An Interview with Aki Kanerva, Virtual Air Guitar Company

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Today we’re going to take a look at Virtual Air Guitar Company, an indie developer who is dedicated to delivering unique experiences through the use of alternative and innovative technologies.

Virtual Air Guitar Company has released two games through the ID@Xbox program for the Xbox One, Boom Ball for Kinect and Squid Hero for Kinect. Their latest title, Beatsplosion for Kinect, is set to be released on Xbox Live for the Xbox One on 30th December, 2015.

I managed to catch up with Aki Kanerva, the lead designer and founder of Virtual Air Guitar Company who was more than happy to answer a few barrage of questions. I took the opportunity to learn more about the man behind the studio, its history and possible future projects.

It’s quite a lengthy read so grab your favourite beverage, relax and read on.

Aki Kanerva

What inspired you to create video games?

I didn’t set out to be a game developer specifically. I studied interface design, content production, usability and the basics of various social sciences at Aalto university, but I primarily wanted to do interesting things with music technology. I joined a team that was doing interesting things with virtual reality and other novel interfaces. Among other instruments, we used computer vision to create an air guitar that you could actually play. It would detect the orange gloves you wore, measure the distance between your hands and pick up strumming motions, and react with a realistic electric guitar sound.

This installation was displayed at Heureka Science Centre, and went on to get lots of international press, ranging from New Scientist to Discovery Channel. At that point, we started wondering about ways to bring that experience to everyone’s living room, and ended up with console games. PS3 and Xbox 360 had just come out, so there was a lot of processing power that could allow computer vision algorithms to run on consumer devices for the first time. All of us liked games, of course, but it was more that we wanted to use the platform to do something nobody else had done before.

Were there any challenges you had to overcome in effectively starting up/running your own studio?

Well, they never teach you how to run a business at school, do they? Actually I think they do nowadays. But it’s still a whole different thing to actually go through the whole thing in practice: drafting a business plan that makes sense, pitching to investors, traveling to meet publishers, acquiring patents, expanding the team, making coffee… we actually had a pretty great start, since we already had media attention and technology to show. The real challenges were still off in the future…

What’s your favourite game that your studio has developed?

I like Kung-Fu High Impact. It still does something that no other camera game has done: it puts you into the game as yourself and lets you do anything you like. I’m also very happy with the way Boom Ball for Kinect turned out. Despite being our first Xbox One game, we were able to learn the platform very quickly. Boom Ball is a game that anyone can pick up, especially kids.

Do you have any advice for aspiring indie developers?

This is the bit where I say something like “follow your heart” right? No, I’m going to go for something more practical. As hard as it can seem, don’t just think about your first project. It’s the second one that gets you. Have you ever wondered why there are so many great indie games out there, but you never hear about the developers again? That’s because the first game gets developed in a garage without anyone getting salary. What gets you is actually running that studio. So be prepared that your first project will not go as you’d planned. Have something in your back pocket so you’re not standing on empty air once the first game is out.

Do you have a favourite platform or video game, either modern or retro?

I started out on an Atari ST, which will forever hold special meaning to me, but PC is the one I like most. I’m a gaming omnivore so I love the versatility and diversity. I can be playing Civilization one moment and hop to Octodad in the next, or take part in developing an open world. I like to do a little bit of everything to keep an open mind. If I only played Kinect games, I’d get tunnel vision and miss the big picture!

If you had to single out your greatest gaming memory that’ll be forever immortalised as long as you live, which would it be?

Ooh that’s a tough one, so many choices… I guess the memories that really stick with you are the earliest ones. So I’m going to go with finally completing Turrican II on the Atari ST. It was in the time before savegames had been invented, you only got three lives and it took hours to play through, so there was hardly a chance to practice the later levels. I must have gone through the beginning hundreds of times. But when that last boss was finally defeated, that feeling of accomplishment was overwhelming. It was a joint effort, too – you had to play in turns with a friend to avoid joystick fatigue and stupid mistakes.

Turrican II (Atari ST) “The End !” screen – In your victory we salute you!

If you had to select a studio, past or present, to receive the “Best Studio Ever!” award who would you choose and why?

