Making the Best Use of Your Tools

I’m a huge fan of video games. The other day, I finally got a chance to sit down with the demo for The Gunstringer. I’ve been looking forward to this title since it was first announced, and downloaded it when it was released but never tried it. First off, I was able to sit down with the game rather than stand, which is unique to the title! That was a pleasant change, as most of the other Kinect titles I’ve played involve some form of mild gymnastics, and aren’t designed to be played for long periods of time. The uniqueness of this Wild Western game doesn’t stop here.

The game makes use of your left hand to manipulate an onscreen puppet, moving him left and right, and firing his gun with your right hand. The puppeteer aspect suits the Kinect platform particularly well, and in my opinion much better than moving an onscreen figure with your whole body–the Kinect sensor just isn’t slick enough to grasp complicated movements (such as when limbs cross). The illusion is broken the moment the avatar does not act as you do. In The Gunstringer, however, the movements are simple enough–and each hand moves differently enough–that it’s a fluid and consistent experience to what you’re doing with your body.

How can this argument apply to other platforms and experiences? In the smartphone space, we’ve all seen the trivial accelerometer-and-compass games: replicating labyrinth tilt puzzles, fake spirit levels and tilt-to-steer racing games are a dime a dozen. Can we do better? Yes: augmented reality apps like Layar are pushing the boundaries of what you can do with a sum of precise and powerful sensors like accelerometers and compasses. What else can an always-on Internet connection, Bluetooth, NFC, state-of-the-art GPS, ad-hoc Wi-Fi, accurate gyroscopes and multi-megapixel cameras do? More like, what can’t they do.

Returning to The Gunstringer, it brings a simplified puppeteering concept to the Kinect but does not limit gameplay to what’s possible with a puppet on a string. Your right hand, remember, controls the avatar’s gun. This is done by mimicking the firing of a pistol with heavy recoil. I even found myself making a gun shape with my hand while I did this, and thus the game had won me over. I’m not alone in that feeling. The Gunstringer’s puppeteer mechanic was streamlined such that it did not limit the game as it was adapted for the platform.

Now that the gimmick of the Kinect hardware has worn off, I’m looking forward to titles that make use of the platform in unique ways, as The Gunstringer has. I know they can do better than the sports games and dance games, and create an experience full of intuitive gestures and unique experiences.

Many times, the adaptation of a physical concept to digital ruins the experience. The perennial example is the calculator: why click buttons that resemble a real calculator with a mouse? Why not allow direct text entry, and skip the buttons? Why limit the number of digits visible, as the old liquid crystal displays of old did? When picking an experience to model your digital creation from, take only the experience, and leave behind the limitations of the medium. When designing, try winnowing the chaff that weighs down your experience.