Video game journalist Stephen Totilo has suggested that we may currently be in the self-help era of video games, with products on the market that promise to help you keep your brain young, quit smoking, and get in shape. The latter category, fitness video games, has been led by the explosive success of Nintendo’s balance board-driven Wii Fit, with nearly 22 million units sold worldwide. The French video game publisher Ubisoft has already shipped its own balance board game in Gold’s Gym: Cardio Workout, but the company has something more ambitious in the works for this holiday in Your Shape, which will use a small camera to detect your movements and let you know whether you’re doing the included exercises correctly or not. Ubisoft creative director Felicia Williams unveiled the game at the June Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, and FastCompany.com columnist N’Gai Croal caught up with her to find out more.
How did you go from a degree in painting and digital media to working in video games?
My deep dark secret is that I’m actually quite a nerd. I had envisioned becoming a comic book artist and yeah, games had an influence on that. I had the opportunity to freelance as an artist for a very small start-up game company while I was at Cornell, and from there I just got rolled into more and more game related projects.
At E3, camera-based technology was all over the conference. I mean, you had Microsoft with Project Natal. You had Sony with its wand controller, which makes use of their PlayStation Eye camera. And then there was the game you’re involved with, Ubisoft’s Your Shape, which also uses cameras. Why are we in a camera moment right now?
We’re just pushing to find new innovative ways for gamers to relate to the content and, no offense to the [traditional] controller but it’s been around for a while. Certainly, before I came into Ubisoft, I had no idea of the magnitude of how much innovation was going to be presented at E3, so it was really great to see how all of the different companies are stepping up for the new generation of gamers.
Your Shape is bringing camera technology to the fitness game genre. Now, this isn’t new. Sony did the same thing back in 2005 with EyeToy Kinetic, and while it was praised, it wasn’t a hit on the order of Nintendo’s balance board and Wii Fit. Have the balance board and Wii Fit created a momentum around fitness games in a way that Sony wasn’t able to with Kinetic, and is that something that Your Shape can benefit from?
Camera technology has just come much further in the last couple of years and one of the big reasons is the body tracking technology that Ubisoft provides with Your Shape. Also, fitness has become very important for casual gamers. People have busy lives, and they really want to have the same results that they would get in a gym, but in the comfort of their own homes. With the body tracking technology that we provide, you get feedback about the execution of your moves in real time, which helps you understand exactly what it is that you need to fix. Then there’s the customization of your program. If you have different goals from one player to another, you can customize that. If you have certain types of exercises that you prefer, you can customize that. And with the camera, the “coach” can look at you and make sure that you’re doing everything correctly.
Let’s back up for our readers. I understand that you’re working with a studio in Spain on this game?
Yes, our Barcelona studio is developing this game.
So how do you guys work together? Have you created an encyclopedia of moves so you have an understanding of what kinds of movements the camera tracks well and what things it doesn’t?
We do explore what the possibilities are with the camera. I’m not going to be able to give you the details on the actual company that I work with, but the fitness exercises in the program are specially designed by trainers. There are several hundred combinations of exercises that are provided in this game, and the game leads you through specific exercises based on your goal. So if you were interested in toning or strengthening or losing weight, it would be able to compile the exercises that best fit your goals in order to give you the best program for your needs.
Will players see a coach on screen in the finished game?
Yes, there’s certainly a coach on screen.
And what led you to go in that direction?
Having a coach is one of the best ways of learning how to do exercises. They show you how to do it properly and they also give you feedback on how you’re doing your moves. With Your Shape, a coach on screen lets you assess visually how well you’re matching the correct moves. But the camera technology can also actually pinpoint what you’re doing down to the angle, to assess the actual effort that you’re putting out based on the position of your body, in order to make sure that you’re doing the move correctly.
Can Your Shape track more than one person?
Currently, its just one person at a time. Well, it’s one person during a session, but several people could have profiles stored on the game.
From what I understand, the fitness category for home video is primarily female, and the same may be happening with fitness games. In terms of attracting more men, do you focus more on design or on marketing to draw more men into this category?
There’s actually a pretty wide range of men who are using the fitness game as well. While more women are looking to lose weight, men are definitely looking to tone and to strengthen. I think that drawing more men into the category is a combination of what you were just saying: it’s about design, it’s about marketing, but it’s certainly something that Ubisoft is paying attention to with our fitness titles.
In your focus tests, do you have to find a mix of people or do you just focus on people who are interested in fitness?
It’s a mix; certainly we’ve looked at it with both consumers who have personal fitness goals and also our consumers who may be interested in fitness but haven’t necessarily found the right solution yet to see what is it that that we can do to attract them to our game.
Is there anything that you can do in this game in conjunction with other peripherals that Nintendo has?
This game is designed for the camera, so the real advantage and excitement of the camera is that you don’t have to use anything else, you step right in front of the camera and it just works. No balance board, no remotes required. But if you have your own personal exercise equipment, like a medicine ball or a free weight say, you can let the game know that and it can incorporate that into your exercise.
So that’s something that you would do when you start the game?
Exactly, you enter your own personal fitness goals, and it does an assessment test of your body. It also takes into account whether you want to strengthen, burn calories and things like that, as well as how long you want your fitness program to work for you. Do you have two weeks to meet a certain goal? Are you looking to work out three times a week? It customizes your workout according to all of those factors.
What’s really great about that is that there’s not going to be this plateau effect where if you’re doing the same thing over and over again, eventually your body gets used to it. You can customize this program, and it keeps all of your exercises fresh nearly every time you play. And of course you can always re-customize it.
I don’t want to dismiss what you’re doing with Your Shape, but are you taking advantage of the “gee whiz” factor that arises anytime people see themselves onscreen with a camera? Is that response something that Your Shape can tap into?
Yes, absolutely. The first thing is that with the camera, you can’t cheat. With an avatar you might be able to blame it on a technology problem or something else, but when you’re seeing yourself on screen and you’re seeing yourself do the movements along with the coach, you really truly understand whether you’re doing things property or not. With fitness in general, execution has a lot to do with your progression, whether it’s squats, lunges, push-ups or what have you.
A lot of times when people are exercising alone, if they are not trained professionals, they don’t really know if they are doing it properly. The camera lets you transport yourself into this experience and see yourself on screen. It’s the only way for you to truly understand exactly what it is that you’re doing and how you’re doing it. And also because it’s you, there’s no judgment other than your own, right? So, no judgment, no cheating, and putting yourself into the video game–it definitely has a lot advantages, for sure.
So what’s left to be done before you get Your Shape into stores?
I think and it’s just like with any game, it’s polish, it’s just making sure that we are delivering the best experience for the consumer. I think that people are going to be very happy with the product that we’re going to be giving to them this fall.
This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by N’Gai Croal, founder and principal of Hit Detection, LLC. You can follow him via Tumblr (http://ncroal.tumblr.com) or Twitter (http://twitter.com/ncroal).