The story behind Zombies, Run!

I wrote about the marvellous new fitness/post-apocalyptic-running app Zombies, Run! for the Observer a few weeks ago. Now that the paper is off sale, I’m posting my longer first version of the piece here. I spent some time interviewing both of the game’s co-creators, and hope the story behind its creation and success is of interest; especially to those hoping to emulate it…

It’s difficult to summarize one of the more remarkable British media creations of recent weeks in conventional terms – but this hasn’t stopped its makers from trying. Zombies, Run! is “an ultra-immersive running game for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and Android” with a narrative edge. Instead of focusing on fitness, it casts you as the struggling survivor of a zombie apocalypse. Your runs are sorties to gather supplies, with the drama playing out around you in fully-scripted audio; and your success isn’t measured in minutes or miles, but in further segments of the unfolding story.

All of which might seem little more than an amusing curiosity if it wasn’t for one thing: its level of success in winning an audience. Released at the end of February, for its first two weeks on sale it was the world’s highest-grossing health and fitness app, beating even such giants as Nike. More remarkably still, it did so off the back of zero expenditure on advertising and marketing. How did this happen – and what does it mean?

The game is the brainchild of two enterprising Brits: Adrian Hon, founder and head of London games studio Six to Start; and Naomi Alderman, Orange-prize-winning novelist, game writer and digital aficionado.

As Alderman tells it, their inspiration was a “learning how to run” course she took in spring 2011. “At the start of the course the instructors asked us why we wanted to learn to run. Most people talked about getting fitter, but one woman answered ‘to escape the zombie horde!’” The idea stuck and, when Hon told her about his ambition to develop a fitness app that “made the actual act of running itself fun”, the idea of Zombies was born.

Crucially, the duo decided that rather than attempting to raise funds from a conventional investor or games company, they would use the website Kickstarter to crowd-source their budget. A three-minute video pitching the game was duly uploaded to the site in September 2011, and captured the internet’s imagination. $73,000 of pledged funding from 3,464 donors poured in – more than five times the initial target – as well as over 30,000 “likes” on Facebook. Not only had they raised their money and ensured the project’s viability: they’d gained a highly effective marketing campaign into the bargain.

Development with a small team began in October 2011. A Six to Start employee gave up his bedroom so that it could be turned into an impromptu recording studio, where a cast of professional actors were assembled to record seven hours worth of bite-sized scripts. Crowd-sourced funding meant that there were no investors to keep on board and thus, in Alderman’s words, “no need to waste time trying to explain what you’re doing.” The team was free to make exactly the product they wanted – and to offer it to the world at large as they saw fit.

This resulted in an unusually bold pricing strategy, with the full version being offered on release for $7.99 (£5.49 in the UK): the highest price of any game in the global top 200 on the App Store, and a far cry from the cheap-and-cheerful model dominating gaming on mobile devices. Traditionally, offering new apps for nothing, or next to nothing, has been seen as the best way to woo an audience. With total sales likely to hit 100,000 in the near future, however, Six to Start’s tactic has paid off amply – and turned some existing assumptions about do’s and dont’s of the digital arena on their head in the process.

On 22nd March this year, the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA) announced that sales of £1.93bn in 2011 meant that for the first time the video games industry were officially Britain’s biggest entertainment sector. Only a fraction of Zombies, Run!’s global sales have been in Britain – around 5 per cent, according to Hon – but its global reception is entirely of a piece with these trends.

Today, people armed with smart mobile devices through which they consume almost all the media in their lives are increasingly rejecting the notion that particular budgets belong to particular classes of product – and are increasingly willing to invest their money wherever the most entertaining experiences are to be found.

Give people something fresh and alive to their interests, and it turns out they’ll not only pay a premium price: they’ll pay up front for you to make it. It’s a proactive model that’s echoed in the process of using a product like Zombies, Run! Over 250,000 miles have been run in aggregate in the game – real miles, run in the real world, pounding real parks and pavements. The conventional image of a passive, sofa-based digital culture looks distinctly out of date.

As Hon sees it, the word “game” itself is rapidly losing its usefulness. “We have these fantastic devices in our pockets that can connect to the internet, detect your location and speed, take photos, and play sounds, but we treat them like they’re just faster Gameboys.”

Zombies, Run! itself has as much in common with an audiobook or radio play as with most games – and the pounds and dollars it’s earning are clearly being spent with narrative in mind. For Alderman, this crossover is the essence of its success: it’s “the first fitness game with a real story, not a marketer’s idea of a ‘story’ which means picking one of three ‘cool characters’ to be your ‘coach’. Games are great at motivating action. But stories add meaning to your action. That’s the sweet spot I think we’ve hit.”

With no investors to please, this sweet spot translates into a raft of opportunities for “giving back” to players: updates, expansions, attentiveness to feedback, free content in other formats, and perhaps above all a promise not simply to sell out to the highest bidder.

It won’t be long before the imitators arrive (as Alderman recently tweeted, watch out for “Zombies, tidy your house!”). But in the meantime, the game’s creators are riding the wave – and trying to rein in their surprise.

What, I ask Hon, are their biggest lessons? “We have some of the world’s best storytellers in this country, and there are more opportunities out there than just books and TV. Hopefully this will inspire others to put more effort into crafting great experiences that people are willing to pay for.” And in the end, he adds, “the simplest ideas are the best.” It doesn’t get much simpler than knowing it’s a good idea to run away from zombies.

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