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Just Dance 2024 interview: “There’s really no limit to what we can do”

We talk machine learning, hands-free mode, and the magic of Whitney Houston with creative director Matthew Tomkinson

For a yearly series running long enough to be endorsed by then-President Barack Obama (he was photographed buying Just Dance 3 for Wii in 2011), you’d expect developer Ubisoft to have started running out of ideas. How far can you really take a game in which players dance in front of their TVs while attempting to match the moves of on-screen figures?

But it’s clear after chatting with Just Dance 2024 creative director Matthew Tomkinson there’s plenty of glitter left in the ball. Here’s our interview in full.

GLHF: What was the biggest ‘get’ in terms of song this year?

Tomkinson: Oh, I love this question. We have great songs, like the biggest hits from the year. But we are quite confident it’s Miley Cyrus. Very often, we manage to get our songs, and getting Flowers was great. Bad Bunny's “Tití Me Preguntó.” We often include Bad Bunny. One song that we wanted to include for a very long time was “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston, which we couldn’t include until now, and now we have it; it’s fully Just Dance, great spirit. It’s a throwback to the eighties, but I think that’s one of the biggest songs that I wanted to include.

Just Dance 2024 - I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) - Whitney Houston

"I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" will be featured on Just Dance 2024 Edition.

It gives you a lot to play with as well in terms of choreography and costumes, so you can tap into the eighties with that song.

Exactly. We had fun imagining the story of a girl dancing in a record store in this era and having many coaches from different Just Dance maps come to dance with her. She gets a dress at the end of the song, and it becomes a huge party. So yes, indeed, a lot of creative opportunities.

The stages are really well-designed. Apart from that one, what is one of your favorite stages in the game?

There’s one that I really love, and that’s Canned Heat by Jamiroquai because it’s one of our main characters of a new story playlist, and dance with this one that is called Wanderlust. This is the character, and it’s a history that followed several maps from Just Dance history, the first one being Rock Your Body. It’s a place between the different dance universes, and we’re bringing lots of our key characters. Actually, the ones you can see in the title of the game, included in the logo. And the choreography is lots of fun, and the universe is really beautiful. There’s magic in it, lots of elements that make it a Just Dance map.

Just Dance 2024 - Flowers

Can you talk about the challenges in implementing camera mode and why did you want to implement that mode?

We wanted players to be able to dance without holding a controller in their hand and to be fully tracked. It’s something that’s very fitting for a dance game, and there were a lot of challenges linked to it. Because we made a technology that could do scoring just using the camera of your phone and working in your living room. We never know exactly what the context is. Will you have enough light? Will there be other people in the frame? How do you contrast with your background?

But we have a great machine learning team in Ubisoft that worked by using the videos from the game and extracting skeletons, but you know, like just small stick figures out of those bodies. And they manage to guess even depth. Because what they use is 2D videos to imagine what you need to do but they extrapolate the movements of your arm. When you see in 2D you can imagine that my arm, if I put my hand in your direction, it’s not easy to know what it does, but through machine learning, they manage to understand that.

And out of that we create a score where we do that in real time with players. So players are in their living room, and we extrapolate the movement they are doing with that, and we compare it, and we give a score. And that’s very exciting, and we’re excited to visit as a beta this Winter because we know that it’s really a very innovative technology that will need to improve through player feedback and through all the data that we get when we can make it available to everyone.

Just Dance 2024 - Calm Down - Sweat Moder HUD

Because it’s so advanced, is that something you could only do now?

Well, it’s actually something that really needs a lot of performance on your phone, so it will be available at first only on iOS and on the latest iOS. So yes, you need some power on your phone, and also, we had lots of improvements in terms of artificial intelligence, and that’s really something that we leverage to make it happen.

You call it ‘machine learning’. Is that the same as AI, or is there a distinction?

Absolutely. It’s a more specific subset of AI, meaning the system will learn from plenty of different videos. We feed the system with plenty of videos of our own performance that represent what is the good move to do. And if I dance to it or if you dance to it, we will have a slightly different interpretation, but if we take plenty of examples, the system will learn by itself what is the good move to do and what moves shouldn’t be done, and then we’ll compare it with your performance.

So it gets more accurate as time goes on?

Yeah, absolutely. The more data we get, the better it can be in terms of scoring. And on top of that, we’ve seen plenty of areas where we can improve it, so I really forsee it’s obvious that in the future we can be super, super precise with this kind of scoring, but it will take time.

Just Dance 2024 - Rapper's Delight

How difficult is it to keep things fresh with Just Dance since it releases once a year.

Well, the first one was released in 2009, almost 15 years ago, and what’s great is that we always have new ideas when we think of the songs, when we think of the experience that we want to bring. So, plenty of creative stuff, and really what we like to do is to surprise players. And in terms of functionalities, we do a mix because there are some features that are requested by the players, and that we know that we need to do. It was the case, for example, for the fitness workout mode, players really wanted to have a way to track the calories and know how much time they danced, how many songs they did, so that they could really use it for fitness occasions. But we also wanted to allow them to dance with the challenge mode… with your family and your friends to play together and to challenge each other. A little bit like if I was texting you other than calling you on your phone. You’re not always available, I can text you, and you can answer whenever you can.

We’ve seen Eurovision stuff and Olympic stuff, but can you tease the next partnership we can expect?

Well, what I can say is that we already were working with several big names. We are considering partnerships in any field. Like recently, we even had a partnership with Chateau de Versaille to create a map that was in the context of the Cultural Olympiad, so I think there’s really no limit to what we can do, but for sure players can expect that we will include some of their favorite brands in the game like we’ve been able to do in the last years.

Just Dance 2024 - Survivor - Workout HUD

Just Dance 2024 Edition’s Workout Mode shows calories burned.

With the calorie counting thing, calories can vary between ages and weights, so how do you ensure that’s accurate? And would you maybe put that towards AI as well, so you could get AI to potentially help with that?

Well, it could be an opportunity. We didn’t use AI to do it. The way we did it is that we compared with different tracking devices the main tracking devices that people use when they do fitness. So we have all the accelerators, we have the same information as you have on a connected phone or a watch. We have the same kind of elements. But it’s quite wide how different the different tracking systems can give you some calories, so in the end, I would say we are at an average of what these devices usually give, but more than that, what’s really key is that it’s a motivating factor knowing exactly the number of calories that you consume is not that important. What is really important is to have a clear indication that you’re going through your objective, and that’s what is really motivating for players.

Just Dance 2024 is out now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X|S