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INTERVIEW | Portal 2 In Motion (Sixense Entertainment)

Portal 2 In MotionThe announcement of Portal 2 In Motion was awesome news, but even more awesome was learning that it’s being developed by Sixense Entertainment. Who is Sixense and why is their involvement awesome news? Keep reading to find out!

Since its foundation about five years ago, Sixense Entertainment has been at the forefront of the motion gaming phenomenon. Having engineered their own motion device (the Razer Hydra motion controller for PC) and worked on all sorts of pertinent gaming applications (in close collaboration with Valve, no less), they probably understand motion controls more intimately than most developers out there.

Now, with the announcement of Portal 2 In Motion for PS3 and their Sixense In Motion crossplatform middleware, Sixense is not only bringing their expertise to the PlayStation Move, but is also paving the way for a better understanding, among developers and gamers, of the benefits that motion controls can bring to gaming.

So, without further ado, please welcome Amir Rubin, Zachary Chun and Danny Woodall (respectively CEO, COO and Creative Director at Sixense) as they talk us through Portal 2 In Motion, elaborate on the Sixense In Motion platform and share their vision on the future of their company and motion gaming.

Enjoy!

First of all I’d like to thank you for bringing motion controls to the PS3 version of Portal 2. That was easily the biggest news of this year’s E3.

Amir: A key element in the design of our content and software is that we can implement it on any system that can support our motion gaming features. We watched closely as Sony built a great platform and community with the Move. When we released the Sixense Portal 2 MotionPack DLC last year for the Hydra on the PC, many PS3 users asked that we bring it to the Move. So we listened to the community, adapted our plans and here we are with Portal 2 In Motion on the Move.

We also want to thank you for breaking the news; we were very impressed with your ability to figure it out from little clips in the PS3 press conference Move highlight video.

Head of Sony’s Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida tweeted about Portal 2 In Motion saying that “it works brilliantly” and that you guys are “awesome”. So, congrats. How was the reaction from the players checking out the game on the show floor?

Amir: It means a lot to get such a strong response from someone as influential as Yoshida-san, who is the leading authority on gaming experience for the PS3. His tweet was the best way we could have kicked off E3. At the show, the reaction was great both on the show floor and from the press, including the responses from readers on the internet. We had a lot of people who came to the booth to play Portal 2 In Motion and didn’t want to put it down. Everyone is seeing why Sony has been supportive of this project as it clearly demonstrates the depth of gameplay possible on the Move, which is something that I think we are still just beginning to realize.

Portal 2 In Motion

In terms of content, is Portal 2 In Motion identical to the original “Motion Pack” for the PC version of Portal 2? What’s included in the PS3 DLC exactly?

Danny: We will release more specific details for Portal 2 In Motion as we get closer to release, but there are many similarities to the MotionPack.

Like the MotionPack, the first level of Portal 2 In Motion is a brief tutorial familiarizing the player with the controls. Then the player is introduced to each of the new mechanics and presented with a series of chambers. These chambers solutions require the player to combine typical Portal 2 gameplay with motion mechanics. After the player completes the initial chambers, an advanced level pack is unlocked that will offer more challenging gameplay and use of the motion mechanics. We are also designing Portal 2 In Motion to enable the addition of more content through subsequent releases.

Could you please elaborate on the exclusive motion features the DLC provides and how they affected puzzle design?

Danny: The “One-to-One” feature allows the user to interact with held objects like never before. When using One-to-One you can change the object’s position and orientation by moving and rotating the Move controller. When in One-to-One, the view becomes fixed to allow the player to freely manipulate the object. After some practice, One-to-One becomes very natural which further immerses the player in the game. It is very satisfying to reach out with the controller and redirect lasers with the Discouragement Redirection Cube to light up some poor Sentry Turrets. The ability to reach out into the Z-axis gave us a lot of new possibilities for puzzle design. One of the issues we had to resolve was that often new players would drop the cube too early thinking they had placed the cube over the button but in fact had come up short. Our solution was to have the floor buttons light up when a cube is placed above them. This provides a key depth cue as players become accustomed to using a 3D controller and greatly reduces the number of premature drops.

