When Microsoft unbundled Kinect from the Xbox One in 2014, it was the beginning of the end. Unfortunately for the developers of Fru, the game they were building required Kinect. They were more than two years away from shipping. "We were shattered," designer Mattia Traverso told me.
When Microsoft announced Xbox One in 2013, Kinect was central to the company's pitch. It wasn't just a gaming console, it was an all-in-one box. The surprise success of Kinect as an Xbox 360 accessory prompted Microsoft to deeply integrate the advanced camera. That advanced camera wasn't cheap, however, and single-handedly raised the price of an Xbox One. When the platform continued to struggle against the cheaper, gaming-focused PlayStation 4, Kinect was an easy feature to axe.
The lack of any compelling new software didn't help. It's difficult to imagine the original Kinect taking off without clever games like Dance Central, and though the new Kinect was more technologically competent, the games weren't an equal leap forward. Games like Fru, however, were part of an internal push at Microsoft to come up with more Kinect games.
Fru became an unexpected viral hit after footage of a prototype surfaced as part of the 2014 Global Game Jam.
"We had 48 hours to come up with the game, and we had this crazy idea in the second day," said Traverso. "We couldn't come up with anything. We took a smoking break, and realised our programmer had a Kinect. We started throwing ideas out there for this game jam."
One person suggested players could use their body to take the shape of Tetris pieces, which would summon them onto the screen. As it turns out, somebody had already done that. Another person suggested a platformer.
The concept was slick: your body could reveal secret objects — platforms, doors, keys — that would allow the character to continue progressing. It was an idea that wouldn't be possible without a device like Kinect.
Tons of websites wrote about Fru, including Kotaku. In short order, Microsoft was in touch, as well. The company expedited the creators through its independent developer program and flew them out to the Game Developers Conference and E3, to show Fru off to the press. And though Traverso wouldn't get specific, he said his team couldn't have continued work on the project without financial help from Microsoft.
Betting on Kinect seemed like a smart move in 2014, despite Xbox One's stumbles. The company seemed to be doubling down on its potential.
"Kinect is part of the Xbox One," said Microsoft director of product planning Albert Penello to Ars Technica in September 2013. "It is part of the experience that we're building. It's as fundamental to the platform as the controller is in many ways."
Less than a year later, Kinect would become a $US100 ($133) peripheral. These days, support has all but dried up for Kinect. Xbox Fitness, one of the truly great uses for Kinect on Xbox One, is getting phased out. The company isn't entirely dropping support, with the Siri-like Cortana getting integrated into the system this year, but if you're looking for games, it's a desert.
"What is a sound business for them [Microsoft] isn't necessarily a nice thing to us," said Traverso. "I don't mean ethically, I mean it's not convenient. [laughs] When they removed it, we were shattered. Our morale was pretty down. We didn't know about this [news ahead of time]."
Their creeping fear, one familiar to many developers, was that no one would play the game they'd worked on.
"If the Kinect was still a thing," he said, "it would be way safer to make a game for it. If you were making a game for a peripheral that requires an extra step for people to use it or buy it or get it, that just cuts your audience into a very tiny percentage. If it takes extra effort to play a game, then people probably won't!"
The team was hoping to control the damage of Kinect's declining status by shipping in 2015, but development took much longer. The game was ultimately delayed a year, and is finally scheduled to arrive on July 13.
But Fru's developers are young, having all only recently graduated from college, and Microsoft's financial help allowed them to take a chance without spiraling themselves into debt.
Getting to the finish line isn't without its own struggles, though. Not only do many Xbox One owners not own a Kinect, but Kinect-based games don't get much coverage on YouTube or Twitch. It's making it difficult to raise awareness for Fru. Plus, with Microsoft's focus elsewhere — Kinect was barely part of their E3 presentation this year — Fru hasn't gotten much of a bump from the company who helped make it happen.
"Once Kinect was removed from the bundle, the support wasn't what we originally anticipated," said Traverso. "We were expecting a certain push and that didn't come through."
Traverso and his team remain optimistic, however, and his excitement for what they have created came through during our conversation.
"We were not making this game to make money," he said. "We were not making this game to sell a lot of copies. We were making this game because we thought it was super cool."