'Wii Fit' exercises serious role

The creative energy of the video game industry descended on San Francisco this week for the annual Game Developers Conference.Here are highlights of the gathering, which ends today.

Nintendo's Takao Sawano, who helped Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto design the upcoming Wii Fit, offered insights about the groundbreaking personal fitness program for the Wii system.

He said Miyamoto, who had taken particular interest in his well-being as the Wii was being developed, told him: "I have fun just weighing myself and collecting weight data. So this idea is bound to lead to something interesting."

Sawano expanded an early bathroom scale-like prototype attachment into a multi-sensored board after learning that sumo wrestlers weighed so much that they needed to have each foot on a different scale.

The fitness program has four components: yoga, strength training, aerobics and balance games. Each area has six to 10 activities. In addition to using the board to balance on and do push-ups against, Wii Fit lets you run in place (not on the board) using the Wii Remote "like a pedometer," says Nintendo's Reggie Fils-Aime. "It's not a game, it's a tool to help a broad audience to get fit. That's what drove development."

Wii Fit, due May 19, will cost less than $100, Fils-Aime says. In Japan, where it costs about $84, Wii Fit has sold more than 1.4 million copies in two months.

Weird tales.

If you think Shrek wreaked havoc on the Disneyized version of classic fairy tales, wait till you see American McGee's Grimm. The former id Software designer and programmer (Doom, Quake) re-envisioned the Alice in Wonderland story in his 2000 computer game American McGee's Alice. Now, at his Spicy Horse studio in Shanghai, he's finishing a series of 24 episodic games, each an individual story from Little Red Riding Hood to Cinderella. "With fairy tales, the version that has been adapted by Disney is nowhere near close to what it originally was. Pinocchio kills the character that is Jiminy Cricket. He has a part in other murders and mutilations. He is a very evil character."

Players see light versions of the tales, then direct the game's protagonist, Grimm — a nasty cross between Pigpen and Mario, named after the Brothers Grimm — in twisting and warping the tale. Starting in July, a new episode will be made available weekly through online subscription service GameTap (gametap.com). The episodes will play out in about 30 minutes each: "We are trying to keep the violence cartoony," McGee says. "I'm hoping that this has a very broad appeal and that parents could play with their kids."

Parental discretion advised.

When it comes to buying games for their kids, parents are often clueless and "scared to death, unless they are gamers themselves," says Ira Becker, co-founder of What They Play (www.whattheyplay.com) with John Davison, both fathers and former executives with magazine publisher Ziff Davis. So they devised an outlet for easily digestible, unbiased information for parents. So far, the site (up since November) has 750 write-ups about popular games, going beyond the industry's age ratings to describe how the game plays out, with specific examples of, say, violence and strong language. "The language was something (parents) were really concerned about," Davison says. "We try to keep the focus on what the kids want to play, so parents can be smart."

Independents' day.

Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony are embracing independent game designers to help keep fresh content on their online networks. Microsoft's Chris Satchell announced plans to let small developers — and even players who want to try their hand at user-generated games — submit "community games" to Xbox Live Arcade, to be judged by peers for later distribution on the service. And Nintendo announced WiiWare, which will allow developers, small and large, to invent games.

Sony's John Hight scoured the conference for the next Everyday Shooter, the acclaimed indie game discovered for the PlayStation Network here last year. "It is sort of like finding new little gems," he says.