Virtual Air Guitar interview – motion control and virtual reality

Amidst all the talk about Virtual Reality headsets, Virtual Reality controllers and (upcoming) Virtual Reality games, we’re forgetting that there is an overall trend that we’ve seen pop up for about ten years now. That trend is, of course, the changes we’re seeing in the way we’re interacting with games. Virtual Reality is, for now at least, quite a complex and expensive way to change your game experience, and we’ll see how the general public takes to it. Meanwhile, we talked to Virtual Air Guitar’s Aki Kanerva about a trend that is much more mainstream already: motion gaming.

Aki is the lead designer and founder of Virtual Air Guitar, a company that exclusively develops motion based games and has already done so for PS3, Xbox 360, PC and Xbox One. With over half a decade of experience, we were eager to hear Aki’s thoughts on the current and future state of motion-based gaming.

How does game design for motion control differ from traditional design?

Our philosophy has always been to only design things that work better with motion controls. If your game would be more efficient or more fun to play on a gamepad, then why aren’t you using a gamepad? We still stick by this design guideline and only create gameplay that wouldn’t make sense with any other form of input. That’s where the really unique and cool experiences are.

In practical design terms, motion games are about the flow of motion. If you try to design a driving game using Kinect, you’ll end up with a game that you have to stop playing after a few minutes because your arms are hurting from being held up too long. Ergonomics are important. You need to keep the player in motion, so your game mechanics need to encourage movement instead of position. That’s why our games are about swinging, throwing, punching and jumping, instead of pointing or holding. That doesn’t mean Kinect games can’t be accurate, you just have to stop thinking about triggers and buttons and start thinking about motion curves.

Virtual Air Guitar’s Boom Ball

Kinect never became the success Microsoft counted on. Why is this?

If you just slap a Kinect feature on top of an existing game, it probably won’t feel good. You’ve probably seen Wii games where the Wiimote is a tacked-on gimmick that doesn’t bring anything into the game. The same thing holds true with Kinect. If you have a great non-Kinect game, it doesn’t get better by adding a little bit of Kinect support. To make Kinect work, you need to make it the foundation of the design, not just the decoration. If you’re a big mainstream developer and you have your established way of producing games, I can imagine it might be difficult to change that process at the core. So what we need are indie developers who aren’t afraid to look at things from a different perspective to build up the market for Kinect games. When more people become aware of Kinect and that motion gaming is a lot of fun, then the mainstream will follow.

Does Kinect belong in the casual realm of gaming, or is there more to it?

We’ve seen over and over again that kids love the physical aspect of Kinect games. Moving around is quite simply a lot of fun. And you can’t discount the fitness aspect, either. Parents like being able to give their kids something that keeps them active instead of sitting in front of the screen. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that kids and casual are the same thing. If you look at Kung-Fu High Impact as an example, it’s got nothing to do with match-three games. And games for kids aren’t necessarily simple. If anything, children are experts at motion gaming, thanks to boundless energy and agility.

We have a whole bunch of motion concepts that I’d love to bring out. There’s a Kinect stealth game, a free-scrolling action platformer, a brawler where you build your own fighter with Kinect, a rocket car game, and many more… most of these are somewhat bigger in scope and would require some outside financing, however.

Virtual Air Guitar’s Squid Hero

Will virtual reality and motion controls merge together at some point?

There is some overlap between virtual reality and motion control. Both are about bringing down the interface barriers between the player and the game. VR takes the game out of the TV and brings it all around you. Motion control takes the controller away and lets you interact naturally with the game world.

But there are also things you can do with motion controls that aren’t compatible with VR. Taking Kung-Fu as an example again, you couldn’t take the camera image of the player and put it in a VR environment. You can’t be the star of your own kung-fu comic in virtual reality. VR is a first-person experience, so you don’t see yourself in the game. And even if you did, your camera image would be wearing VR goggles. I also don’t think that VR can cope with the sheer enthusiasm of jumping around in glee.

Having said that, we do have an internal prototype of a first-person VR fighting game… real punches tracked in real-time from your movements, instead of just triggering pre-recorded animations. So I definitely think that bringing VR and motion control together can produce interesting results.

Where do you see motion controlled gaming in three years?

In three years, motion games will have cut down obesity dramatically. Children will be fitter than ever and physical education will see a resurgence at school, thanks to games that actually make it interesting and the ability to continue playing at home. Kinect will be featured in eSports, blurring the line between professional athletes and gamers. Motion games will keep elderly folks moving around instead of sitting down all day. Kinect will have reached people who would never have bought an Xbox One without it. There will be gamers who think gamepads are old-fashioned.

Sounds like utopia? Not to us.

Our thanks to Aki Kanerva for sharing his thoughts.

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