Feature: Interview - Kinesthetic Games Founder, Kostas Zarifis on Kung Fu Superstar and the State of Motion Gaming

Ex-Lionhead programmer Kostas Zarifis and his new studio Kinesthetic Games are on a mission to change your perception of motion gaming with their title Kung Fu Superstar. We had a chance to talk with Kostas about the state of motion gaming in the industry, and why their debut title just may be able to transform you into a Kung Superstar in your living room. 

Could you tell us a little about your studio, how it got set up, the number of staff, and your design goals?

Kinesthetic Games was founded around Summer 2011 after I left my old job as a programmer at Lionhead Studios working on Fable The Journey at the time. Before that I had worked on Fable 2 and Fable 3.

 I was working on Kung Fu Superstar in my spare time and even demoed it at an annual event within Lionhead called the “Lionhead Creative Day”. It’s basically a really fun and creative event where employees of the company take a few days off to work on anything they want and at the end of the week they demo their results to the rest of the company. I worked with some extremely talented people on what was then the first prototype of Kung Fu Superstar and our end results were received so positively that we were absolutely stunned. People commented it looked like a finished game both in terms of visual quality as well as playability and just as a general game concept. There were some discussions with regards to whether the project could be developed within Lionhead, but as the company focuses mostly on the Fable franchise it soon became obvious that this would be unlikely. So as getting this game made was my one true passion I decided to leave my job and found Kinesthetic Games to do it.

 At the time I was also joined by Alasdair Martin as Technical Director (ex-Codemasters, worked on games like Drift, Grid, Bodycount) and Anish Antony (ex-Lionhead/EA/Climax, worked on games like Harry Potter, EyePet and the Fable series).

Currently there’s about 20 of us. We’re a mixture of games industry veterans and super passionate enthusiasts from things like modding communities etc. Passion and belief in the grand vision is really important to us.

Kung Fu Superstar looks like no other motion game we’ve seen yet; where did the inspiration for a game where players actually learn Kung Fu moves come from?

 I will take that as a compliment! Haha :)

 Yeah we really wanted to do something really different with motion control gaming. And I am talking “different” in many aspects. Not just the motion control based gameplay of our game, but also the very act of integrating motion control gameplay in a game. I am very excited about the innovations we are introducing in that area. But we haven’t talked about that yet so let me talk about the stuff we *are* talking about :)

 Really the inspiration came from sci fi movies I think. I keep saying “we want to make gamers’ science fiction dreams a reality” and we really believe that. What I mean by that is, we’ve all seen these sci fi movies where people are playing these futuristic games where they are fully immersed in a game simulation and they’re fighting bad guys wearing some crazy VR head gear or punching and kicking holographic ghosts. To me when motion control gameplay was introduced it was basically the first stepping stone to that. Ok obviously we’re still quite far away from that but that’s how evolution works, it doesn’t happen overnight.

At the same time however evolution needs to be pushed a certain direction. If we ever want to see those games happen we as games developers have to pursue them. We’ve seen many dancing, fitness and party games on these platforms but no true fighting game. So we thought we’d do our part to change that :) And this is why we call Kung Fu Superstar the first true fighting game of the new era.

That is one aspect of the inspiration behind the project. The other was the real life “value” of it. We thought, if we’re going to get you up from your couch we better be giving you a really good reason to do so. Ok you’ll be having loads of fun just playing the game and reliving Danny’s epic rags-to-riches story, but why not go beyond that? I mean, we’re asking you to use your body, which just so happens to be something that you use on a daily basis anyway. Why couldn’t we take that opportunity to provide you value that goes beyond that momentary entertainment? You’ve probably heard about all those studies about how they get surgeons to play controller based video games because they improve their hand-eye coordination. That’s really cool! So then if we’re using our whole bodies why can’t we take those concepts a step further?

 And that was where the inspiration behind the teaching in the game came from. If we’re going to get you to stand up to pretend you’re a martial artist, we thought, why not actually turn you into a martial artist? Presumably if you’re pretending you’re doing martial arts in your living room you are doing so because you have an interest in martial arts in the first place! :)

 However I should stress that the most important thing for us is player choice. So if actually you just want to have a bit of a laugh with the game and flail your arms a legs about while making animal noises pretending you’re Bruce Lee, we will give you the option to do so. If you’re in it to learn some actual Kung Fu though we’re going to give you all the tools you need to do that. And you will do it while you’re having the time of your life. You choose what you want to get from playing the game.

From the trailer, it looks like you’ll be playing an action movie star. Were you influenced by some of the classic Kung Fu movies of yesteryear?

