What Went WROnG
1} MOvinG fROM “GOOd” tO “fla Wless” detectiOn. Our move detection
system relies on Kinect’s skeletal tracking to score hundreds of unique dance
moves across our 32 songs. Delivering immediate and accurate feedback
to the player about how well they are dancing is at the heart of our game. As
a result, we knew that the quality of our detection would make or break the
experience. We also knew it would be one of our biggest technical challenges.
Eager to start, we began prototyping our move detection with modest
expectations in terms of how well it would work. It didn’t take us long to
develop reasonably good detection. While our prototype wasn’t at shipping-quality, it worked well enough to facilitate gameplay and choreography
testing while our engineering team continued to research better methods.
Unfortunately, getting from reasonably good to shipping-quality move
detection proved much harder than our initial efforts led us to believe. Our two
subsequent approaches demonstrated incremental improvements over our
early prototype, but were ultimately deemed unacceptable and scrapped. We
had learned a lot from our efforts, but we were running out of time. With only a
few months left, we settled on what we believed was a solid technical solution.
To prove that this system was capable, we focused on authoring and
tuning detection for one example song with the goal of getting it all the way
to shipping-quality. The positive outcome was that the detection worked well
and we finally had a system we were confident would do our dance moves
justice. That said, we had an experience that remained unpolished until the
final throes of development. This made it more challenging to evaluate our
overall progress and led to other production woes as we closed in on GM.
2} Behind the Beat. After we got detection we were happy with for one of
our songs, we began the process of applying that method to the entire title. It
was immediately clear that we had greatly underestimated how much time it
would take to author, tune, and validate this new detection for each song. With
31 more songs to go and rapidly approaching deadlines, this miscalculation
created an arduous three-week “detection crunch” at the end of the project.
This “detection crunch” bled over into a time when we were expecting
to be focused on bug fixing. It was an immense challenge for the design
team to revisit all the material in the game and to painstakingly prepare
every routine for review and testing while we integrated other last minute
additions like voice-over.
Furthermore, as each song was tuned, our QA team had to learn, master,
and continually repeat demanding expert-level choreography so they could
confirm the detection was working as intended. Dancing for hours a day for
several weeks, our testers became physically and mentally exhausted. In
order to acquire all the necessary test data, we enlisted dozens of additional
staff from Harmonix to learn and perform routines. As our deadline loomed,
it took a Herculean effort from our design, QA, and playtesting teams, with
an assist from other studio volunteers over the final stretch, to make it to
shipping quality detection for all 32 of our routines.
3} GettinG lOW. Dance central’s choreography covers a substantial range
of difficulty, from simple two-steps to challenging toprock moves. We knew
that having a broad range of choreography was necessary for the game to
appeal to both novices and experts, but as the project unfolded we were
unsure about the qualities that define the difficulty of a given move. We knew
that delivering an accessible experience on easy would be vital to the title’s
broad appeal, but throughout development, we tried and failed to establish
an appropriate “low bar” numerous times.
Our first attempt began with our choreographers developing a few
complex routines and presenting them to the design team. The design team,
a group with a range of dance skills, tried out each move and discussed which
were easy, medium, and hard. Using those ratings, we derived easy and
medium combinations and videotaped the choreographers performing them.
We presented these videos to various playtesters and had each try to dance
game developer | January 2011 28
along, rating the difficulty of the moves and the routines. Unfortunately, our
playtesters weren’t good judges of their own skill level or performance. Once
the songs were integrated into the game and players were scored, we found
playtesters struggling with moves they had previous rated as easy. This
problem was compounded by the fact that we had already motion captured
the routines and couldn’t reshoot, given the release schedule. We were stuck
with some very challenging hard routines.
We tried again, this time encouraging our choreographers to come up with
a few very simple routines. This time, our easy and medium levels turned
out much easier. Some of our more talented playtesters were able to pick up
hard levels without much effort. We thought we had reached an acceptable
easy, but then tried presenting these levels to some key high-level staff
who struggled, unable to perform the majority of the moves. With important
members of the Harmonix brain trust unable to comment on the mechanics
of the game, we knew we had yet to find universally accessible choreography.
With a few months to go, we finally figured out how to use staff members
with minimal dance skills to our advantage. We asked our choreographers
to generate a number of very easy moves and set up a dance class to teach