A tester using Quell's fitness gaming hardware
Image Credit: Quell

The Oxford grads changing fitness gaming

As an avid gamer and amateur runner, I have never once thought about meshing those disparate worlds together. Marathon sessions in games ranging from Civilisation, a turn-based strategy game, to Hitman, a sandbox stealth game, have always been isolated from my thrice-weekly runs through Oxford and London. I have always been happy to keep those worlds separate. That’s where Oxford grads Cameron Brookhouse and Martin Tweedie’s platform Quell comes in. Quell is a resistance-based fitness gaming system (pictured) that promises to provide the best of both fields. You run, jump, squat, dash, and punch your way through the enemies and landscapes of the fictional world Shardfall. On the way, you supposedly burn an average 600 calories an hour.

Quell’s selling point is that it is a completely immersive exercise system. It promises to remove the most frustrating elements of fitness, while introducing gamified elements to maintain user attention. Investors have so far agreed with the premise, with the platform raising $10m in Series A funding. In its early stages, the platform was also boosted by startup accelerator YCombinator, which has helped to launch companies including Airbnb, Reddit, and Twitch.

It all started when Brookhouse and Tweedie met at Oxford as Teddy Hall Materials Science undergraduates. Matriculating in 2010, Tweedie was drawn to the subject because of its “mixture of engineering, physics and chemistry”, and Oxford because it was the “exceptional” place to go and study. Brookhouse, meanwhile, describes seeing Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, as his impetus to drop his humanities A-level subjects and embark on a pivot “wholesale to science”.

When they arrived, the pair became fast friends. Within the first four weeks of their time there, they had already decided to live together in second year. They also spent most of their time together in first-year halls. At one point in our conversation, Brookhouse jokingly said that what had allowed their friendship to create a now multi-million pound business partnership was the “trauma-bonding” of doing a “very challenging course” together. Tweedie added that it was a sort of “dry run” that provided “proof… that [the partnership] would be viable”.

Both were also interested in video games growing up. In our conversation, Tweedie jokes that “none of [his] survival horror” suggestions, from games like Resident Evil, made it into Shardfall’s world. Brookhouse added that the two “spent three hours a day at Oxford” playing Destiny.

Following graduation, Brookhouse went on to work for consulting firm McKinsey, providing the basis for his work as the CEO of Quell. Tweedie, meanwhile, stayed in Oxford to complete a DPhil in Materials Science. This informed his work as CTO, which demands the fluid meshing of the complexities of hardware and software together in Quell’s system.

What actually is Quell, though? And what drove the duo to design and manufacture a product which now has more than 10,000 preorders?

Brookhouse describes what the duo perceive as the “fitness problem”. As a product, the experience of being fit is “super broken” and it’s not aligned with any other kind of product space. The duo cite two powerful stats. One, from exercise tracker Strava, which found that over 50% of runners hated or barely tolerated running. Second, the fact that 64% of US gym memberships are dormant.

While people are aware of the benefits of fitness, to the duo it is not an “enticing or high retention product”. Their solution is to tap into what makes team sports so exciting. Quell puts “every motion you’re performing” into the service of a “gamified goal”. Brookhouse theorises that the gamified elements of this hybrid experience help to increase the quality of a workout, too. “If something is trying to punch you in the face, you’re going to put a lot more effort into avoiding that punch than you would if you were self-motivating, right? Your heart rate goes up, because you’re thinking: ‘How do I not get knocked out here?’”

My main question-marks when I heard about the product were twofold. First of all, I was sceptical of the ‘gamified’ element that the pair discussed. With years of development time and millions of dollars, games can fail to entertain and even come broken on arrival. This is especially a problem in PC gaming. Recent releases such as 2020’s Cyberpunk arrived in a near-unplayable state for many users. Given that Quell’s development relies on immersive hardware and software, I’m skeptical it can be as immersive as Brookhouse and Tweedie want it to be.

My other concern was the viability of the exercise. For people who run or go to the gym for fitness and little else, is the exercise side of it intense enough? And for fitness heads who spend hours exercising already, is this worthwhile? With COVID restrictions no more, people who want to exercise will be back into complex routines. They won’t have the space for something new, like Quell.

