Anyone who knows us will know how much we love Kinect. The much maligned technology deserves better in our opinion and so any game that makes the very most of the tech is something that makes us sit up and get excited. With that in mind and with Squid Hero for Kinect out now, we took some time to quiz Aki Kanerva about the Virtual Air Guitar Company’s latest Xbox One title.
Please introduce yourself. What is your role on Squid Hero for Kinect?
I’m Aki Kanerva, one of the founders of Virtual Air Guitar Company. Squid Hero was a two-man job, with me heading up pretty much everything from design to programming, tools to art tools and publishing. We had a second programmer working as well, who also did level design and testing.
So….sell it to us. Why should gamers buy Squid Hero for Kinect on Xbox One?
Squid Hero is a cheerful Kinect game for all ages that’ll have you up and playing – alone or with a friend or the kids. It’s got squids, reggae, giant robot bosses, a plethora of hats, thousands of ice cubes to smash to smithereens, and two-player co-op. There’s a mix of fast-paced races and skill-based gameplay, complete with our trademark accuracy and responsiveness in motion control.
It all seems like a very unique concept, where did the idea for Squid Hero and indeed the joyful looking Squid come from? Does the Squid have a name?
I want to say underwater mushrooms, but honestly these things just evolve over time. We started off with a one-day prototype of Asteroids on Kinect, where instead of shooting at the rocks you’d grab and throw them at each other. I had some gray blobs representing rocks on a default blue background, and a co-worker said it looked kind of like ice rafts floating in water. After some experiments with liquid effects, the watery concept was starting to look good. We’d already wanted to have a recognizable character this time around, so thoughts went towards an octopus, which was soon changed to a squid since it’s got two special tentacles with grabby bits at the end. And three hearts. I’m not kidding, look it up!
The first squid was a pretty terrible placeholder, but its goofiness was enough to show that the idea worked. The final version that you see in the game was painted by a freelance artist called Yuqi Oikkonen. We went through quite a few iterations to get the feel just right – cartoony, but not too baby-like, and with a little bit of attitude. We haven’t named the squid, but the world shall ever know him (or her?) as Squid Hero, the one who saved the planet.
We understand the whole game can be played via 2 player co-op. Were you ever tempted to include more players?
Kinect for Xbox One can track up to six players, so technically it’s possible. And party games are usually more fun the more people you have bouncing around. In the end, we decided to limit to two because you’d need a lot of space to avoid real-life collisions with even three or four people. Either that, or we’d have had to redesign the gameplay to have less sideways movement and reaching to the sides. So while co-op is limited to two players, by focusing on it we were able to make it feel good. Still, each level is only a few minutes long, so you’re free to swap players in between them.
With that in mind, is co-op limited to local mode only? Were there any discussion to include an online mode?
Yes, co-op is local only. We did consider online co-op but decided against it – we’d probably still be at it and the game wouldn’t be out until much later! Again, it was more important for us to focus our humble efforts on the rest of the game. But now that we’ve done this, maybe the next game could have online co-op…
How many hours of game time would you expect the average gamer to take to plough through it?
I’d say about 3 to 5 hours. I’d like to think that we’ve given a fair challenge. It’s easy enough to pick up, even for kids, but you’ll need to learn a bit of physical skill to play well. The game doesn’t play itself, but anyone will be able to finish it, thanks to the built-in ability to skip after a few tries.
…and once completed, is there much replayability included?
While playing, you collect coins that you can use to buy awesome hats for your squid. Once you’ve learned to play well, you’ll be able to earn more coins by reaching perfect scores. We’ve got some nifty achievements to reach – but nothing too grindey. There’s also a secret hidden in one level of each of the five locations.
From our initial views, there appears to be a decent mix of fast paced action and precise technical levels. How difficult was it getting the balance just right?
Right from the start our goal was to change the gameplay around often enough that you’re not just repeating the same thing over and over. The turbo sections, where you get a rocket boost and have to dodge obstacles, ended up being really good at changing the pace. Still, as with any Kinect game, testing is what really matters. Many beads of sweat have rained on the office floor over the course of development.
We are big fans of Kinect and would love to see more games make the most of the technology. How disappointing was it for you to see Microsoft decide to unbundle the system from the Xbox One console? Did it affect your plans for Squid Hero in any way?
We’d already been aware of the unbundling when we were developing our previous game, Boom Ball for Kinect. I can’t say we’re happy about it, but it certainly wasn’t enough to dissuade us from making another Kinect game.
For many, Kinect games are dismissed out of hand, with gamers preferring to spend the time with a controller. Is there the chance to play with a standard controller? Failing that, does Squid Hero work fine with the gamer seated instead of standing?
We firmly believe that a good motion game is one that wouldn’t be possible to do with any other control method. If a game can be played just as well on a gamepad or touchscreen, then what’s the point of using Kinect? Only when you design for motion control the start can you get to the really juicy, unique and cool aspects of the technology. There are some exceptions where the physical activity itself enhances the experience enough to justify it, but even then it’s missing all the unique stuff that could have been possible if the game had been designed for Kinect from the start.
We always support gamepad control for menus though, because getting into the game quickly is very important. We also design our menus in a way to minimize the amount of transitions you have to go through.
Squid Hero can’t be played seated, as it requires a few sidesteps every now and then, and it feels more pleasant when you have a full range of motion for your arms. However, our previous game Boom Ball for Kinect works (mostly) even when seated.
Right now we’re looking at lots of choices. We’re prototyping several Kinect concepts but haven’t yet picked the best one. I’d like to do a sequel for Boom Ball at some point, or a similar ball-bouncing game with fresh ideas. As for a Squid Hero sequel… well, the jury’s still out on that. I’ll know more once we see how people like it! We’re also working on getting Boom Ball for Kinect released in China, which is a big thing for us. In addition to games, from time to time we also do projects for companies who manufacture cameras or develop tracking software for them. And one day, when the time is right, Kung-Fu will return…
Many thanks go out to Aki for taking the time so close to release in order to answer our questions. Squid Hero for Kinect is out on Xbox One right now. We’ll have a full review for you soon but for now, check out our Let’s Play video.