Portal Surfing is the ability to move and rotate a portal along a surface. Portal Surfing was the obvious solution to getting a portal into just the right spot. It also added some additional gameplay by allowing you to change an objects trajectory by rotating the portal. Portal Surfing became much more interesting when we started combining it with Portal 2 features such as lasers, light bridges and the gels. Spraying gel with a Move controller is quite a different experience than when using your typical input device.

The Scaling feature went through a number of iterations until we found a balance between required motion complexity and functionality. Scaling on the PS3 requires the user to reach out to initiate One-To-One and then press the Scaling button. While holding the Scaling button, the user moves the Move controller horizontally to increase or decrease the size of the cube. To scale along a different axis, the user rotates the cube prior to pressing the Scaling button. Being able to scale the cube along each axis provided unexpected additional gameplay that we are still discovering as we continue developing.

Could you please elaborate on how camera control works in Portal 2 In Motion? It’s hard to tell from the videos but it seems more sophisticated than the average bounding box implementation.

Danny: Freeaim is the name we have given to the camera control system that we use in Portal 2 In Motion. Freeaim uses the Move controller’s orientation to determine cursor position. The camera will spin in the direction you rotate the Move controller like a virtual joystick. We do have a dead zone variable but it is often very small or disabled completely. Initially we thought a dead zone was necessary but have found that ramping the spin speed exponentially so the view spins significantly less while the cursor is nearer the center of the screen but removing the dead zone not only gives the user much better control, but also a better sense of the environment. The result is a very fluid camera system that the user becomes more skilled with practice. It feels much more like you are controlling your character instead of positioning a 2D cursor. Freeaim not only works well for a title like Portal 2, but it also works well for a more competitive first-person shooter as seen in Team Fortress 2 on the PC with the Razer Hydra.

How is the on-screen cursor being projected. Does it take into account Move position relative to the camera/screen, or does it simply rely on absolute Move orientation. Basically are we looking at an “angle cursor” or an actual “laser cursor”?

Danny: Freeaim is an angle-based approach to the camera control and the Move controller’s position does not affect the rotation of the view. Cursor location is based on a number of user settings.

What sort of controls tweaking options will be provided?

Danny: We have spent a great deal of time fine tuning Freeaim and we’ve found that most users are quite happy with the default settings, but we do offer a number of presets and dials that allow the user to adjust the camera to his or her play style. As you become more comfortable using the Move controller to navigate you might want to try bumping up the sensitivity preset to High which gives you a snappier version of Freeaim. You can also adjust individual settings such as both the vertical and horizontal travel distance, making the cursor move more with relatively small movements or become completely static. Other dials allow you to adjust settings such as the exponent that controls how quickly the spin speed ramps up relative to controller orientation, how far the controller must be angled away from the neutral orientation to reach the maximum spin speed, the maximum view spin speed and dead zone settings.

Besides the Portal 2 In Motion DLC you are also working on adding Move support to the main game, likely to be delivered via a free update. Will Move be supported in both the single player and the cooperative modes (local split-screen included)?

Zachary: We can’t announce anything at this time, but we would like to implement Move support for all of the Portal 2 content on PS3.

Considering the main Portal 2 puzzles were built with traditional controls in mind, I assume motion features such as cube scaling and portal reorienting will be available only in the Portal 2 In Motion pack. But what about portal surfing? Would that feature be disruptive with regards to the original Portal 2 puzzles as well?

Danny: We always need to be mindful of preserving the integrity of the original content. As you realize, the motion gaming features that we’ve designed for Portal 2 can drastically change the solutions to the puzzles in the game. But we have had a lot of people approach us to say that they had hoped for Move support on PS3 from the beginning (without regard to any new features). As with any shooter-style game, the aim and fire action with a motion controller is much more natural and realistic than using a joystick. We are still testing, but we do hope to allow the player the option to play Portal 2 (including DLCs) in both single and cooperative game modes with In Motion features enabled. Playing or re-playing Portal 2 with these feature enabled offers an exciting, fresh experience that further enhances Portal 2’s already compelling gameplay.

Portal 2 In Motion

How is it like working with the PlayStation Move compared to your own Hydra device? What’s your opinion on its technology in terms of accuracy and precision?

