Ten Years of Zombies, Run!

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.

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

Stories

Illustration of people in a radio shack welcoming us, with the caption "Welcome back, Runner Five! That was a good run!"
Drawn by Azisa Noor, winner of our first fan competition

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.

That run was epic, Runner Five. I mean I… I hope you don’t mind me calling you Runner Five. We do need a new one. I’ll see if I can dig out some of the previous Runner Five’s stuff. There’s a backpack with “5” on it and stuff.
 
Anyway look, this is your bunk. I know it’s not much, but we take what we can get in the zombie apocalypse, right? And you’re only sharing this room with three other runners so that’s an improvement on Mullins! We’ve radioed Mullins and, yeah, sorry, they say they’re not sending another chopper for you. Too dangerous what with rocket launchers and stuff. But we’re doing well here on our own, Five. We really are. It’s not a bad place to live. Really. I’ve left you a few things to get you started: you’ve got your own toothbrush and towel! And if you find stuff while you’re running it’s yours to scavenge.
 
Listen, we’re glad to have you here. We’ve all got to stick together now most of the humans… aren’t human. That’s what we do at Abel - we look after each other.
 
If you need to chat, come and talk any time.
 
- Sam
Season 1 Mission 1 milestone email

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.

Virtual Races

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:

A towel design with illustrations of how it can be used - as a water filter, filled with rocks to hit zombies, on a bindle stick, a head covering, a mask, a sling, a flag. 

Text reads: Stay Safe, Stay Alive. Use Your Towel. Manufactured by Mullins Military Base for: Abel Township, Runner 5

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…

Audio

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.

Raise the gates… covering fire… run!”

Zombies, Run! is coming to French, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish!

This summer, we’re incredibly excited to be bringing Zombies, Run! to four new languages! We’re starting with the core Zombies, Run! experience, including all of Season 1 (plus Abel and New Canton races), Supply Missions and Radio Mode.

The entire audio for all those missions has been completely translated and redesigned for French, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish, and we’re incredibly pleased by the quality of the work by our partners at TransPerfect. Just check out this trailer!

But that’s not all. This is a full localisation of the Zombies, Run! app, which means the entire user interface, from the mission titles to the Codex to the Base Builder has been translated. This has required almost a year of serious production and engineering work behind the scenes, both on the app and online, and it’s laid the groundwork for improvements and new features for all players.

Ever since we launched Zombies, Run! ten years ago, we’ve had thousands of emails from players asking us to translate the app into other languages. We’ve always wanted to do the best job possible, though, which is why we’ve waited until we had the resources and talent required to do the game and story justice.

We’ll have more to share about our launch in French, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish in the coming months but just remember: as long as you can move faster than a slow shamble, Abel Township needs you – wherever you are.

Photo credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman

Join the Runners of the Round Table!

When adventure calls, heroes answer. When old evils return, legends rise. The Grail Quest comes to Abel, and dragon-fire and darkness await… 

Take up your sword and save the realm in our upcoming Spring 2022 Virtual Race, Runners of the Round Table!

Our latest race brings us back to Abel! Join Sam and Maxine on the hunt for vital melee weapons – and the fabled Demons and Darkness module Excalibur Rising – from a zombie-infested convention. But when strange events follow you beyond the gaming tables, could the legends be real? Find out this March…

It’s easy to enter – just upgrade to a VIP membership in the app! Not only will you get access to this race, but you’ll also have instant access our 12 past virtual races. You can also buy a gift membership for yourself or friends from just $49.99 USD!

Grab the Gear

T-Shirts, hoodie, tote bag, mug, and poster featuring Runners of the Round Table with dragon and Semper Currens design

The adventure of a lifetime is not one to be forgotten: immerse yourself in the world of “Excalibur Rising” with our gorgeous cotton shirt, hoodie, tote, mug, and poster! Even better: VIP members get a 20% discount code off all merch.

We weren’t able to make a race pack this time due to manufacturing and shipping problems! We know runners love them and so we’re hoping to bring them back for future races in a sustainable way…

Non-US Players: Order Your Merch Soon!

If you live outside of the US, you may want to order race packs, tech shirts, caps, and more from our shop in the next week, because we will be limiting non-US shipping from October 10th.

The reason is because DHL has significantly increased the minimum spend required for their worldwide shipping accounts, which affects one of our US suppliers (Sweatvac). Unfortunately, we don’t have a replacement that is as fast and affordable as DHL yet because we were given very little notice of this change.

That’s why we’ve made the difficult decision to pause shipping these products outside the US from October 11th:

  • All Race Packs and Souvenir Packs
  • Tech shirts and tech tanks
  • Face masks
  • Caps, hats, and headbands
  • Water bottles
  • Socks

These products from our other supplier (Scalable Press/Fuel) will continue to ship worldwide as normal:

  • All cotton T-shirts
  • Hoodies
  • Posters
  • Tote bags
  • Mugs
  • Phone cases

We are working on finding a way to ship all our products worldwide as soon as we can, but it’s likely to be a few months – so if you’re outside the US and you want a souvenir pack or a tech shirt, please order now!

The Home Front auf Deutsch!

The Home Front ist jetzt auch auf Deutsch verfügbar! Wir haben mit Warlocs zusammengearbeitet, um die ersten 10 Episoden unserer Bodyweight-Workout-Serie für deutschsprachige Nutzer verfügbar zu machen. Sie sind für jeden kostenlos herunterzuladen – öffnet die App und sucht nach „The Home Front Deutsch“ im Reiter Missionen.

