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Last year, when Microsoft released Kinect, a 3D camera for the Xbox 360 that lets players interact with a game using only their movements, developers were finally able to realize the dream of truly controller-free gaming.

Now, barely six months later, a group of DigiPen students is bringing that technology to their game — and the project is taking off as a result.

Team Disco Tank, made up of RTIS students Kyle Holdwick, Jordan Hemenway, Westley Hennigh, Steven Liss, and Robert Onulak in addition to BFA students Kieran Lampert, Randy McMeekin, Jeff Mountain, and David Spriggs, initially planned for their game, Solstice, to be played with either a gamepad or a mouse and keyboard. But when the school year ended, they started to consider taking the project in a new direction.

“We had talked a lot about ‘how do we make this more fun for gamers … how do we make it more mechanical?’” says Liss. “Then after we made our gold build in April, I sent a video to my mom, and she was like ‘Girls are going to love your game!’ And at that point, I realized that we shouldn’t make the game more mechanical — in fact, we should stay away from that, because we have potentially something that will interest people who might not ordinarily be interested in a game.”

It was the coolest thing ever for us that we could actually fly the character by just moving our hands.”

The team began experimenting with the Kinect even before Microsoft officially released its Windows software development kit by using a set of drivers from PrimeSense, the company who initially supplied the 3D sensing technology to Microsoft.

“At first it basically captured just your hands as blobs, so you had to ‘Superman’ it because if your hands were too close or too far from your body, it didn’t work,” says Hemenway. “But the ironic part was after all that, even though it was kind of a pain, it was the coolest thing ever for us that we could actually fly the character by just moving our hands.”

Once they saw the Kinect’s potential, they made the decision to commit to the technology and begin redesigning the game with its new control scheme in mind. “The gameplay itself is flying around the world, so the biggest thing we had to figure out was with Kinect, it’s harder to be precise — it’s more fun to not be as precise in many ways,” Hemenway says. “So you have to make things bigger and more expansive, and make targets a lot easier to hit when swooping through. Basically, the entire idea behind the level designs had to change.”

Since you don’t have to hold a controller now, you have a lot of freedom in how you move.”

Beyond the level design, the team found the switch from controller to Kinect posed plenty of interesting new questions.

“There’s a lot of other things about the Kinect that we’re still trying to figure out,” Holdwick says, “like operating menus, pausing the game, and doing a lot of those typical ‘game’ things that are so obvious to do with a controller — it’s not so obvious to do with the Kinect!”

But rather than frustrating the team, the Kinect has given them a new sense of purpose. “It’s definitely been a reinvigorating thing for the design process,” Hemenway says. “We kind of got to a point after the end of gold where it was like ‘OK, now we just take the same game and do more with it maybe?’ But now, with Kinect, even if you are doing something similar, it just feels different, because you have to think about how people are going to walk up to it and mess with it. It’s definitely fun.”

Liss even feels the Kinect could be the crucial ingredient that allows Solstice to deliver the kind of experience the team envisioned from the beginning. “I think it aligns the method of play with sort of the ideology of the game, because the game is intended to feel open and free, and since you don’t have to hold a controller now, you have a lot of freedom in how you move.”

The downside of the new control scheme is that far fewer players have access to a Kinect camera than they do a mouse and keyboard. But once the team decides Solstice is ready for the public, players who already own the Kinect hardware will be able to download the Windows software development kit and dive right in. Until then, Team Disco Tank will be busy tweaking and polishing the game for its maiden voyage — and if early tests are any indication, players are in for a thrilling ride.

Watch a preview of Solstice on the Kinect.