Zachary: The Move was designed by Sony to support a broad range of genres for both casual and hardcore gamers. The Hydra was designed by Razer for FPS, third-person and RTS games played by hardcore and professional PC gamers. Both the Hydra and the PlayStation Move are six-degree-of-freedom (6DoF) controllers, which means that they track position on all three axes (X, Y, and Z) and orientation on all three axes (pitch, roll, and yaw). This means that we are able to utilize our Sixense In Motion middleware to develop games for both platforms very efficiently. The Hydra includes two wired 6DoF motion controllers, each with a joystick, and the Move system allows the user to interact using either two wireless Move motion controllers (with no joystick) or one Move controller plus the Navigation controller, which does not have motion tracking but which does have a joystick. We believe that both systems are optimized for their target uses and we have plans to deliver a lot of content on both platforms.

Unlike the magnetic field solution adopted for the Hydra tech, the inertial sensor technology the Move is partially based upon introduces issues such as cursor drifting. Is that something that could be mitigated via software? How did you go about dealing with it?

Zachary: With a purely inertial tracking system that uses only accelerometers and gyroscopes, drift is certainly an issue. The Move is a hybrid motion tracking system that utilizes both position (with the Eye camera) and inertial tracking technologies and as a result does a great job at providing reliable data, making drift a non-issue for us with Freeaim. When we first started experimenting with Move development using Sony’s Move.me software, we were very surprised how easy it was to implement our software with the Move.

Have you had the opportunity to check out any of the currently available Move-compatible shooters? Which one do you think provides the best motion controls implementation?

Danny: Killzone 3 does a pretty good Move implementation that uses both vertical and horizontal dead-zone bounding boxes to get the job done. This is a more of a 2D cursor approach than what we have designed with Freeaim, but is also quite effective. We would have preferred a hybrid mode solution for sighted weapons so that you have one-to-one snappy precision but you can also pan the view if you tilt the controller past a defined angle. The view mode implemented for Resistance 3 on Move is quite similar to ours but their sighted approach could have used the hybrid model as well. We also expect Valve to release a great Move interface in CS:GO.

Alongside the announcement of the Portal 2 In Motion DLC you also announced the “Sixense In Motion” platform, a set of developers tools for implementing motion controls in games on any platform. What motivated you to share your expertise with motion controls instead of sticking with developing your own Razer Hydra technology?

Zachary: Our long-term plan has always been for software to be the largest part of our business. We have built our software platform to work with any 6DoF motion tracking technology. This includes our own Sixense tracking technology (which is in the Razer Hydra), as well as the PlayStation Move, and even 3D camera systems. From our perspective, the more systems on which our Sixense In Motion platform can run, the larger the overall install base, and the more software developers will support it. The success of the overall ecosystem of 6DoF motion input devices is important to all industry players, meaning hardware producers, software developers and of course end users.

What features does the Sixense In Motion middleware provide exactly? Is gesture recording included for example?

Danny: Our software team has spent the last few years developing middleware that allows us to very rapidly publish 6DoF motion support for any FPS, RTS and third-person games making integration of our view modes and features quite painless across platforms.

In Motion includes some additional tools that we hope to bring to the Move in the future, such as Sixense MotionCreator. SMC is a software application that delivers motion gameplay for virtually any published game and includes a very powerful and robust binding system that supports many features beyond view modes such as velocity, tilt, or distance-based gestures.

Currently we do not support gesture recording with our middleware, but it can be added easily since the middleware constantly generates position and orientation coordinate data. The main purpose of the Sixense In Motion middleware is to enable cross-platform development.

Speaking of the Sixense MotionCreator tool you just mentioned, with regards to camera control in shooters it provides different view modes, all of them based on a fixed reticule. They do seem quite effective, especially the Hybrid one. Based on your experience with camera modes relying on both floating and fixed reticule solutions, which one would you say is the best fit for a traditional, competitive, twitchy shooter such as, say, Call of Duty?

Danny: Mouselook is our most competitive view mode for the Razer Hydra on the PC. Mouselook is also our most challenging mode to master. In Mouselook mode, the view angle is directly correlated to controller angle and the cursor remains fixed to the center of the screen. Typically a 90 degree controller rotation would rotate the character in game 180 degrees. Of course you eventually run out of wrist and must then press a ratchet button allowing you to reorient the controller to its neutral position without affecting the view. Ratcheting is analogous to lifting the mouse off the mouse pad when you reach the edge of the pad, but it can be a challenging concept to grasp initially. I typically prefer playing using a Freeaim mode for shooting at the hip and a Mouselook or Hybrid solution while sighted, which provides the best of both worlds.

