Innovation & Design

Gamers Feel the Burn


At the E3 trade show, Nintendo introduces a new exercise platform while Harmonix counters by bringing in the band

When was the last time a video game had you doing push-ups, yoga, and balancing acts in front of your TV?

That's what Nintendo (NTDOY) is aiming for with its new peripheral, tentatively named Balance Board, for the Wii video game console. Players stand on a pressure-sensitive platform, which looks much like a white bathroom scale, and perform exercises in time to on-screen prompts. The board can detect subtle changes in body movement and pressure, allowing the user to perform more than 40 different exercises. It can also track body mass index (BMI) and something known as the "Wii Fit Age," a measurement created by combining the user's BMI and results from balance tests.

The Balance Board was one of several new video game peripherals announced last week in Santa Monica, Calif., at E3, gaming's biggest trade show. It demonstrates Nintendo's continuing quest to capitalize on the success of its Wii console, which to date has sold 10 million units worldwide. The company also unveiled the Zapper (again, not its final name).

This plastic contraption combines both standard Wii controllers (the Wii Remote and the Nunchuk) into a single unit that looks like a submachine gun, a configuration Nintendo hopes will revolutionize the first-person shooter game experience. The device, which is scheduled to be released in the U.S. in the first half of 2008, will be packaged with specially designed first-party software.

I'm with the Band

But Nintendo is not alone in realizing the potential selling power of the interactive, absorbing game experience. Other peripheral developers used E3 as a forum to showcase their bright new ideas. In the case of Harmonix (now owned by MTV Networks (VIA)) of Cambridge, Mass., it was the chance to showcase the forthcoming release of Rock Band, which builds on its top-selling Guitar Hero concept. In Guitar Hero, players strum notes on a plastic, guitar-like controller in time with the music in the game.

Rock Band will push the concept one step further. Instead of featuring a single guitar, this game will allow players to hook up an electronic drum set, a bass, and a microphone for a full-band experience. Up to four players will thus be able to rock out simultaneously, either playing their instruments in time with on-screen cues or singing along karaoke-style.

Harmonix has not yet specified whether the peripherals and the game will be packaged together or sold separately, but the stage is set for success: The second game in the Guitar Hero series, originally developed by Harmonix and now owned by Activision (ATVI), sold more than 2.9 million copies in the two months following its Apr. 3 release, according to the NPD Group.

Not Just for After School

Meanwhile, Microsoft (MSFT) is taking aim at the casual gaming market with its new controller, the aptly named Big Button Gamepad. Featuring four big, color-coded buttons and a large directional pad, the playful-looking controller was designed to accompany the movie trivia game Scene It! "If you can push a big button, you can play the game," says Microsoft's director of platform strategy for games, Scott Henson. "Every age is going to be welcomed to the game." It remains to be seen whether the Big Button Gamepad can drive casual players to Microsoft's Xbox platform, which has traditionally been dominated by action titles designed to appeal to more hard-core gamers.

These introductions are a testament to game developers' desire to involve every demographic in the home—and beyond. Early last year, West Virginia announced that it would be incorporating Konami's rhythm game Dance Dance Revolution into gym classes at 765 public schools. A Konami spokesperson said hundreds more schools across the country have begun using the game as well. In this day and age, gaming's not just for couch potatoes—and these peripherals are designed to get you up and at 'em.

Click here to view a slide show of some of the most interesting introductions coming to the gaming world.

With Cham Yu in New York.

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