As gamers we usually partake in games that deep inside we wish we could actually be a part of. While most of us may not wish we were on the front lines of an intense modern warfare battle, there’s always that element inside us that wishes we were either a spy on an intense mission or a skilled driver with a carefree attitude that could go wild in a city as they evade the cops.
For me I’ve always yearned to be a martial arts master. Ok, so it may be a laughable notion, but growing up watching martial arts films and having fighting games be part of my gaming childhood I’ve always had the desire to play a game that offered complete martial arts control - to the point that it was pure mastery. There have been games in the past which have attempted to provide an in-depth portrayal of martial arts, such as the PS2 game Rise to Honor starring Jet Li, but none have really shown a tremendous leap as far as gameplay is concerned. It seemed like my dreams of become a martial arts master were completely long gone, but now a new title has emerged which could change the landscape of action games forever.
Developed by the recently formed indie studio Kinesthetic Games, Kung Fu Superstar is an action title that combines both old and new gameplay elements to present a style of martial arts action that honestly has never been seen before. Utilizing Microsoft’s Kinect device, Kung Fu Superstar enables players to use actual martial arts stances and particular moves without the constant arm flailing that has ruined other melee based offerings in the past.
There could be a somewhat healthy amount of skepticism about KFS due to it’s usage of the Kinect, but Kinesthetic Games isn’t relying solely on that as the game will also support standard game pads such as the Xbox 360 controller. Even better, in a move of brilliance the development team has allowed gamers to go back and forth between using the Kinect and a regular controller during gameplay if they wish; thus the gamers will always have options.
What excites me even more about Kung Fu Superstar is that the game actually has a story, one that is actually perfectly fitting for a martial arts game. Following a young man named Danny Cheng, Kung Fu Superstar puts gamers on a journey to make Danny the best stuntman in the world of martial arts cinema. Such a thing will obviously be a bit difficult in the process but it does enable some true variety to be provided through the different films Danny will get a chance to work on as they range from modern day action flicks to those set within the future.
Kinesthetic Games Founder and KFS Game Director Kostas Zarifis spared some time out of his schedule to discuss Kung Fu Superstar in this rather extensive interview which covers the basic gameplay elements of the game and how the development team is making a martial arts epic that gamers can be the center of.
Ian Fisher: Earlier this year Kung Fu Superstar came out of nowhere in a promising debut trailer which showed incredible potential. Can you talk a bit about the origins of the project and just how long you’ve wanted to make it a reality? Was the concept of the game always one of an upcoming stuntman trying to make it big or were some other ideas thrown around?
Kostas Zarifis: How long? I guess the answer would be “forever” really :)
I’ve been into martial arts and action cinema since a very young age. And of course when I got into games development professionally, I’ve always had the idea of a “proper” fighting game in the back of my head. And by that I mean a game that would have its focus firmly set on the use of actual martial arts techniques rather than random punches and kicks.
Then a few years ago motion control technology started becoming more mainstream. Working at Lionhead Studios meant that I had a front row seat to the advent of Kinect, as well as the somewhat strange way the device was being used by most people. Meaning that there was a strong focus to push the device in ways that it couldn’t support leading to a lot of problematic games. Also in most of these games, motion control was offered as the only control option, which again seemed a bit restrictive to me.
So my passion for martial arts and the study of the mistakes of others lead to the slow refinement of a martial arts game concept. This concept later became an actual tech prototype, which I demoed to an extremely positive reaction at the Lionhead Creative Day (a yearly event at Lionhead where all employees can take a couple of days off to work on anything they like and then demo their work to the whole company). There was a lot of interest in the project and there were even some attempts to push it from within Microsoft/Lionhead.
But it was all a bit too slow, which is inevitable in organizations that large, so eventually and with the support of my superiors at Lionhead, I made the decision to leave my job and focus on Kung Fu Superstar full time. The stuntman concept was actually something that came up while brainstorming the game with a colleague at Lionhead. Originally the idea was that it would be a single story that would take place in the “real world”. My friend Adam then said “what about the movies?”. I thought it was a genius idea. Why have one story when you can have many? So we stuck with it.
Ian: Action may be plentiful in Kung Fu Superstar but there is a story within the game as players assume the role of a martial arts fan trying to make it big as a movie stuntman. How important was it to you and the rest of the team to include a story within the game and not go the easy route by having everything be presented in an arcade style way sans story? And as a whole what can gamers expect from the narrative elements of Kung Fu Superstar?
Kostas: Indeed, story is hugely important to us. We all come from a hardcore gaming background and at least to my eyes you can’t have a single player hardcore gaming experience without a great story.
