Q&A: EA Sports Active-ating Wii

Peter Moore reveals first installment in his company's long-rumored fitness franchise, which will combine aerobics, nutrition, and resistance training in spring 2009 for $59.99.

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When Wii Fit launched last year, it was advertised as the perfect union between working out and games. Billboards nationwide dangled the prospect that anyone could tone themselves by gyrating on a new peripheral from legendary Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto. Gamer religion meets physical fitness in a $90 box, if you will.

However, once people took Wii Fit out of its box, many were quickly disappointed. The game focused on the Asian model of fitness--stretching and balance--instead of the weight loss favored in the West. Only a few minigames offered aerobic exercise, and some of those had to be unlocked by playing other games for hours. The game's shame-based motivation and use of the widely criticized BMI metric made many a Mii droop their head by calling even stick-thin children obese.

Such critiques, though, have done nothing to dampen Wii Fit's popularity, especially among the "Blue Ocean" of nongamers. The game has sold more than 2.3 million copies domestically, according to the NPD Group, generating nearly $210 million in the US alone.

Wanting to get in on that massive payday, Electronic Arts today announced EA Sports Active, its long-rumored exercise game. As speculated, the game won't require the Wii Balance board at all, but will instead rely on a neoprene peripheral that will strap the Wii Remote or Nunchuk to a player's leg. The game will also come with a rubber resistance band for strength training when it launches next spring for $59.99.

EA Sports Active will feature more than 20 exercises as well as a range of fitness tools, including a calorie counter, virtual personal trainer, 30-day weight-loss program, and customizable workouts. To learn more about how the product will work and the philosophy behind it, GameSpot spoke with EA Sports' outspoken president Peter Moore.

GS: So my question to you is, if somebody owns Wii Fit, why would they want to buy EA Sports Active?

PM: It's a completely different fitness experience. There's a different philosophy between the East and West about what fitness means, and Wii Fit does very well with some of what I'll call the Eastern philosophy of fitness, which is balance and coordination. But you're rarely in danger of breaking a sweat and getting your heart rate up. It's just not intended for that. We looked at that when Wii Fit came out and said, "How can we be complementary and yet differentiate and be more applicable, if you will, to a Western consumer who looks for a different fitness experience?"

So we immediately started building the product with a view to having a condensed time period in which you can get your heart rate up. It will measure your calories burned. It will measure time as you're doing things. Of course, the real secret to the whole thing is building a peripheral that allows you to attach the Wii Remote to your body and then reflects the motion of your body on the screen with an avatar. Then, tuning that and getting it right. We've been working on this for a long time now.

Not that there's anything wrong with what Wii Fit is doing. We just think the applicability of what Western consumers look for in fitness is difficult to achieve with the Wii Fit board.

GS: Are you saying that this won't require the Wii Balance Board?

PM: That is correct. It will not require it, but if you have one, we've got enough exercises in there that you'll want to put it in front of the TV and use it.

GS: So, if you just have a Wii, and you don't have Wii Fit, this is actually an alternative to Wii Fit?

PM: Absolutely, but it's great complement if you've got it.

GS: And I guess for those of you who maybe found Wii Fit too expensive, pricing-wise, will this be generally more in line with a regular software?

Cue Van Halen's
Cue Van Halen's "Jump."

PM: Absolutely. This is suggested retail of $59.95. You get the software, you get the two straps, you get the resistance band, and you get the nutritional booklet, all for the same price of a single game.

GS: OK. So we'll continue with that. But first off, in terms of the peripheral, when I saw it, it was basically a little neoprene strap. I ride my bike to work every day and have something similar for my iPod, so I looked at it and said, "That's it?"

PM: Well, all that does on your bike is it just holds your iPod in place. We've spent a lot of time working with Nintendo on making sure it's snug, that it doesn't move, that it's not inadvertently hitting buttons on either the Nunchuk or the Wii Remote. Either of them can go into the pouch, so getting the pouch shaped right was crucial. So was getting the sizing right, as it will come with two strap sizes in the box, one large and one small.

