Our latest game, Superhero Workout, is a little unusual. Like Zombies, Run! and The Walk, it turns exercise from being a boring, painful chore into an exciting adventure - so in that respect it fits into our mould of motivating fitness apps that combine gameplay with storytelling.
But it's also very different from those apps, because Superhero Workout is about bodyweight exercises like push ups, planks, abdominal crunches and squats; exercises that strengthen muscles that walking and running don't. We call these 'bodyweight' because they don't require any special weights or equipment and people simply move against the weight of their body.
There are plenty of bodyweight workout apps on the market; just searching for "7 Minute" (the name of a popular bodyweight plan) reveals over 100. They are really, really popular.
It's very easy to make a "7 Minute" workout app since it's just essentially just a timed programme - you do 30 seconds of push ups, 10 seconds rest, 30 seconds of wall sit, 10 seconds rest, and so on - even easier than making a running app. So, on the face of it, bodyweight workouts seems like a terrible market to go into.
But we felt that there was a lot of room for improvement, and here's why.
In late 2013 and early 2014, I spent a few weeks testing different bodyweight workout apps. The appeal was clear - they provided a fast, energetic, simple workout that you could perform at home, and you felt properly tired afterwards.
It was only a week later that the problems became apparently. Firstly, they were boring. The 'classic' 7 minute workout is a static routine, which is useful for the first few days when you're learning, and then becomes deadly dull after that. Some apps offered different workouts with different exercises, but they felt arbitrary, and ultimately, still pretty boring.
A few weeks on, and more problems appeared. I really had no idea whether I was doing better or worse between workouts because the apps didn't record my performance other than by (notoriously unreliable) self-reporting, so there was little sense of progression. I did notice, however, that simply doing 7 minutes of exercise was rather too easy. Indeed, the original paper that the "7 Minute Workout" trend was based on recommends doing two or three cycles of 7 minutes (a fact that most apps prefer not to mention).
After a month or so, I stopped using the apps. Now, from a business perspective, there's no problem with that since I've already paid the money, but I'd prefer that Six to Start makes apps that, you know, actually work.
So let's look at those problems:
1. Bodyweight workouts are boring
We can partly address this through storytelling and role playing, just as we have done for Zombies, Run! and The Walk. It's much more exciting to exercise when you feel like there's something at stake, however fictional; and it's much easier to motivate yourself to continue exercising week after week when you want to find out what happens next in a gripping story.
To that end, Matt Wieteska, lead writer on Superhero Workout, assembled a team of writers in and recorded 21 incredibly exciting sci-fi missions with over 400 minutes-worth of audio in lightning-quick time. Six to Start is really good at this; it's our competitive advantage and one that we care a lot about.
2. There's no way to track performance
Existing bodyweight workout apps are merely timers; they have no idea if you've done one pushup or ten. And without any way of tracking performance, there's no good way for users to interact. We needed some kind of interaction in Superhero Workout otherwise we risked players feeling they were totally superfluous to the plot.
Our first idea was to have players count their reps out loud and have the app use voice recognition to track them. One playtest later revealed exactly how bad that idea was.
Our next idea was for camera-based motion tracking. There are a few off-the-shelf SDKs you can use to do this on iOS and Android, but none were satisfactory; they were too slow or unreliable. Also, they were overpriced and would mean that a core part of our technology would have been in another company's hands.
So we wrote our own, based on OpenCV. Alex Primavesi, the lead developer for The Walk, had some smart ideas about how to track reps; a couple of weeks of prototyping later and we had proof-of-concept that worked. This meant we could track reps, and thus calories, in real time. Of course, perfecting the feature took rather longer than that, but it was more than worth the time investment given that no other app boasts a similar rep-tracking feature.
3. Workouts become repetitive
This is similar to point 1, but we were able to create a variety of missions and workouts through a 'level editor' tool created by Pavel Dudrenov, the main developer of Superhero Workout. This is a Mac application that allowed our production team - Brad Porter and Georgina Hulland-Brown - to rapidly assemble, preview, and test interactive missions.
Since no-one has made an app like Superhero Workout before, it wasn't clear how we should design the missions. Should they have background music? How big could the graphics and text be? How long should exercise and in-game animations last? What volume of audio was ideal? Being able to quickly modify missions meant that we could adapt the game as we answered those questions during development and testing.
There was a moment during development when we had synced up rep-tracked punches to missile blasts in one of the first missions. I challenge you to play that mission without smiling - it's not possible. We have twenty other missions like that, each good for at least one or two individual workouts.
Prepare for launch...
When we started designing Superhero Workout in January, we wanted to create an exciting game that helps people get fit. I think we accomplished that in a way that other workout apps haven't, and moreover, we've solved many other tricky problems with bodyweight workout apps in the process.
Sure, the market is crowded. That doesn't mean it isn't worth trying to make something better - especially when it can make people smile and improve their health.
I'd like to thank everyone at Six to Start who worked on this project; I've mentioned a few people already, but in truth everyone in the company has been essential, including iOS developer Mo Ramezanpoor; Android developers Babu Madhikarmi and Jeremy Stevens (Android is coming in Fall 2014!); QA tester Lou Atherton; artist Estee Chan; and office manager Sophie Baker.
Superhero Workout wouldn't have been possible without the help of many other people outside of Six to Start, including sound engineer Mark Pittam; illustrator Jacqui Davis; writers Rachael Acks, Tom Wateracre, Richard Dennis, and Jem Alexander; actors Alex Vincent and Robert Bradley; and composer Ben Miles, among others.
Find out more and get the app at superheroworkoutgame.com
-- Adrian Hon, CEO at Six to Start