So in Kung Fu Superstar you’ll not only have the side stories from the various movies that Danny will star in, but it will all be inter connected through the overarching story of Danny himself and his struggle to become the most popular and accomplished martial arts stuntman.
We keep talking about “self-development through entertainment”, which is a concept we are trying to establish with Kung Fu Superstar. All it basically means is that unlike other games that have a fitness/self development component we don’t want that to be the focus. We want the story and gameplay to be the focus. And while you’re playing the game because you’re having fun and because you want to know what happens next in the story, you also get fitter and learn skills of real world value. But that happens almost subconsciously and it never feels like you’re being educated.
We think it’s a really powerful concept that hasn’t been explored enough in games. We are actually going to touch on that in detail in the next video update that will come out sometime this week.
Ian: Kung Fu Superstar is trying to break new ground by providing gameplay that stays true to the various disciplines of martial arts, so much so that people may be able to actually learn a thing or two in the process. So with that said what sort of hurdles is the development team facing in making everything accessible enough so that a wide array of gamers can enjoy everything but elements aren’t necessarily “dumbed” down in a sense?
Kostas: That’s a very good question! In fact we are not making any special effort to “dumb things down” to be honest. We don’t think casual gamers need to be patronized to have fun basically which seems to be the trend with a lot of games these days. Personally, I think all casual gamers want is a very gradual difficulty to the experience, to be able to consume their gaming experiences in shorter bursts of time and to be given the opportunity to fail more without significant halts to their progression (basically they won’t be as eager as hardcore gamers to restart and try again if they fail a couple of times whilst playing a level).
So we’re not watering down the teaching and use of actual martial arts in the game in order to make things more accessible. Instead we are doing clever things like building the Fight Choreography Engine in a way that it can adapt to a certain player’s skill and adjust the challenge it is providing dynamically.
So if we see you are really struggling, we might increase the detection leniency or decrease the rate at which enemies attack you or the number of assailants at any given time. And of course we give you control on all through the game’s settings.
Like I say we think that’s enough for the game to appeal to players of any background. We didn’t want to “nerf” the martial arts aspect of it as, we think if someone is playing Kung Fu Superstar, presumably a large part of their motivation is to learn and have fun with martial arts, so to take that away would be to take away the game’s core.
Ian: Instead of going for gameplay mechanics rooted in doing aimless punching and kicking, Kung Fu Superstar actually follows the set patterns and movements of different martial arts disciplines. So what sort of moment to moment gameplay can gamers expect from the game? Will the core action consist of doing various pre-set moves/stances or will there be room for improvisation amidst the occasional punch or kick that’s thrown?
Kostas: There’s definitely scope for improvisation. The Director’s Cut mode has a definitive fight choreography script so when you play a fight sequence in this mode the script will always be the same. We wanted to make sure we include this mode specifically for competing on leaderboards and things like that (if people are going to be comparing scores it needs to be under the same conditions). In the Improv mode however the Fight Choreography Engine generates the fight sequence on the fly. So it’s up to you to respond to the situation appropriately. You mostly do that using the actual martial arts techniques that the game will be teaching you, but there’s definitely some scope for veering off that completely. Check out our first major video update on our Kickstarter page for an actual gameplay demo that clarifies all this.
The latest Kung Fu Superstar gameplay demo.
Ian: So far what has been the biggest, if any, technical hurdle in developing the game with the Kinect in respect to designing movements that can easily be picked up without any errors or things of that nature?
Kostas: We have a mantra when it comes to designing the motion control aspect of the game and that is to never sacrifice responsiveness for the sake of feature parity or whatever other reason we might think is important enough to break the experience for the end player. Because there’s never a good enough reason to do that. I’ve played a lot of motion control games and sometimes it feels like the designers turned a blind eye and were just hoping the device will just magically overcome its limitations for the end player.
I am a huge fan of the Kinect and motion control in general; I think it’s a great thing for gaming. However the current tech, while amazing, it does have its limitations and you need to make sure you take these into account and not pretend they’re not there. So to answer your question I can’t say we’ve had any major problems with the technology, purely because of the way we use it, not because we have found a magical way to circumvent its inherent hardware limitations.
So if we ever come up with something that technically doesn’t work, we either change the design so it does or in rare cases we drop it. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s definitely better than including a broken feature in the game in my opinion.
Ian: The action in Kung Fu Superstar is obviously a big component and the A.I. of the enemies will of course play a huge part in making everything enjoyable. With the game allowing gamers to use different styles of martial arts within a stage, at least once they’ve been acquired, what can we expect from the level of challenge presented through the enemy A.I.? Will the game have that traditional kung fu movie feel in which each enemy waits their turn to attack or will the battle encounters be a bit more unrelenting?