Indeed! The story is about a young boy named Danny Cheng, who is a massive martial arts enthusiast. As he grows older he decides to actually start training in martial arts to become a stuntman in Hollywood. This is the side of the game that teaches people real martial arts. It’s all integrated in the story so it’s not going to be a boring collection of “mini game”-like activities. You’ll want to go through the training to find out what happens next with the story, which is a very interesting concept and one that we think hasn’t been really explored enough in games (I call it “self-development through entertainment”). Once you acquire a “decent” arsenal of moves (“decent” in this case is something that is dictated by your difficulty settings like I said before) you start getting involved in the world of filming. You start off small, doing small low budget productions and by the time you finish the game you’re doing action dramas of epic proportions. So yeah as you say we’re going to take you through the whole spectrum of action movies, from tongue-in-cheek cop buddy type comedies to large scale battles in ancient China. Again, this is another method for us to keep things fresh for you and giving you the perfect motivation to advance your Kung Fu training (the better the movie contract the better the stuntman you have to be right?)

What are the control options for Kung Fu Superstar? We’ve read that there’s actually some controller support as well, so how exactly will that work?

Yup, you read correctly. Kung Fu Superstar will support motion controls and/or controller! Unfortunately I can’t talk about that in detail though just yet :) Like I said we’re really excited about the innovations we’re achieving in that area so we want to show you what we’re doing in the coming months rather than just talk about it. So please bear with us for a while longer!

Can you please describe the work involved in getting motion controls just right, so that players feel rewarded — and if they get tired during gameplay?  =p

Motion control gaming is still a really new thing so like you say it’s very hard to get absolutely right. Controller based controls in one form or another have been around since computer gaming itself so they’ve had a lot of time to get refined. I think as motion control game designers we should look into the evolution of controller gameplay and try to draw some more lessons from that. For instance you’ve probably noticed that by now there’s so many “secret conventions” on controllers about what a “reasonable control scheme” is. People don’t just reinvent the wheel every time. If you’re making a first person shooter your controls will more or less follow a certain scheme, if you’re doing a 3rd person action adventure game, again there’s a certain way to do that, etc. With motion controls there’s no similar paradigms yet. You’ll see everyone doing their own version of a menu screen manipulation scheme etc. It’s only recently that people are starting to narrow in on some sort of a catholic ideal.

Similarly with controllers there’s a lot of abstraction. For instance when you’re firing a gun…you know…you’re just pressing a button. Or squeezing a trigger more recently, which I guess you could say is an extra level of immersion. Although you’re still not pointing and firing an actual gun at the screen :) No one actually “expects” to do that, and people are more than happy with the abstraction. As long as it works and it’s fun. Over the years that action has been designed and refined to be fun and also to work. As in, you do it and your intended action is instantly translated into a reaction inside the game world. This last bit is actually a lot more important than how much the control immerses you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 1 to 1 simulation of what you’re doing, if it doesn’t work as you intended then the immersion is gone. Contrarily if the control achieves what you intended then people will feel immersed even if their actions are not a 1 to 1 mapping of what’s happening in the game (again, as proven by controllers all these years).

Anyway, I am digressing :) What I am trying to say, to get back to your question, is that just because we have motion controls now, in my humble opinion I don’t think that means we should be breaking perfectly working concept just to make 1 to 1 mappings of our actions some kind of holy grail. Especially since the technology isn’t there 100% yet. What we should be doing is we should be using the controller concepts that have done well by us all these years as a foundation and then using motion control as an extra level of immersion on top of that, for as far as we can take that and not an inch further.

I’ve no idea if that answers your question haha :) In short all I am saying is that, depending on how you design your game to work with motion controls, they can be the death of you or the thing that elevates your game to a new exciting standard of gaming. Needless to say, with Kung Fu Superstar we are going for the latter ;)

Lastly to answer the last part of your question (“what if people get tired?”) which is a really good question actually. Again I will refer you to my previous response about how I think that as game developers we forced motion controls on people a bit too much and we really should be offering more choice to gamers. Let’s say, like you say, that I get tired during gameplay or that I am just not in the mood to jump about in my living room tonight. But I still want to somehow keep playing so I can check out what happens next in the story of Kung Fu Superstar. You should have that option! Why should we take that away from you? And like I say, with Kung Fu Superstar you will :)

Will I actually be able to learn Kung Fu after a few months of play, or is that just wishful thinking on my part? lol

It’s not wishful thinking at all. Like I said in a previous question this is exactly what we’ve set out to do with Kung Fu Superstar. Teach you *real* Kung Fu. But you have to remember that as with any kind of learning there’s going to be a requirement for some investment of your time and effort from your part too. However this is going to be completely down to you. We’re not going to force you into it. KFS at the end of the day is a game and first and foremost we are designing it to be super fun. What we do want to do is provide you with the tools to learn real Kung Fu should *you* wish to. And if you do you’ll have all those tools at your disposal. If you don’t to, well then you’ll still be playing the best fighting game of all time ;) I call that a win-win scenario! ;)

How do the motion controls work? Does one have to stay in one spot and perform moves, or will you be able to move around?

We’re going to release more information on the gameplay in the coming months which is going to answer your questions. We’re combining the best of all existing approaches and applying some pretty large doses of innovation on top of that to come up with what we think is something that will set a new standard for fighting games in the future.

Is this only looking at Kinect for motion support or will PlayStation Move owners be able to experience the game as well?

Right now we’re developing the game for multiple platforms including motion control, controller and touch enabled platforms. Watch out for more announcements on officially supported platforms in the future.

