Kinect director kicks off sixth annual game marketing conference

MI6 2011: Microsoft's Kudo Tsunoda extols the benefits of having designers collaborate with marketers to create the Xbox 360's family-friendly add-on.

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Who was there: Kudo Tsunoda, creative director for the Kinect project, delivered a talk titled "Marketing's Critical Role in the Development of Kinect."

What they talked about: To herald the start of the sixth annual MI6 Game Marketing Conference in San Francisco, Kudo Tsunoda delivered a keynote address focused on one of the most successful marketing campaigns of 2010, that of Microsoft's Kinect motion-sensing camera peripheral.

Marketing and design worked hand in hand to refine the Kinect.
Marketing and design worked hand in hand to refine the Kinect.

Tsunoda began by talking about the "inherent weird tension" that arises whenever developers work with marketing people. But with the Kinect, Tsunoda said the marketing team was instrumental in crafting the experience and defining what the product was going to be, more so than with any other project he has worked on. He said he was especially happy to talk at MI6 because it gave him a chance to give credit to the marketing team for their role in making the peripheral. He asked the team to stand up and receive a round of applause, which they reluctantly did.

Noting their begrudging compliance, Tsunoda quipped, "That's the last time we ever try to give you credit for anything."

Tsunoda talked about the history between marketing and development teams, sarcastically noting that they're always on the same page with their goals and how to achieve them. After an extended riff on that note, Tsunoda said when the Kinect project first started, the concept was to simply get new customers beyond the core gamer crowd, which made up the Xbox's user base. He said the goal was to get people who didn't have any experience with games to have fun with the system right away, though he noted that his prior work experience consisted of about 16 years of solving problems like having digital blood shoot out of a character's face in just the right way.

Tsunoda then offered a designer concept video to show off some of their first (misguided) ideas, including having the machine personified by a sinister red eye in the screen looking at the player constantly, or making a game that would see a player in New York and a player in Seattle skipping a virtual jump rope, trying to get as many people as possible to engage in "the world's longest jump rope." It was clear that the developers needed to go after the problem from a different angle.

Tsunoda talked about a "method acting" approach to game design. Instead of just brainstorming, he said it was time to do research and learn about what the customers wanted. For example, they had moms come in and share their ideas with the team about how people could use it. He also said he spent his weekends in a park videotaping kids at play, although that initiative had to be cut short due to parental concerns.

The creativity that went into the Kinect was in finding new ways to do research, Tsunoda said. With the Kinect, there wasn't some inherent skill walling off designers from everybody else, he said. Anyone who could figure out a good way to use the interface was essentially a designer, which made the end result a more inclusive process.

He also talked about the importance of the first concept video the marketing team put together. It was one thing for the developers to understand they were going after a new audience, but the data on demographics they got from marketing was key in providing a direction to head in. It was marketers that underscored the need to make the play particularly physical, approachable, and intuitive. And it wasn't just that the marketers unloaded data on the developers and told them how to use it, Tsunoda said. It was that they used the data to help tell them where to go with their existing ideas to make them better.

Tsunoda talked about a few key principles for the Kinect. It needed to be approachable so players could get started in under 30 seconds. It also needed to be social, and not in a sitting-in-the-basement-shooting-other-people-in-the-head kind of way. It also had to be as fun to watch as it was to play so that everyone in the room could enjoy the experience, even if they're not the ones in control. Finally, the Kinect had to let people play how they wanted to play.

He pointed to the Breakout-inspired game Rallyball 3D, which was used to demo the system as an example. They had the Manchester soccer team come in to try it, and they would use only their heads and feet to hit the balls.

Tsunoda talked about previous attempts Microsoft had made to expand the user base, saying that in the past, they suffered from a lack of collaboration between designers and marketers. One example he gave was pink and baby blue Xbox 360 controllers, mocking the idea that the only thing keeping women from embracing the system was the color of the controller.

The collaboration between marketing and design extended throughout the entire development process, Tsunoda said. Marketing was sharing ideas and playing builds, and the department was never out of step with the development team because they all did everything together, "fused at every step from the beginning in every way."

Tsunoda also noted the marketing team's contributions at milestone reviews. The first time the developers sat in a milestone meeting with the marketers, they found the marketers giving unprompted support for everything the developers were saying, "jumping on top of one another to say the same thing."

Tsunoda stressed that because of design and marketing's collaboration, it was possible to meld ideas from both fields into the end product. Though Tsunoda said he's a bit of a micromanager, Kinect marketing videos were the first time where he was essentially hands-off and had no worries about how they'd turn out due to the solid ties between the development and marketing teams.

Quote: "Suddenly design was not this thing that was exclusive to designers."--Tsunoda, on the early development process.

Takeaway: Tsunoda wrapped up his presentation with a Jerry Springer-like "final thoughts," dimming the lights and taking a seat on a stool to talk about the marketing-development team partnership that was critical to the success of the Kinect. In the end, he offered not only a takeaway for the presentation, but also his own takeaway from the entire development cycle in a single question: "Why the heck wouldn't we do this with all products?"

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