Another tough choice… I admire CD Projekt RED for doing things their own way, both in business and in the design of the Witcher games, and for their commitment to staying independent. I respect Harmonix for being a major force in pushing music and motion games forward. I love Telltale Games and how they keep making these amazing and popular experiences that aren’t traditional games by any stretch. And it’s wonderful to have all these indies who carve out their own niche and stick with it, though naming any single one would feel unfair.

Virtual Air Guitar Company

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of your studio and what compelled you to specialise in motion control experiences?

Back in 2005, we were three researchers in Aalto University. We were interested in novel interfaces, virtual musical instruments and virtual reality. We did that air guitar installation I talked about earlier, and founded the company to bring that experience to everyone.

Our first game was to be Virtual Air Guitar, a game that placed you as yourself on stage as a rock star. In contrast to Guitar Hero, which came out around the time we started too, the focus was going to be on the visual performance part: all that furious motion, windmills, limbo bends, jumps, fireworks, explosions, the whole thing surrounding the actual bit where you play an instrument.

Alas, that game was cancelled by the publisher, as these things go. It was a major setback, but we still wanted to create things that nobody had done before. We had a second concept in our back pocket and we’d already learned a great deal about game development, and so we went on to develop Kung-Fu Live for PS3, and more games followed.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered while developing motion control games over the years?

It’s been a rough ride for sure. Staying up to date with evolving technologies, that’s a fun challenge. Dealing with risk aversion from publishers and outright hostility in the media, not so much.

Kung-Fu High Impact’s publisher went belly-up after the game’s release. There was no ID@Xbox programme on Xbox 360, so we couldn’t self-publish. You had to have a publisher, but they wanted nothing to do with Kinect. Back in 2011 there were dozens of Kinect titles released for Xbox 360 by third-party publishers. In 2012, the time of the Big Kinect Hate, you didn’t need many fingers to count the non-Microsoft Kinect titles. I think they were both dance game sequels to boot.

So we expanded to other platforms. We developed Kung-Fu for a Chinese console – they chose it as the flagship game actually – but the console didn’t sell and they went belly-up too. We then worked with PrimeSense, the guys who created the original Kinect hardware – until they got bought up by Apple, which cancelled our project as well. We tried Leap Motion and it worked well on the first game, but it’s yet to rise up as a viable gaming platform.

After all this, Xbox One and the ID@Xbox programme were just about the best thing that could happen. A platform that wasn’t likely to go bankrupt or get bought out, and the ability to control our own destiny by self-publishing games. Now the challenge is of course surviving the Indiegeddon and standing out from the amazing diversity… but that’s kind of a happy problem.

In 2013 Microsoft originally planned for every Xbox One to include a Kinect 2.0 sensor bar which would have been great for your studio. Did the announcement have any effect on the vision of your studios future?

I can’t say I was happy to hear that Kinects were no longer being bundled with every Xbox One. But I don’t see it as a disaster either. It’s possible that there are now more Xbox Ones out there than there might have been if its price had been higher. Now the Standalone Kinect’s price has dropped from $149 to $99 and there’s a broader selection of games, so this is the perfect time to upgrade a plain Xbox One with a Kinect.

The Kinect has had a turbulent history resulting in little support from developers and publishers. What motivates you to continue to develop for the Kinect Platform?

Seeing kids learn instantly and give it everything they have, jumping around in pure glee. Getting amazed looks from their parents who never thought video games could be useful. Seeing the crowds gather and the queues form up whenever we show our games at exhibits. Hearing comments where players say they’ve never been in better shape, or how they never thought you could do something like this with games, or how they don’t think much of video games but this is something else. There has to be a way to make this work!

Do you think Kinect will regain popularity or be leapfrogged by other emerging technologies such as virtual reality or augmented reality?

I don’t see why multiple technologies couldn’t co-exist peacefully. VR is not Kinect 3.0. The things that are great in VR are not the same things that are great with Kinect. Sure, there’s some overlap, but I believe there will be experiences where Kinect will remain the best choice.

In the near future will you be focusing on producing Kinect games or will you venture into virtual and augmented reality technologies?

We’re definitely looking into both virtual and augmented reality. The challenge right now is that there are too many competing technologies and few actual users. Risking everything on one platform and then finding out it went all Betamax on you would be disastrous. That’s not to say we don’t have ideas – there’s a certain fighting game that could become first-person…

Betamax gone but not forgotten…

Could you ever see your studio developing games without motion controls at the heart of the experience?

