Dance Central designer knows that Kinect has issues, but they can be built around.
Ryan Challinor of Harmonix is no stranger to Kinect game design. He's been deeply involved since the days of Dance Central, a launch title for the platform. Understanding the limitations of the device is key, he says, to creating a good Kinect game. Without that basic level of knowledge, a designer's liable to waste a lot of time trying experiments that were never going to work, and that can kill a title's chances.
Latency is, of course, the show-stopper. A certain degree of latency is inevitable, even if it can only be measured in milliseconds. Rather than somehow bludgeon your way through that design issue, Challinor recommends hiding the problem, as he is doing with Dance Central 3 by pulsing images over the on-screen action in time with the beat. "That helps reinforce the beat a bit and hide the latency," he says, "so that's been successful for us."
By all means show feedback, since that links the player emotionally with the on-screen action. But Challinor believes that what you mustn't do is simulate the button presses that the player may have become used to. In a sense it's the latency problem again in a different context; the player will look for an immediate reaction to his action - the button press - and he won't get it. "It's like once you've done the thing," Challinor says, "you don't get the immediate feedback that you're connected with what's happening." Instead, when the action is initiated the game should generate a canned animation to give an on-screen response to the player. It's the problem with a one-to-one map that isn't really one-to-one; there needs to be a workaround, and canned animation is it. "That's a tough balance. I think [animation is] a successful approach, though."
That's why Dance Central works the way it does. Music provides the beat, which can then be used to springboard the pulsing images needed to hide latency issues. Animation rather than a one-to-one map does the rest. This does suggest that there are certain kinds of game styles that are never going to work with Kinect. "If you wanted to have shooting," he said, "you can't really pull a trigger with Kinect. Those kind of discreet actions, you have that latency there. But like if when your hand is held up, every beat it fires, then that is something that makes a lot of sense."
Ultimately the only way to really make this work is to abandon what might be considered traditional design, and embrace the quirks that come with Kinect. As Challinor describes it, "you can't really take a game and then put Kinect onto it. You need to start from the simplest interaction, and then build a game on top of this interaction that works. Sort of bottom-up design."
Dance Central 3, one of Challinor's latest Harmonix creations, is due out this fall.