuance present in them now – versus wild flailing and blind luck. Tennis, for instance, was particularly engrossing. Backhands, swift side swipes and smashes; Kinect 2.0 recognises all these movements. And finishing off an increasingly devious CPU in a three-match straight that got evermore tense almost made us late for our next appointment of the day.

The test, however, will be when KSR is unleashed at retail. Will it be nuanced enough for the core and casual gamers among Xbox One’s install base of early adopters?

“Gaming is so integrated into our lives that you can morph between different core or causal [game interests]. I mean, what do those things even mean anymore?” Isaac argues.

One way Rare aims to deliver a tailored experienced that can altered depending on what KSR’s audience desires is the business model supporting the game. New challenges and additions to its 200-plus costume parts are promised for this game service that plans to keep its audience entertained with more regular DLC than the usual three-to-six month waits.

Holding your arms out to race your jet-ski almost feels like summon the Lightcycles from Torn

“For us as game creators, it’s all around the customer experience,” explains Duncan, who’s been at Rare for three years now. “What we like about a connected ecosystem is we can see how many people are playing. If we have a particular challenge that’s really popular, we can do more of those challenges.”

He goes on: “I think people misconstrued business models with running games-as-a-service. For us, we’ve got an engage community, can we curate and evolve content so that people who are passionate about our experience continue to play and have something new and fresh for them. Whether it’s free-to-play or it’s paid, I think you’ve got to look at what fits that game experience.”

Isaac thinks that the GAAS model can encourage designers to think about games in new ways: “As developers, everything we build has be somewhat open-ended. Our customers are expecting, especially if it’s a franchise they love, to be able to keep engaging in it over longer periods of time. We’ve seen that with the mobile and PC space. People expect their experiences to change and evolve.”

BEYOND THE BOX

Rare has changed hugely since the days of its founders, the Stamper brothers. And it is still changing. Duncan is happy that Rare fans continue to want new versions of Perfect Dark or Conker. But he doesn’t think “people asking for things is enough reason [for Microsoft] to green light a project”. Not until its certain an audience is out there.

With franchise sales exceeding six million, Microsoft seems satisfied that Kinect Sports has built an audience. Meanwhile, relishing the chance to show the team’s spark is burning every bit as brightly as it used to, the game designers themselves give the impression that KSR is the Kinect experience Rare has been wanting to create all along.

Kinect is also about to detact the direction and power as you release your bowl ball

“It’s really not just about that one experience that you have with the controller or the Kinect sensor,” Isaac concludes. “You’ve really got to look at the ecosystem of Xbox One. What does Live give you? What’s going on with SmartGlass? How are these things going to evolve over time? And how do we engage the user over longer periods of time?

“Because it’s not like the old days where it was Nintendo, Sony and ourselves. We’re battling now against Google, Apple, TV on-demand, music... everyone has so much entertainment pressing on their time that, as game developers, we need to build these bigger, unique experiences that they can only get on next generation consoles.”