Kinect continues to shape sports gaming

The Xbox Kinect's sensor and microphone has enhanced the way people play sports games. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Whether you’re dribbling a basketball in your living room to the sounds of Queen, breaking a good sweat thanks to certified Nike trainers, or getting a technical foul for swearing at virtual refs, there’s no doubt that 2012’s slew of sports titles have been hugely influenced by the Microsoft Kinect.

So much for Kinect simply being Microsoft’s answer to Wii Sports. Kinect is more than a one-game superstar, as sports publishers like EA and 2K have moved beyond simply giving their games motion controls, innovating with voice commands to call audibles and hot routes, and even arguing with officials who make a bad call.

But what’s next in the world of Kinect and sports gaming? I had the chance to sit down recently with Kudo Tsunoda, the man behind Microsoft’s motion (and the former creative mind behind the “Fight Night” franchise), to get his thoughts on the past, present, and future of his controller-free gadget.

ESPN Playbook: When you were first developing Kinect, how did you see it influencing the world of sports video games? Were you aiming to simply one-up the Wii, or were you after something a lot bigger?

Kudo Tsunoda: If you look at the sports games I worked on before Kinect, all of them had an element of trying to transfer our natural body motions while playing sports into some kind of intuitive control scheme that feels more realistic to how the sport is actually played. If you look at the “Fight Night” games, that’s really what we tried to do when we used the analog sticks to control the boxer’s fists. We wanted to give you that realistic feeling gameplay in order to make you feel more like you were a part of the sport as opposed to just playing the sport. So from the early days of Kinect, that’s really what we wanted to do. We were thinking of ways sports gaming could evolve. You see the great motion controls in games like “Tiger Woods,” and now with the voice controls in “Madden,” “FIFA,” and “NBA 2K13,” we’re seeing how you can get closer to the various sports than you could with just a controller. We’re trying to make sports games not only feel fun, but feel authentic to the sport.

Are you surprised at all that it’s not the motion controls, but the voice commands that have been the most innovative in terms of the hardcore sports games on the 360?

So much has been surprising in the way developers and different types of creators are using Kinect to really build new types of experiences. So it’s surprising to some degree, but not surprising at the same time because that’s what the athletes are doing in the real game, so the voice commands are adding another layer with Kinect that you weren’t having before. Just like with any new technology, I think that as developers get more time with the tech, they can figure out the best way to use it for their customers, and that’s just what you’re seeing in sports games. Developers are using Kinect to build things that are authentic and true to the experiences they’re trying to build.

It’s pretty crazy to get a technical foul in “NBA 2K13” for swearing at your TV. I have to watch my mouth.

Obviously I play a lot of the games with Kinect, but a lot of times, things that are made by non-Microsoft companies, it’s not like they’re giving me their exact designs or anything like that. So it’s funny because I totally got T’d up for swearing in “NBA 2K13” as well. This is a super delightful and surprising way to incorporate the voice stuff. It’s not just about calling plays or calling audibles in “Madden,” but using the Kinect in other surprising and fun ways. When you get surprised by the technology reacting to you, when you do something natural and the technology reacts to you like they would in the real sport, that’s when you know you have something special.

Are there areas with Kinect that you see as underdeveloped or underutilized in sports gaming?

I do think it will be interesting, not just in sports, but one of the places you’re starting to see Kinect used a lot more is being able to do things that teach people real-world skills. It’s not just learning how to get better at playing the game, but the game actually helping you learn how to do things better in real life. I know from my own experiences from playing “Dance Central,” it doesn’t teach you how to dance, it’s just a fun dancing game, but through playing that game, I got to become a much better dancer, and I do think that’s one of the areas where you’re starting to see Kinect being used in a cool way. You’re starting to have experiences based on fun, but they’re teaching you things as well. That’s something unique and cool about the Kinect technology, and you’re just starting to see it applied to the sports genre. Games like “NBA Baller Beats,” where you’re actually using a real basketball in the game, I think that’s something you’ll start seeing more of as people start to figure out how to use Kinect to teach people these real-world sporting skills.

“Nike+ Kinect Training” is another game that’s really amazing. The level of fidelity that they have in seeing the types of motion you’re using and being able to detect when you’re doing exercises or not is just like the real Nike trainer. They’re able to customize a workout based on specific goals of what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s not just about the motions, but how they use your routines to really build a program to get you into athlete shape that is really quite amazing.

I was playing “NBA Baller Beats” the other day, lost my dribble, and came within inches of taking out a lamp. What’s the funniest thing you’ve heard someone do by accident while playing a Kinect game?

I think the funniest stuff is the people who don’t know what Kinect is all about and then they see someone playing it. If you don’t understand what Kinect is, and then you’re watching someone take a golf swing in their living room or working out with the “Nike+ Kinect Training,” that’s what’s really funny to me, listening to people try and describe Kinect when they don’t really know what Kinect is. You go from people watching someone play and thinking that something really bizarre is going on to thinking it’s really cool and wanting to jump in and play it themselves. It’s really awesome once they find out what it is to see how easy it is for them to jump in and have fun.

Is there anything about Kinect and the way the games play that still bother you or that you haven’t gotten just right? Any pet peeves about Kinect?

[laughs] Most of the time when you work on games, you spec something out in the beginning that you really want, but you end up cutting some stuff out that ends up in the next version. With the Kinect, we got to put almost everything we wanted in it when it shipped. When we first started talking about Kinect and showing Kinect, we had the full-body controls and the voice stuff and the great identity stuff, but we also showed the object scanning. We had a skateboard that you could scan in and play with during that very first Kinect video, and I think out of everything we showed in that first video, it’s the object scanning part that we didn’t get to with that shipped version. It just kind of goes to show the potential of Kinect and how much stuff we’ve been able to add purely through software without any hardware upgrades. The object scanning stuff, finger tracking, being seated while playing, those are all things we’ve been able to add, and even now, you have the Kinect for Windows stuff. So there’s always something you’re not able to include when you’re shipping, but the great thing about Kinect is how much we were able to update all through software, giving people these extra capabilities without having to buy an extra piece of software.

Everybody’s hyped for the Xbox 720, or whatever you guys are going to call the next Xbox console. How do you see Kinect continuing to evolve with the new hardware?

Obviously, we haven’t announced anything about any kind of next-gen systems or anything, so I don’t really have too much to say about that in particular, but the cool thing about Kinect is, kind of like Xbox Live, it’s just one of those things that are now part of the Xbox platform. You can see, especially how Xbox Live has evolved from the very early days to what we have now, and I do think that’s the right way of thinking about Kinect as well. It’s a good part of our platform and it will definitely be they type of thing that will evolve over time. Like I said before, sometimes that will be through hardware, but a lot of the times it will be through stuff we can do just by adding features through software.

Is there a sport or a sports game that you’d like to see more Kinect features be added to? What’s the one sport that you think could really benefit from Kinect controls?

This is totally a sports prejudice on my part, because while I’m into football and basketball and golf, one of my favorite sports I’ve always played as a kid was baseball, so it will be interesting to see where we could get some really good baseball implementations going. We’ve seen what we could do with football, basketball, and golf, but to see it expand to a sport that I used to play a lot as a kid would be fun. The more people you can get playing around with the tech, the more ways they’re figuring out how to work it into their experiences to make it true and authentic to the sport.

The MLB license is up for grabs. Who do you need to talk to at Microsoft to sign the deal?

[laughs] I’ll see if I can get on that one.