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UFC Personal Trainer Interview: Taking the Kinect to the Mat

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Posted by: William Haley

Microsoft's Kinect might not be the best at racing games, but makers of fitness titles sure have taken a liking to it. The next major controller-free fitness excursion is THQ's UFC Personal Trainer, which is being compiled by a rather impressive roster of contributors.

GameZone: Let's start with introductions.

William Schmitt: My name is William Schmitt. I'm the director of production at THQ. I handle all the UFC products.

Greg Jackson: I'm Greg Jackson, mixed martial arts instructor. I train a ton of UFC fighters.

Scott Ramsdell: I'm Scott Ramsdell. I work for the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

Nick Robertson: Nick Robertson, assistant producer.

WS: So before we get into the game, I'm going to describe, basically, where this game came from and how we're developing it. It started about two years ago. We went to Dana White and said we wanted to do an exercise product based around UFC. They were getting into fitness at the time, talking about opening the UFC gyms and so forth. He said, "Cool. You guys make video games, but you're not fitness experts, so who are you going to use?" We asked who he would suggest, and he turned around and said the National Academy of Sports Medicine has 25 years of experience. So these guys are experts; they're going to tell you how to get an effective workout safely. Then he said, "Here are my three top coaches. You should work with them; they'll give you a unique experience in your workout." We hooked up with these guys and started making the game. We just adapted it to the platforms.

GZ: So there are three coaches involved?

WS: There are three coaches involved. Greg Jackson represents wrestling ...

GJ: I do the mixed martial arts part of it, from the punches to the takedowns, the ground and pound. A lot of the jujitsu moves on the ground, that's me. Mark DellaGrotte and Javier Mendez do the kickboxing stuff. Although I do that, as well. But they do the cool combinations.

NR: The elbows, the knees, the Muay Thai stuff.

WS: And then, of course, Scott is involved, in that he brings all the authentic exercises and science-backed, proven results to the game. He also designed all the routines. When you get in there and say, "I want a real core workout," this is the guy who put it all together for you. Little microphone down in the corner represents that we have heavy voice integration into the game. Any time you say "trainer," you're going to have this slide come up and tell you what you can say that will get you a result on the screen. To give you clues as to what to say, we put little numbers up on everything. If you just say the number, "trainer, pick number," you'll go to whatever it represents.

WS: We're going to get into one of our custom workouts. The game ships with 71 exercises and 60 actual workout routines, but it also gives you the ability to build your own. For the sake of demoing, we built a short routine without warm-ups or cool-downs. It lets you just get right in and shows you the exercises in the game. One thing you'll notice is that we always show your previous time and your best time. This gives you goals to shoot for. In addition, during the exercise, we'll be keeping a score. The score is based on how quickly you react and how many of the moves you do properly in a row.

GZ: A lot of games have started showing not only your best, but also your friends' or the global leaderboards.

WS: Yes, we have leaderboard support for the game. We'll go through and track and post to leaderboards, as well.

GZ: Does it show it while you're active?

WS: No, it shows your best, not your friends'. As you go through and accomplish things in the game, big milestones are met, and you'll be able to blast those out to Facebook and Twitter. Like I just finished my first 30-day routine, or I just got my first gold medal in an exercise. Another thing you notice: there's a green camera view of Nick. The reason why it's green and in an octagon is it's a safe zone for the exercise. If he starts backing out, it turns yellow, it turns red, and eventually it turns grey and loses you. Staying in that green means the game will be reading you properly. We didn't want it to be a mystery as to why it's not picking you up.

When you start the game, it's going to have you take a fitness test. That fitness test is going to judge whether you're a level one, two, or three athlete. If you're level one, it's going to have lesser repetitions or more time to complete the repetitions. As you advance through the levels, it's going to make you do more reps and work out for longer durations. You see Forrest Griffin working out in the background there. We have 15 fighters that you can hit the mitts with, another 10 or 15 walking around in the background, plus the octagon girls and the coaches.

GZ: Hit the mitts with?

WS: Yeah, hitting the mitts is an activity. It's the focus mitts--you actually do striking drills. We also have tire flipping, speed bags, and heavy bag workouts. This is an example of a wrestling exercise.

GH: What's cool about this is these are actual MMA techniques that are also actual exercise techniques. What this does, if somebody was on top of you and in between your legs in what we call the guard position, and you wanted to flip them over and get them so you're sitting on their chest in the mount, you would come up to your side and kinda bounce it. We're doing it just for fitness, but if you were to continue the motion, he would end up on top of him like this. So what you've got is different and cool because it's a sit-up, but then you're getting up on your tricep and hitting your lower back. There's a lot of exercise there, and it's all based in actual MMA moves that I train my guys with every day. This is the sit-up guard drill. We do this exact drill a bunch, and we have a guy with us when we do it, but ... So all of my top fighters are doing this same exercise. It adds authenticity to it. It's legit.

