Interviews: Lightning Fish Games - Get Fit with Mel B
Posted by James Newton
Famous fitness fanatic comes to Kinect
Fitness games have exploded in recent years, so any new titles have to do something extremely fresh to get noticed, with Kinect's launch line-up containing three workout titles. How can one title stand out in this crowd? By teaming with former Spice Girl and TV star Mel B, of course. Get Fit with Mel B is out in the US now, with a European launch on November 26th. We fired off some questions to the developers about Mel B's involvement, working with the Kinect technology and the team's weight loss success.
KINECTaku: First of all, please introduce yourself and your role on Get Fit with Mel B.
Phil Marley: My name's Phil Marley, and I'm the Creative Director here at Lightning Fish Games.
KINECTaku: What sort of involvement did Mel have in the game’s creation?
Phil Marley: I can honestly say: total. Unlike in some games that feature a celebrity, where there might be a introductory clip of them and then a motion-captured avatar doing the exercises, in Get Fit with Mel B every single exercise is actual video of Mel doing it. Not only does this mean we deliver on our promise - you're actually working out with Mel - but it also means you're exercising with a real person who moves like you do and even strains a little bit on the tougher exercises. CG avatars can be a bit 'overly perfect' sometimes they even move in ways that are impossible to reproduce, which can be really frustrating for the player.
During the video shoot for the game, Mel was constantly suggesting changes or even whole new moves, and added a lot of really cool dance moves to the dance aerobics section: when Mel tells you at the start of the game that 'I'm going to show you how to get fit the way I do', that really is true.
KINECTaku: What marks Get Fit with Mel B out from the other fitness games we’ve seen in recent times?
Phil Marley: What we wanted to do with Get Fit with Mel B was to deliver something that really worked, without compromise. A lot of fitness games don't include the full range of muscle group exercises: for example, because a lot of them rely on handheld motion controllers, they can't include any sort of push-up. They've looked at motion controllers and asked 'What exercises can we make work with that?' The problem is that, without push-ups, unless you have some sort of resistance equipment (which again, most fitness games don't support), it's very hard to work the upper body. Similarly, without incorporating equipment like wrist weights, it's very difficult to properly work the arm muscles.
We decided from the start that it wasn't acceptable to compromise on this stuff, so we brought in a team from Oxford University's Active Vision Lab to help us develop our own, proprietary camera-based system that works with both the Kinect sensor and the PlayStation Eye to track the player even in a push-up, and even when they're holding equipment. We already knew we could support equipment and floor-based exercises on the Wii thanks to our existing tech, and the Wii Balance Board, so Wii owners are fully catered for: we already have a loyal fanbase on Wii from our first two fitness games, and there's no way we're abandoning them.
So, while other people asked 'What exercises can we make work with this motion controller', we asked Fitness First to devise exercise programmes for us and then developed the tech to support them, so we didn't have to compromise. So Get Fit with Mel B's biggest stand-out point is that it gives you a proper, no-compromise workout that actually works.
KINECTaku: Please explain a little more about the “Your Progress” portion of the Mel B website.
Phil Marley: The “Your Progress” portion of the website has been thought as a support to deliver a real customized fitness experience and make fitness goals easier and more effective to reach. In this reserved area of the website, there will be the possibility of storing personal data and get more fitness information and charts tracking results, objectives and progress, downloading Mel B official cookbook including more than 120 recipes and discovering suggestions on how to cook food healthily.
KINECTaku: The game is big on nutrition as well – what sort of research went into creating the “healthy eating” sections?
Phil Marley: One of the cool things about the way the game works behind the scenes is that it dynamically structures your workouts: it picks the exercises that make up each day's workout based on your needs and your goals, and individually tailors each exercise according to your strengths and weaknesses: so if we both need a chest and arms exercise, you might get 16 full push-ups, whereas I get 12 push-ups on my knees. This mimics the way a personal trainer works: everything's custom-made for the client. It has the benefit that you get a different workout every day. We did the same with the nutrition system: rather than creating set menus that you follow, we worked with a top nutritionist to create a system that takes into account your age, sex, height and weight, your goals and your food preferences (you can specify that you don't eat beef, pork, chicken, fish, shellfish, nuts, dairy, eggs and so on and we'll take that into account) and then creates a menu plan especially for you.
Our nutritionist, Carina Norris, wanted to go beyond normal weight loss and weight control diets and actually improve people's general health as well, so the meal plan system factors in nutritional guidelines such as not including red meat in your diet too often, having oily fish a certain number of times per week, and so on. Then, as the final stage, we actually adjust each individual recipe (and there are 140 of them) for your needs, so you might get an extra scoop of rice or a bread roll, but because I need to lose a bit more weight my version of that same recipe won't include those. What all this gives you is a menu that's unique to you and your needs.
KINECTaku: Was there anything really cool you managed to do with Kinect?
Phil Marley: Kinect's depth sensor lets us isolate you from your lounge and put you in the game next to Mel in a very convincing way. But what's less visually obvious, but personally I think is very cool, is that we use the sensor data to estimate your height, so that when you enter your personal data at the start your height is already roughly correct and you just need to tweak it.
KINECTaku: How did the team overcome the old problem of the game not registering players lying down?
Phil Marley: We were fortunate enough to be working with Microsoft from quite early on in Kinect's development, so we knew about this from the start. Having our own optical tracking technology meant we sidestepped the issue completely: we use our own technology in exercises where Kinect isn't best suited, and then in exercises where Kinect works very well we have the Kinect data to add an extra layer of accuracy to our tech. This means we were able to include push-ups, crunches, leg raises and lots of other floor-based exercises, which is good because these exercises are pretty much essential if you want to make sure you're hitting all the muscle groups.
KINECTaku: The game is out on multiple formats too – is there anything exclusive to any version or are they all identical?
Phil Marley: On the Wii of course there's no camera, so we show just Mel rather than you and Mel, but we support both the Wii Balance Board and MotionPlus. On PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 you work out next to Mel and the experience is pretty much identical between the two.
KINECTaku: One thing we’re always curious about when developing a fitness title – did anyone on the development team lose a significant amount of weight? Any “feelgood” stories stemming from the game’s creation?
I was on the game every day doing different workouts: during the Beta period, when obviously we have to keep testing and tweaking, I personally dropped seven pounds in a couple of weeks. There's also a blogger I came across who's been using the game for two weeks and has already dropped 10 pounds.
Also, two of our QA staff lost over 10kg in 6 weeks, just from testing Get Fit With Mel B!
KINECTaku: Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to say about Get Fit with Mel B or your experience working with Kinect?
Phil Marley: I'd like to thank the fans of our previous games for their support and feedback, and also say: if you haven't tried the game yet, give it a try. We think we offer the most complete package on the market: there's a lot of variety, you get nutrition too, you can use equipment if you want to and - most importantly - this actually will get you fit!
One thing that some people ask is: is it suitable for men as well? We have the same number of goals for men as for women: 25 for each sex - so men can choose things like 'Six Pack for Summer' or 'Upper Body Strength' while women have everything from 'Drop a Dress Size' to 'Goodbye Tummy'. There's really something for everyone, and all of the nutrition adjusts to suit both men and women, so for men looking for a way to get fit: yes, this will work for you.