Are Games and Workout Machines Crossing Over?

Will Your Next Game Console Make You Sweat?

A recent article about exercise equipment with gaming features caught my eye recently: Nexersys, a new Austin-based workout machine maker, is pointing out that videogames and exercise equipment are reaching convergence. It’s worth taking a look at this crossover phenomenon.

Fitness is a huge industry, and entertainment is already trickling into the gym. People want flat-screens on their treadmills to take their minds off their workouts. Other gym equipment taps into natural competitive instincts with simple videogames.

At the same time, gaming has always been a hotbed for accessories that extend the fantasy, from lightguns to plastic guitars to the Wii Fit. Maybe a device like Nexersys’ iPower — a striking simulator with seven punching pads and an LCD monitor that provides training and feedback — is the next stage in the crossover.

Action Games Are Getting More Active

Have you been jumping up and down in front of your TV lately? A lot of folks have been, now that Sony and Microsoft have tossed their motion-sensing input systems into the market.

One caveat in the “gaming workout” or “exercise gaming” sector is the form factor. It’s hard to control safety and ergonomics when gamers can be playing in all kinds of environments. Nintendo certainly experienced some amusing embarrassment in this regard when reports of Wiimote-flinging destruction caused them to issue safety wriststraps.

Traditionally, these kinds of games have been a better fit for the arcades, simply because the equipment for sensing a game player’s movements wasn’t available on a computer or game console. Dance Dance Revolution, Time Crisis, House of the Dead, all arcade draws. The arcade was the home of novelty input devices. Now, as arcades are fading into oblivion, that barrier has been shattered.

A Better Experience?

Although there’s a masochistic pride in mastering the universe with two tiny plastic joysticks, I believe most gamers would rather dominate with lifelike actions than with a controller. Some would argue that motion sensors and “exercise gaming” are the next stage in a button-mashing, casual-gaming flaming descent into the Great Sellout. However, these new methods of gaming are new and — in the case of the Wii, Kinect, and Move — tantalizingly well-distributed. If the market is big enough, these games can be as hardcore and diverse as any we’ve experience with a controller or keyboard. Motion-sensing gameplay has the potential to introduce all kinds of new ideas and gameplay.

At some point, though, the pleasure in realism starts to break down. Few gamers want to run 26 miles at Murchison High to get the track and field high score in their Olympics game. And should games require players to crawl on their hands and knees to sneak up on foes in the next Metal Gear game? Would you ask your mother to crawl around to play a game? Would you want your Nexersys machine to punch back? It’ll be interesting to see how game designers handle this problem as the games mature.

Will Nexersys and other workout hardware makers like Bowflex and Nordic Track horn in on Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo? I wouldn’t put money on that particular angle. But if Tony Hawk can make his own custom skateboarding controller, why can’t these muscular brands get in on the action?

Who knows. Maybe the next time we hear about “gaming” and “exercise” in the same breath, the story won’t be about childhood obesity but instead life-transforming fitness.

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Game Design Tips from Jordan Mechner

Game design pointers don’t get any better than when they come from Jordan Mechner, the man who designed Prince of Persia, The Last Express, and one of the main reasons I became a game designer, the elegant and stylish Karateka.

Here’s his blog on story-based game design. Today I’m giving props to design tip #6: “The more the player feels that the events of the game are being caused by his own actions, the better — even when this is an illusion.”

And yes, the new Prince of Persia movie looks promising. They scored Jake Gyllenhaal, Alfred Molina, and Ben Kingsley on the cast. It’s helmed by Mike Newell, whose resume is a lot more balanced than, say, Michael Bay’s (Newell’s work includes Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Love in the Time of Cholera, and the indie darling Four Weddings and a Funeral).


Game design innovation… in today’s market?

game-design

I guess a few game designers were paying attention

The game design plaint that I most routinely dispense is doubtlessly one you’re familiar with. Game design is a dying craft. Publishers have forgotten what makes great games. Sequels are the spawn of Satan.

But maybe I was wrong.

A few fresh game design ideas are out and thriving

That’s right – I surveyed the market today using regression analysis and a four-variable study of the current holiday offerings, based on SKUs shipped, sales totals, sales velocity, and foreign distribution per capita. (Just kidding. Totally unscientific, but based on media coverage, advertising, and the ol’ sales chart.)

I have to commend publishers and developers for actually taking a few real game design risks. The primary success I see, of course, is the Nintendo Wii, which demonstrates that fresh game design starts with risky hardware and a canny knowledge of the gaming audience, its potential for growth, and most of all, that elusive forgotten factor called “fun.” Nintendo game designers understand that “fun” and “gigaflops per CPU clock cycle” are not necessarily tied at the hip.

Some games that are changing the ‘scape

I’m also encouraged by these titles. Maybe there’s hope.

Mirror’s Edge. Brilliant visual design and gameplay that might actually make something out of the rooftop-hopping game dynamic that went nowhere in Assassin’s Creed.

Little Big Planet. A fresh world, a world-building approach, and not a bullet in sight. Is it possible? Don’t get me wrong. I love shooters as much as the next game designer. I just want a balanced game concept diet, y’know?

Spore. Will Wright still marches to his own drummer. Certainly appeals to me more than the Sims.

Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Sure, once you saw the game design for DDR, you probably could’ve come up with the concept for these two. But did you? And c’mon, you have to admit that rockin’ the living room with your pals kicks the pants off Jenga.

The game sales chart still says “FAIL”

At the same time, the game designs that are dominating the sales chart are indeed largely sequels. Madden. (I know, it’s football season.) Mario Kart. GT. Other Mario games. Soulcalibur IV. Tiger Woods.

Still, I’m encouraged to see some fresh blood slowly being injected into the game design bloodstream. Without new ideas, the industry will die, or become trivialized and marginalized like comic books and (shudder) the sports card collectibles industry.

Maybe someday game design will be less of a craft and more of an art.

Ah, what the heck am I saying. Set your sights low. We might get some eye candy that engages a few different brain cells than last year’s game design crop. And that in itself is a revolution.

Gears of War 2 gets a new smoke grenade

Gears of War fans, rejoice. The gameplay for those previously useless smoke grenades is getting a facelift.

In the first Gears of War, the smoke grenades were as useful as they would be in a Quake 3 deathmatch. There’s really nothing tactical about GoW; it’s a pure twitch game with zero stealth. And I’m not knocking it. It does what it does, and does it pretty dang well.

Fortunately, that gameplay is getting an upgrade. The GoW 2 smoke grenades will deliver a shock blast that stuns players within the grenades’ explosive radius. Even better: the grenades will have a unique tactical function, knocking shields out of the hands of any targets in the blast area.

(Shields are another new feature, allowing players and NPCs to roam around with a fair-sized bit of portable cover, like the jackals from Halo.)

That’s the news from here. Keep those thumbs happy.

Gameplay Cliches

Gameplay cliches get a lot of chatter, but when the game is successful and has a core experience that people enjoy, no one says a word.

Case in point: Gears of War.

Mine carts.

Ammo boxes that are strewn around abundantly.

Crates that contain ammo boxes. Also strewn around at every juncture.

Lava levels.

Gears of War has all of these gameplay cliches.

Not a peep about it in the rags.