Four years ago, a little over three thousand people raised $72K on Kickstarter to make Six to Start’s Zombies, Run a post-apocalyptic reality. The smartphone app allowed runners to step into the role of Abel Township’s Runner 5, the largely silent protagonist collecting supplies for the town in a world infested with zombies. Three seasons and over 200 missions later, over a million people purchased the game, following its often heart-wrenching story as Runner 5 gradually gets to know the inhabitants of Abel Township, neighboring settlements, and the truth behind the zombie infestation. And now, with season 4, Zombies, Run has gone free-to-play.
One of the challenges that Zombies, Run faces is that while it’s an exceptionally intuitive game to pick up, it’s deceptively hard to describe to people who haven’t plugged in a pair of headphones and entered a new audio landscape. It’s easy to assume the game’s appeal is the thrill of the chase: the spike in adrenaline as the moans and groans of an undead horde interrupts an evening jog, and the dread realization that with every step, they’re getting closer. And while the zombie chases are a rush, it’s an optional feature in a game that focuses on a compelling narrative to convince its players to keep coming back out for more. It’s temptation bundling at work – a compelling narrative with fascinating characters you can only encounter while on the move. The ragtag band of survivors in Abel Township has inspired a vibrant fan community.
Zombies, Run‘s shift to the free-to-play model was intended to help make it easier for people to experience the game. As Zombies, Run co-creator and Six to Start CEO Adrian Hon explains,
[the game] has a great hook but a lot of people still think it’s just zombie groans and chases…unlike Monument Valley or 80 Days or Candy Crush, where you can understand the game from just a screenshot or video, Zombies, Run really requires people to try it out…going free-to-play helps people over that hurdle.
So now, players experiencing Zombies, Run for the first time receive access to the first four missions of season 1 right off the bat. Once a week, they have the ability to unlock a new mission to add to their growing repertoire. As a thank you to returning players, anyone who previously purchased a copy of Zombies, Run receives the first three seasons for free, and can use their weekly mission downloads to gradually claim the newest season as it’s released.
When Six to Start created Zombies, Run!, players were given the chance to plug in a pair of headphones and lose themselves in a rich narrative, where you’re asked to run to survive. And while Zombies, Run! doesn’t require its players to run, the story and many of its game mechanics are built around promoting running. After receiving feedback from fans of the game who aren’t avid runners, Six to Start and Naomi Alderman partnered with the UK Department of Health and National Health Service to release The Walk for iOS and Android devices earlier today.
Like Zombies, Run!, the primary feature of The Walk is its narrative, designed to provide audio accompaniment to your walking routine. Mere minutes before an apparent terrorist attack on a train station in Inverness, the player is given a package and told that it is of vital importance the package make it to Edinburgh. The attack is initiated by a group called The Burn and contains an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) which takes out all electronics, including all transportation and communication. After escaping from the train station, the package is opened and revealed to be a communication device capable of functioning after the pulse. The person on the other end becomes your guide through the chaos as you make your way on foot to deliver the package to Edinburgh.
Image courtesy thatdragoncancer.com
Over the years, a number of alternate reality games and transmedia experiences have used their storytelling platform as a medium for serious gaming. In Conspiracy for Good, many of the game’s live events were used as a lure to get players actively volunteering for non-profit organizations. In games like Indiana University’s Skeleton Chase and the American Heart Association’s Cryptozoo, the underlying purpose of the game was to get players more physically active.
To get a better sense of the evolving serious gaming industry, I attended the 9th annual Games for Health conference in Boston. Zombies, Run creators Adrian Hon and Naomi Alderman were there to share some insight into the success of their story-driven exercise app and announce their company Six to Start’s partnership with the UK government on a new project, coming next year. A host of game developers, medical professionals, and technologists added their own perspectives to the topic over the three-day conference. While the conference’s multiple tracks made a full picture of events impossible, I’ve attempted to share a few highlights in the world of serious gaming.
Zombies, Run: Escaping from the Zombie Horde
Since its release, Six to Start’s Zombies, Run has sold over half a million copies of its episodic audio adventures placing fans directly into the shoes of Abel Township’s Runner 5. To date, runners have traversed over 12 million miles in the real world, foraging for supplies through a virtual British countryside during the zombie apocalypse. A vibrant fan community has contributed fan fiction and videos to the universe: one of the members of the Zombies, Run writing team got her start writing fanfic for the game.
