I’ll be honest – I knew we had an incredible idea in Zombies, Run!, a running game and audio adventure that would make exercise more exciting – but I never imagined it would last for ten years. iPhone and Android apps had only been around for a few years: who knew what we’d all be doing in 2022?
But that idea, and the story of Abel Township’s brave survivors (crafted by Naomi Alderman, the game’s co-creator and lead writer), was more tenacious than I thought. It wasn’t just a fun distraction. It became a way for millions of people to motivate themselves to run just one more kilometre, to get going on a rainy Sunday morning to find out what happens next, and to make friends with fellow players around the world. It mattered in a way that I never imagined was possible.
Ten years ago on March 10th y’all saved my life. Thank you.— anne gibson, color wrangler (@kirabug) February 24, 2022
It was only thanks to our enormously talented cast and crew that this happened. Zombies, Run! is a team effort, which is why it’s persisted for a decade and counting.
In this retrospective, I want to skip the usual stats and look at some of our most memorable moments and lessons learned. If you want to know “how we did it” and what mistakes we made, you’ve come to the right place.
– Adrian Hon, co-creator and lead designer of Zombies, Run!, and CEO of Six to Start
At Six to Start, we take it for granted that storytelling, alongside gameplay, is one of the most powerful ways to motivate people. Everyone’s different, but we all enjoy a great book or movie or TV show. So why shouldn’t exercise also involve storytelling?
One obvious problem is that good storytelling is incredibly hard. A less obvious problem is how you integrate it with an activity like running, where you can’t look at the screen or press buttons as you move. Our solution was to use first person audio storytelling to immerse players into our world, and to mix it with the player’s own music for the perfect balance of intensity.
It’s surprising how few other companies have been able to pull this off successfully. I think a lot of people still can’t believe it actually works, and even if they do, they see “zombies” and imagine it’s just an app where you hear zombies growl at you occasionally, and you’re instructed to run here or there for supplies. Anyone who’s played even a single mission knows it’s much more special than that – more akin to the very best TV shows or novels than just a novelty.
It’s hard to talk about how the story of Zombies, Run! has evolved and grown over the last decade without massive spoilers, but it’s safe to say that Naomi and her team of incredible writers have managed to create an epic, thrilling, and emotional tale serialised across hundreds of missions. We’ve gone from a crumbling township in the UK to a globe-trotting adventure with a cast of dozens – and with stakes as high as, well, the zombie apocalypse, as intimate as love and betrayal, and as hilarious as chasing after an escaped chicken.
That’s why ten million people have downloaded Zombies, Run!, and why we’ve regularly had hundreds of thousands of active players and tens of thousands of subscribers. The greatest compliment I can pay to Naomi’s team is that they make it look easy!
In recent years, we’ve begun a new strand of non-zombie “New Adventures” like the thrilling Dino Dash by Andrea Phillips and the hilarious Spellcast by Bilal Dardai, not to mention Mur Lafferty’s epic Godmaker and Kieren Knapp’s terrifying The Thirteenth Runner. These stories have helped us spread our wings into whole new genres, and even into non-fiction, like our three-year collaboration with the British Science Association for Run the Solar System, Run to the Deep, and Run with the Ancestors.
For many players, the audio story is our main attraction, and so we’ve made it central to our production and development. We’re unusual among audio drama companies for the sheer time and effort we pour into making the best stories we can, and practically unique in how our technology – both in the app and behind the scenes – is tailored to support that process.
The Abel Township Community
The moment I realised that we were responsible for a community and not just a game was in April 2013, just after Zombies, Run! 2 had launched. We were incredibly proud of the massive, across-the-board upgrades we’d made to the app, and none moreso than the Base Builder. In ZR1, you couldn’t move or customise buildings, which meant that everyone had the same base. Other than the neat detail that you upgraded buildings by assigning specific supplies to them (e.g. first aid kits for the hospital), it was pretty unsatisfying.
So for ZR2, we wanted to create a more complex and interesting tile-based base builder in which players could choose exactly which buildings they wanted in their base and where to place them. There’d be more interactions between buildings, more requirements, add-ons and levelling, new buildings unlocked based on your story progress – the works.
But when we released the app, not everyone was happy: we’d just wiped out their base. We might not have thought much of it from a game design perspective, but thousands of players had put countless hours of sweat and tears into rebuilding it. To us at Six to Start, it was old and busted. To players, it was their base. And even though the replacement was “better”, even though you could still see a snapshot of your old base online, it wasn’t the same.
It’s obvious now, but we’d been deeply inconsiderate. There are better ways we could have handled the change, and we’ve been much more respectful since then. Sometimes we make changes that aren’t universally popular, but it’s not because we haven’t thought them through carefully!
