Getting fit with the undead: The Zombies, Run story
Zombies and fitness don’t tend to go together. Even the nippy infected of the 28 Days Later variety are hardly what you’d call bastions of good health. Being a survivor surrounded by the undead, though: that’s a different kettle of fish. You have to be fit to stay alive.
That’s the broad concept that led to Zombies, Run – the original gamified running app. While other smartphone fitness apps pushed runners’ reward buttons with pages of stats and badges for accomplishment, Zombies, Run just tried to make things less dull. And it’s a recipe that has worked: almost three million people run to the sounds of a post-apocalyptic radio drama in their ears, interspersed with their own music as the plot unfolds over five seasons of brain-eating drama.
“Zombies just keep on coming and that makes them good motivation to keep on running.”
The idea came to Zombies, Run co-creator Naomi Alderman when she joined a running club. When people were asked why they had joined, the answers ranged from wanting to get fitter to a desire to lose weight. One woman simply answered that she wanted to be ready for the zombie apocalypse.
“To be perfectly honest, at the time I thought zombies were over – and that was six years ago,” Six to Start CEO Adrian Hon tells me during a phone interview, as his company seeks further funding through Crowdcube. “Why not do werewolves or dinosaurs or secret agents? But if you did a secret-agent running thing, the question would always be, why not use a car? Plus we know that zombies can’t be bargained with – they just keep on coming, and that makes them good motivation to keep on running.”
Get fit or die tryin’
Zombies may be tired, but everyone understands them, which might help explain the game’s broad appeal. “It’s a real variety of people who take part in Zombies, Run. Strava is a great app, but I associate it with athletes who are really competitive. We’ve been very careful not to exclude any people in particular – we have people who play Zombies, Run who have literally run thousands of miles with it, but we also have people who aren’t particularly fit and just walk with it.”
“I thought we’d make Zombie Run for one or two years and then make something else, but that hasn’t happened”
I ask Hon if there’s an average pace or athletic ability among the game’s fans, but the truth is that it’s not even a metric they think is important enough to track. “We could certainly find that out, but we don’t really expose that, because it’s not about being competitive.” Anyone who wants the athletic side alongside the story is encouraged to use other stat-driven apps in tandem.
Was the success a big surprise? “I thought we had something pretty special, but I was pretty surprised,” Hon replies. “I mean, we hoped it would sell millions of copies – but I don’t think we knew what that would look like, especially for a fitness app.
“I thought we’d make Zombies, Run for one or two years and then make something else, but that hasn’t happened. We have people who rely on this app, who run with it every day. We hear stories about people recovering from disease, or they used to be overweight or depressed, and they use Zombies, Run. That makes me feel we’ve made something pretty special.”
What’s more, it’s profitable: something that’s becoming rarer and rarer for apps. That business model has had to adapt to the commercial realities of the smartphone ecosystem though. What started life as a $10 Kickstarter (“when people heard about the idea they were like that GIF: ‘shut up and take my money!’”) has mutated twice: first into a $8 app, and then to a free download with an optional subscription. “You definitely can’t do smartphone apps on Kickstarter now: you can’t sell smartphone apps anymore,” Hon explains. “It was a different world.”
People who paid for the original game get two free seasons, so they’re mostly relaxed about the move to subscription, according to Hon. “Of course there were some people just not happy with a subscription full stop because they want to own the content. And I understand that, but the reality of app development today is that that’s just not sustainable. Even if we didn’t want to add any features to Zombies, Run, we still have to keep working on it all the time to make sure it works on Android and iOS.”
“As a free app, we reach far, far more people than we did as a paid app. And obviously most of those people don’t pay any money – but we have tens of thousands of active subscribers paying for Zombies, Run. But even if they don’t pay for it, a lot of people buy T-shirts, they enter races, they listen to adverts… going free-to-play was a great move for us.” While Hon won’t be drawn on specific numbers, I’m told the conversion rate is “several percent”.
