Ubisoft's second wave of Kinect games: More casual, mainstream experiences

This time last year, we all waited with bated breath for the launch of Microsoft's Kinect, a new peripheral for the Xbox 360 that promised to turn you into the controller. Some of us feared a freezing in Carbonite like Han Solo, only to be melted down into our core components to be physically constructed into plastic controllers. The more sane anticipated good times flailing and jumping around in front of the TV.

Ubisoft expected a hit and it was dead-on. Microsoft ended up selling 10 million Kinects fairly quickly and Ubisoft established itself as the top third-party publisher on Kinect. As you can imagine, this made senior VP of sales and marketing at Ubisoft, Tony Key, very happy.

Nearly a year later, Ubisoft is preparing nine new Kinect titles. The focus this time around is catering to the mainstream audience Ubisoft sees as Kinect's base -- a variety of games that will leverage brands and experiences Ubisoft sees as enjoyable for just about everyone.

"We got in early, we took our best shot with those games at the time and they sold well -- we were the number one third-party publisher," said Key. "But what we learned from that was that there's so much more that we can do and so many more improvements that can be done. Some of these games are iterations from last year and technology iterations, so there are sequels out here, and then there are new experiences, but all of them are benefiting from what we learned by launching early. If you don't launch early, then you don't learn what the consumer thinks of your game. And consumer feedback is a huge part of our developmental strategy nowadays."

On-hand at the Ubisoft event were nine different titles with Kinect functionality: Hole in the Wall, Motion Sports: Adrenaline, The Adventures of Tintin, Rabbids: Alive and Kicking, Powerup Heroes, Just Dance 3, The Black Eyed Peas Experience and Your Shape 2012. In the case of your Shape 2012, Key explained that having that first iteration really helped to create what he feels is a better game and worthy successor. "If we had been doing this for the first time now, it wouldn't be as good."

Arguably the only hardcore experience coming from Ubisoft is Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, which leverages Kinect's tracking and voice recognition to allow gamers to customize and interact with their guns. Saying things like "optimize for damage" and "optimize for range" is available to those who don't necessarily want to customize every single minute aspect of their firearm. Additionally, a shooting range component is available to test the guns using Kinect gestures -- immediately, with no loading. While a nice addition to the game, I can see the novelty wearing thin.

One of the more interesting uses of Kinect comes from Just Dance 3, which has a kind of record-it mode called "Just Create," where you can dance along to a song, set moves, and then have a friend jump in front of Kinect (offline or online) and try to copy your dance. This relies entirely on the silhouette tech Ubisoft developed for Kinect, first showcased in Your Shape: Fitness Evolved. To see it in action is pretty neat, but the downside is having to listen to the same song twice in a row, once when you "record it" and again when your friend tries to mimic your dance.

Surprisingly, the most fun I had at the event was with PowerUp Heroes, a fighting game that relies entirely on Kinect. While not the most technical fighter, there's a rewarding combo system at work in which you must find the appropriate moves to chain together. Not every move can be used in a chain, so you try to figure out which ones work best, all the while dodging your enemy's attacks. It was odd that I found a game targeting pre-teens so much fun, but there I was, playing the single-player and even taking on producer Pierre Leroux in a one-on-one match. He destroyed me pretty quickly, but I had a blast trying out different suits -- including a delightful Rabbid suit that could spawn the cute little dummies at will.

"We knew this year we would have to do even more, even better games and that's what our goal is," said Key. "We have many more in number than we did last year and all of them are better games than we did last year." While I admit Key has a right to his opinions, I'd have to say some of the games really were a bit hollow -- on Kinect, at least.

Tintin had a handful of different Kinect mini-game segments that only lasted a few minutes, including a flying-through-rings bit and some sidecar antics where I would have to aim and fire a slingshot at enemies, or simply steer the motorcycle by acting as if I was holding onto some handlebars. Rabbids: Alive and Kicking was simply a minigame collection -- some included licking a plate clean, dodging a spotlight searching for your player's silhouette in a darkened room, a Lemmings-like minigame where you have to use your arms and legs to touch switches that raise platforms so the Rabbids can move along, and one notably buggy game where two people have to saw blocks as if the Rabbids were in a magician's show. MotionSports: Adrenaline is an extreme-themed version of the previous MotionSports game, and Hole in the Wall is about conforming your shape to one presented on the screen.

Even though some of these experiences looked hollow at first glance, Ubisoft's comfort level with the Kinect technology is increasing. With its own proprietary silhouette tech and familiarity with the device, Ubisoft is aiming to continue to be the biggest third-party developer on the platform and, in sheer quantity of titles alone, I don't doubt the company will succeed.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.