Kostas: So we want to present a very scalable and adaptable challenge to the player, like I said before when I talked about how we are making the game accessible, so that casual players don’t get intimidated by the use of actual martial arts.
However, we want to make the game equally appealing for hardcore players and martial arts purists. So the experience will be able to dynamically range from a slow one-on-one fight where each participant takes turns to perform a slow and easy move to frantic, many-on-one encounters where you have a split second to react to what’s going on in the battlefield and really put your skills to the test.
We are putting tremendous amount of development effort in our Fight Choreography Engine technology to support these features and we are very happy to be innovating dramatically in this field.
Ian: What will a general level of Kung Fu Superstar be like? Will there be an emphasis on perfecting a sequence in one take or will gamers literally be able to be part of a grand action movie with multiple scenes to partake in within a particular movie? And with the game being different than what we’ve seen in the past, what is the development team doing to keep the pacing up and make it challenging enough for players to enjoy?
Kostas: Gameplay in Kung Fu Superstar alternates between acquiring new skills at the dojo and unlocking movie contracts where you get to use your skills on the set. You pretty much nailed the movie filming gameplay, you’ll basically be travelling from set to set to shoot the action sequences of each movie.
When you’re in this mode the movie story takes over the narrative pretty much, so we want to engross you into these side stories as much as possible. Of course when you revert back to the “real world” Danny’s overarching story takes the reins again. It’s a technique often used in your favourite TV shows, where you have some standalone episodes, where the drama revolves around the characters’ usual day to day and then you have episodes that develop the overarching narrative. The audience gets emotionally invested in both cases albeit for different reasons. And importantly character development also takes place in both cases.
About your question on perfecting a level or rushing through stuff: We are all about choice. Certain players will want to perfect a fight sequence and make sure they’ve nailed each and every encounter before they move on, whereas others will want to quickly reach the end of a sequence to find out what happens next. We will encourage both styles of gameplay although obviously the more one invests in the experience the more rewarding it will be.
Ian: The world of Kung Fu Superstar is built around movies and making them exciting through deep fighting scenes. While the game may not be a deep movie making sim akin to Lionhead’s The Movies, will there be small nods to the actual film making aspect within Kung Fu Superstar such as visibly seeing the crew or hearing a director shout instructions to the player?
Kostas: Oh yes, absolutely. We love movies and action cinema and we’re not just talking about the end result on the screen, we are talking about the “making of” side of it too. So we really want to capture the drama and excitement that goes on behind the cameras, in fact this is largely what Danny’s own story will be revolving around. You saw a glimpse of that in the end of our announcement trailer I guess when the director and movie crew appear on screen.
We’re also reaching out to key people from the industry in an effort to capture the authenticity of being a stuntman. What drives them to put all that immense amount of effort to be the best at what they do? What pushes them to overcome the physical and mental challenges? The movie set is a very intense environment, with multiple people working hard towards a collaborative goal, something that can often lead to a clash of personalities. How does Danny deal with stuff like that?
Stuntman and author John Kreng, who appears in our Kickstarter pitch video, has been instrumental in not only providing us with insight into that perspective, but also helping us push the drama of our fight choreographies themselves, using his experience as a fight and stunt coordinator.
Ian: Will there be any nods to old martial arts films or film legends in Kung Fu Superstar? The passion for the genre is clear within the team at Kinesthetic Games so could we see a potential homage to a Jet Li or Donnie Yen film within a segment of Kung Fu Superstar or is the team focused on making their own iconic moments?
Kostas: Absolutely! It would be silly to pass on such an opportunity :) You’ve probably already noticed from our various videos that a lot of the movie environments are nods to popular martial arts films and this is intentional. We want Danny to be his own hero eventually, but at the same time we do want to tip our hats to the action movies we loved growing up with and which have influenced our lives so greatly. And yes, we want to make the most of the variety that can be found in martial arts cinema and range all the way from silly “Kung Pow” martial arts comedies all the way to epic “Hero/Crouching Tiger” kung fu dramas.
Ian: Unlike other games that have gone the Kinect route, Kung Fu Superstar won’t be exclusive to that peripheral since the game is also currently set to support traditional controllers in addition to receiving a tablet version. I know things may still be early in development, but can you talk a bit about how the gameplay of Kung Fu Superstar will change when playing it on a tablet or with a regular controller? Obviously things will drastically be different without motion controls, so what sort of direction is the team taking with how the game plays with a controller and how gamers can jump back into the fray with the Kinetic anytime they wish?