The pair addressed both of those claims in detail. Brookhouse said that the fitness gaming sector is perceived as “gimmick[y]” with “shallow gameplay”, a “rudimentary art style, and not much in the way of narrative or progression, or retention or social [features]. And we want to destroy that”. Despite its infancy, Quell has a plan to ensure deep progression and replayability. Its idea is to simulate that of a roguelike game. Instead of massive pre-generated worlds, Shardfall will use procedurally-generated environments and turn-based gameplay. This is to say that it will emulate a game like the popular indie classic Hades.

In that game, you play Zagreus, son of Hades, as he embarks on a mad dash to Mount Olympus. Each time, you run through a unique chain of randomly generated rooms, replete with new rewards and enemies. You die frequently and often. But, each run improves your chances of surviving the next one, because of the new gear and skill you accumulate along the way.

In Quell’s rogue-like simulation, each exercise session will have its own structure, complete with an ascending degree of physical difficulty complemented by fighting a boss at the end of the session (sound familiar?). A crucial distinction from Hades, though, is that each session will be a win. You can’t “die” in game; if you encounter difficulty, you’ll just receive easier enemies to fight. Users, as a result, won’t be demoralised. “If you die minute 25 into your 30 minute workout, you’re not going to do the extra five minutes, right?” Brookhouse asks.

With regard to the viability of fitness, Brookhouse states that “it’s not going to replace the gym […] if you’re trying to improve your one rep max. This is not that. But, if you’re looking to get fit, burn calories, increase your VO2 max and other cardio metrics, it’s best in class.” He adds that recent tests show that it is not burning 600 calories an hour, but actually 900, which even co-founder Tweedie is surprised by.

With regard to the product’s potential limitations post-COVID, Brookhouse states that while it was an “obvious COVID product”, it wasn’t a “reactive” decision to make Quell. Brookhouse perceives the product’s core value proposition as independent of COVID. To him, the fitness sector’s failure for most potential Quell users hasn’t changed. Instead, Brookhouse sees the sector’s problems as “underlying”.

The duo have an ambitious vision for Quell post-2024 launch. The pair spare no expense in outlining it: they want to become the “PlayStation of fitness”. This is as expansive and ambitious as you’d expect a comparison to Sony’s industry behemoth to be. Not only do they want their hardware and system to be best in class, they want to create a platform that 3rd-party developers and community members can upload games to, and a community space spanning across games, complete with PvP (player-vs-player), PvE (player-vs-entity), leaderboards, leagues and much more, all in Quell’s centralised dashboard.

I ask the duo what their dream 3rd-party developed game would be. For Brookhouse, it’s something like Minecraft. For Tweedie, it’s just good-old survival horror.

Brookhouse and Tweedie seem to have it all planned out, and their product is now available for pre-order for an early 2024 launch. My last question for them is simple. How did they get this far, and what advice do they have for students entering the world of startups?

Both say the exact same thing: “prove out the things that matter” and “fail fast”. Tweedie says that while a brilliant concept is critical, if you want a product to go into “millions of people’s homes, you need to prove that people want it”. If it “resonates”, people will pay for it. If not, they won’t, and you can move onto the next great idea and see how it does with investors and the public.

Brookhouse offers some less traditional (or less aspirational) advice: “go and do something else first”. He articulates that in a prototype stage without prior business experience, you might succeed. But, when it comes to developing the product past an embryonic initial idea, having experience in a sector like consultancy, banking, or academia will be your silver bullet. It will equip you to handle challenges yourself, while hiring people who can fill in gaps in your own knowledge. Brookhouse, for one, stated that his time in consultancy made him a “swiss-army-knife”.

Speaking with Brookhouse and Tweedie, it’s clear that they’re passionate about the product they’ve developed. It’s clear that they see fitness as an essential, if inaccessible and frustrating, experience that needs to be rethought. It’s clear (and yes, this is important) that they’re passionate about games, knowing what will please the average gamer and what won’t. And who knows? If Quell does become the “PlayStation of fitness”, they might have one more buyer on their hands.