Attack of the clones
So, why isn’t Zombies, Run a magnet for clones? “Oh, people do try – you just don’t hear about them,” Hon replies wearily. “There have been a fair number of fantasy-style running games and zombies games and secret-agent running games, and every few months someone tries it again.”
They haven’t really succeeded for three reasons, according to Hon. The first is that you can’t compete with free. “From a business angle, just as it’s difficult to make a running app that’s as big as Strava or Runkeeper, it’s also quite difficult to build a competitor to Zombies, Run because we’ve been at it for five years and it’s also free. That’s just the way the app store works now.”
The second is that it’s harder than it looks. “It seems like it would be really easy, because theoretically it’s just audio that plays while you run, but actually in order to do all the things we do very reliably – which is run-tracking, integrating the story with your music, making sure it doesn’t crash – these are things we’ve refined over several years.”
“You have to bring your A-game, because people can listen to whatever they want while running: podcasts, Audible, music.”
The third advantage is the storytelling – led by co-founder Naomi Alderman. “We’re lucky that we work with Naomi – she’s an award-winning literary novelist and a great storyteller. A lot of these apps have dreadful writers to be perfectly honest – and you have to bring your A-game, because people can listen to whatever they want while running: podcasts, Audible, music. You have to bring really great storytelling.” The combination of an enthusiastic fanbase has even allowed fan-fiction writers to contribute some guest missions to the 250 or so currently available. “It’s not super common, but it has happened,” says Hon.
Gaming without screens
Creating a game that deliberately keeps you from looking at the screen could be considered a severe limitation, but Hon sees it as essential for a running game. “It’s surprising to me that so many game designers make that mistake,” he says – and it’s not just a practical complaint about running armbands. “I think a lot of people intuitively think ‘that sounds really cool’ but as a runner, I only have two or three different running routes and I don’t want to change them, because I know them and I like them and I know how long they take.” Not to mention that having to look at a screen while running is a recipe for disaster – either for you or your precious screen. “You certainly should not be running while using Pokémon Go – you’re going to have an accident.”
Wearables could provide an answer to that, potentially, but Hon is as unconvinced as the buying public about their potential for ubiquity. “I think wearables will get more popular, but I don’t know if they’ll ever get to 50% penetration,” he says. Zombies, Run has a wearable version for Apple Watch, but it really only functions as a glorified stop/start button.
So what does the future hold for running apps? “I think traditional running apps are done. I don’t know how good they need to be,” Hon argues. “They’re already incredibly accurate and free, and they’re all expanding into things that have nothing to do with running.”
“I think traditional running apps are done. I don’t know how good they need to be. They’re already incredibly accurate and free, and they’re all expanding into things that have nothing to do with running.”
What about further down the road? What about augmented or virtual reality? Well, in that respect, Six to Start was ahead of the curve. “We have Zombies, Run working on Google Glass, though not very well, because it’s not a good piece of hardware. When this works it will be really exciting, but we’re a good few years away from that.”
It’s not that the team were under any illusions that Glass was going to be the next best thing. It was more that Google asked them to do it, and that presented a good opportunity. “I don’t know if it was worth it in the end, but we got some good newspaper headlines out of it,” he reflects. “But Glass was $1,000 – who was going to buy that? Come on.”
While they wait for the next technological sea change, Hon and his team will carry on refining Zombies, Run, as well as working on Race Link. Race Link is a commercial project for charities that allows people to take part in fundraising races remotely, no matter where and when they want to do them. “It’s almost like a white-label version of Zombies, Run, though not really,” Hon explains. The idea is that if people can set their own schedules, more money can be raised, but like Zombies, Run, each race has its own story. For Macmillan Cancer Support, it’s a virtual spy race. For the British Science Association, it’s a 10km run across the solar system.
Short of running out of puff around Saturn, it’s not as scary as zombies though, is it?