There is no question that a mode like Mouselook is a superior mode for a twitchy shooter such as Call of Duty because there is a direct correlation between controller and view angle, making the motions very repeatable and learnable. In MotionCreator we have a mode that combines both concepts called Freelook which will switch to Mouselook while slighted giving you the precision when you need it. Freelook eventually spawned a new Hybrid view mode that combines both modes such that the view is very responsive with relatively small controller deflections but will spin the view when the controllers are beyond the angle threshold. This mode has been adopted and become a favorite among many of our PC users. However, view modes that have a free floating crosshair that influences view spin are much easier for the vast majority of players to pick up and play. Additionally, a floating crosshair view mode such as Freeaim also provides a compelling and unique experience to playing the FPS genre that can also give new life to old games.

Have you already been approached by developers interested in your Sixense In Motion platform? If so, what are they mostly looking for in terms of features?

Zachary: We have been talking to a lot of developers, and these conversations multiplied with the attention we received from Portal 2 In Motion at E3. We are creating a business model in which we focus on designing and implementing motion gaming content. For now, we aren’t trying to create AAA games from scratch. Instead, we are working with developers like Valve and others to create compelling motion content for major titles, to be released either as part of the game or as “In Motion” DLC. Our team is comprised of core gamers who focus on motion games, which means that we are dedicated to ensuring that the motion implementation enhances the user experience. What developers and publishers want at the end of the day is to increase the overall market for their games and we do this by delivering a superior user experience.

What do you think are the biggest challenges developers have to overcome when designing motion controls, and how does Sixense In Motion help them?

Danny: From a creative standpoint, the challenge is to design content that makes the game better and not just to add motion control for the sake of adding it. Motion controls should complement or improve the user interface, not complicate or reduce its effectiveness by forcing motion control when it’s not appropriate. For us, the years of experience we’ve had focusing on motion is critical. We believe that our team understands how to design motion gaming content as well as any developers in the world. From the technical side, the robustness of our Sixense In Motion platform simplifies the development process, whether it’s creating a game from scratch or adding motion content to an existing title.

Is the Sixense In Motion middleware powering the Move implementation in the upcoming PS3 version of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive from Valve?

Zachary: We did not work on Counter-Strike for PS3 Move. Valve started that project before Sixense started working with the PS3 and Move so our In Motion middleware is not integrated in to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Could you please elaborate on your relationship with Valve? You seem to be pretty close.

Zachary: Valve has been a great partner of ours for several years. They have been supportive of the work we have done with motion technology and they have provided us access to their content library to implement motion gaming. As the gaming world knows, Valve’s standards for content quality are extremely high, and we are proud to have their continued support.

What’s your opinion on motion controls in general and the way they are perceived by the core gamers community?

Zachary: Core gamers are hard to please, especially when it comes to new input device technology. When motion gaming was introduced to the masses in the form of the Nintendo Wii, it didn’t take long for the limitations of that technology to be exposed. For the casual gamer, these limitations were acceptable, but hard-core gamers are dismissive of any tech that doesn’t allow them to play at the same competitive level as they do with mouse and keyboard on PC or with a dual analog controller on consoles. At Sixense, we embrace this challenge, and we think that we surprised a lot of gamers with Portal 2 In Motion and the strength of the implementations of motion control that we are working on for other games. For instance, we have done a lot with the RTS genre, which to this point has been a pretty hardcore mouse and keyboard world. We announced a direct integration of the Razer Hydra with Dota 2 from Valve. We also have a substantial community playing Diablo 3 only with the Hydra, including many of our staff who are hardcore PC and console gamers. Many of these people say without hesitation that motion is their favorite way to play these games. Once this message gets out, we think we will play a major role in bringing more RTS games to the PS3, which has a huge community that consoles have missed completely.

Is there anything else you wish to say that my questions didn’t touch upon?

Zachary: First, thanks for the excellent questions. We’d just like to add that we listen very carefully to our customers, partners and the community (because we all started as customers). We’re doing what we do because we believe, first and foremost, that we can deliver better experiences for users but at the same time increase the return on investment for developers. We believe that developers can do best for themselves by giving users what they want and we will always strive to do just that. So please send us your thoughts and suggestions!

Many thanks to Amir, Zack and Danny for taking the time to answer my (many) questions.