The real secret is getting the remote snugly attached to the body through these straps. Then, obviously, the software recognizes what you're doing, and that's reflected on your character on the screen. It knows if you're going too deep in a squat or not going deep enough, and it knows if you're pounding away when you're running on the spot trying to catch up with two people on the track ahead of you. So that's a lot of the tuning we're doing here in getting this thing right.

GS: So, are you going to have any endorsements from celebrity trainers like Jillian Michaels?

GS: Bob Greene, who is Oprah's trainer, is endorsing the game and is helping us build the game out. He obviously will be a big link to that consumer, which is important to us, and we can talk about that in a moment. Then there'll be regular iterations of software updates that might be sports-specific, or it might be body-part-specific, like your lower body, your upper body. Then we're also working with licensees to have a line of peripherals that would enhance the workout experience in front of the television. It's a pretty expansive product line--just not a singular piece of software--that will be constantly refreshed and added to as the years go on.

GS: Now you just said "product line"...

Running in place? Sounds like PE all right.
Running in place? Sounds like PE all right.

PM: Yes, think of EA Sports Active as a pretty comprehensive product line. It's not just software but peripherals as well. Down the road, there will be more of a total workout [game]. But you can imagine there's an abs version down the road. There's a soccer version down the road. So, EA Sports Soccer, EA Sports Abs.

GS: EA Sports Soccer? Is there the possibility of an EA Active FIFA or something like that? You could train with [Brazilian soccer star] Ronaldo or something.

PM: We're looking at that, but for this consumer, we're not quite sure. We know that the authenticity of the experience is more important than the authenticity of the visuals. I'm sure mom would love to train alongside [Portuguese soccer star and heartthrob] Cristiano Ronaldo for a number of reasons. But I don't think that's integral right now.

Having said that, a couple of years from now, having Ronaldo or [Manchester United player] Wayne Rooney, or whomever in soccer be your trainer and doing something with them individually may not require the FIFA overall branding. Also, in terms of ways of making FIFA or Madden even more broad in reach, we could certainly look at that.

So, I'm not saying we're not going to use our licensed properties, but right now we're focusing on expansion of the EA Sports Active brand, bringing positive experiences into the living rooms for these consumers, and talking to a consumer we've never spoken to before.

The resistance band adds that special Bowflex flavor.
The resistance band adds that special Bowflex flavor.

GS: Now, you said there's EA Active and EA Active Soccer. Do you eventually see the EA Sports Active technology carried over into other Wii EA Sports games? Or are you sticking to EA Sports All-Play?

PM: Yeah, I think right now our plan is to continue with our core business. In other words, if it's throwing the ball, we're already doing that quite a bit right now in our All-Play stuff.

But it's a great question. Who knows--when the Wii Motion Plus comes, when we figure out really how much more sensitivity that gives us--what we can do. And I think the long-term vision, yes, is to make what you do in front of the screen as an individual be reflected in what happens in the game, and that's always been nirvana for us in video game sports. But the technology really doesn't quite allow that yet.

But, yeah, the teams constantly look at where we will be five years from now. I don't think three years ago, if I had said we're going to be launching EA Sports Active and here's what it's going to be, you could have even imagined it.

GS: So this comes with a packed-in nutrition book. One thing that struck me is whereas Wii Fit offers you that advice via piecemeal tips--"Hey, don't eat at night!"--this seems like it's going to be a much more kind of, I guess, for lack of a better term, personal trainer-ish approach.

PM: That's exactly what it is. It's a trainer in a box. My background is, after working as a PE teacher for a number of years, I worked at Reebok building Reebok Step and Reebok Slide products. I know enough about this to be dangerous. I do not want people to think if you simply work out for 20 minutes doing this every day that all of a sudden the weight is going to drop off you if you then take a visit to the pizza parlor.

So this is about getting balance. We're going to try and help. Bob Greene is very good at this stuff. He's been very cooperative with us for months now in helping us think about this holistically and trying to help people out. We're going to be working with him both as an endorser as well as a very, very keen adviser, and he's very involved in the product line.

