Virtual Cardio: Respondesign's Jason Leighton on Exercise Game Development

Gamasutra interviews Jason Leighton, Chief Technical Officer of Respondesign as he discusses the formation of the company, the development of personalized fitness game Yourself!Fitness, and the upcoming sequel.

Yourself!Fitness box art

Jason Leighton is the Chief Technical Officer at Respondesign, the Portland-based developer who, in late 2004, released Yourself!Fitness for the Xbox (with subsequent PlayStation 2 and PC ports in 2005). The title was something of a first for the console; Yourself!Fitness is not a game at all, but an interactive, personalized fitness program. In this exclusive interview with Gamasutra, Leighton discusses the formation of Respondesign, the development of their first title, and the upcoming sequel.

Humble Beginnings

The concept behind Yourself!Fitness began when Respondesign's Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Phin Barnes was with family, getting ready to attend his wedding.

"All the women in his family were fretting about getting in shape," said Leighton. "And while they're talking about this, he's playing video games with his cousins, and it just kind of clicked."

Barnes envisioned bridging the gap between video games and the female demographic, and he knew that a fitness program might be the key, but he didn't have the industry experience to make it happen. Enter Leighton.

"I was actually the first person to come aboard with any industry background," said Leighton. "I was the second employee hired, and I sort of helped them with fleshing out their ideas and turning it into a reality." Pitching the software was never an issue.

"Microsoft and Sony loved the idea from the get-go," said Leighton. "They're always looking to expand the people who are interested in video games, and this is one of the ways they could do so. Microsoft loved us particularly, since they're trying to expand their demographic to females with the Xbox 360."

Creating Maya

"Maya went through a few iterations," said Leighton, referring to the program's virtual fitness trainer. "We started off with just a basic blueprint. We wanted her to be an accessible female, the words we were throwing around early on were 'inspirational, yet attainable.' We didn't want to do the incredibly large-chested woman found in most vidoegame settings, and I think our users appreciate that. A lot of them have actually written in saying, 'Thank you for making Maya someone who is a normal person.' She's not some unattainable goal."

One of the game's features is a fitness evaluation.

"We tried to make her ethnicity look unidentifiable. The thing we get the most is that Maya looks Latino, but she looks Caucasian, sort of Asian. We want people to really define her the way they see her."

What Went Right

Though it did use middleware for its basic groundwork, Yourself!Fitness was developed entirely in-house, with a team of approximately twelve people.

"We knew we had about a year to do it," said Leighton. We were supposed to come out for holiday '04, and we did, we made our deadline. We accomplished everything we wanted to get in the first title, in terms of functionality. We basically wanted to make an interactive virtual trainer to replace fitness DVDs, and judging by the response, it worked."

Respondesign also went through a number of safeguards, to avoid legal trouble from potentially injured players. "The very first thing that you see when you turn on the game is a nice big disclaimer that says, and obviously I'm paraphrasing here, 'Hey, don't put yourself too far past your limits,' and it stays there for a good 25-30 seconds. We had a few lawyers go through that with a fine-tooth comb."

Yourself!Fitness sequel - Yourself!Fitness Lifestyle.

What Went Wrong

"There was a very quick development period," said Leighton. "We had to design and implement the game and get it ready for production in nine months, which is a breakneck pace. Strangely enough, though, we didn't do a lot of crunching. I tried to keep the team working 40-45 hours a week, and we got that accomplished."

In November of 2004, Roger Avary, Academy Award-winning screenwriter on such films as Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and the upcoming video game adaptation, Silent Hill, filed a lawsuit against Microsoft, claiming that the basic design of Yourself!Fitness was his idea, and alleging that Microsoft had stolen the concept from him after a 2003 pitch meeting. "And he claims that Microsoft turned around and gave it to us," said Leighton, "which of course is untrue. So obviously that was a negative in the development process, but we're confident that we'll prevail, and that's as much as I can say about it."

"And of course, there were the other challenges of a start-up atmosphere and all the trials and tribulations that go along with that. Generally, Portland is a difficult place to attact talent, since there's not a lot of game development companies here. If we were in, say, Seattle or Texas, it would be a different story."

On top of finding Portland-area talent, said Leighton, another challenge was convincing them of the product's viability. "They're thinking, 'Fitness games targeted toward women? That's not really why I wanted to get in the industry,' and it's hard to get over that hurdle," said Leighton. "But once they're here, they appreciate not having to make The World's Best Explosions. Generally we've attracted people who have been in the industry a while and are a bit jaded. So this is a refreshing change for them."

Step aerobics in Yourself!Fitness Lifestyle.

Competition and the Future

In September of 2005, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, with participation from Nike Motionworks, released EyeToy: Kinetic for the PlayStation 2, utilizing the console's EyeToy camera peripheral and creating some unexpected competition for Respondesign. "Kinetic is not as comprehensive, as far as how it stores your progress," said Leighton. "It's definitely interesting, using the Eyetoy, but as for a long-term program, I guess the jury's out on how effective it is." Additionally, the team is busy at work on a follow-up, tentatively titled Yourself!Fitness Lifestyle, with a number of new features.

"We're going to be addressing a lot of the concerns of our userbase," said Leighton. "We're really going to get down into the science of fitness, so we can track a lot more variables, and have Maya respond in a more intelligent way, in terms of how your fitness program should progress."

"Customizable music was our biggest criticism," he continued. "We had I think 75 different songs in the first game, and after using it for 3-4 months, people were like, "I've heard these songs way too many times, I don't want to hear them anymore." "Overall, though the feedback that we've gotten has been overwhelmingly positive. People write in and say "This program has changed my life," and that's enormously satisfying. Doing something that has a positive impact is great."


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