Last year, we decided to add new types of story to Zombies, Run!, and to bring new creators into our fold. Today, we’re going to talk about how we tried to build an inclusive process, what we’re proud of, and what we want to improve for next time.
What if there weren’t any zombies?
It’s right there in the title: “Zombies, Run!”: we make a smartphone fitness game where you run away from zombies. Yes, you run away from zombies in a rich, characterful, masterfully-plotted adventure by award-winning global megastar author Naomi Alderman – but you’re always running from zombies. But then, in 2019, we asked ourselves: what if you weren’t?
This wasn’t the first time we’d explored new kinds of running stories. On our Racelink platform, we’d created virtual races for charities – everything from thrilling spy adventures and a heart-pounding escape from an erupting volcano (written by a working geologist!) to non-fiction journeys across thesolar system. These new stories had shown us that our audio storytelling engine was really flexible and could support many different narrative styles.
We were also driven by the fact that Zombies, Run! was entering its eighth(!) season. Unlike TV shows, where you can binge dozens of episodes a week to catch up to the rest of the audience, our players would need to run for multiple years before catching up to our latest stories! So we wanted to make sure we were making great stories that everyone could enjoy, while also continuing the epic adventures of Runner 5 that had helped so many of our players meet their fitness goals over the years.
These impulses combined to inspire a big change! Starting with Season 8, we cut our usual 40 episode season of Zombies, Run! down to 30. That gave us the room for two brand new five-episode “alternate universe” stories featuring twists on the beloved central characters. These ten episodes could be played by anyone, no matter where they were in the main story. The world of Zombies, Run! was expanding.
From a doomed Venusian Colony to a horde of zombies threatening the Roman Legion at Hadrian’s Wall, these new settings were an immediate hit with our players. We were keen to meet the demand for new stories – perhaps with stories that didn’t feature zombies at all!
So, in October 2019, we introduced the New Adventures, stories set completely outside the Zombies, Run! universe that we’d commission through an open call.
Aims and Process
We set ourselves three key aims for our commissioning process:
- Find a group of talented writers with a diverse set of ideas and backgrounds.
- Give fair compensation for every level of the process, and not to ask for an unreasonable amount of labour from anyone.
- Create stories that our audience will love, and which are not harmful to them.
All three aims come from a single core drive: to use the privilege of our platform responsibly. Here’s how we tried to fulfil that:
Whose Voices Are We Amplifying?
When we set out to introduce New Adventures to Zombies, Run!, we had a great opportunity – not only to expand our variety of stories but to also increase the diversity of writers we had telling those stories. If we were going to commission new scripts, we wanted to amplify voices that aren’t ordinarily be heard so easily.
It’s all too easy to let unaddressed bias creep into decision-making and to reinforce existing power structures. So, from our first internal discussions about commissioning, we worked intentionally to build a process that would minimise our own internal bias, and to combat existing power imbalances.
This all centred around a single key question: “Whose voices are we amplifying?” We would come back to it regularly: Whose voices are we amplifying when we advertise our open call in certain spaces? Whose voices are we amplifying when we set certain requirements for pitches? Whose voices are we amplifying when we talk about pitches in a particular manner?
This wasn’t easy and it led to our meetings becoming much longer than they might have been otherwise, but it forced us to be very aware of the unintentional effects of our decisions, and of the places where structural bias is created. Committing to this from the beginning strengthened our habit of having uncomfortable conversations, of looking inward, and of attempting to mitigate our own biases through our process.
No Unpaid Work
For our open call, we asked people to submit only as much as we absolutely needed: a maximum of three 50-word ideas, and a single page dialogue sample. We asked writers to avoid, if possible, creating a dialogue sample specifically for this submission. This was all to reduce the amount of work writers would be doing before we paid them for an outline, or reject them from this commissioning round.
As writers made into the next stages of the commissioning process, we committed to paying them promptly as each stage of work was completed. It’s the fair thing to do, and we didn’t want to make it difficult for writers with greater financial pressures to take part in the process.
This also meant we could commission more liberally at the beginning of the process. By dividing payment up explicitly by stages of work completed, we avoided putting our writers in the position of having to assume the risk for their pitches not proceeding onto the next round; we always paid for work done. This also meant we weren’t put in the position of being overly committed to a piece that wasn’t working for us.
The end result? We had a wide variety of ideas and writers at the outline stage, and therefore a better variety of completed scripts.
Constant Process Review
At the end of each meeting, we reviewed our practise and questioned our performance – not only from a business and logistics perspective, but also in terms of how our workflow might be affecting the writers or how we might be introducing bias. We made explicit space for our team to give feedback on this publicly and privately, and made any changes quickly.
One key example of this came as we reviewed the outlines from the first phase of the commissioning process. As there were too many outlines to discuss in a single meeting, we split our discussion into several calls. For the first call, the person leading the discussion introduced each outline in turn, gave their opinion on it, and then invited comment from the rest of the team.
This was quick and easy to understand , but in our discussion at the end of the meeting, we realised that this was unintentionally promoting the opinions of the discussion leader over those of the rest of the team. For the remainder of the outline discussions, we had a different team member introduce each outline in order to make sure everyone’s voices were heard equally.
An Inclusive Selection Process
One of the most difficult parts of the process was deciding how we’d choose which writers to take forward to the next round, keeping in mind we wanted to amplify voices from under-represented communities. Our first instinct was to use a “blind” process that anonymised submissions and making decisions based solely on what we could read on the page.