Kostas: Sure thing! In short all it is really is a very simple concept. If you are playing the game on a controller it’s basically a really cool controller based third person action game. As soon as you put the controller aside and stand up it switches to the “trademark” Kung Fu Superstar martial arts combat simulator gameplay. And you can jump between the two at will.
Like you say the two gameplay modes are drastically different, but to us, again, it’s all about choice. Some players might be perfectly happy never experiencing the motion control side of the game. That’s fine! Play the whole game on your controller. Or you might want to just use motion control. Again, knock yourself out. You’ve got both options? Feel free to swap between them whenever you want.
Basically we don’t believe it is our choice to make. We are there to support your choice, not to enforce it. It’s the same as driving games really. You can use a steering wheel or a controller but the game is perfectly fun with both options. Tablet gameplay we’re not really detailing just yet (although you can see glimpses of it in our videos so really eagle eyed fans will probably be able to make some educated guesses about what that might be like :)
Ian: Since the structure of Kung Fu Superstar revolves around the journey of Danny Cheng working in various movies there’s obviously room to extend the experience via DLC. I know that the development team must be focused on merely finishing the game as it is now, but what sort of direction may be taken when it comes to offering DLC stages? Could we see a lot of DLC in the future or will such a thing only be done sparsely?
Kostas: Indeed! We view Kung Fu Superstar as a platform more than a single game really (especially with how the line between games and services seems to get blurrier and blurrier these days). So we are building our Fight Choreography Engine tech in a way that it will be very easy to extend with new martial art styles, techniques and lessons in the future. And in fact we are talking with martial art schools and organisations who might want to use KFS as a way to get their content out to people in a fun, interactive way.
At the same time DLC is a bit of a sensitive topic, so we want to reassure people that first and foremost we are looking to provide a useful and fun service with this, a service that we think is missing from the gaming landscape right now. We are not looking to milk martial arts fans of their hard earned cash. So while the details of how future content will be set up are fairly hazy during these early days, I want to personally guarantee to our fans that with each and every new release we will be looking to ensure maximum value for fans of Kung Fu Superstar.
Ian: Another cool element of Kung Fu Superstar is that the game is being developed to support the Oculus Rift device. So far the Oculus has gotten a lot of good buzz amongst developers and those who have tried it out, but what sort of impact will it have on the experience featured in Kung Fu Superstar? Development on implementing the Oculus Rift may still be in the early stages, but what has it been like to adapt the elements of Kung Fu Superstar to work in tandem with the Rift without either components (gameplay, VR tech) losing some of their edge?
Kostas: I was blown away when I saw clips of the Rift and what Palmer and the guys at Oculus were doing with it. In fact I was so excited about the possibility of a device like that working with Kung Fu Superstar that we got on a plane and went to meet them. We showed the guys what we were doing with KFS and they were super excited as were we when we tried the Rift, only to find out that it’s even better when you try it for yourself. So the decision to experiment with Oculus Rift support in Kung Fu Superstar was obvious.
In our Controls and Gameplay video you can see how we want to approach Oculus Rift based gameplay. I think it’s really exciting to be able to put the players literally in the heat of battle where they’d have to physically look around to identify threats and respond efficiently.
One thing I want to point out though is that, like all the other backers of the Rift, we don’t have an SDK in the office yet. So until we can get our hands on the device all we will be able to confirm is our intention to support it.
Ian: When I saw both the debut trailer and most recent footage of Kung Fu Superstar I was floored with how good it looked and the potential it showed within the arena of fighting games. With that said there are a lot of Kinect skeptics out there who have been burned in the past by one too many games that either wasn’t what it was hyped up to be or failed for one reason or another. As a developer are you a bit afraid that Kung Fu Superstar may not get a fair shot amongst gamers since they’ve been disappointed too often in the past by other titles?
Kostas: I am indeed. In fact I believe this is largely the reason why our Kickstarter campaign hasn’t exactly kicked off to a flying start. There’s a huge amount of (justified) disbelief towards motion control out there and that is really affecting our efforts to push Kung Fu Superstar.
We knew we’d have an uphill struggle trying to change gamers’ minds about what motion control could actually mean to them and how it could be used for a sophisticated and deep experience, a proper hardcore game, but we didn’t expect we’d have to fight this hard. We did hope that showing the advances we have achieved with our tech and our work so far as well as getting high profile people from the games, movies and martial arts worlds to try the game and endorse the project would tip the scales to our advantage. However it appears that even that wasn’t enough to clean the slate for many gamers.
It is a bit sad and disappointing and slightly unfair for people to judge your effort based on other people’s efforts in the same space. It is also justified though, as it is a human reaction (if you don’t have firsthand experience of something your only option is to judge it based on some other similar experience).
