Previews

Champions in the cloud - how Kinect Sports Rivals online AI works

"Sports are so much more meaningful when you're playing against people you know."

Forza Motorsport 5 isn't the only Xbox One game to make actual, practical use of the much-sung, much-maligned Xbox Live cloud. The Kinect Sports Rivals Champions system also draws on Microsoft's hefty server arsenal, allowing players to store nipped, tucked, perpetually evolving AI versions of themselves online, who then compete against other players in your absence. Why did Rare opt for this functionality, rather than the usual array of pre-fabbed computer constructs? I spoke to executive producer Danny Isaac for more.

Where the original Kinect Sports games for Xbox 360 were designed to appeal to parents and that eternally nebulous entity, the "casual gamer", Rare has now set its sights on a more competitive, enduring breed of player. The new Kinect sensor's accuracy and responsiveness have been useful, needless to say, allowing riders to chip milliseconds off a completion time by minutely tilting their upper bodies during a critical turn, but the other half of the puzzle is fostering more of a head-to-head ethos by way of smarter matchmaking, a proper community campaign and AI devilry.

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There are three, vaguely Hogwarts-ish player clans in Kinect Sports Rivals - Wolf Clan, Eagle Legion and Viper Network. They'll do battle for glory and, I expect, in-game prizes in regular community events. You can also label players as Rivals in order to prioritise beating their scores. Thanks to the Champions system, it's not necessary to be online at the same time as a friend in order to maintain a rivalry - as with Forza 5's Drivatars, you'll be able to see how they've performed against your Champion when you next sign in, though Rare has yet to demonstrate how this will work in practice.

"Sports are so much more meaningful when you're playing against people you know, obviously, whether they're your friends or Rivals," Isaac told me. "Rather than just have random AI characters, we have this thing where you can scan yourself in, so that the Champion becomes you.

"And not only that, it looks at your skill level and how well you've played, so when I play against you your character will be there and it'll perform at your sort of skill level as well. So, even when I'm playing by myself and you're offline, it feels like I'm playing around with my friends and family." When Rival Champions meet, you can expect a more intense and ferocious clash. "In wake racing if it's your Rival, they'll come after you more aggressively."

Where Turn 10 appears to be aiming for the utmost in fidelity with Drivatars, drip-feeding your performance with each car on each individual track to the AI, Rare wants to create a more general representation of your capabilities. "It'll round out the lap times based on what you basically try to do. We did have a system where it copied you a lot more exactly, but to be honest it was really broad brushstrokes that people picked up on.

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"The subtle nuances, it was like OK, you can't really tell the difference between this and this," continued Isaac. "Having someone come after you and thinking, hey, it's that guy - that was the stuff that really came through." Champion tactics extend to choice of weapon. "In each sports there are certain power-ups that you have. In the Preseason trial you have the speed boost, but in the full title you'll have the minelayer and a shield as well, so your Champion will pick whatever is your favourite power-up and use that more."

Of course, all this clever behind-the-scenes stuff won't amount to much if players don't actually enjoy the game, but the omens on that front are good. Assuming the other five events prove as entertaining as wake-racing, Rivals could be a refreshingly gentle alternative to the obnoxious soap opera that is "serious" online PvP. You'll be able to kick arse without actually turning your Xbox on. How's that for a sales pitch?

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