Exertainment Groundhog’s Day

Every few months, it seems like a new “exertainment center” is unveiled (i.e. a glorified gym featuring a few exertainment devices, most of which have been on the market for a few years and have failed to develop a large customer base.) The latest, Overtime Fitness, got a writeup in ArsTechnica which inspired me to finally write this article.

I won’t mince words — the “exertainment industry” is a troubled beast, despite profound media interest and a notable influx of venture capital. Several exertainment startups (both on the gym and the equipment sides) have gone out of business in the past few years alone. The reasons for this are numerous:

Overpriced and/or Unenjoyable Equipment

First: most exertainment equipment is simply not very good. All the products on the market that I’m aware of have one or more of the following problems:

  • Fuses traditional, commercial games (which were not designed with exercise in mind!) with funky equipment that tries (but fails) to overcome the inherent design contradiction.
  • Fuses custom-built games to traditional (but proprietary) exercise equipment. Unfortunately in this case, the products tend to be dramatically overpriced (i.e. three to four times what gyms are accustomed to paying for cardiovascular equipment), poorly engineered (i.e. the equipment or software is likely to break down with heavy use), and/or poorly designed (i.e. the games are terrible, possibly because the people who designed them don’t know much about games.)
  • Offers nothing more than a virtual landscape through which to locomote. Newsflash: that’s not a game, so it’s not a surprise that neither consumers nor gyms have proven terribly interested in it.

Conservative, Skittish, Hard-to-Reach Buyers

Second (and more insidiously): two decades of exertainment product failures have made traditional gyms — already conservative entities by inclination — extremely cautious about purchasing new exertainment equipment. Who wants to spend several thousand dollars on a single, exotic piece of equipment when there’s a decent chance the maker of that equipment will be out of business in the next few years? Who will support the equipment then? And even if the maker stays in business, will this fancy equipment be a pain to support? Gyms are fond of machines that don’t break easily, and more importantly, of manufacturers who’ve been in business for a long time, have a good reputation, and aren’t going anywhere. New, experimental “exertainment centers” don’t (collectively) have enough purchasing power to change this troubling aspect of the market landscape. So you’ve got a serious chicken/egg problem.

So How Did DDR Succeed?

Dance Dance Revolution is a rare ray of hope in the bleak picture I’ve painted. It’s both a commercial and an institutional success (they’re putting DDR machines in gyms and schools nationwide), and it’s unequivocally fun to play. But DDR, unsurprisingly, was created by professional game designers, and it was only adopted by fitness institutions after it had become a resounding success in the entertainment space. I can say with 99% certainty that if Konami had simply tried to pitch DDR to US gyms and schools (and to home consumers via traditional fitness channels), DDR would never have gotten off the ground.

Recommendations for Exertainment Entrepreneurs

I still believe that exertainment applications have an incredible future, both as profit drivers and (more importantly) as socially-beneficial forms of entertainment in an age of obesity. But it ain’t easy.

I think that budding exertainment product entrepreneurs should consider targeting consumers, not gyms. Thanks to Microsoft’s Live Vision Camera, Nintendo’s Wiimote, and Sony’s Eyetoy, there have never been more opportunities for exertainment in the home, and that doesn’t even include the large number of dance mats already on the market. A successful home game can always be updated and pitched to institutions. If, however, you really insist on going after gyms first, forming a strong alliance with an existing equipment manufacturer and distributor would probably be a very good idea.

As for entrepreneurs hoping to create the first great exertainment gym franchise… well, good luck to ya. There’s certainly a chance that someone will pull it off. In fact, possibly a good chance. But we’ll be driving past the wreckage of many failed hotrods on our way to that glorious finish line. I wouldn’t personally bet my money on any driver, no matter how dashing…

4 Responses to Exertainment Groundhog’s Day

  1. Hello David,

    Happened upon your post while searching for an image. Read this blog and had to respond, since I’m a co-founder and an “Exergaming Evanglist” of sorts. ;-) I’d like to comment on your points about why the exertainment industry is a “troubled beast”.

    First off, let me say that while there have been various pieces of equipment made as far back as the 70′s (or even earlier probably), this industry is just in it’s infancy, really. If you look at most of the “exergaming facilities that have opened up or are opening up, most have been in just the last couple of years. I find it hard to judge an industry that is just getting started.

    What were those comments they were making about computers when the industry just first started? I like that famous quote by a big-name hardware company that said something to the effect that, “These machines will never become common–they’re too big, too expensive….” etc.” I hope that the exergaming industry follows a similar path! ;-)

    That said, let me make some specific comments to your points:

    1. “Overpriced/Not good equipment”: Most of the exergames out there are well below the price of a good quality commercial piece of equipment. Even a commercial grade DDR pad from Cobalt Flux is less than a commercial grade treadmill or elliptical trainer. The Makoto, 3kick, and Trazer are comparable in pricing to commercial gym equipment. The only one that is on the high end is the Sportwall, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

    As far as quality, many of these companies are less than 5 years old and as the usage increases and newer versions come out, quality improves. Again, if we use the same yard stick that we use for other technical areas such as cars, cameras, and computers, the same thing could’ve (and still can be!) said of them!