There’s not much we can do apart from keep pushing the vision and keep showing people how we are trying to innovate and change the status quo in motion control gaming. There’s been a lot of people who *totally* get what we are trying to do and are fully behind us and I think these are the people who have properly gone through everything we’ve put out there. We just hope more people will give us the same benefit of a doubt.
What I personally want people to understand is that we are not trying to push a specific technology or methodology. We are trying to capture people’s imagination by making progress towards realizing that gaming “sci fi wet dream” whereby the line between gaming and fully immersive simulation becomes indistinguishable. That is what we want to achieve long term and Kung Fu Superstar is our first step towards that dream.
Ian: As a developer that has spent plenty of time developing titles for the Kinect, what do you think are the biggest things developers need to change moving forward when it comes to developing titles for the device? So far we’ve seen a lot of games that are either on-rails or simply feature a lot of arm failing mechanics that aren’t too much fun in the end. So do you think developers should perhaps look outside their comfort zones to create something conceptually daring while still appealing to the mass market needed to make a game a financial success?
Kostas: Like I said before, I think it’s simple: just don’t pretend what you are using to implement your game design with does not have limitations. Acknowledge the limitations and account for them in your design and you’ll end up with a great game.
To me this is pretty obvious. What is surprising is how few motion control games seem to follow this design principle. The only two I can think of when it comes to Kinect are Dance Central and Fruit Ninja Kinect.
I also think there’s a big disconnect between business decision makers and what gamers are actually after, which often leads to designing games based on how to appeal to certain demographics. I think the games that have been hugely successful in the past have come from the passion of the designer to build something that appeals to them first and foremost. Then people connect with that passion and provided enough people do that, you get successful games.
These days it seems to be done the other way around and largely based on market research data. There have definitely been a lot of commercially successful products that have been created that way. I am just not a huge fan of that design methodology personally.
Ian: With your expertise developing Kinect gamers and perhaps being privy to information outside parties may not know, what sort of things would you like to see pushed with the next-gen iteration of the Kinect? Is there something in particular that you would like to see focused on with the next Kinect aside from having a greater fidelity of movement recognition?
Kostas: I play games for escapism and immersion. I am not a kung fu stuntman in real life, but I’d love to get the odd glimpse of being one every now and then! I believe motion control and relevant technologies (like the Rift for instance) can greatly aid that. To my knowledge, there’s a lot of effort currently going into pushing these technologies for their future iterations.
What I worry is that their application in gaming might take a back seat as less and less people are interested in that. For instance while Kinect is losing ground with gamers it is gaining ground with more main stream entertainment consumer demographics, due to its use in things like search and controlling media. Which is great and I do want to see that stuff being pushed too, but I would be very disappointed if the platform holders stop pushing motion control in games because the public lost faith due to a range of bad motion control games this generation.
This is why I want to stress the importance of getting behind projects like Kung Fu Superstar. If we want to see immersive simulations in the future we want to deliver the message that we need to see things being pushed that direction today. Many people get back to us and say “why are you guys trying? Is the technology there for what you are trying to do?”. And while I believe we are doing an amazing job utilizing today’s technology, what I also tell them is that it’s not just about that. It’s about making sure there’s enough of a market there for games like this to be considered desirable when the perfect technology *is* there.
It’s a subtle point but very important and it often gets missed.
Ian: Kinesthetic Games will obviously have its hands in developing Kinect games, but where would you like to see the studio go in the future? Will we see the studio put an equal amount of time into developing tablet/traditional console games in additional to Kinect titles such as Kung Fu Superstar? And as a whole what sort of games/genres is the team interested the most in exploring once development on Kung Fu Superstar is wrapped up?
Kostas: We founded Kinesthetic Games out of a deep passion for innovation, immersion and pervasive emotional connection. These are the 3 core values we want to push with our games and while we believe Kung Fu Superstar ticks these three boxes today, we can’t wait to explore all the different ways we can tick them in the future.
Over the years I’ve seen and played hundreds if not thousands at this point of games at this point, but Kung Fu Superstar is one of the rare titles out there that literally took me aback due to how good it looks conceptually. It may still be too early to say if Kung Fu Superstar will deliver a golden experience in every regard, but the direction that Kinesthetic Games is taking is truly innovating, at least in my humbled opinion, as it’s finally breathing some new life into the action genre.
Right now the fate of Kung Fu Superstar is still somewhat up in the air as the game is currently seeking to receive funding via Kickstarter. I don’t say this too often, but gamers who adore action and martial arts games really owe it to themselves to check out Kung Fu Superstar since this is the game that could finally give us the cinematic and immersive experience we’ve been wishing for.