Would you give up a job working on one of the biggest franchises, at one of the biggest development studios in the world, in order to go out on your own and pursue a dream? To trade job security and that seldom used gym membership for a life of late-night programming, daytime TV, and the knowledge that--if all goes horribly wrong--it's more than just your livelihood on the line? That might be too risky a move for some, but for Kostas Zarifis, formerly of Lionhead and now leading newly formed indie studio Kinesthetic Games, it was the only move that made sense.
"I had something of my own that I really wanted to pursue--I had to do it," says Zarifis with confidence. "If you'd asked me if I thought I was going to be doing it so soon, I'd probably say no. But, at the same time, opportunities arise and you have to take them. It was just a case of really believing in the project I'm working on now, and it looked like other people believed in it too."
That project is Kung Fu Superstar, a motion-controlled action game born out of Lionhead's Creative Day, a yearly event where staff at the studio are free to come up with and pitch their own game ideas.
"When I first demoed Kung Fu Superstar, the reaction to it was really positive. I was frequently in discussions with Peter [Molyneux] about it, and it was perceived by everyone as a potentially successful project. But the thing is, Lionhead is very much focused on the Fable franchise right now, because it's amazing, and it's been doing really well for them. Kung Fu Superstar is drastically different. Potentially you could say it's not even a Lionhead game."
There's no denying how different it is. Kung Fu Superstar puts you in the shoes of an aspiring movie star called Danny Chang, a kid who spends his days throwing punches in his bedroom and watching Jackie Chan DVDs. His dream? To become the greatest of martial artists and star in his own films. The twist is that not only does Chang increase his skills onscreen, but you learn real martial arts moves too--"the ultimate RPG", Zarifis calls it. Naturally, that means there's a motion controller aspect to the game, but Zarifis is a little cagey when I ask exactly how it's all going to work.
"Lionhead is very much focused on the Fable franchise right now, because it's amazing, and it's been doing really well for them. Kung Fu Superstar is drastically different."
"There's a motion controller aspect to the game and there's a controller aspect too. We're not focusing on a particular motion controller platform at the moment. The project started on Kinect, but we're looking at other platforms and integrating an actual controller too. Of course, in order to physically learn the moves you have to experience the motion control side of the game. But, if you're just interested in playing a really fun, awesome fighting game, then you've got a choice.
There's currently two schools of thought when it comes to motion controls. The first is 1:1 control, which is the Star Wars approach. Then you've got the Dance Central approach, which doesn't show the player, but instead registers what they're doing. There's an argument that if you do it the Dance Central way, there's a disconnect between the player and the game that shouldn't be there. It's not an easy design choice, but as a developer you have to ask yourself, what's the most fun?"
It's a risky proposition, particularly as fast-paced action games and Kinect haven't exactly set the world on fire--just take a look at Kinect Star Wars and Steel Battalion--but Zarifis seems confident it will work, and work well.
"I think it's a problem with the design approach when it comes to Kinect, rather than the technology. At the hardware level Kinect is really fast. The amount of lag it has is completely miniscule. You've probably seen it yourself when you go into the Kinect tuner and you see your wireframe skeleton--that's very quick, almost instant. As a developer that's the kind of data we get, so it comes down to how you deal with it. In our case, I'd love to say it's really fast and it's really accurate because of the way we're approaching design. We're not fighting against the technology. That's where some people get it more right than others."
Despite this, Zarifis tells me he's "not trying to replace kung fu schools" but merely setting out to make an enjoyable game. And he's assembled quite the team to do so, which includes former Codemasters man Alasdair Martin and ex-Lionhead friend Anish Antony. But the biggest member of the team isn't one person, but rather a collection of people from across the globe--a sort of crowdfunding model where instead of seeking money, Zarifis is seeking programming talent.
"I think it's a problem with the design approach when it comes to Kinect…we're not fighting against the technology. That's where some people get it more right than others."
"It's amazing, because it's a very kind of different and unorthodox kind of model--I wasn't even sure it would work out to be honest. But it's working amazingly well for us. It's great to have the friction of the two worlds of industry veterans working with people with less experience, or that are just really keen. My thinking was that there are amazingly talented people out there who, for whatever reason, haven't had the chance to get a break. We were lucky enough to find a lot of those guys and bring them onboard."
There's a long way to go before Kung Fu Superstar is in the hands of gamers, and still a few months to go until there's even some concrete information on how exactly the game will work. And despite Zarifis' confidence, there's still a little bit of me that's sceptical that Kinect really can deliver a fast-paced action experience, never mind actually teaching someone kung fu. But it's easy to admire someone who's eager to risk it all in pursuit of a dream.
"If you think me leaving Lionhead was a big deal," says Zarifis "obviously Peter leaving to try out his own thing was a huge deal. I think that's pretty cool, because a lot of people in his position might not want to take that risk. For someone like him to go, 'You know what? Screw this' and go see what else he can do is pretty impressive. That's the biggest lesson I've learnt from Peter: to follow your dreams."