Motion gaming has a pretty bad wrap in mainstream gaming circles. Most core gamers just don’t feel like being bothered with it. What are you guys trying to do to change that perception and why do you think most core gamers have this mindset about motion gaming currently?

Yup… Personally I find this a bit sad really, but at the same time we’ve only got ourselves (i.e. the games industry) to blame for this. If I am honest there’s only a handful of games out there that could stand in as ambassadors for what motion control gaming could be. For the most part it’s been associated with shallow, unsophisticated, unresponsive and badly designed experiences (and with good reason!). When motion control gaming started gaining popularity it was all fresh and cool and the potential was obvious to everyone. These days it feels like more and more people are losing faith in those platforms and that the industry is not releasing nearly enough products to avert this. I am really not sure why this is.

I think no one would disagree with me that immersive, responsive, sophisticated motion control games like the sci fi simulations I was talking about in the beginning would be a good thing. This is why I think it’s important for people to be trying to push the envelope in those areas too. This is very much what we are trying to do with Kung Fu Superstar.

The reception to the announcement of the project has been extremely positive so far. If we’ve had any minor negative criticism that was on the motion control aspect of the game. Some people think that the game won’t work as well as the trailer made it seem or that it will be “just another motion control game”.

Like I say, I totally get this attitude. These are the kind of expectations we as a games industry have forced gamers to assume from us when we announce motion control enabled games. In our case all I can ask from people is to give us the benefit of the doubt. Just because there’s “bad motion control games out there” doesn’t mean our game will be the same. That would be an unfair/unreasonable assumption to make. Also I ask people to look up our backgrounds and notice that we’re an independent developer not affiliated with any particular platform or product and as such we don’t have an agenda to push something on you just because it fits our company’s strategy or whatever. We’re out there doing what we’re doing purely because we want to make an awesome game for you to experience. And to decide to devote all our resources to that goal it probably means we’re pretty certain we can pull it off (even if our game has motion control elements! :)). All that we ask is that you have some faith in us as your support can go a long way into helping us getting this to happen!

With next-gen consoles just around the corner, do you think that motion controls will play just as big a part as they have late this generation or do you feel that another control scheme will take up that charge? For example tablet controls similar to iOS devices and Nintendo’s Wii U. Where do you see motion controlled games going in the future?

I think motion controls are here to stay, yes. As you’ve probably seen they’re being integrated into TVs and implemented by companies who are not affiliated with one of the three major platform holders. So they’re slowly creeping in everywhere now, not just gaming. There’s this huge thing called Natural User Interfaces which means using your voice and/or body to interact with technology instead of a dedicated interfacing device. This is obviously a great thing. So as such they’re here to stay.

Now if they’re going to substitute other, more conventional control schemes in gaming completely? I don’t know. I don’t think so though and I hope they don’t. To me it’s about choice. I’d rather everything coexists harmoniously out there in the market and as a consumer I have the option to go for whatever I like. This was the problem in previous years that various platform holders would have the absolute power in terms of what products to flood the market with. It wasn’t so much a case of “there’s a demand let’s create the product to satisfy it” as much as it was “we think this is what people want, if we’re right, cool, if not…well…people needs better adapt to what we’ve produced for them”. And this was the case in many industries including of course the creative industries.

These days there’s a bit of a democratisation of the market going on. It feels like consumers can connect with creators a bit more directly therefore minimising the influence that these large entities used to have on the market. So, to use the Double Fine example for instance, if a publisher says “nah, no one wants adventure games anymore” the developer instead of hanging their heads in shame and walking away what they can do is start a Kickstarter campaign and come up with 3.3 million ways to prove the publisher wrong :) This is a great thing as it means more choice for consumers. As long as there’s enough of a market to sustain the various choices. So it’s all going to come down to that I think.

As such, to answer your question about controls in the future, I think there’s going to be large enough markets for motion controls, touch controls and traditional controllers to sustain the perpetuation of these markets at least for the foreseeable future.

As far as where motion games are going to go, as I say I am hoping to see them include more sophisticated experiences.  I love market diversification so it’s great to see party, dance, fitness and family games enthusiasts slowly starting to join us  around our games consoles, but I do hope that games that are based around more traditional gaming values (challenge, deep mechanics, story, sophistication) don’t get sacrificed on the altar of market diversification and that those values also make the transition into motion control gaming. Like I say we here at Kinesthetic are doing everything to ensure that they do :)

Around what time frame can gamers expect release and will you guys be going retail, DD or a mixture of both?

We are in the early stages of development so cannot comment on a release date yet I am afraid. Similarly we’re investigating distribution mechanisms so cannot comment on that either. In both cases our criterion is “what provides our fans with the best experience and best value”.

Thanks a lot for your time guys, we really appreciate it.

Thank you, and massive thanks to our fans for their support! It’s extremely encouraging and empowering to have so many people cheer us on in what we’re trying to achieve. Thank you!

For more info on Kung Fu Superstar and Kinesthetic Games follow them on Facebook and their official site

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