The debut of the Wii U signals that the end of a (rather long) console generation will soon be upon us. And, while neither Sony or Microsoft has released firm details regarding what’s next, the end of a year seems like a good time for reflecting on what has been, and looking at what’s to come.
I’ve was recently given a unique opportunity to interview representatives from both Microsoft, as console maker and first-party publisher, and Majesco, a third party publisher; mainly to evaluate how the Xbox has performed as a console for sports games.
Kudo Tsunoda (General Manager of Microsoft Studios),Tony Chien (Majesco Senior Project Manager), and Jon Black (Majesco Producer) answer my questions, and help reflect on the relationship between sports gaming and the 360.
Caley Roark (OS): The 360 has become more than a gaming machine, incorporating all aspects of media (music, movies, social, etc.) into a true entertainment hub. Critics claim that the system has strayed too far from its gaming roots, often citing that it takes too many clicks to get to the "games" tab on the dashboard. What's the best thing the system still offers for dedicated gamers?
Kudo Tsunoda, General Manager of Microsoft Studios: One of the great things about Xbox is how much it has evolved since its launch. Usually, consoles are more stagnant within a generation. But Xbox has done a great job of continually innovating to add new experiences and all kinds of entertainment for Xbox owners. Be it music, TV, movies, Facebook or other great social features, the big entertainment experiences people want are experienced best on Xbox.
But we have never forgotten from where we came. Gaming, and core gaming in particular, continues to be a major place of focus with Xbox as the only place to get the top blockbuster games in the industry. Games like Halo 4 and Forza Horizon continue to transcend the industry as entertainment experiences that innovate in the gaming space like few other titles do. Arcade titles like Limbo, Trials, Toy Soldiers, and Minecraft are digitally distributed hits that millions of people enjoy. Plus, the top sports experiences, especially playing multiplayer on LIVE, are a cornerstone of Xbox gaming.
So while we are very proud of all the great entertainment additions to Xbox over the last several years, and plan more for the future, delighting gamers and innovating in the gaming space is always at the core of what we do
CR: What does the Xbox 360 offer sports gamers that they can't find elsewhere?
Tony Chien, Senior Product Manager, Majesco: The ability to get up and actually play sports using the Kinect technology. The full body motion tracking allows for REAL gameplay – which is captured in our tagline for NBA Baller Beats – REAL Ball, REAL Skills, Raise Your Game.
Kudo Tsunoda: This year Kinect [also] made a big play in simulated sports games, with Madden NFL 13, FIFA 13 and NBA 2K13, among others, all featuring “Better with Kinect” experiences. Developers are taking advantage of Kinect’s innovative technology to reinvent the way sports games are played, making them more meaningful, more immersive, more intuitive and, most importantly, more fun by adding new experiences that go beyond the physical controller.
Whether it’s calling audibles in “Madden NFL 13” as Joe Montana demonstrated on the E3 stage or using voice commands to change formations or initiate substitutions in FIFA 13 and NBA 2K13, with Kinect it has never been easier to jump in the game. Additionally, NBA Baller Beats adds a new level to the traditional sports gaming experience with the first ever full body motion-based NBA video game to incorporate real sporting equipment.
CR: What's been the biggest development, technically, that has enhanced the way sports games are developed?
Jon Black, Producer, Majesco Studios: [Again,] Xbox 360 offering the Kinect peripheral. The Kinect’s ability to provide accurate depth tracking of a basketball is the biggest development we have seen to-date. There is no other device out there that has similar capabilities and because of that NBA Baller Beats is a game that people need to play off the couch. Getting better at a sport from playing a video game is enabled by the Kinect technology.
CR: Has there been a sports game that you feel best represents what the platform is currently capable of?
Kudo Tsunoda: Sports games were one of the main reasons I started playing video games to begin with. Throughout my life, I have played almost every football, American football, basketball, hockey, baseball, boxing, and golf game ever made. And, most often, my favorite sports game is whichever one I am having the most intense multiplayer battles with at the time.
Overall, one of my favorite sports games is FIFA 13. The game does an awesome job at staying true to the sport while still making it fun! Between the First Touch Controls and the Kinect voice integration, FIFA 13 is an all-around blast. That being said, it is hard to say any sports game on the platform is better than Fight Night Round 3. Although it was made years ago, it still is the standout sports title in my opinion, and whoever worked on that game is a true visionary genius.
CR: Specifically at Majesco?
Tony Chien: NBA Baller Beats is a great example of an innovative sports game that capitalizes on the Kinect technology in an unprecedented manner. Given the advancements of the Kinect’s capabilities and HB Studio’s proprietary engine, we were able to get the Kinect to track an object other than the body for the first time.
CR: You have all pointed out that Kinect has been an important aspect of sports gaming on the 360. Mr. Tsunoda further points out that the annual sports titles (Madden, Fifa, NBA 2K) have started incorporating the voice-recognition aspect of the device.
However, we've also seen a lot of "mini-game collections" and kid-focused titles make use of the technology. In general, how do you view the relationship between the sports genre and Kinect technology?
Kudo Tsunoda: Sports has always been one of the genres that pushed the gaming industry forward with innovations like LIVE multiplayer, graphics, sophisticated AI, and some of the best controls. Now, with Kinect, we have the unique ability to deliver things that are a natural part of sports. Things like physical movement and voice commands are critical part of real life sports experiences so it makes sense that sports games are using Kinect to introduce new features in these areas.
