An expert review: the user experience of Kinect games

With Christmas on the way & Xbox Kinect games expected to be particularly good sellers, I thought it would be perfect timing to share some findings and thoughts on the  latest game releases for the Kinect as seen at Eurogamer Expo.

What’s so interesting about the Kinect anyway?

Requiring no controller at all, the Microsoft Kinectallows players to interact with the system by moving their body and speaking. This is – or was on its release last year – an entirely new interaction style for the majority of its audience (while there had been gesture-based interaction systems available before, there had never been one made available to the mass-market audience).

A new interaction means new design principles need to be developed, for example how do you select? How do you cancel? Without these design principles every time someone approaches a game for the first time they have to spend time learning how to interact with it – no matter how many other Kinect games they’ve played previously. Common design principles are an essential factor for a great user experience… And unfortunately when the Kinect was first release this was very much a work in progress in the launch titles.

This was understandable. Each game developed for the Kinect release was developed in secrecy and isolation, meaning each game used a different interaction method for common interaction controls – there was no uniformity, no clear design principles.

So, for many people starting up a Kinect for the first time involved a large amount of waving their arms, trying to work out how to interact with the system. It’s now over a year since its release, and a new wave of Kinect games has arrived (including some sequels), so we have done a quick investigation to see if design norms have been established to improve the user experience of Kinect games, and identify which of the latest releases have the best level of interaction and player experience.

At Eurogamer Expo we had the perfect opportunity to find out, observing people trying out the next wave of Kinect games, many interacting with the Kinect for the first time. Have the developers and publishers learnt from each other and started to settle on some standard controls and interactions? We took up position, and started taking notes.

It should be noted that this analysis was carried out at a games exhibition. In no way can this be counted as a thorough user experience study, for example we were unaware which of the players had interacted with a Kinect system previously, or how much they played normally. Also, the noise of the exhibition meant that all sound – instructions and feedback sound effects were lost. However we can safely say that in a game exhibition you should expect to encounter more people who are proficient gamers than the norm and the majority of games have since been playtested by our games experts and the results are very interesting.

So, to the Games!

We chose a variety of Kinect games to observe players interacting with:

Gunstringer

This was a very interesting game, with a very different aesthetic from the norm. The controls are very unusual (one hand is used for movement, the other for shooting), and it does an OK job introducing these at the start of the game.

It works through introducing each of the key interactions one at a time. However we saw several players not really paying enough attention to the on-screen instructions (the text was very small and placed in the corner). For example many players believed that in order to make their on-screen avatar jump they had to themselves… and were able to ‘pass’ the tutorial by doing so. This meant upon reaching the game proper they were baffled by what they perceive as a lack of responsiveness when they jumped, but their avatar refused to do so. This was initially not a problem, but as the game became more complex introducing more tasks and actions, jumping moved too many other body parts that were required for other interactions.

At various points in the game the control scheme changes, for instance introducing 2 handed shooting, and there simply wasn’t enough feedback to inform players of this change. We observed several players struggling to get their avatar to perform one action when they were being asked to perform a different one altogether.

There’s also a common usability issue that other games have already solved – cut scenes that cannot be skipped or paused. I must admit to being surprised such simple user experience issues exist with this generation of games. Its menu controls are fairly effective though – pointing and holding over whatever selection is required. This appeared to be the default interaction expected by many of the players approaching all the games for the first time, so it makes sense to use this where possible.

Dance Central 2

Dance Central 2 has a strong advantage over many of the others at the show, being a follow up to arguably the most successful launch game. This meant the interactions were already know by many of the players when they approached the game.

However in spite of this there are still some issues. As many of the other games available use a ‘pointing’ method to make selections in menus this is many players assumption when playing this game. Several players waited patiently with their hand hovering over their preferred selection, to no effect.

The game uses a hover-to-highlight and swipe-to-select approach, with the hand used being context sensitive (the left hand is used to return to a previous menu, the right to continue to the next).This approach is foreign to new players, meaning several struggled to navigate at first. Having said this many players were able to navigate quickly and painlessly (we assume they may have owned the previous game, and so their skill has carried over to the sequel). However,  even those evidently confident with the swiping motion confronted selection issues as the steady horizontal motion required a very steady and accurate motion which many found difficult to do.

new feature in the game is the two-player concurrent play… and it needs work. We observed two players who attempted to start a game, only for the system tracking to lose one of the players just before the game commenced. Without realising they proceeded to play single player, unaware there was a problem. Other backing dancers in the scene on screen masked the fact that only one player was being tracked. While this didn’t stop them playing, they were obviously put out at the end when they realised only one player had been tracked. A message was displayed on-screen encouraging the second player to join (with instructions on how to do so) but the instructions were missed by the players, as it was placed at the top of the screen away from the players’ focus of attention.

Kinect Sports Season 2

Kinect Sports Season 2 is a sequel to another launch title, offering a variety of sports mini-games (although we were only able to observe people playing tennis and golf).

The interaction within menus was fairly simple – point and hold over the relevant item. Everyone was able to make their selection with minimal “learning” time required. However, there were incidents of menu items not registering a selection in spite of the player hovering their hand over the relevant item for the correct amount of time.

Issues did start to appear if more than one person attempted to interact with the menu at any one time. The system seemed to struggle, switching control back and forth between the players, meaning they had difficulty selecting anything. Quick disclaimer – This issue may have been due the environmental conditions of the show, however no other game suffered this.

The interactions within the sports themselves were immediately picked up. Players simply knew how and when to swing their arms to play tennis or golf. This partly explains the success of sports games using motion controls – there’s nothing new to learn, just do what feels natural.

