As he started work for the now legendary Stamper brothers back in 1994, audio director and composer Robin Beanland may have looked forward expectantly to future hardware innovation in the years ahead. But I bet he didn’t see Kinect for Xbox 360 coming.
Anyone who has nearly died laughing – breathless and exhausted – having spent an hour jumping around and waving at their telly knows Kinect can be big fun. Sleek and high-tech, it has become the fastest selling consumer electronics product in history.
But the prototype Beanland first encountered was not something you’d particularly want atop your posh flat-screen.
“In January 2009, like all very early prototypes, the Kinect sensor – or ‘Project Natal’ as it was then known – felt kind of knocked together,” he reveals. “Plus there were niggles with the tracking software not seeing you properly or becoming confused if someone stood next to you. I was half-bemused, half-excited – and it seemed a tall order to get something going on it in time for launch. But with every iteration you could see it all crystallising towards its current impressive capability and good looks.”
MAKING A KINECTION
Both Beanland and the game team soon realised that in the development of Kinect Sports, sound was going to be a hugely important tool in the title’s game-play armoury. With no button-press feedback, sound would play a crucial role in notionally linking the player ‘physically’ to the onscreen action – wave your hand to hit a table tennis ball with a virtual bat, the exact sound and timing of its triggering is super-important to immerse and ‘connect’ you to the game.
“Other than visuals, the only feedback you’ve got to indicate you’ve made contact with the ball is audio,” explains Beanland. “That meant we needed to give the gameplay software guys sound assets to work with very early in development so they could tweak/iterate until the game felt right. Then we started looking at discreet sub-woofer effects to link you with the action and immerse you further. Like in the footy, for example. If you hoof the ball or the ball ‘hits’ you, we’ll trigger an LFE specific effect – something you feel.”
Menu sounds required careful thought, too. When the player makes a selection, they have to hold their hand in the correct position long enough for the game to realise their intention and then provide confirmation. Audio is an important part of the feedback – both the build-up and conclusion sounds. Getting it right entailed numerous iterations involving testing aplenty to continuously judge intuitiveness and usability for the casual player.
“Our aim was to make players feel like they are really immersed. The overall tone was for everything to be positive and family-friendly. So rather than nasty booing if you miss, you’ll hear a groan of empathetic disappointment followed by shouts of encouragement.”
“Say if you’re bowling, the first time you get a strike, the crowd obviously reacts with cheering. As you go for your second attempt they’ll then anticipate it with a build-up – a rising ‘oooooohhhhhhh’. If you fail, they’ll go ‘awwwwhhhhhh’, then cheer you, and the excitement level will crank up another notch. We have crowd beds – different intensities on a slider allowing us to go up and down seamlessly.”
Two other audio factors serve to spice up the experience. First is famed X Factor voice over artist Peter Dickson adding some serious pizzazz as the main host. And secondly, there’s an interesting and succinct use of licensed music.
“We have around 30 licensed tracks interpolated throughout Kinect Sports, but we only use short 15-to-30 second stings from them,” confirms Beanland.
“These are thrown in when you do something special, like scoring a goal in football or serving an ace in table tennis. We tried this early on and it really seemed to hit the nail on the head. Being rewarded with a section from ‘Good Times’ by Chic or ‘Can’t Touch This’ by MC Hammer puts a smile on your face.”
Meanwhile, Kinect Sports’ audio is powered by Wwise technology, as Beanland explains: “We changed from Xact for this project. We like the Wwise interactive music functionality and the real-time parameter stuff puts a lot of control back in our sound designers’ hands as opposed to having to rely on a software guy. That’s what we like.”