Last year I wrote a piece analysing the successes and failures of a popular XBox 360 dance game that I dubbed “XBox Dance Like that Uncle at the Wedding.” (It was actually Dance Central 3, for the curious.) In accordance with the Moore and Wright laws approximating the progress of technology (recently statistically validated by researchers at MIT!), the world has now turned and new technology is available, thus allowing us to form ever-closer digital imitations of human behaviour through human-computer interaction interfaces. In other words, my friends who feature in the first piece recently got an XBox One (Bigger! Faster! Dancier!) and they invited us round for a dance-off rematch.
Dance Central isn’t ready for the XBox One yet, so we instead tried a game called Just Dance 3, which has basically all the same features that we like in Dance Central, plus an added Karaoke Bonus if you sing along.
I noticed right away that there is a huge difference between the 360 and the XBox One’s motion sense capabilities. My main gripe with Dance Central on the 360 was that it basically treated the body like a stick figure that was assuming a sequence of static shapes in very rapid sequence–a bit like watching some really speedy semaphore operators. The stick figure might be moving from one shape to another very quickly, but your performance isn’t being measured on any transitional periods, only on the shapes themselves. There was also very limited articulation of the hips, shoulders, head and spine: when you imagine a stick figure, the legs are attached to the spine at a single point, where a real person’s hips are actually two independently operating units. They’re attached, but you can in fact do different things with them at the same time. (Try it!)
The XBox One is a lot more natural-looking: the spine can stretch and bend, you can do belly rolls, hip lifts and drops, neck slides, and all kinds of movements I recognize from my belly dance research that simply weren’t possible with the 360. This might be down to a number of things: the Kinect sensor on the One might be a lot more sensitive than the 360, or the old one might have the same camera abilities but the new one has a lot more processing power, or it could be that improvements in technology on the design end mean it’s easier to input more nuanced sequences now. Or it’s just more fashionable to have more flexible moves now. I don’t know, because I’m not an XBox game design researcher. (YET. Commence nefarious plotting for world/dance domination.) In any case, the end product is a dance game that looks a lot more like an actual human dancing than what we played last year.
Ultimately you’re still doing the same thing: the Xbox shows you a move, you copy the move, it judges you on how successfully you’ve imitated the move. But it feels less like a series of static flashcards that are being presented in sequence and repeated. You’re not just being judged on the static shapes anymore but on the transitional movements as well, which works out more like an actual dance. The new game is also more able to vary the tempo and levels of movements: instead of standing still and waving your arms and legs around, there are a lot more traveling moves, bending, and even getting down on the floor and jumping back up again. (Not a game for the shy and retiring types.) It’s also better at presenting interactive dances: in the old one, multiple players were basically doing their own dance in their own space, even if they weren’t doing the SAME dance. (And I don’t just mean because of dancer skill.) The new game had more songs (not every song) where multiple players are basically doing a choreographed routine together. One of these involved forming a pyramid, like some 1980s cheerleaders.
It’s still not great at depth moves: you won’t be moving perpendicularly to the Kinect sensor anytime soon; you’re still basically doing a two-dimensional shadow-puppet show, but lots of people don’t have enough space for that kind of thing anyway. Also, the Karaoke bonus is basically wasted on most people. There’s a reason that all those pop singers with flashy dance routines always lip-sync instead of actually singing while dancing. Though when not everyone can play at the same time, the people who are sitting out a round can do the karaoke bit. (To Aladdin’s “Prince Ali,” to pluck an example that’s completely from the air and in no way influenced by last night’s shenanigans.) Also, the whole reason the new game can judge you on more complex moves is that it’s now watching you more closely than the NSA, but we’re all comfortable with that sort of thing now, right, guys? Right?
So in sum, the new XBox will make you a much better dancer than the old XBox will. It really is a lot better, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Dance Central will look like on it so I can do a like-for-like comparison. What would I like to see next? An XBox that can sense how much space is in the room, how many players want to dance in each song, and design a routine that will fill the space appropriately. Until you’ve seen three very tall people in a cramped space nearly poking each other’s eyes out while dancing with very serious concentration faces to a routine of Gwen Stefani’s “If I Were a Rich Girl,” you can’t appreciate how important this is. So go on, XBox dance game designers. Impress me.