Well, we have ten years of experience with motion control. It’d be a waste to toss out the knowledge that makes us unique. Having said that, I also don’t want to be tied down to a specific piece of hardware. It’s better to keep a fresh perspective and try out all technologies within the realm of possibility. We started out on webcams, and we’ve used PlayStation Eye, both Kinects, PrimeSensor, Leap Motion, Intel RealSense and a bunch of others as well. The key is to find out what’s unique about a particular piece of technology, and how to use it to make something that wouldn’t make sense with any other input method.

Beatsplosion

I’ve had the pleasure of previewing Beatsplosion and while I can’t claim to be a beat ninja I’ve had a great time. Where did the original idea come from?

Beatsplosion kind of evolved piece by piece through experimentation and prototyping. You just can’t design these things on paper.

We’d just finished Squid Hero, and I wanted to experiment further with two things: objects breaking apart physically based on the player’s movements, and high-speed racing with dodging.

We also wanted to do something with more focus on the intensity of movement, something that would give you a workout almost by accident while you were playing a game that’s fun in its own right. So I took the idea of punching and dodging from Kung-Fu and applied that into a different environment. Punching things and having them fragment realistically? Very satisfying.

Music was the thing that gelled everything together though. Having everything timed into a rhythm made it much easier to get into that “flow” where you’re just doing things without thinking about them, totally absorbed in the moment. As soon as we had our first test music track in the game, we knew that keeping everything in rhythm was the way to go.

And so we ended up with a game that has elements of rhythm, combat and exercise, but they’re all smushed up together in an inseparable way.

Beatsplosion is to be released in the next few days, do you have any other projects in the pipeline that you can share with us today?

We have a lot of stuff in store, although I’m not yet sure in which order we’ll work on them. I want to see if we can bring Kung-Fu High Impact to Xbox One, because there’s a whole new generation of Kinect owners who have never had the chance to try out the Xbox 360 original.

I’m also very excited about a Kinect stealth game concept I’ve been working on… there’s also the possibility of doing a sequel to Boom Ball, or maybe taking it a bit more towards sports (tongue planted firmly in cheek of course). We’ve also got a prototype for a Kinect 3D platformer, with more freedom of movement in all directions than in Kung-Fu, as well as a side-scrolling shooter. We’re also looking into doing more parents-and-kids experiences that people enjoyed with Boom Ball and Squid Hero.

The real kicker, however, is the prototype of an avatar-based third-person combat game – basically, Kung-Fu in full 3D. It’s a big enough project that external financing is needed to make it happen, however.

Will the identity of the Beat Ninja ever be revealed!?

I guess I’d like to end the interview the one question I’ve been dying to ask since I first made contact with you. Are you the beat ninja from launch trailer of Beatsplosion?

The beat ninja is a shadow that shall forever remain in the darkness… oh very well, yes, it’s me. Ah, the sacrifices one makes for game development. After that ten-hour filming session, I was totally beat. Pun intended. You really have to put extra effort behind every movement to make it look even halfway decent on camera. I was sore for days!

Well it was ten-hours worth while because I think you’re a legend and my children think you’re a real ninja.

Haha, that’s awesome, thanks! The new generation of beat ninjas begins here… soon we will be everywhere, mwahaha!

Lastly I would like to give you the opportunity say something or go over anything that I might have missed during the interview?

I would love to see more indie studios taking advantage of Kinect. What we need right now is diversity and lots of ideas, not just dance game sequels. They’re great and all, but Kinect can be so much more. Nearly half of Xbox One owners have a Kinect, but many don’t use it for gaming. I believe this is because the right game for them hasn’t turned up yet. It’s up to us indies to show all the different ways you can have fun with Kinect.

I’d just like to say thank you for time, it’s been a real pleasure getting to know more about you and your studio. We wish you the best of luck and hope to hear more from you in the future.

Thanks for the opportunity! I hope to have juicy news to share next year…

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David Widdows

Birth Weight: 10lbs

Dave is somewhat of a reclusive creature who predominantly resides in what has come to be known as 'The Man Cave'. Self-proclaimed nemesis to the Sun and its warm embrace, he relies heavily on background radiation and tea for sustenance to fuel his insatiable lust for gaming.

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