One issue is the apparent lack of finesse that’s been put into the game – crowds and scene setting graphics and backgrounds are still and lifeless, it feels like it’s been rushed out to release in time for Christmas. It all undermines the play experience, when everything else is there, which is disappointing.

Rise of Nightmares

This was probably the most ambitious game we saw at the show. It was a first-person horror survival/adventure game, bravely relying entirely on the Kinect. A great idea for moving Kinect games forward into another market  segment and upped the bar of what play experiences had been attempted on the Kinect. From player observation at the show it looked poorly executed and it needed a lot of work.

The game didn’t introduce its controls well, with text heavy introduction screens. Players moved by leaning (as though on a Segway), and turning to each side. The movement controls resulted in several people referring to their avatar as more like a “tank” then a person and when leaning forward didn’t result in the desired forward movement fast enough, players were constantly drifting too close to the sensor.

There were also other interactions required in the game (such as attack, pick up and open door)however these were context sensitive, and the difference between an ‘open door’ and ‘attack’ command was dependant on the avatar being in ‘interact’ mode, activated when the avatar got close enough to (and faced) an object they were able to interact with – which turned out to be a bit too complex. We observed several players ineffectually punching at a door because they had not got close enough, or hadn’t lined themselves up correctly. The feedback appeared clear, so we can only assume the tutorial had failed to introduce this concept properly, or the players had walked up to the game after the tutorial, or the required level of precision was just too difficult to implement for the Kinect at the moment.

Menu interaction relied on presenting three options at a time, and the player making a selection whether they hold their arm forward, left or right. This seemed to work well, but isn’t very scalable for the developers, although that didn’t effect the player (not many games will be able to get away with only offering three options at any one time in a menu). I think most damningly there were staff present at the stand to explain to new players the controls – and they appeared very busy!

However, since play testing the game myself recently I can say that although it takes a bit of time to get to grips with the controls, when you get there the interaction is relatively intuitive and the game itself makes you want to keep playing due to its first person perspective. The forward motion is achieved by putting a foot forward, and when interaction is required the same hover over to select norm has been used by the developers. To interact requires a further action from the player, for instance, to duck under a table you have to first hover and select the ‘interact with (hand) symbol and then physically duck down.There is a lack of instruction for the latter physical aspect but after some trial and error this becomes normal and you interact the way you would in real life.

So, in conclusion I am more impressed having spent some time learning the interactions, or perhaps the right way to put it is learning to act normal, not seek to be told what to do but to try and act how I would in real life. I expect to see more of this type of game on the market soon, and as a hint don’t play this game if you don’t like gore and I suggest not putting it on No Mercy setting first time round!

Fruit Ninja

A fruit slicing game, the user is required to slice fruits that fly up from the bottom of the screen (there are other complexities, but that’s the basics).

In many ways, this was the best game of the lot. The designers seemed aware of the limitations of the Kinect system, and have created a game to fit perfectly within this.It’s surprisingly engaging – we saw many people start by playing a little awkwardly, with small swipes and awkward expressions, before finishing with flying arms and flushed faces.

The players see their silhouettes on screen, so they can see instantly if the Kinect loses track of them. Tracking had a small delay, but players appeared to become accustomed very quickly, and thegame was surprisingly accurate.

Menu navigation was quick and efficient. A real positive was taking the action used in the game (slicing fruit) and applying it to the menu systems (slice to select). However as this differs from the norm, there were incidents of players holding their hand over the preferred selection. The game could have potentially supported both interaction styles but there were clear diagrammatic instructions that demonstrated what action was required by the player to continue. There were also points when the desired menu option was too far away from the user, forcing them to move, which is a flaw most game developers have eradicated. It also seemed very sensitive, meaning there was a couple of incidents of accidental selection.

Conclusion – what have we learnt and which is the best?

There are still no common design patterns. With no design patterns developers must remain aware that players will approach their game with no idea how to interact, and design around this.

However these design patterns may have started to evolve – there are common patterns developing across games. The most obvious of these being the hover-to-select menu system, used by 2 of the 5 games. Tellingly, this was the interaction first tried by many players when they first approached each game.

There are two overarching themes found in the issues encountered within each game – the need for clearer feedback and to introduce the controls more clearly (better tutorials). Introducing the controls of each game need to be clearer. Often currently they are heavily reliant on text. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from hundreds of hours of usability testing and user research is that people don’t read! Feedback is an issue encountered in almost every game (let alone Kinect games). Often the feedback is on the screen, but not placed in an effective location or presented effectively.

Designers and developers often display a lack of understanding around people’s abilities with regards to perception and attention. Designers must also take into account people’s awareness and visual perception when developing both feedback and introducing the controls in the first place.

As to which game is best? I think it depends on your personal requirements for games, which is a bit of a ‘sit on the fence’ reply. Fruit ninja and Dance Central 2 were the most popular of the games we tested at Eurogamer Expo and have been very well designed to utilise the natural behaviour of the game player, this was true despite the fact that neither of them use the design norm for selection. For Dance Central 2 this does cause issues as the swiping action isn’t well executed by many players but for Fruit Ninja, as it utilised the movement required during the game was still very natural, it isn’t a problem to go against the developing norm. Also the graphics and backgrounds for both of these games were sharp and detailed, a key to ensuring an great user experience. This detail is where Kinect sports season 2 fell down and fell away from the leading games.

If you’re looking for something a bit more challenging interaction wise, then Gunstringer or Rise of Nightmares are great to get stuck into, the first due to it’s ‘rub tummy while pat head controls’ and the second due to it’s requirement to think, move and interact in a natural manner.

What do you think? Any of the above on your Christmas wish list? Let us know in the comments below!

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