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Johnny Lee: We may see head tracking from Sony or Microsoft first


NWF: Speaking of what the companies are doing and/or not doing, there was some discussion that EA was going to include your head tracking in BOOM BLOX, and then suddenly it was announced that head tracking was no longer going to be available as the discussed easter egg. We're pretty interested in what happened there, if you can discuss it at all.

JL: I was a little disappointed to hear about that. I have been in touch with Louis Castle, who was involved in that decision, and it's actually a pretty complicated decision, and I don't know if I'm at liberty to explain exactly why, but I understand why they decided to take it out. Rest assured that I know EA is still interested in including it, and so are several other companies, so even if it doesn't come out next month, it will probably be integrated into games within the next year.

NWF: So you do think we'll see it in this generation?

JL: I think so. If Nintendo doesn't do it, I'm fairly sure that Sony and Microsoft may be interested in doing something similar. It's simply ... the kind of visual experience that head tracking provides is simply an evolutionary step in display technology and interactive displays, and it would be foolish not to embrace that progress in technology. It's not so much a feature, it's just a technological step forward, similar to 3D TV, that will eventually come. Nintendo may or may not decide that this is an okay idea, but even if they don't, it will come in some other form from some other provider.

[NWF note: Sony, in fact, has a head tracking demo of their own]

NWF: You know, that's interesting, because there's a lot of discussion any time we see another of your projects. Nintendo fans just blow up with excitement, because what you're doing with the Wii remote is so much more interesting than what a lot of actual Wii games have done with the motion controls. Why do you think that is?

JL: Well, I don't have any rules to conform to. In truth, when choosing to make something for a game console, a developer has to sign a lot of agreements and play within a very well-defined space that determines what they can and cannot do. I have been talking to some Wii game developers and they've said that ... if a game requires too much motion or requires ... they had some word for it, but essentially, if it requires too much movement on the player's part, Nintendo asks them to pull it. There are all these internal guidelines they have to conform to that prevent them from doing anything too -- I hate using the term "outside the box," but this is a box that has been defined by Nintendo and they literally can't step out of it. The video game industry is also extremely market data driven, which is unfortunate. The investment levels keep going up and up, and the certainty of return keeps going down, and as a result, marketing has more control over development. And if marketing says something isn't going to sell, or if marketing has no data on it, so if something is too radical or if it's a new IP with a new story or new characters, and it's untested, marketing tags it as high risk. If there are safer, but more boring [laughs], the decision tends to be to make the more boring title, which is unfortunate. That's actually why I decided not to work at any game companies specifically, like Electronic Arts or Ubisoft, because my ideas would have likely been squashed quickly by marketing.

NWF: Do you think those same marketing people, or maybe anyone at these companies, is really paying attention to the reaction your projects are getting? Obviously somebody is listening, because they're contacting you, but do you think the reaction is enough to change some of those things you were just talking about?

JL: I think so, or at least, that's my impression. The wonderful thing about my videos is that they're widely available, and they've given marketing departments some data that they can work with. It's put something out into the world for very low cost -- because all I did was make a video in my house, so I didn't have to invest much money -- but marketing can now look at the numbers associated with the video, like the number of views, or they can send out a survey or poll games about these particular features, and then marketing can make an assessment about the risk of the feature. So, I think the main contribution these videos have had, at least to the gaming industry, is that they've given marketing some data that indicates this is a worthwhile feature. Getting it integrated into near-term titles is a little difficult, though, because it takes a few years to build a game. If they're going to retrofit an existing title with these features, it adds risk to the title. If they're going to build a new title around this feature, it's not going to hit the shelves for at least two years or so, or a year if they do a really simple title. It's sort of interesting ... I've gotten exposed to the business of video games recently. It's unfortunate that the business of the video game industry almost seems designed to squash innovation, or at least discourage it, because it's risky.

NWF: Well, that explains a lot of our Wii games!

JL: The Wii also has another complicated issue. Actually, I would say there are two. One is that the input control system is so radically different from the other two consoles that the only way to make a good game is to start from the ground up for the Wii. If you port an existing game, it's usually not going to be very good, because the control schemes don't map over very well. Cross-console game publishing has become a popular business model, simply because it's a more attractive return on investment for game developers. So, for the Wii, they have to take on the risk of making a game just for the Wii instead of doing that.

Another problem ... accelerometer data is actually very hard to work with, so most of the games have very simple shake recognition, sort of an analog shaking recognition, sort of like the Rayman games, where you make the person run faster by pumping faster. But really complicated gesture recognition is actually very hard to do. Some dancing games, for example, are very difficult to make trigger reliably, because you want to make sure you're getting positive movement. You want to correctly register movement, but you don't want to be too generous or too critical. If you're too generous, the game is too easy, it's not compelling, you can cheat at it .... If you're too critical, the game doesn't trigger properly and then you get frustration on the part of game players.

NWF: I'd also assume shaking speed and method is harder to translate in a game manual than something like "press A for action X."

JL: Right. And game developers just don't know how to use it yet, because it's pretty new. It's pretty radical, and it has a lot of its own technical issues, not only in coming up with interesting game content, but also in dealing with the control scheme. It may take another year or two before game developers are used to working with an accelerometer. They had a decade to get used to the joypad. The technology in the Wii remote is still new to developers and they aren't necessarily using it in the best way yet, so there are a couple reasons why Wii games have at times been less than stellar, and maybe haven't lived up to the hopes and dreams of Wii owners.

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