Screenshots of The Home Front Deutsch

The Home Front is now available in German! We’ve collaborated with Warlocs to bring the first 10 episodes of our home bodyweight workout series to German speakers everywhere. They’re free to download for everyone – open the app and look for “The Home Front Deutsch” in the Missions tab!

New Subscriptions Price Rise: 2021

Hello, Runners Five! From next week, we’ll be increasing the price of some subscriptions to new subscribers only.

As with previous price increases, if you’re an existing subscriber, you won’t see any price change providing you keep your subscription active (i.e. you don’t cancel and resubscribe). And if your subscription begins before next week, these increases will not affect you unless you allow your subscription to lapse without renewing it.

  • Abel Runner’s Club – Annual: Increasing to $39.99 USD from $34.99
  • Legacy Discount: Increasing to $19.99 USD from $7.99

We’re proud of making a game that makes exercising fun, and continually maintaining and improving it for almost a decade. We put our prices up only when we believe it’s necessary to make sure we can keep giving Zombies, Run! the attention it deserves, so that’s why this is our first price increase in two years. For non-USD currencies, the exact price change will vary.

Increasing the cost of new subscriptions allows us to increase the resources we can dedicate to improving Zombies, Run! and adding new kinds of gameplay and storytelling. It also lets us pay our staff fairly. We believe our new subscription prices are still great value, and highly competitive against comparable health and fitness apps – though there’s nothing quite like ZR out there!

Stay safe out there! 

Photo by Niklas Ohlrogge on Unsplash

Join the Zombies, Run! Team

Want to help make the world’s most fun smartphone fitness game? We’re looking for people to fill four fully-remote roles across our team:

You’ll find all the details you need above, along with pay ranges and how to apply!


About Six to Start

We make content for absolutely everyone

At Six to Start we believe in everyone’s right to exist and be seen. We tell diverse stories in our app with caring, idealistic characters that our players love. Our workplace reflects this mission with our commitment to equality, inclusion and mutual support. Here’s what some of our players say:

“I love this beautiful inclusive world you’ve created that you’ve allowed us to be a part of. Zombies, Run! has helped me through a lot of trying times and I don’t know what I’d be doing without y’all.”

“Zombies, Run is an exercise app, but its ALSO an incredible audio podcast where u are the main character. has lovable diverse cast of chars. and motivates you IRL to exercise at any pace you prefer! its literally the only thing thats ever made me exercise for fun and i love it.”

We are not a startup

We think “hustle” is code for overwork. From the way we plan projects onward, we do everything we can to ensure people work 40 hours a week even in release-heavy months. We also support part-time working and extra flexibility for meeting needs and challenges like caring for others, crisis and personal health.

We build better processes

We believe in creating thoughtful, sustainable processes that make our work easier, rather than relying on volume of effort to get the job done. We’re committed to constant self-scouting and continual improvement as a way of ensuring as stress-free and sustainable a work life as we’re able to create.

5K Training Players, We Need You!

Are you a ZR 5K Training player? The National University of Singapore is conducting research on gamified apps and they need your help! Ten 1-Year Abel Runner’s Club vouchers are up for grabs (worth $35 USD each) as part of a random drawing of participants!

Read on for the survey details!


There has been significant interest in examining the potential health consequences of gamified therapeutics such as the Zombies, Run! 5k Training app. In fact, in line with WHO recommendations, video games are being prescribed as a recommended treatment for homebound existence brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Our goal is to understand user experiences pertinent in gaming to investigate how and when to elicit such experiences in gamified therapeutics. Your participation will help to improve the overall positive impact of these technologies. 

You can contribute to these efforts in the following ways:

  • Participate in the survey. 
  • Read the survey questions carefully.  
  • Process all the given alternatives carefully.   
  • Be honest and candid. 

All responses will be kept confidential. It is your personal opinions that are important. Only your personal experience or knowledge is required to answer the questions.

Survey Link: https://nus.syd1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_eVCgqTQ1UTkgDVY

For more information or questions about this research, you may contact Oteng at dison@nus.edu.sg


Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

Read Your Abel Mail on ZombieLink

All Runners 5 will know about the emails from Abel Township residents like Sam, Jody, and Janine after a mission. We love writing and designing these, and from today, you can revisit them at any time on ZombieLink! So if you’ve lost or deleted a “milestone email”, or you just want a better way of exploring them, look no further than their ZombieLink mission page.

Almost every ZR mission and New Adventure episode is on ZombieLink, with full scene descriptions, audio playback, run logs, and now, milestone emails – and there are more improvements to come…!

Screenshot of Jolly Alpha Five Niner ZombieLink page, with milestone email

Talk to Me: New Audio Notifications

Ever been on a mission from Abel Township and wondered when it was time to turn back home? Then you’ll love our new audio notifications, out now in our 9.3.0 update on Android and iPhone!

We’ve added four ways to hear about your progress while you’re running:

  • Rolling Pace: Pace for your most recent mile or kilometer
  • Overall Pace: Pace for your entire run so far
  • Remaining Progress: Amount of time or distance left until your mission is complete
  • Halfway Through: Triggers when you’re halfway through your set run duration, which for most runners will be when you’re halfway through a mission

These options will work slightly differently (or won’t apply) on different game modes – for example, Supply Missions, Interval Training, and Airdrop won’t play the “Halfway Through” announcement. But we hope you’ll find them useful while you’re out saving the world!

You can find all of these options in the More > Settings screen in the app, and they’re available to both free and paid subscribers.

Also in 9.3.0…

On Android:

  • You can now adjust run durations by 0.1 km/mile or 1 minute increments
  • We’ll remind you to sync to ZombieLink if you aren’t logged in

On iPhone:

  • The Home Screen now loads much faster!
  • We now require iOS13 or above