Who was there: Kinect Publishing head Jorg Neumann, Terminal Reality developer Seth Hawkins, LucasArts lead producer Greg Derrick, and USA Today's Mike Snider moderating.
What they talked about: At a pre-E3 2010 event in California last year, Microsoft gave Project Natal its official name: Kinect. Also at the event, the company showed a teaser trailer for Kinect Star Wars, a new motion-controlled title based on George Lucas' enduringly popular science fiction franchise.
The panel kicked off not with developer commentary, but rather with a new trailer for the game that showed two-player gameplay, boss battles, familiar characters C-3PO, R2-D2, Anakin Skywalker, and more. Additionally, podracing was shown in the trailer, confirming that the game mode will appear in the title when it ships later this year.
Derrick said work on the game started in 2009. He said Project Natal was an "abstract" technology and that Star Wars games had "classically avoided motion control."
Derrick also noted that the development team wanted players to not only use a lightsaber, but also to experience what it felt like to use the Force. He said when he saw a demo of a character using the Force to knock over a bunch of droids, he said "OK we're in."
As for where Kinect Star Wars is set in the overall Star Wars storyline, Neumann said the game takes place a year after the Phantom Menace fiction. Instead of controlling one of the series' protagonists, gamers will start as a Padowan and will work through a string of adventures to become a Jedi. Neumann said gamers will travel to many planets on what he called a "whirlwind adventure."
As for who the game is being marketed to, Derrick explained that Kinect Star Wars is for "families and kids." He also said that the game "needs to be accessible and light. And we didn't want to go too stylistic like Clone Wars. [We] wanted to push the power of Xbox, but still be familiar."
Neumann described Kinect Star Wars as a way to tap into the demographic of people who might not be inclined to play games.
"There are 100 million Star Wars fans, but not all of them play [video games]." Neumann elaborated, saying Kinect Star Wars is the answer to this problem and that playing games can be "too hard." He also explained that Kinect Star Wars is "not at all a dark game." Continuing the theme of accessibility, Derrick explained that Kinect Star Wars allows for jump-in/jump-out gameplay in both the adventure mode and in podracing.
Terminal Reality's Hawkins said that while the game may be accessible, it will also offer a "deep" Star Wars experience.
"Early on, we imagined what the experience would be and wanted to capture that experience," he said. Hawkins elaborated, saying, "It was fun to wield a lightsaber, but [Terminal Reality] wanted to go deeper."
Though Kinect Star Wars does not require a controller, Derrick said he anticipates gamers using their own lightsaber peripherals to play the game.
"You can absolutely use a peripheral; we expect people to. Just be careful not to destroy your television," he said, gathering a rise from the audience.
Neumann also spoke about the effect the Kinect has had on game development. He said Kinect has "changed the way games are made," further noting that developers making Kinect games need to approach development in a very different way.
He said a traditional controller can be "limiting," and that Kinect has the ability to replicate an "infinite manner of expression." He offered a question that developers need to think about when designing a game with the Kinect: "What is the player thinking about when he is playing this game?
The panelists also talked about the in-game lightsaber, with Hawkins saying that the weapon is "really an extension of your body." He expanded on that point, saying "We want to reward you for being more like a Jedi when you play [Kinect Star Wars]." He also joked about the health benefits of the game, saying it is not being marketed as a health product, but "that might be the result."
Derrick also chimed in on the matter, saying "Most of us are going to just swing our arms around and go nuts." He said this isn't a problem, as the game will teach players how to best control their character and that "no heightened skill is necessary."
As for how the just-confirmed podracing will work in Kinect Star Wars, Neumann said players will use their hands to steer the vehicle and can "punch" forward to increase thrust. Additionally, players can jump up and throw items at opposing racers with their hands. In total, there will be over 20 pods to control and multiple characters to race with, though Anakin will be the only racing human.
Hawkins explained how the Pod racing went from being a "mediocre experience" to being "fantastic" over the course of its development. In order to achieve a greater design, Hawkins noted that Terminal Reality focused on three pillars for podracing: a sense of speed, a sense of danger, and a "Star Wars feel."
Neumann explained that the core component of Kinect Star Wars is its Jedi story, with podracing taking a secondary seat. Additionally, Neumann said there will be "other modes" in the game, but he can't talk about those yet. He did, however, say that these new modes will be "nontraditional" and "things you've never seen in a Star Wars experience." He said hints for these new game modes are embedded in the game's trailers and that more details will be unveiled "this summer."
In a short question-and-answer session, a fan asked, "When will the game come out?" Neumann replied with a smile, "This Christmas."
There was also a special announcement during the panel. Microsoft is bringing out a new Kinect Star Wars Xbox 360 Kinect bundle this fall. Star Wars fans can grab the bundle--which boasts a biggest-ever 320GB hard drive--for $449.
The bundle also boasts R2-D2 sounds when the Xbox 360 is powered up and when a game is ejected from the console. Additionally, the bundle comes with a gilded C-3PO controller and a first-ever all-white Kinect sensor.
Quote: "No, there won't be a 'Lightsaber On' command" - Derrick.
Takeaway: It's clear that LucasArts, Microsoft, and Terminal Reality have high hopes for Kinect Star Wars. One of the most esteemed sci-fi franchises ever, Star Wars is a series with rabid fans that likely won't be too happy if the game does not deliver when it launches later this year. The pressure is on.