At first glance Kudo Tsunoda looks like an aloof gaming rockstar.
The hair. Those sunglasses. Expensive casual dress that belies his senior role at Microsoft. A career softography littered with hits like Fight Night and Gears of War. He’s even graced the cover of Wired.
Yet appearances can be deceiving. No one knows it better than Tsunoda, who is masterminding the introduction of Kinect. Yes, it’s ‘just’ a clever camera peripheral. But the potential is huge. And when MCV meets Tsunoda there is no rockstar attitude. He’s not even wearing his trademark glasses. He’s just a passionate, friendly and funny game developer and producer – with a keen desire to herald a fresh era for Xbox using 360’s new eye in the living room.
Kinect represents a new phase for Microsoft’s game console. That’s a point Tsunoda – and anyone you speak to at Microsoft in fact – is keen to make about the device.
It rolls out globally in November, Wednesday 10th for the UK specifically. The peripheral arrives with as big a complement of launch games as most consoles. While the first wave of titles boast a mix of genres new to Xbox (if not actually new to all of games), beyond launch the aim is to deliver experiences unlike no other, which bring players closer to each other and their entertainment.
“It’s easy at first glance to pigeonhole what Kinect is or what it’s experiences are, but for us it’s a device full of opportunity,” says Tsunoda when we ask him to go beyond the buzzwords and tell us what Kinect is really about.
“It’s easy and approachable but there’s scope, given Kinect’s detailed body-tracking and advanced functions, to offer games that have deeper skill and variety.
“The experiences we have on offer for launch are the tip of the iceberg. They are accessible but full of ‘the more you play, the better you get’ potential. Seeing other people playing live has something special to it too – that’s something we were very aware of when designing Kinect. It’s rewarding to be a participant, in that sense.”
This works on numerous levels, he adds. Kinect pushes performance off the screen and towards players. At trade shows that makes the device, often shown off in glass domes, a compelling spectacle – you’ve probably already seen videos or watched someone play it live.
Most importantly in the home, says Tsunoda, Kinect makes gaming experiences inclusive and sticky. Removing a controller has removed barriers both physical and psychological, he says.
“Even if you aren’t the primary player, in a room of ten people when two people are playing, everyone feels part of it. It allows people to express personality. That inherently lends itself to demos and makes it engaging to all, rather than leaving people just waiting for their turn.”
WAVING NOT DROWNING
But Kinect’s focus has so far been narrower than the top-line vision first unveiled at E3 in 2009. The line-up of games at launch are uber-casual. The bundled game, Kinect Adventures, comes straight from the Wii Sports playbook. Dance Central is tipped to be the key launch game, just months after Just Dance. And a huge chunk of that first wave aren’t really games as such, but fitness titles.
Tsunoda acknowledges the comparisons, but doesn’t really buy it – he says that first clutch of titles out next month are just a stepping stone to deeper interaction with games. The initial wave of games, yes, can all-too-easily be written off by doubters – but tough luck. Microsoft had to start somewhere.
Plus, Tsunoda is certain Kinect’s early titles offer both subtle and explicit improvements to anything you compare them to.
“It’s easy to sum these up as something that’s been done before – but they really are something different and something new.
“Take Kinectimals. The voice and human recognition is so unique.
“We actually built that technology originally so you could just stand in front of your Xbox and tell it what to do. But what we’ve found is that it gives deeper emotional integration.”
That’s not just another classic Microsoft Made-for-PowerPoint™ Soundbite, either, he insists.
In two or three years, Kinect games could be, amongst other things, emphasising ‘real world skills’: “Games that teach you something. We’re already seeing that in the launch games. Kinect Sports really does make you learn the sports skills. Dance Central has taught me about dance.
“Until now, all the time that we have spent playing video games only taught us how to play video games better – but here playing Xbox teaches you something.
“And then there’s really meaningful interaction with characters. We’re just starting to scratch the surface – that’s something which will become more sophisticated and robust over time.”
Right now, of course, the games aren’t like that – they make use of purer body-tracking, and vocal commands to allow the cooler stuff like telling your Xbox to play a movie instead of pressing a button.
But Tsunoda reckons that as Kinect is embedded in homes, the device will become a fixture, and an invisible one at that. The gimmick fades away.
He casually shrugs off mentions of moaning fanboys, or the more eloquent commentary that Kinect’s target market doesn’t match the one the 360 does have.
“Well, people on the internet are generally negative anyway so I try not to get too bent out of shape about that,” he jokes. “What interests me is that along the way in the journey of games ‘core gamers’ were labelled as people who only like shooters or violence. But what makes a core gamer, really, is someone who likes depth. Kinect allows that. No one really likes having to master the input device, those first few hours where you learn the muscle memory for the buttons. That’s a barrier we are removing straight away.”
POETRY IN MOTION
Although he may be in charge of the most hotly-tipped games device of 2010, Tsunoda is not the man to bug about allocations, ship figures or marketing plans: “As a creative person my focus has been on ensuring Kinect is first and foremost a lot of fun – as long as you’ve got that sorted, the other stuff tends to take care of itself.” Plus there are people more talented in sales, marketing, and PR to work the ‘other stuff’ (they’re featured over the next few pages, in fact).
Instead, Tsunoda is obsessed with the deeper detail of making big improvements to the way people play and experience interactivity.
“There are a host of untapped ideas that Kinect can bring forth. One real element of gamer language – be it people in the industry, the media or players – is talking about a game’s feel and experience. That’s something we hope people will get closer to with Kinect. It’s not just that what Kinect offers is new to games – it’s that what we are doing is not being done in any other entertainment medium with any kind of technology full stop. This isn’t just about games to release at Christmas 2010, it’s for the future of entertainment.”