WS: It's the one thing any UFC game has to be: authentic. We want to make sure that you stay safe; we want to make sure that you get results. Another nice thing is since it's a ground-based exercise, let's say that you wanted to do ... Your phone starts ringing, the kids are going wild in the background, you have to go to the bathroom, something like that. You just ask it to pause. So there are 71 exercises that you can perform; we're going to get to some of the activities you can perform, as well. Rather than running place or something for a long time to get your cardio workout, we hit the heavy bag or hit the mitts or do something along those lines. Bottom line is to keep you in motion, keep your cardio up, make you sweat.

NR: Make it fun, too.

WS: That, too. You can also do multiplayer in our game, hitting the mitts. We do asynchronous multiplayer, where you take your turn and then send it to someone on your friends list. They get a challenge and then go in and post their score. You can also do hot seat multiplayer, where he takes his turn and then I step in and take my turn. In certain activities, you can do side-by-side multiplayer. We don't like doing that with hitting the mitts because you'd be smacking each other with hooks left and right, so we save that for tire flips and speed bag. The voice you're hearing is Rachelle Leah. She's the host of a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff for the UFC. She was also one of the original octagon girls. She's our host here. She'll walk you through all the menus and tell you what things do--she's very vocal. There's also 35, 36 minutes of video in the game of Greg, Javier, and Mark going through their individual exercises and showing how to throw a proper punch, proper elbow--things like that.

GZ: Are there any female trainers or character models?

WS: The character models that are walking around in the background, you'll see some of the octagon girls like Chandella Powell and Arianny Celeste, and Rachelle Leah walking around back there. We don't actually train with them. We save that for the actual UFC fighters and trainers.

GZ: But this game is definitely meant for both sexes?

WS: It's not a male-specific game, in much the way that Insanity or P90X is not male-specific, but it is more tailored toward the male, so you're going to get a harder edge to the workout.

GZ: Let's say you had these pads on your own. Would the game recognize if you were using them? Pick up your hands as if you were doing what you were supposed to be doing?

WS: I believe so. That's more of a Kinect limitation. It wants to spy a human form and applies a skeleton to it. I don't think the pads would actually mess it up, but there's no reason to use them. You do have weighted equipment that you can purchase. The UFC sells a whole line of weighted equipment, weights filled with sand or silicone that you put on your hands. It increases the resistance. The game also allows you to work out with weights, so if you're doing bicep curls or presses or something, you could instruct it, "Hey, I have weights," and it'll adjust the repetitions to a more realistic amount to do with weights.

It takes your pictures, tracks stuff on big charts, and does all that good stuff, as well. We don't attempt to do nutrition. Nutrition is better left to the web, so we just ask you to go use Live Strong or Net Diary or something like that. We decided not to reinvent the wheel within the game.

GZ: So now that the Kinect launched with quite a few fitness programs, what have you taken away from the existing fitness games and done better?

WS: We were actually looking over a launch title. I think we learned a lot from it: big areas of affordance when you're selecting stuff, this whole voice command, being able to go through all the menus just using your voice ... A much better user experience can be had because we have all the learning from the first round of games.

NR: Not going to have any buttons close together, not going to have a hard time trying to select one thing and getting another ...

WS: ... Putting a small button up in the corner with a small area of affordance. We have buttons in the corners, but the areas are pretty large. So the tire flip activity is basically a squat. You hold, you lift, and when it gets to a sweet spot in the golf meter, this is the meter we swapped out. We want you to push forward and push it up against the fence. If we were doing multiplayer, I'd be doing the same thing over here, where I'd be coming up, holding (my meter would be going at a different rate), and I'd be throwing. You get more of an effect with the tire, getting it faster and coming down, if you get into the sweet spot. If you're in a bad position, it goes up slow and slips back down. We use Havok physics throughout the whole game, so all objects are affected by the physics. It's kind of like, if you saw EA Active 2, the mountain building, where you have to squat, hold, and come up to get up on the ramps? This is that same type of thing. We're doing an activity that gets you do squats but tries to disguise it.

The key here, I think a lot of people are going to gravitate toward fitness products on the Kinect because it's a perfect platform for it. It tracks your entire body, it can count rep counts. So you're doing push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, hip-ups--whatever you're doing--it can keep that going, keep all your records for you. And with the XBL services, we can send that out to the internet.

GZ: If there's an exercise that requires you to be on the floor and you don't want to, can you skip it?

