What makes virtual reality so successful as an exercise device? It’s the ability to feel nothing at all like exercising. The better a game can be at getting you moving and raising your heart rate, without you ever thinking about how much you’re working or how hard you’re breathing, the more successfully it will give you an amazing workout. Before you know it, your body has completed 20 or 30 or 60 minutes of cardio while your brain was just having a good time. It almost feels like cheating.

–Check out Tim Donahey’s VR Fitness transformation here.–

So what makes a great VR fitness game? It’s really very simple. It needs to keep you in the moment, keep you interested and keep you moving. Here are the seven things you can look for to predict if a game will hit those targets and be a great workout.

  1. Feels Like A Game, Not Like Exercise

Granted, there are plenty of people who enjoy exercising and enjoy feeling like they’re exercising, but everyone – including them – enjoys having fun. I’ve found the best VR fitness games to have been designed without the notion of exercise ever entering the equation. An obvious indicator of what separates a game from something that is designed for exercise is if it is level or point based. Counting repetitions performed or calories burned isn’t fun, but reaching a new high score, level, or achievement is fun and satisfying.

GoalkeepVr is a soccer goalie simulator with a variety of game modes, but all involve defending your goal from the volley of soccer balls coming at your from all directions. Sports in general are a great example of situations that are fun and engaging that also give you a great exercise, and GoalkeepVr does a terrific job of capturing this. You’ll want to try all the different game modes and improve your accuracy.

  1. Keep It Simple

A game that’s effective for exercise needs to be simple enough to play even if you’re exhausted. Games that feature a variety of button combinations or that require you to swap out items or manage inventory will hinder your ability to maintain a fast pace and will be begging for you to make mistakes as your fatigue increases. Ideally, a game shouldn’t have more than a single button to press or a single weapon to wield and instead rely on your physical movements to advance the game along instead of pulling up menus.

Bitslap is as simple as they come. Cubes – or bits – spawn in front of you in a sequence of either two’s or three’s and you will need to punch – or slap – them in the order that they manifest. Hit the right cube and it will shatter and another cube will appear, hit the wrong cube and it will turn red and you’ll lose your score multiplier. The faster you can destroy the cubes, the faster they will spawn. There are no buttons to press, only three levels of difficulty (normal difficulty is all anyone will ever need), and only one action to perform; but conducted at top speed, the effects of the game are extremely exhausting. The simplicity of the game also puts you into what many athletes call “the zone.” Your mind will go completely still and your body will become a vehicle of pure reaction.

  1. Scalability

A game can only be successful at sustaining a continuous workout if it can scale to your ability level while still offering a challenge. A game that is too physically accommodating won’t encourage you to push yourself and a game that is too physically demanding will tire you out too quickly. Look for a difficulty slider or challenge level and make the right selection for you. If a game feels too easy, increase the difficulty, and if it feels too difficult, pick an easier setting. There’s some give and take here because a VR game can only push you as hard as you choose to push yourself, so pace yourself accordingly. Just like you wouldn’t want to set the maximum resistance on a new exercise machine, you won’t want to start at the maximum difficulty level for a fitness game. Start at the bottom and work your way up.

The Thrill of the Fight, a boxing simulator, has an awesome new feature that as of this writing is still in beta, but illustrates this concept perfectly. In the opening environment, TTotF will feature a heavy bag with a difficulty selector beside it. As you beat on the heavy bag, the game will show you the force of your hits and automatically suggest a difficulty to you.  Naturally, as your punches become more forceful, the game will suggest higher difficulties. Intuitive and practical.

  1. Progressive Intensity

Once you’ve found an adequate level of difficulty, that’s no reason to rest on your laurels. The more you play, the better you’ll get – both physically and skillfully. A good fitness game should offer some level of progression that becomes more challenging the further you advance, forcing you to move faster, react quicker, and be stronger.

Sword Master VR, a sword fighting simulator, offers a linear path that starts you off easy with one-on-one combat, but as you progress, you’ll face more difficult and more numerous opponents – as many as four-on-one at a time. Obviously, the more difficult the battle, the more intense the workout. Without ever giving you too much more than you can handle, Sword Master allows you to test the limits of your ability and inevitably you’ll surpass them.

  1. Quick Turn-Around

After a game is won or lost, having to navigate through a bunch of menus or clicking through prompts is frustrating and feels cumbersome when your heart rate is up and you want to get back to the action. A good fitness game should never keep you more than a click or two away from jumping back into the fray again.

I really love how straightforward Fruit Ninja VR is. It uses the exact same mechanics for navigating the menu as it does for gameplay; slicing fruit. Take the Arcade mode, for example. To start a game, you slice a banana. At the end of a game, to retry, you slice a banana. You’re never in between games for more than a few seconds and you’re always slicing bananas. You could even say it’s clear-cut.

  1. Rest Cycling

While it’s a necessity to have a quick turnaround when you’re starting a new game so you can keep the momentum going, it’s also necessary to have downtime so you can recover your stamina. Having occasion to rest should always feel welcome and never forced. In between levels, or waves, or rounds, a good fitness game should allow you at least 5 or 10 seconds to recoup your energy so you can hit it hard again.  

Another way to rest and recover while maintaining the gameplay is with active rest cycles. In Holopoint, a combative archery shooter, after some of the most intense bouts of dodging wave after wave of projectiles, there is a wave featuring only melee attackers who slowly advance toward you. While still having to shoot arrows in all directions to defend yourself, there is no dodging here, so you are still being active while the diminished activity level allows you to recover strength before the action picks up again.

  1. Encourages Mobility and Wide Range-of-Movement

Perhaps most importantly, a good fitness game must elicit maximum physical activity. In the real world, a thrown punch or a swinging sword will do more damage the greater the velocity and the further the distance it travels to land a strike upon a target. A punch thrown an inch away from an opponent can’t deliver a fraction of the force as that of a punch that is wound back and executed to full arm extension. The same should be true in VR. A good fitness game should encourage and reward you for moving your body quickly and through a full range of movement. Think of boxing, sword fighting, paddle or racket games, obstacles you need to physically dodge or move around, or generally anything that has your arms swinging and legs moving as good candidates.

Like with many active VR games, the rhythm game Audioshield can work with either a lot of movement or very  little and everyone plays it differently. The goal is to hit the correct color of orbs with the corresponding color-matched shield, but. whether you choose to hold the shields at arm’s length, letting the orbs careen into them, or actively punch them while you move your hips, your accuracy score will be the same. Where Audioshield encourages movement is with an additional score for “Artistic Expression” that reflects how active you were during the game. Even better, Audioshield works with this incredible mod that allows for even more mobility to be incorporated in. Be on the lookout for a write-up on how to get the most out of this mod in the future!

Almost any game in virtual reality has the capacity to get you moving and give you a workout, but if you want a fun, challenging, well-paced workout that you can come back to again and again, look for ones that feature these key factors. If you don’t want to buy the game first, look for mixed reality gameplay footage on YouTube to see how others fare playing them. Look for keywords in the reviews like “sweat,” “sore,” “tired, ”workout,” and “exercise.”  Do this and you’ll have no trouble stringing two or three effective games together that will contend with any gym’s cardio class.

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