Trial of Trails - Creating the Stationary Bike RPG

I work in IT. As many in my profession can profess, I have trouble keeping the weight off. It doesn't help that my primary hobby, video gaming, is a mostly sedentary activity, combated only recently by things like the Wii and Kinect. Matters turned further dire for me when my only physical hobby, snowboarding, led to a knee injury which prematurely retired me from the sport. After suffering through chronic knee pain for some years, I elected for a surgery to repair my torn meniscus, which led to another year and a half of chronic knee pain. With my surgery's second anniversary on the horizon, I had to face the reality that my knee wasn't going to get better on its own.

I soon bought a used exercise bike on Craigslist. I chose a recumbent style bike in hopes that I'd be able to use it while doing other activities. My first idea was gaming, but I soon found that my gaming performance suffered while I multitasked, and during white-knuckle portions of the game, I'd forget that I was on a bike and stop pedaling altogether, resuming only when I reached the next save point and remembered where I was. I tried reading, but it was impossible to hold the book, maintain balance, stay comfortable, and have enough energy left over to concentrate on the pages. My last effort was just watching some Netflix, but to hear soft dialog over the sound of the churning machinery, I had to increase the volume to a level that would knock me out of my seat when the explosions started.

I settled for listening to music and staring into space letting my mind wander while I biked. To my surprise, I actually stuck with it for some weeks, which gave my mind quite a bit of wandering time. I imagined what would make the time on the bike more meaningful, so that it might not drag on so dreadfully. I wanted a map. I wanted a map with a road on it and a big red line like the one that showed me where Indiana Jones was flying to. I thought that if I could see a red line somewhere, inching pixel by pixel across a screen, that I would feel like I was actually going somewhere.

This desire gave birth to the Trails overworld. But there was more to be had. Every day when I monotonously biked, I'd watch the miles and calories add up. I set goals, but it didn't really mean anything. This made me pause and seriously consider. Can't most RPGs be summed up by the same idea? Doing a monotonous task to increment integer variables? When you put it bluntly, that's really all most RPGs amount to. Then why is it that I was so eager to sit in front of a computer every day to increment my RPG numbers, but sitting on my bike watching a calorie count was so boring?

Well, one of the nice things about video games is that all the experience I gain is cumulative. I don't start at level 1 every time I chose my character, but my bike starts at 0.0 miles every time I hop on. This sort of diminished the accomplishment, because let's face it, biking seven miles isn't much of an accomplishment at all. But once I built a controller to read my pedaling, I could send this input to some software and have it do all the calculations I wanted. Now I had an electronic log that showed me how much I biked all week. Then all month. Then in the past six months. Now, instead of settling for a seven mile achievement, I could see that I biked far enough to reach the next county. Then the next state. Then two states. These actually felt like accomplishments, and I was eager to jump on the bike and tally up some more miles each day.

Of course, there's more to a game that just tallying all the stats into ever-increasing columns. Nobody sits down to relax in front of an Excel spreadsheet doing exponential math. Not until 3 in the morning, anyway. The second part of a game is the story.

This is the part I really loved. If I had any intention of getting gamers back on their bikes each day to play my game, I had to reward them. Trial of Trails has 21 unique locations, and when I say unique, I mean it. No two towns are alike in any way, aside from the fact that they all have a part to play in the world of Trails. Gamers have to get on their bikes because they want to discover the next town. They need to feel it is worth the effort. Any fan of fantasy knows the satisfaction of discovering the answer to What could be over the next horizon?

And finally, when players discover an exciting new town filled with strange new people, I had to put names to those people and give them their own stories. If players want to see what the scientist can create with some exotic materials, they will get on their bikes and bring them to him. If they want to find out what's hidden in the peaks of the Fossil Mountains, they will travel from town to town, trading goods until they can pay the hiking guide. Trial of Trails aims to create a purpose and reason for gamers to exercise each day. It tries to turn exercise into an adventure. I hope that gamers will play my game and love it, and when they rid the world of evil, they'll have a sense of accomplishment beyond that of winning the game.

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