It all started when Zombies, Run co-creator Naomi Alderman joined a beginner’s running class. The instructor asked everyone taking the course to explain why they wanted to get better at running, and one woman blithely responded, “I want to be able to escape from the zombie horde.” This motivation resonated with Alderman, as it captured the heart of her situation. As a professional novelist, running isn’t something that helps her reach daily word counts or edit manuscripts. Alderman explains that for most people, running is more about being prepared for when things go bad. At its core, the impetus to run is the wish, “I want to be a healthy animal to escape from predators.” For Adrian Hon, an avid runner, that primal motivation was what was missing from existing apps, pedometers, and sensors on the market. No amount of metrics about heart rate, steps taken, or calories burned provides as much motivation during a run as the shuffling groan of zombies approaching you from behind.
Many design choices for Zombies, Run were made based on what felt right to the development team. For instance, the decision to make runners speed up their pace by 20% was based on Adrian’s decision that it “felt right.” However, one priority for the team was ensuring players could step seamlessly into the role of Runner 5. That meant making Runner 5’s decisions always feel reasonable to the player, especially since those decisions almost always involved running during zombie encounters. It also meant that Runner 5 would always be discussed in gender neutral terms: while it would have been possible to record separate audio streams that customized the experience for the player-protagonist, the team opted to strike out gendered language. Alderman noted that the gender neutrality allowed her to reinforce a feminist subtext into the narrative, as Runner 5’s gender has no bearing on how the story’s protagonist is treated, and is treated as largely irrelevant.
During their keynote address, Hon and Alderman announced that Zombies, Run was undergoing randomized trials to test its efficacy. Additionally, the Six to Start team announced their partnership with London’s National Health Services and the Department of Health in the UK to create a new narrative health app to tackle the obesity epidemic, set for release in 2014. Alderman describes this new app, tentatively titled The Walk, as a spy thriller that mixes elements of North by Northwest with The 39 Steps. You play the role of someone who needs to get a package from Inverness to Edinburgh while evading both terrorists and the police. The goal is to encourage users to go on to add just a bit more walking into their daily lives.
A few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to try a new iOS app by Six to Start called Zombies, Run!, a “running game and audio adventure” that transplants its participants into a zombie apocalypse. The story begins: you are Runner #5, a refugee of a supply helicopter crash, with no identification to prove you’re not from one of the other rival camps, trying to earn your keep in Abel Township by running on supply or rescue missions. Along the way, you collect items that will help the camp, and sometimes obtain information that might help explain who you are, how the world got in this state, and maybe even how to save it.
At its heart Zombies, Run! is designed as a narrative complement to players’ running music playlist. After starting the mission by loading up the app and swiping the “slide to run” control, the first segment of the story will start, interweaving music from the phone’s iTunes library with additional story segments until the mission is over. While running, a computerized voice informs you of items you pick up along the way: USB Keys, bottles of water, batteries, clothes . . . and often CDC records, information about other factions, or even other apps. In one document, a newspaper article describing a suspicious fire at a university contained a live Twitter account.
Zombies, Run! received its initial funding through a Kickstarter initiative, and one of the benefits offered to early backers was the ability to be inserted into the story, either as an individual or a brand. One of the companies to jump at this opportunity was the app development company ChipotleLabs. Various items recovered over the course of the story including the “Kensaido sword” and “Kensaido Manifesto” hint at a secret ninja society that predated the zombie apocalypse, and whose members work to combat the growing incursion. In addition to providing more information about the world beyond Abel Township, the items promote ChipotleLabs’ upcoming app, Kensaido.
Six to Start have recently introduced their latest independent game, Zombies, Run!, and it has taken only days to reach the desired amount of pledges on Kickstarter to develop it by the first quarter of 2012. It is easy to see what has gotten gamers, runners and zombie aficionados so excited.
Zombies, Run! is a running game and interactive audio adventure which takes place during a zombie apocalypse. The game mechanics are fairly simple. The player assumes the role of the zombie survivalist known as “Runner 5″ by going for a run with their smartphone and a pair of headphones. As players run, they collect items that are vital for the survival of their community. Their base grows thanks to the player allocating resources where they are needed most. And as it grows, more content will be unlocked. The running missions are an integral part of a transmedia storyline which unfolds through the orders and voice recordings heard while running, and also through puzzles, websites and documents that players can uncover online once they have safely returned home. As an exercise aid, the game also keeps track of more traditional running metrics such as distance covered and calories burned.