The Running Dead: How Six to Start Kept Ahead of the Pack
Catching up with Naomi Alderman and Adrian Hon 1.5 million runs later
Perhaps it's just something that happens when you get to a certain age, but it seems like everyone in the world has taken up running lately. What's surprising is there's a good chance that some of those people you see sweating their way around the park every Sunday morning are doing it with the sounds of zombies in their ears, thanks to the Zombies, Run! app from Six to Start.
Currently on its second season with a third in the works, the game currently has 600,000 players who have logged over 1.5 million runs and 15 million kilometres. They run to evade zombie hordes, collecting supplies, building their base and listening to narrative and missions from the keyboard of writer Naomi Alderman. Here she and Adrian Hon update us on the game, how it's grown, and what they plan to do next.
Q: Zombies, Run! started on Kickstarter - how do you think that has affected the progress of the product so far?
Adrian Hon: It provided us with funding to get started, of course, but more importantly, it gave us the confidence that people actually wanted a game like this. Without that support, I'm not sure we could have justified the time and money we spent making the game.
Naomi Alderman: Adrian's right. I think it also gave us a very sharp customer focus right from the outset. Not only do we make sure that we give excellent customer service, talking to your customers before you've even made the game gives you an insight into what they're expecting, and what they'll enjoy.
Q: It's been over a year since the initial release on iOS, are you where you thought you would be in terms of downloads etc?
Adrian Hon: Noone had ever made a game like Zombies, Run! so we didn't have anything to compare it against. So far we've had 600,000 sales, which for a comparatively high priced app like ours, is absolutely fantastic.
Naomi Alderman: Yup, I think we went into it with zero expectations, just wanting to make something cool. The benefit of not having had to make finger in the air predictions for investors is that you don't have that feeling of “oh, this has missed our prediction”.
Q: How quickly did people work through the season one missions? Was that as expected?
Adrian Hon: Very quickly, there are 23 main story missions in season one, and so some people basically did a mission a day!
Naomi Alderman: I think having worked on Perplex City, we knew there'd be some uberfans who worked through everything quickly.
Q: Was the running audience different from the traditional gaming audience? And how did that change the development process?
Naomi Alderman: You know, I don't think there's such a thing as “the running audience”? Trying to define demographics like this is the way that people who work in marketing get to justify what they do to their employers, but it's no way for creative people to work. People who run also watch TV drama. People who play table tennis also read 18th century novels. And, crucially, “audiences” often don't know what they want until you pitch it to them. We made something that we thought would be an engaging app with a story you can't bear not to hear the end of. Our audience is anyone who wants to be healthier (almost everyone) and thinks it's funny to run away from zombies (quite a lot of people).
Q: What were some of the narrative challenges that came with an audience that was in motion, rather than sat reading a book or playing a game?
Naomi Alderman: So, there are a few crucial things for me: 1) you have to make sure to be *clearer than average* about what's going on. Your audience are on the move, they're sweating and avoiding small dogs. They might miss that two word subtle reference. You have to be unambiguous. 2) Runner Five Must Always Be Running. It's challenging to write stories like that, but there's no point making a story in a running app if your player character sits down for a breather while the poor player has to keep going. 3) There's a special skill to making references to things in the landscape that people can read in different ways. You don't know what terrain your audience are running through, but if you say “head for the tower with the red sign on”, they can interpret that as anything from a three storey building to a skyscraper.
Q: When it came to writing season two were there any lessons from season one that you applied?
Naomi Alderman: Hmmmm. People love characterisation. The most popular mission is one where, basically, Sam your radio operator is just telling you about himself. Man, when I think about how games skimp on strong, unique, distinctive characterisation... I love Assassin's Creed but Desmond barely exists as a human. In fact, he doesn't. Audiences don't just want to do cool stuff with characters, they also want to know what that character's favourite frozen treat is, and how they feel about the fact they can't get it any more. Yeah, so, basically writing about feelings is as important as writing about action.
Q: Is there a challenge to keeping zombies (pardon the pun) fresh? Even in such a new medium?
Naomi Alderman: Yeah, we definitely try to ring the changes. As much as anything else, there's the problem that Runner Five is Always running, which does limit the kind of story you can tell. No stories for us in which three cast members are holed up inside a house for the entire mission. So we try to keep ourselves and the player interested by coming up with fresh ways to tell the story. We've had a Zombies, Row! side mission in season two, and I've got some tricks up my sleeve for season three.
Q: Do you think we're really taking enough advantage of smartphones when it comes to storytelling and games?
Adrian Hon: Absolutely not - but then again, it's not surprising, since some developers are printing money with games that basically treat smartphones as slightly better versions of handheld games consoles. It's also quite hard to innovate with new kinds of storytelling and game mechanics - it's inherently risky. But we believe that there's a huge potential to go much further - smartphones are changing so quickly, and so are our abilities to use them.
"I think many people who make games neither know nor care about storytelling"
Q: Why aren't more people copying you?
Adrian Hon: It's hard to do what we do. To make a game like Zombies, Run!, you don't just need designers and developers and artists, you need great writers, audio producers, sound engineers, actors. Zombies, Run! isn't just an app, either - we have a very sophisticated online side to it where people can map out their runs, so you need a whole range of different developers.
Naomi Alderman: I think many people who make games neither know nor care about storytelling. In fact, many people have said to me “games aren't the place to tell stories”. To which I can only say: “yup, please do go on believing that for as long as you like, to leave the market clear for us”. I think many gamesmakers are so determined on this theoretical approach which says that games can't tell good stories that they wouldn't even try, and would reject approaches which might lead to excellent narratives. Eh, you know. The only person who's going to work out how to do something is the person who believes it's possible.
Q: Are you exploring any other avenues with the same type of app? Or have you considered new storylines for running apps?
Naomi Alderman: We're making a new app with the Department of Health here in the UK, called The Walk. It's a technological thriller, a cross between North by Northwest and The 39 Steps. It'll encourage you to move more throughout the day, rather than just doing your set period of “exercise”.