Milestones, Not Achievements
One of the greatest things about Zombies, Run! isn’t what it has but what it lacks: achievements. True, we added some achievements in mid-2013 after a lot of requests, but it’s not something we foreground in the app. We spend far more time on our milestone emails, which players receive after completing certain missions or hitting key running or game targets.
Milestone emails are different because they’re so tightly tied to what makes Zombies, Run! unique. Instead of a generic achievement that could’ve come from a million other gamified apps, you get a message from an in-game character you care about – a message that could’ve only come from Zombies, Run! These take us far longer to write and illustrate, but that’s what makes them more meaningful.
That’s why you don’t see much traditional gamification in Zombies, Run! It’s not stuffed with experience points or levels or leaderboards. We’re focused on what makes running more exciting and satisfying in the moment – and in the long term.
Back in 2015, we kept hearing about this strange thing called a “virtual race”. Apparently people were paying to receive a medal for saying they’d run a 5K or 10K distance – and they wanted Zombies, Run! to do the same.
The idea of essentially selling a medal for $30 didn’t seem right to us, but creating a paid worldwide event where all our players ran the same missions during the same fortnight was exciting. Even more exciting was the idea to include new ways to deepen the story in the real world, through physical artefacts in our virtual race pack, like a certificate from our characters and a special multi-use tea towel:
Our first race, in the fall of 2015, was a huge hit, and in the following years they’d get bigger and better every time, including ARG-style websites, puzzle books, ID cards, phone numbers, and even entire online games. Last year, Matt Wieteska’s Jack & Eugene’s World Tour was over three times longer than our usual race, with six separate training missions, three races, and an hour-long “ambient” mission to chill out to! And this month brings us to thirteen virtual races over seven years…
Shipping tens of thousands of virtual race packs was no mean feat. We converted half of our London office into a mini-warehouse and shipping area, and became experts in figuring out how best to label and package items for Royal Mail, not to mention sourcing quality merch and dealing with international logistics. Not bad for a small indie game developer.
The pandemic and ensuing shipping problems have made it hard to offer the same kind of race packs in the past year, along with Six to Start becoming a fully-remote company. But we’re always looking for smart ways to make our virtual races the best and most immersive in the world, and you can be sure we have plenty of ideas…
The first season of Zombies, Run! was recorded with bedsheets to muffle noise, and with frequent pauses whenever a noisy bus passed by our makeshift recording studio. While we might not have been recording at Abbey Road, our actors and Audio Director Matt Wieteska made up for it with immense gusto – if you’ve listened to A Voice in the Dark or Horde, chances are you won’t mind the bedsheets.
Over the years, the bedsheets were replaced by a custom “recording tent” in office, and then by a fully-fledged soundbooth shipped from the US, which was perfect other than its tendency to overheat in the summer. When we went fully-remote, we finally began hiring a dedicated recording studio in London, and since 2020, all of our recording has been online.
Some things have stayed the same. Unlike other games companies, we’ve always tried to record with as many cast members as possible at the same time, because we know that performances are better when actors can react to each other – and when they can take their time. But as the diversity of our characters have changed, so too has our casting process. Now that we record online, we’ve been able to cast from almost anywhere, which has been both essential and rewarding for literal round-the-world stories like Jessica Wright Buha’s Nellie Bly, not to mention Avin Shah’s The Signals War and our upcoming All Hands To Freedom by Jess Erion.
Reliability and Sustainability
It doesn’t matter if you have the world’s greatest game if it keeps crashing. If you want to make something that lasts for ten years, you have to care about something that you can’t show on any screenshot: reliability.
That goes doubly for fitness apps, where a crash during a run could mean an hour’s effort lost and a bug means an extra minute spent fiddling with your phone out in the cold. While there have been times when Zombies, Run!’s crash rate hasn’t been great, in recent years we’ve driven it down incredibly low. This isn’t always easy given how much Zombies, Run! does – audio, music, gameplay, GPS tracking, network syncing – all while the phone’s screen is off, but it’s key to what we do.
Anyone who’s made even the simplest of apps will know how tricky it is to keep it maintained year after year, as new iOS and Android capabilities are introduced and old ones are deprecated. Sometimes it can feel like you’re treading water rather than getting anywhere useful. And it’s hard to know when you should be adding new features or refactoring old code. Amid a sea of buggy and abandoned apps, I’m so proud of how solid Zombies, Run! is, and it’s all thanks to our developers and QA team – truly the best in the business.
Ten More Years
In 2032, will we all be wearing augmented reality displays and running from 3D zombies? I’ve been doing this for long enough to know better than to make predictions. What I do know is that for as long as people want to keep getting fit, there’ll be a place for Zombies, Run!
We’ll supply the motivation. All you need is to do is pull on your trainers.