How Nintendo Game-Designed Workouts

This is a cross-post from my game design blog. You can find the original article here, as well as more like it.

Ever since the Wii era, Nintendo has had a “quality of life initiative” that largely never came to full fruition due to the passing of its champion Satoru Iwata. However, one series carried its torch— a series that happened to spawn one of the company’s best-selling games. Wii Fit was in concept the perfect match for its console’s wide demographic most interested in family and lifestyle-oriented entertainment. The pitch of a revolutionary new way to work out in your home was an easy sell. Utilizing a balance board peripheral, Wii Fit registered the player’s center of balance to monitor exercises. It was impressive technology for its time but there was a fatal flaw: the game itself did little to keep its players engaged, what with its sterile presentation and lack of design hooks. So while it may have sold well, anecdotes often shared the sentiment that people fell out with it rather quickly. It wasn’t exciting to play, and what incentive is there to come back to a game that doesn’t excite you?

Nevertheless, the high sales proved that such a concept was desirable; it was just a matter of finding a more gratifying approach. Taking the lessons he learned from the Wii Fit series, director Hiroshi Matsunaga and team went back to the drawing board to create Ring Fit Adventure. This new fitness game is everything Wii Fit was not: exhuberently colorful and full of charming characters. The exercises it allows for are more dynamic. The ring peripheral is contextually quirky and a legitimate piece of workout equipment. And most of all, the game is just fun. Really fun. And it prioritizes being really fun before all else.

For those unfamiliar, Ring Fit Adventure is an RPG played by working out. You run through on-rails levels and fight turn-based battles along the way using a variety of exercises as attacks. The game is interfaced with by sliding one Joy-Con into a leg strap and the other into the titular elastic ring (called a Ring-Con) which can be manipulated through pushing in, pulling out, and moving it in any direction. Between these two peripherals, the game captures your movements with generally one-to-one precision.

But the Ring-Con is more than just an exercise tool: it’s also your friend. In-game, the representation of the Ring-Con is (get ready for this stroke of ingenious naming…) Ring, your sentient companion who instructs your exercises and does all the story-talking that your silent-protagonist-athlete-hero cannot. You’re essentially holding a character in your hands, forming a bond allowed for by a sprinkle of suspension of disbelief. It’s a far cry from the basic-3D-model Wii Fit Trainer who only became notable as a “character” after being added to Smash Bros. Meanwhile, Ring, his muscular humanoid dragon nemesis Dragaux, and all the cast in-between are eccentric, bold personalities. You want to see what happens to these characters because they exude specific charisma, even if the story they exist within is framework-level simple. Every play session becomes a hangout with your fitness friends and they make workouts feel more like the adventure promised in the game’s title than a sequence of dry, by-the-books levels.

I emphasize the cast first because they’re perhaps the most important part of Ring Fit’s #1 goal: to keep you coming back even when the idea of working out feels like a drag. Assuming the average buyer is making their purchase because they want a fun way to get into exercising, that fun needs to be offered and proven upfront. If they wanted a no-frills workout, they’d go to a gym. Wii Fit took place in a gym — the exact place these players were trying to avoid — and as such it felt foreign. Ring Fit transports you to a vivid Greek-inspired fantasy world where the monsters are animated adorably and the environments are detailed exquisitely. This is to say that Ring Fit doesn’t look like exercise software but rather a game like any other you’d play from the comfort of your couch. It’s inviting, promising a workout that doesn’t necessarily feel like a workout.

Once you’re locked in, this familiarity of game-feel carries through to the gameplay loop. You’ll pick up ingredients used to make smoothies (power-ups) while running through levels and all your physical activity nets you experience towards leveling up. In turn, leveling up awards you skill points that can be used to unlock various stat increases and exercises on a massive talent tree. Anyone who’s played a RPG before will immediately understand this structure and cognitively recognize it as “game” before “home-gym session”. On the flip-side but to the same ends, Ring Fit disposes of certain RPG trappings known to cause frustration. For example, the game doesn’t require exponentially more experience to level up as you progress; it takes a virtually equivalent amount of time to level between 50-51 as it does 150-151. By removing the feeling of late-game grinding, your workout stays feeling equally purposeful throughout. The prospect of further progress with every session keeps returning exciting. Save “grinding” for actual gyms (and poorly designed RPGs).

That feeling of constant progression is also the lynchpin of the level design. You can only ever move forward through levels. This means that even when you start to tire, you’re always one literal step closer to your goal. There’s a real sense of momentum to the gameplay, best emphasized by non-running segments including those where you attach your ring to a zip-line (irl: holding the Ring-Con above your head and pulling outward to keep your character moving). While riding up inclines, your athlete-hero moves at a glacial pace, but a roller-coaster-tier endorphin rush hits once you start zooming down the decline, virtual air whipping past you. You stop thinking about the physical exertion because of this visual feedback. Yes, your arms are more tired than they were during the incline since you’ve been pulling the Ring-Con for longer; nothing about the exercise has changed. It’s all mental. There’s no getting around exercising being hard work, but Ring Fit tricks your mind Pavlov-style into recontextualizing said hard work as excitement wherever possible.

A feeling of progression is also key to the other pillar of a standard Ring Fit level: turn-based RPG battles. These consist of performing repetitions of exercises to damage enemies and guarding from their attacks by pressing the Ring-Con against your abs. The better your form, the more damage each repetition or guard does. Getting “Greats” and whittling away at enemy’s health makes the pain of your 20th consecutive squat feel less torturous… ok, so you might be *feeling it* after 20 squats but the pain becomes currency for winning. Again, Ring Fit makes everything you do physically feel meaningful mentally.