However, we quickly realised that this would put us at risk of commissioning potentially harmful work, by unintentionally asking writers to tell stories which they lacked the lived experience or understanding required to tell sensitively. A blind process would also risk us privileging those with advantages that might make them better at presenting their work – those who have been able to attend courses on screenwriting format, for example – over those who might produce better scripts but have less industry experience.
So, our final approach combined an uninformed assessment with a informed selection, which took place over a couple of phases:
- Submission; Writers sent us one page of dialogue, up to three short (< 50 word) pitches, and a cover letter. We invited our writers to self-identify to us however they felt comfortable. We were clear that we wanted to especially encourage people from under-represented communities to apply, but also acknowledged that not everyone feels safe identifying themselves as such.
- The “dialogue filter”; one of our team processed each new submission by reading the included dialogue sample without reading the writer’s name, cover letter, or pitches. We rejected any submissions that didn’t demonstrate sufficient aptitude for dramatic dialogue, giving us confidence that anyone we brought forward from this stage would at least be able to create a compelling script.
- Pitch Ratings; each member of our team rated the writer’s pitches, giving an overall score out of 10. This was done without reading names, cover letters, or dialogue. We then rejected all submissions whose average rating was below 6, and automatically moved forward to our shortlist all submissions whose average rating was above 8. The remainder made up our longlist.
- Pitch Selection; with our long-list of pitches, the full team then read each writer’s cover letter and dialogue, as well as re-reading their pitches. In a series of meetings, we discussed each submission in turn, taking all available information into account as we built our shortlist by “promoting” those submissions we felt most strongly about.
- Pitch Shortlist; we then assessed our shortlist to ensure it was broadly representative and balanced, in terms of the writers’ gender, background, and other biographical information given to us, but also in terms of their level of experience and professional background. We also took great care to ensure a good balance of themes and genres within the slate.
In every case where we felt our shortlist was unbalanced, we promoted extra submissions, rather than eliminating others. We worked by addition rather than subtraction. This often led to us bringing forward submissions that one or two members of our team were especially excited about, but had been narrowly left out of the original shortlist.
- Holding / Commissioning; we commissioned the writers of shortl
isted submissions to produce outlines. In a few cases, we paid writers a holding fee in exchange for them withholding the idea from further development for a period of time; this was mostly for ideas we felt fit better as part of a different slate or would benefit from us improving our production pipeline before beginning work.
- Outline Selection; in deciding which outlines we wanted to commission into scripts, we again used the principles established in our pitch shortlisting phase. We tried to build a balanced slate (both in terms of genres and writers) and to ensure that balance by adding extra work to the slate, rather than removing work from it.
After over a hundred submissions, months of discussions, and a heck of a lot of reading, we have now commissioned seven New Adventures that we are super excited to share in the coming months! We’re also very proud of some other outcomes of this process:
- We have a great, varied slate of ideas ranging from modern-day romance stories, through historical epics, to far-flung future conspiracies. The quality and variety of storytelling on offer to Zombies, Run! players is in great hands.
- Our seven writers are from diverse communities of gender, sexuality and ethnicity. We’re really excited to be bringing such a wide variety of perspectives and ideas into our team.
- This will be the first time the majority of our writers have written for games. We can’t wait to introduce the games world to such great talent!
- We gave helpful, actionable, and (hopefully!) kind rejections to writers who we didn’t bring forward from the outline stage.
- We feel the process was humane to both our staff and the writers who came through it. No-one at Six to Start faced an undue amount of work to make the commissioning process a success, and we hope the writers we’ve worked with agree we worked hard to remove as much anxiety and unnecessary work from the process as possible.
What Can We Do Better?
This was our first time running a commissioning process of this scale, and we had to learn almost everything on the fly. We hope we have, at least, avoided causing harm to anyone in the process, but we’re certain there are areas to improve on.
If you have thoughts on what we might be able to do better, or how we can meet the goals listed below, please do email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject New Adventures Improvements. Here are some things we know we need to improve, and what we’re currently planning to do about them:
- We want to see more submissions from people of colour and from a broader array of backgrounds. We will:
- Be more proactive to advertise our open call in spaces for those communities from whom we want to see more submissions.
- Be more transparent about our process and about the team carrying it out to ensure we’re accountable for what we’re doing, and that people can be confident they’re not entering a harmful process by submitting to us.
- Reach out directly to writers whose work we like and request that they pitch us.
- We want to see more submissions from early career writers. We will:
- Advertise our open call in more casual spaces online; social media communities for early career writers, fandom communities, etc.
- Give more explicit and robust guidelines for submission; e.g. avoid assuming knowledge on how to format dialogue.
- Create a separate submission track for developing new writers, with guaranteed spots that are reserved for early-career writers. This track will come with more guidance and more hands-on advice throughout the process.
- We want to continue to make the process easier and more transparent, to remove unnecessary labour and anxiety, and to promote fairness. We will:
- Update our standard contracts to include changes negotiated by agents and unions in the current round of commissioning. Not all of our writers – especially those who are early in their careers – have access to legal advice, and we want to ensure they aren’t disadvantaged as a result.
- Provide clearer guidelines, including examples of our best practices.
- Provide templates to help with formatting.
New Adventures: Commissioning Again Soon
We’re really pleased with how this round of commissioning has gone, and we’re excited to share the results soon. We’re opening submissions again in the next few months as we continue to build our slate for 2021 and beyond. Follow @sixtostart on Twitter so you don’t miss out!
In the meantime, please do drop us a line with your thoughts on the process, especially to let us know where we can improve. We’re committed to ensuring we use the platform we’ve been granted as responsibly as possible, and that starts with being completely open to advice and criticism.
– Matt (@gamecat) and the New Adventures Team.