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.
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."
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
"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.
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."
"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.
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
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."
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.
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."
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."