Health Meter: An Open Letter to Publishers and Developers
Thank you for working so hard to make "fitness gaming" a legitimate videogame genre.
While games like Dance Dance Revolution and various EyeToy releases laid the groundwork, Wii Fit -- the first next-gen fitness game -- clearly showed that moving your body to play a game could not only be fun, but good for your body. Unfortunately, though, just about every other attempt to combine a videogame with fitness has been an awkward and forced marriage.
There's no denying that we currently have the hardware to do some very cool movement-based gaming. The problem is that there's no software out there that's taking advantage of it. Fitness games seem to be developed in bubbles. Development teams don't seem to be aware of what other games are doing or have already done. And any ideas that are driving the development bus don't appear to be coming from gamers -- or from folks who know what the hardware is capable of delivering.
My frustration with fitness gaming hit its high point with EA Sports Active. A good chunk of the game is spent mock-running with the Nunchuk strapped to your leg. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Running -- even the running-in-place that you're forced to do here -- is an activity that will strengthen your heart and lungs and help you burn a few calories. The problem is that the game throws you into the running mode by having you stare at the back of your avatar while it runs around a track. I've been in the fitness industry for a decade and have been an athlete my entire life. Next to standing in line waiting to renew your driver's license, running around a track may just be the most boring thing a human being can do. Who on Earth decided a videogame version would be any better?
People who don't enjoy traditional -- and some may say boring -- workouts aren't going to, all of a sudden, love them just because they can do them on the Wii. I'm not, all of a sudden, going to really get into doing payroll and taxes just because Activision or THQ decides to roll out a PlayStation 3 version of QuickBooks. As a trainer, I make a really good living from people who want to move their bodies, but who can't stand doing traditional workouts. The whole point of videogames is escapism. They throw you into situations and worlds that would otherwise be impossible to experience. When are the brains responsible for fitness games going to realize that? Right now, fitness games that are being developed are Pong-level in their ability to offer any escape. They deliver a high-tech version of something that's pretty mundane.
Again, the hardware is available to deliver more. Just off the top of my head, here are a few ways in which existing Wii technologies can be used to turn Pong-level fitness games into BioShock-level fitness games.
Whether you do your running with the controller in your pocket (Wii Fit) or strapped to your leg (EA Active), it's been established that the motion sensor can monitor the speed of your movement and have it correspond with an on-screen character. By using the directional control on either the Remote or Nunchuk, theoretically, you should now be able to control the direction of your running. Instead of being on a leash running around a track, you'd now have the freedom to go anywhere -- as you can in just about any action game. You'd also have the ability to very intuitively slow down or speed up. The remaining controller buttons could be mapped to actions like shooting a weapon, picking things up, etc. This could essentially add a cardiovascular component to any action game.
Now, let's add the Balance Board to this leash-less movement and take things in a couple of different directions.
Imagine this: Your only path to freedom is blocked by the largest, nastiest, you-hating thing that you've ever encountered in a game. Parts of your former comrades are stuck between its teeth. The most powerful blast from your weapon would be a mosquito bite to this beast. The only way you're going to get past it is with stealth. The yoga mini-game in Wii Fit threw a circle up on the screen. It then tossed up a dot that told you where your center of gravity was. The goal was to keep your center of gravity -- and the dot -- inside that circle. It made yoga much cooler than yoga -- by law -- should be allowed to be. What if you had to keep your center of gravity -- essentially, your ability to remain motionless -- in a similar circle to prevent this nightmare beast from seeing you and ripping you to shreds?
But, that's only the beginning. Just like in Tenchu or Metal Gear Solid, you now have to be a total stealth-master and time your movements based on this beast's awareness. When you're confident that you're out of its view, you have to run like hell to another spot where -- with your heart rate now up and your adrenaline pumping -- you have to, once again, remain motionless so it won't see you and rip you apart. Do you know how challenging and beneficial for the body that would be? It's essentially interval cardiovascular training coupled with balance and body-awareness training. And it would be a crazy amount of fun at the same time.
Or you could combine the freedom of movement with some of the jumping in Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip and have some serious fun. The free-running concept behind Mirror's Edge was a giant whack in the head to most gamers. A movement-based version of this world-as-your-jungle-gym idea would be mind-blowing. The speed of your running could be controlled by the Nunchuk strapped to your leg. Your balance and jumping could be handled by your skills on the Balance Board. Your direction could be controlled by the directional pad on the Remote. And other actions could be handled by the remaining buttons on the Remote. It would be a full-body workout that integrated upper- and lower-body coordination -- something that most workouts generally don't do. More importantly, it would be something that gamers would want to do -- rather than something they felt that they had to do.
Moving your body is fun. Once you call it "exercise," though, most people start looking for excuses not to do it. Feel free to steal these ideas. And I have a whole mess more if you're interested. Just track me down at my Web site -- www.blackbeltfitness.com.