    With groups like Ben Sawyer’s Games for Health and Serious Games, I believe more and more games will be developed by a collaboration of gamers and healthcare/fitness folks to combine the best of both worlds. Right now, we make do with what we have, which is fun, but it this will improve with time.

    Overall, I believe that, like any other technological area, the exergaming industry will go through growing pains, but continue to flourish as healthcare and the electronic entertainment industry merge closer and closer together. Companies that focus on the non-gamer and casual gamer will also help fuel this process along.

    2. You’re right about gyms and traditional health clubs–some have tried to have a piece of this kind of equipment in there, but have sold them off because of lack of use or poor ROI. That is not because of poor design or the exergaming being boring necessarly, but because of several other factors inherent in gyms: high learning curve and unfamiliarity with exergames, even DDR; kids aren’t usually allowed in the general workout areas of these gyms (even in YMCA’s!); and no training or education in the use of the game or explained benefits.

    Then again, this is something that gyms struggle with all the time with even their own traditional equipment like treadmills and weight machines. If the member doesn’t know how ot use it and there isn’t a staff person there that can show them, then they just don’t use it or skip it. How many people have a gym membership but not use it because of the same factors that people don’t use the exergames?

    Non-use of gym equipment and exergames can’be be all blamed on the equipment, but on the gym staffing and lack of customer service on educating and training members how to use the particular piece of equipment.

    Finally, your recommendation for budding exergaming entrepreneurs is good, but not complete. From my perspective as a “wellness doc” in a traditional medical group setting (no, contrary to popular believe, I am actually not a gamer and I don’t even own my own video game console at home!), I believe that exergaming provides a tool for those of us working to motivate the millions of people who don’t like to exercise to be more physically active.

    Not only does it help those with weight issues, but can be effective for other chronic lifestyle related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.

    It can also help those who have been handicapped by disease such as a stroke–my dad is one example. Since his stroke 5 years ago, it’s been a long rehab road for his right side of his body. He’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t need a cane to walk, but no where near fast enough to walk on the slowest speed on the treadmill. But he can get his heart rate up and work up a sweat playing on Kung Fu on the Eye Toy or boxign on the Nintendo Wii, even if he is sitting down!

    Not only that, because he’s mentally engaged and concentrating on the game play, he is getting a mental workout as well (vs a passive one when he is just watching TV…which is why watching TV while working out on a treadmill is still BORING!!!)

    With research really starting to gear up on exergaming (most of it has been done on the granddaddy of exergaming, DDR), and the various target populations that can benefit from exergaming (pediatric obesity, special populations-disabled or handicapped, and geriatrics), I believe this will increase the credibility and acceptance of exergaming into healthcare and other mainstream areas of our lives, into the arena of the non- and casual gamer.

    Then we will see the E2 industry respond with more approprate hardware and games to meet the needs of this market, shifting some of those massive resources away from the demands of the hardcore gamer (who really cares if the millions of polygons makes the shading on the face more realistic if the game takes too long too master and has negative aspects that i wouldn’t want my 9 year old exposed to?)

    So you see, I’m very optimistic about the future of exergaming, even though, like any nascent industry, will have growing pains and yes, even casualties. But that does not mean that the concept of exergaming and it’s potential is flawed, it means that we have to think outside of the box and figure out how to use it more effectively.

    I don’t have space to go through this learning process that we’ve been going through at the XRtainment Zone over the last 9 months or so. But what I’ve seen in person–our usage as an interventional tool in healthcare, doing research with local universities to make it more credible with local healthcare groups, with parents telling us that their kid has never sweated like this before AND loves it–those are just signs that we’re on the right track.

    And if we, and anyone else can make the various business models that we’re doing to work (which again, is not necessarily due to exergaming itself), I believe that the future is bright for exergaming.

    Then we can see exergames in the home, at schools, in the clinics, rec centers, Y’s, and commercial centers because it’s reaching a large group of the population who aren’t physically active, for whatever reason.

    For that reason alone, those in the industry should do all they can to encourage the growth of exergaming because of all the benefits it can provide our society, not bemoaning it’s premature death because health clubs are stuck in their box-thinking and can’t seem to make it work.

    Here’s to the continued merger of healthcare and the electronic entertainment industry for the health and wellness of humanity!

    Ernie Medina, Jr., DrPH, CHFI
    CEO/Co-founder, XRtainment Zone LLC
    Preventive Care Specialist, Beaver Medical Group
    Clinical Prof., Loma Linda Univ.

  2. I have to agree with Dr. Medina… there is room for improvement certainly, but some of the exergames have even been proved to help with in-school learning and attendance…

    The WiiMote – used as an example – may hope to address some of the game play concerns vs. riding through a landscape but I would say that it is a young industry and that when you consider that pediatric obesity is a “national epidemic” per the government, I can only hope that the exertainment industry continues to grow and evolve…

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