on Feb 6, 2007
Dance Dance Revolution has a good reputation for helping young people stay in shape. Now someone has lost weight just by playing the Wii – presumably by standing and waving the wand around and not by parking himself on the couch and just exercising his wrist. For the last couple of years years I’ve been expecting a game focused on exercise to show up. It hasn’t happened yet – at least not on a large enough scale to appear on my own limited “industry trends” radar – but recent controller innovations indicate that someone might start thinking in this direction soon.
|TOP: A high-end DDR Dancepad. MIDDLE: Nintendo Bongo controller. BOTTOM: XBox360 Guitar Hero controller.|
I think so. Maybe now that Harmonix is no longer making Guitar Hero they will investigate something along these lines in their now-copious free time. Maybe someone else will take a crack at it. Maybe we’ll have to wait for the next console generation before someone works up the nerve.
I have a pretty clear picture of how something like that should work, and an excellent picture of how it could be royally screwed up, which is more than likely.
The key here is that we want to harness the “just one more level”, or “just a few more minutes” nature of videogames, and tie it in with some form of steady, low-impact exercise. You want the player to keep going, keep playing the game, and keep exercising.
And here is where things are likely to get hosed:
The game should in no way be focused on racing.
The most obvious thing to do is to plug an an exercycle into the XBox and have the player “race” against the CPU. This is a terrible idea which is doomed to failure. Here is how that little drama will play out: The player is going to select a challenging race, and then pump furiously for two minutes. They will then stagger away from the machine, exhausted, dizzy, and suddenly keenly aware of their heart and the role it plays in sustaining their life. They will walk – perhaps crawl – away from your device and your game, not feeling particularly fulfilled, either from an exercise or gaming perspective. They will not return.
I suggest that the exercise in our theoretical game should be an aspect of the gameplay, not the entirety. It should be steady and prolonged, not intense and short. It should allow the player to slow down when they feel fatigued and speed up as they recover, without punishing them for the respite with things like total failure. All of this lends itself to more interesting gaming, and (as an added bonus) is less likely to kill them.
So the idea is to present the player with a more or less “normal” game experience, and then provide them with motivation to keep pedaling. Let’s outline our needs:
- When it comes to how much energy they can put out over the course of an hour or two, there is at least an order of magnitude between healthy people and (ahem) not healthy people. The game needs to provide the proper challenge for everyone.
- The game needs to be interesting and have a generally broad appeal. Grim, bloody combat is probably a bad idea. So are angst-ridden teenage heroes.
- The controller needs to be as cheap as possible, no more expensive than a decent piece of exercise equipment. This means something between $100 and $150, which is the price of a basic treadmill.
- The game needs to be something that can be played while exercising, which means the controls will need to be pretty forgiving. Forget about asking players to do timed jumping puzzles while they are moving their body. Reading and navigating menus are also annoying while exercising, so those should be kept to a minimum.
|It probably wouldn’t be nearly this fancy, but you get the idea. On the upside, it wouldn’t need that display screen / control panel mounted on the front.|
The player would plug their traditional controller (dual shock or whatever) into the cycle, then plug the cycle into the console gaming system. The cycle just provides one additional input channel: Pedal movement.
Picture some sort of combat-based game. Cliché, I know, but the broad appeal of these games cannot be denied, and I think this will aim the product at the most likely early adopters.
The nature of the combat itself doesn’t matter: Guns, kung-fu, swords, or Mario-style head-bonking. Whatever. One way or another, the player will dispatch enemies, as they have done since the dawn of videogames. The controls should be very simple and very forgiving. It should feel like a regular fighting game set on “easy”. The player is not defeating enemies with their reflexes. Skilled use of the keypad can give them an edge, but anyone should be able to muddle through with some good old-fashioned button-mashing. They are going to be getting tired and sweaty, and so we can’t demand too much precision from their digits.
Instead of using the pedal for locomotion we use the pedals for replenishing health.
At the start of the game, enemies do very slight damage. The player can fill it back up by pedaling very slowly for a nice, gentle experience.
The player can remain in the initial area of the game as long as they like; they are never forced to move on. While here, they can earn rewards which will make their health bar larger, and decrease how fast they have to pedal to fill it. Earning these rewards just takes time. Defeat N enemies, and they earn the reward. So, if they hang around here long enough and keep pummeling bad guys, then the game gets even easier.
This will get old pretty fast. Whenever they like, they can seek the gateway to the next area. Here, the enemies will do just a bit more damage. If the player didn’t hang around in area 1 and earn those bonuses, then they will will need to start pedaling a little faster to keep their health up. As before, they can stay here and build up, or move through quickly for more of a challenge.
An area never runs out of foes, which respawn at a steady rate. The player can get some breathing room by running away, but there shouldn’t ever be a spot where they can stand with impunity. Unless the game is paused, they must keep pedaling, at least a little.
Someone who is in great shape might sprint through the first ten areas before they feel challenged. They will be pedaling along at a speedy clip, but will suddenly find it is just barely enough to keep up with the continuous stream of foes. They know it would be suicide to move on, so they hang around until they get enough rewards that it is safe to proceed.
If the player dies, they are sent back to the entrance to the previous area. So, if they were in the middle of area 5, they are sent back to the very start of area 4. They can push through area 4 again, or they can retreat back into area 3 if they are getting tired and need to slow down or earn some more rewards.
Notice how everyone can seek their own level? Lance Armstrong will be able to cruise through the first twenty levels, but sooner or later the bad guys will be hitting so hard that he can’t stay alive no matter how fast he pumps. He’ll hang about for a bit in that area, earn a couple of rewards, and then keep moving. Everyone, from Lance to Grandma, can play this game. They don’t have to set a difficulty slider or fine tune it as they improve. They can have a light workout or a hard workout, based on how fast they move forward. Their desire to progress in the game will encourage them to push themselves, and they will naturally balance the game to their own abilities. Longtime readers might recall that I’ve talked about this dynamic before.
Behind the scenes, the game would be scaled so that they can keep the same speed as long as they earn an average of (say) 2 rewards in each area. Players will vary this as they go, based on their own capricious whims as they explore the gameworld, as well as the ebb and flow of their fortitude.
Area transitions should be obvious: The player should always be making a deliberate decision to move forward, and should never accidently blunder into more difficult territory. Ideally, there should be a nominal boss fight which will test them, and if they can’t beat the boss then they probably need to refrain from moving on anyway. Perhaps there should be “shortcuts” that skip a couple of areas, (like Mario warp zones) with appropriate warnings. This will let bored players move ahead a little faster.
The player should never, ever feel like they should stop pedaling, or like their energy is being wasted. Never give them an excuse to stop. If their health is full, then their effort should go into something else. Perhaps a “special attack” meter. Once full, they can unleash it for a big room-clearing attack. If the special meter is full, then give them something else. (Like a sprinting speed boost so they can hurry on to the next area, since this place is clearly beneath them!)
There shouldn’t be cutscenes in a game like this, but there might be a short camera-pan through an area as the player enters it for the first time, or brief pauses for a bit of dialog. Even when this sort of thing is going on, their health and special meter should still be visible, and still be charging as they pedal.
The game should give the player little achievement awards as they go. It should keep track of things like how many “miles” they have pedaled, what their average speed has been (all time and for this session) how many foes they have defeated, how long their game has been running, and what their top speed was. (Top speed being the highest speed they have maintained for a full minute.) Once in a while when they break the previous speed record or reach a new distance milestone the game should give them a little message, and bestow some nominal reward. (Maybe a new special attack, or a new hat, whatever.)
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.