Battles are also an opportunity for the all-important game-y satisfaction of a strategic victory. Enemies are color-coded into four muscle groups: legs, arms, abs, and —while not actually a muscle— yoga. Equipping the right exercises to target their weaknesses makes battles a quicker affair. You may be shaving off a few repetitions which from a fitness perspective seems unproductive but it’s made up for when the mental win gets players wanting to keep playing. This is where the player gets to feel like they’re good at the game. In fact, the player’s want to maximize their efficiency plays right into the pacing of Ring Fit’s battles across the adventure. Different colored enemies of various strengths are placed strategically throughout stretches of levels to have the player always working a wide variety of muscles. Using the best move for a situation in a variety of scenarios means the player is moving through all the muscle groups, stopping a reliance on exercises one finds easiest. In essence, the designers get players to do things they might not want to if they want to assert complete dominance over their foes, and because the player wants this dominance, they comply.

The design philosophy around unlocking new exercises is another clever way in which “forcing” variance is achieved. Each exercise has three power levels that you’ll unlock as you dive deeper into the adventure. However, the strongest exercise for a muscle group at one star may not be the strongest at two or three, meaning if you’re always equipping the hardest-hitting exercises, you’ll have to explore the full spectrum available. Along these lines, perhaps the game’s biggest design flaw is that a subset of exercises are relegated to healing. You’ll rarely need to heal in this game and when you do, an abundance of smoothies at your disposal that do the trick. Because these exercises thus do nothing in battle, many players won’t touch them and will only experience them in the offhand optional challenge gym.

Granted, ultimately any attack-oriented exercises will get the job done in most battles and thus equipping purely the most powerful at any given moment is a choice. Just as guiding a player to push themselves is important, so too is giving them the ability to exercise how they want. Those looking for a challenge could keep using low-attack versions through the late game and others who want to focus on a specific muscle without losing their edge in battle can use smoothies to temporarily change the muscle category of their exercises. If it’s “leg day” but you’re facing up against a boss weak to arms, swap those squats from blue to red. Looking for a yoga-oriented workout? Matcha latte. There’s no punishment for working out however you desire.

Breaks are a critical part of working out and Ring Fit naturally builds them in through navigating its menus: from selecting your attacks, to reading through quick dialogue exchanges between levels, to making smoothies and allocating skill points. However, the time spent doing these things, even if they’re made as brief and easy as possible, is the tradeoff of gamification. In my experience, you’re only active for roughly 55-65% of a given session (the game keeps track of how much time you’ve spent exercising, and I keep track of real-world time). If you play for an hour, you’re maybe getting 35–45 minutes of actual fitness in. It’s hard to argue that Ring Fit is the most optimal workout you can get but then again that isn’t really the point of it.

Accessibility is Ring Fit’s M.O. Those new to working out can start off easy and gradually slide up a malleable difficulty scale at their own discretion (with the game giving slight nudges at certain intervals). Seasoned fitness vets can make even the early levels tough if they went. The game facilitates all of this through its own pre-workout check-ups and an actual slider found in the menu for those looking for granular control. Options for people who can’t run in their living situation or have trouble with certain muscle groups are available, too. The game also starts giving suggestions that you take off for the day as early as 10–15 minutes into a session, which does get annoying for those regularly looking to go longer but is important in setting a reasonable goal for newcomers to hit. What matters isn’t how long you exercise but that you exercise consistently. A short session five times a week can be more effective than an exceedingly long one once or twice.

One can’t talk about the design of a workout game without talking music. Any game can be elevated by a great soundtrack but it’s imperative that one built for fitness keeps pace with the player’s heart rate. It can’t be too repetitive so as to grow annoying but it needs to remain familiar so it can sink into the background, all the while pumping up or slowing down to match one’s movements. Ring Fit has all of this. The tunes are catchy, but in that “you can zone out to this after it initially invigorates you” way. It ramps up with chants to hurrah you through moments of increased exertion (such as knee lifts or squat-powered jump pads), remixes itself with a pulse-pounding bass drum for exercises that require a sense of rhythm, and becomes twinkly and serene when doing yoga. The determination through emotional synchronization this dynamic nature imbues underlies everything you do moment-to-moment.

I’ve honed in on the core of Ring Fit’s design here but that only scratches the surface of what it offers: mini-games (mostly pretty good but lacking in variety), a stand-alone mode where you can do any exercise outside the context of the adventure, and even the ability to squeeze the Ring-Con when the game is off to earn experience points. Those last two really hammer home Ring Fit’s end-goal of being but the first step in introducing players to working out. Free mode is the next stepping stone towards keeping a routine in your life after finishing the lengthy campaign, and giving the Ring-Con an unobtrusive usage outside when the game’s turned on keeps you engaged during periods of passiveness (like watching TV). Even more powerful than these modes is that you’ll likely just feel healthier after spending consistent time with the game, and tangible growth is the best determinant to keep going.

It’s a true cliche that people often buy a gym membership or fitness game only to never use it, but Ring Fit largely succeeds as the antidote that bucks the trend. It gets you hooked with entertainment and then finds new ways for you to integrate working out into your life, including options facilitated through the game itself. But before you get there, it all starts with that one little spark. To let Reggie sum it up:

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