Jon Black: The Kinect technology and advancements we have seen with the peripheral have opened the door to playing sports video games in an entirely new way. The sports genre has been reinvigorated with the introduction of Kinect and redefined with the launch of NBA Baller Beats because it is the first game that requires the Kinect to track a ball. We took sports gaming as a genre to a whole new level by enabling players to dribble a real basketball so there is no pretend dribbling or hand motioning. You use a real ball to develop real skills, picking up a real world skill of playing basketball.
CR: Do you think the Kinect’s potential has been maximized at this point?
Tony Chien: While we have raised the bar with introducing NBA Baller Beats taking full advantage of what the Kinect technology can offer, I believe there is still more we can do. As Majesco continues to grow and develop new and innovative games we expect Kinect will also be improving and growing into its full potential whereby we can jointly create new and groundbreaking games as we have with NBA Baller Beats. Zumba Fitness is another sports-like (fitness) title we publish using the Kinect technology, and the innovation we bring to the next game in the franchise will be surprising!
Kudo Tsunoda: We are still very early in the lifecycle of Kinect and we haven’t come close to maximizing its potential. We continue to see cool, new uses of Kinect from the game industry year after year and with Kinect for Windows, we’re seeing all new types of people become content creators. The variety and innovation happening is amazing and overall, Kinect is still in its early days and I can’t wait to see its full potential realized in the years to come.
CR: From your perspectives, as a Microsoft executive and third-party publisher, what does the future hold for sports gaming in general, as well as on any future Microsoft platforms?
Kudo Tsunoda: We are at an interesting point in the evolution of sports gaming, blurring the lines between real sports and simulated sports games. While this has always been true on the visuals side – teams do a great job making the games look real -- with new forms of controls like Kinect, we have started to change the way games feel allowing us to control games in new and unique ways that are more immersive, more intuitive and more real. In the future, I believe we will get to a point where playing simulated sports games will allow us to teach people real world skills they can easily transfer to the stadium, arena or field.
Tony Chien: The sky’s the limit. We have seen over many years how sports gaming has evolved. From basic button mashing to voice recognition to motion-tracking the sports genre continues to grow and move forward concurrently with advancements in technology. Wherever the next hardware innovation comes from we’ll be there right alongside to take advantage.
CR: Do you have any favorite sports games, of this or any gaming generation?
Kudo Tsunoda: Great question, I have many favorites from Tecmo Bowl to PGA Tour Golf to Lakers vs. Celtics with the Tommy Chambers double pump slam which was simply glorious. NHL ’93 – I used to play with the Penguins. I met Mario Lemieux once in real life and I excitedly blurted out how awesome he was in NHL ’93. He pointed out that he was awesome in real life. Good point Mr. Lemieux.
CR: Awesome story about an awesome athlete, both physically and virtually. What can developers learn from any of these titles?
Kudo Tsunoda: For all of these titles there is a great mix of staying true to the sport and keeping the game fun. Innovative controls mixed with intelligent AI makes the games enjoyable in single player, while great multiplayer keeps fans coming back all year.
CR: Favorite game at Majesco?
Tony Chien: NBA Baller Beats!
CR: I reviewed this title, and felt it had a lot of potential, both as a game...and to destroy my living room! Regardless, it was very innovative. What you do you think a future developer can learn from Baller Beats?
Jon Black: Future developers can learn that if you have a concept that is out-of-the box and seemingly impossible to bring to life, don’t give up! NBA Baller Beats was a concept that took a while to get off the ground because of various obstacles but once we had the right developer, tools and Kinect technology in place we were able to produce an extremely innovative game that gives people a brand new way to experience basketball and motion-based gaming.
CR: Mr. Tsunoda, is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers (mainly sports-focused gamers) regarding the development and future of sports games on Microsoft platforms?
Kudo Tsunoda: It looks like we have come full circle. As I said earlier, sports video games are instrumental to what we are doing with Xbox 360. And this will continue. But there is so much more available to sports gamers and fans to enjoy on our console. MLB.TV, UFC, and ESPN are all making games out of watching sports. It is not just playing sports games, but watching sports too that makes Xbox 360 the daily hub for any true sports fan.
CR: Thanks to all of you for your comments and perspectives from “inside” the gaming industry.
Obviously, the Kinect is a focal point of many of their responses. But, upon my own reflection, I think this will be the lasting contribution from this generation’s Microsoft console. Regardless of your opinion of the Kinect--which, if we are being honest, has had its share of successes and failures--it is a revolutionary piece of hardware. When it works correctly, it is mind-blowing.
Calling subs in NBA 2K13 is practical and intuitive. Baller Beats, despite needing just the right environment, does work and represents a rare game that actually develops a real world skill. My four-year old daughter and I have bonded over Disneyland Adventures on numerous occasions, whereas a controller-based game might be otherwise daunting.
Moving forward, I hope to see more innovation out of non-Kinect titles, or at least the aspects that don’t involve the technology directly. I’ve been a little disappointed in the up-and-down nature of single player franchise modes, online development, and broadcast technology. Not that they’ve been bad, per se; I just thought we’d be further along than this. Still, this generation and the 360 have given us great titles, including the aforementioned Forza, EA boxing, and NBA 2K series.
OS Readers: what’s the biggest contribution the Xbox 360 has delivered to the sports game landscape?