But, yeah, this is about balance. This is not only working out but also getting a little bit of, whether it's portion control or eating the right foods, this is going to be done in tandem with nutrition. It's just not going to work on its own, that's for sure.

GS: There's a calorie counter as well, right?

PM: Correct.

The EA Sports Active band in action.
The EA Sports Active band in action.

GS: And apparently you can just randomize the exercises?

PM: You can do like a shuffle, but I think what most people will do is what I've started to do, is you can build custom exercise playlists. Imagine a playlist in music for workouts. Rather than just have an album, you build a bunch of songs that fit what you're doing. I do it when I'm running. I'll get something to get me going, and then there'll be some thrash metal in the middle, and then I'll probably come down to a bit of Coldplay on the way out.

I like to build the music for whatever mood I'm in for at the particular time, and we can do the same thing with EA Sports Active. I've already found myself building some of my favorite exercises. In there we've got cardio boxing. We've got cardio dance. We've got softball. We've got tennis. So, you can customize what you want to do or what exercises you think you need to do more of, as well as things like squats and lunges and running on the spot, and all the other stuff.

So, there's a very strong customization level. There's a 30-day custom workout that we'll build for you, and we think the elements of personalization and customization are very important as well here, allowing you to do whatever you want to do. But at the same time, we'll give you a lot of recommendations, what we think is good for you.

GS: Another one of the things I found frustrating on Wii Fit, was a lot of the exercises I wanted to play, like snowboarding, were locked, and it took forever to unlock them...

PM: No, there's no locking here. It's applying a game mechanic to something that we think is a real experience. You'll go in and you'll set up a profile and then it'll ask you what you want to do as a workout. It'll give you right now, I think, three levels, so let's say, easy, medium, and high. Then the best thing to do is probably just go through all the exercises and say, "Boy, I like that," or "Boy, that was a little hard, but I know I need to do that."

Then, you can either let us do it for you, which we can do with our custom 30-day workout, or you can do this drag-and-drop. It's not easy to explain, but simply think of pointing that Wii Remote, clicking on an exercise that's a module, and dragging it down into your playlist. At the same time, we have a music player, and we have music embedded in there, so you can also pick what mood of music you're in, what speed of music you're in on a beats-per-second level, and what genre.

GS: Will that music be licensed through the EA Trax program or EA's Artwerk label?

PM: Yeah, down the road we will. Right now, it's relatively generic, things you'll hear in a gym, if you've ever done spinning classes and stuff like that. Stuff that is more based on beats than particular artists and gets a level and a rhythm going. But then, down the road, I think, yeah, incorporating stuff on EA Trax, a little bit of Airborne, which I don't know if you know those guys, but they'll get you going. Junkie XL is an EA artist and so, obviously, the ability to build mixes and have a real DJ feel to the whole thing is important. We got one of the best in the world as part of our label [Artwerk].

Wait, aren't you Oprah's trainer?
Wait, aren't you Oprah's trainer?

GS: You mentioned the "Oprah demographic." Exactly what demographic is that?

PM: Well, this thing is aimed at everybody, you, me, girlfriends, wives, kids, anybody can do it, but we've also learned in marketing that you've got to have a focus. If I were to target a sweet spot, it would be a woman in her mid-30s, maybe got a couple of young kids, finds it difficult to get out, likes the idea of getting a 20-minute workout right in front of the television. It's convenient to her. You'll see her featured a lot on our packaging when we start launching that.

GS: She's the model on the video, you mean?

PM: Yeah, well, she may or may not be in the packaging, but that type of person will be. But at the same time, when you flip the box over, you'll see dad, you'll see the boyfriend, you'll see the kids also taking part. So, if there was a target, yes, that's our target. But it's gender-neutral, age-neutral, fitness-level-neutral.

GS: Is the inclusion and production of peripherals posing any challenges?

PM: We've got to make a lot of resistance bands and straps and get them shipped in and get them packed up. This is not a normal software launch by any stretch of the imagination! [Laughs.]

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