WS: Well, you can always skip an exercise. You can pause, say, "Trainer, pause game," and then, "Trainer, skip exercise," and it'll skip past it. You certainly won't get all the benefits working out if you're doing that, and when your report card comes up at the end it'll say you skipped it and give you an F on that activity.

NR: If there's a routine that you like, but there's a couple exercises that you don't want in there, you can build a custom routine with the stuff that you do like. Once you figure out what you want to do, you can start building routines tailored to what you want to achieve.

WS: The other thing that we learned was from all the early Kinect products, especially, having an avatar on the screen actually puts perceivable lag in the user's face. As soon as the camera figures it out, it says, "Okay, trigger the animation, the animation's a quarter of a second, but then the next animation's a quarter second, the next one's a quarter second ..." Well, you're doing things much faster than a quarter second, right? By the third or fourth punch in the routine, you feel like it's out of sync because the animation can't keep up with you. By taking the avatar off the screen and just showing you results, it means that we stay in sync. It's going to feel like the product is much more responsive. I can show you that if you want to try our hit the mitts routine, put you in there ...

NR: First, it'll just show you the strikes that come up with the blue arrows. Blue arrows you don't have to follow along with. He's just showing you what the moves are and what the arrows that correspond are. Down arrow there, that's dodge, you want to miss that one.

WS: This is the level one routine, so it gives you about two seconds to do the move. In the higher-level routines, that time goes down considerably.

NR: There are more moves: you're throwing more complicated stuff, you're throwing elbows, switching Ds and stuff.

GZ: I think Ubisoft did a really good job with Your Shape, and the best thing is it's very sleek. But I like their exercises that are kinda rapid-fire and keep you going like that one.

NR: As you can tell, the reaction time, where you go in with the punches--it's pretty quick.

WS: When we were going through and doing our UI, Your Shape was definitely the top tier that we saw. Talking about the authenticity, the pedigree of the product, is actually pretty impressive. NASM provided us with the exercises--the traditional exercises. MMA coaches provided us with the MMA exercises. The NASM also provided us with programs. So they've got 25-plus years of science behind exercise, keeping you safe and making sure you have an effective workout.

GJ: I talked about my part, about the authenticity and all that stuff. He brings in the authenticity of the actual ... These techniques work for these reasons, and this is why you want to start doing it this way.

WS: One thing that's impressive about NASM is they actually certify the trainers at health clubs.

SR: We've got, like, 35,000 credentialed professionals worldwide. If you belong to a health club, chances are the personal trainers there are credentialed through us.

GZ: The Kinect is actually a new way for people to exercise, but it's also a way for people who don't normally exercise to kinda get up and be active. What sort of challenges did that propose for you? Because it's not like going to a gym, where people know what they're getting into. It's easy for someone who's sat on their ass all their life to get up and accidentally hurt themselves.

SR: Right. And that's why it's important for us to have a proper warm-up and a proper cool-down in the game. Plus, it's important for us. We're actually directly involved with the motion capture of the exercises, to make sure the exercises that are shown are done perfectly. One thing that these guys built into the game is a progression within each exercise. It may ask you to do 10 push-ups, but if you can't do 10 push-ups, we would rather have you do two push-ups perfectly rather than try to do 10 sloppily. So you do your 10 and you're spent, you can't go any further. You can just pause the game and skip to the next exercise. But the thing is, when you have goals, people are more motivated and want to stay on track. So they built in charts that show your progress through different workouts and exercises. On Day 1 you might do two push-ups; on Day 20 you might do six push-ups.

NR: When you first start the game, there's a fitness test you go through to see how many push-ups you can do, how many sit-ups. You do a bunch of jumping jacks to get your heart rate up and check your active heart rate. Based on your results, we give you a fitness level of one, two, or three, and all your rep counts in the game are based on your fitness level. If you can't do many push-ups, or can't do many sit-ups, you're going to get a one, and all the exercises in the game will have lower rep counts to take that into account.

GZ: What was it like doing the motion capture?

GJ: I just had an absolute blast. Taking the techniques that we do, figuring out how to make them fitness-oriented, and then actually going and watching yourself move--it's amazing. And it's so accurate. That's what I really enjoyed about it. They really captured the personality of my movements. I have a distinct way that I walk and move, like we all do, especially because I'm extra dorky. I have a weird way of moving around. It really captured that.

GZ: When you got into this business, did you ever think you'd be a video game character?

GJ: No, you have to remember, this was way before the UFC got big. I thought I was gonna be teaching out of a shack somewhere. And very happily, I had my art and I had my bologna sandwiches, and that's all I really needed. Now I'm sitting with you fine people in the middle of San Francisco. It's a little surreal.

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