Since Zombies, Run!, launched earlier this spring, it’s been a runaway (ahem) success. This week, the fitness app, co-developed by a small London-based games studio and an award-winning British novelist, launches on Android and adds a new site which allows its users to track their runs. It’s the latest chapter of an unlikely success story with lessons for the games developers and creative agencies, alike.
For a start there’s the app itself—which has more in common with an audiobook or radio play than it does with other fitness apps or smartphone games.
Billed as "an ultra-immersive running game," Zombies, Run! casts the user as a struggling survivor of a zombie apocalypse. "Players," encouraged to undertake missions to gather supplies for people they want to save as the drama plays out in fully scripted audio they hear as they run, are rewarded with further segments of the unfolding story.
Then there’s the development story—the app was a self-publishing project by London-based Six to Start with a budget raised through Kickstarter. At an eye-watering £5.49 / $7.99 for the full version, Zombies, Run! costs considerably more than pretty much any other game app. Yet despite all this, sales have exceeded 100,000 in just under three months with around 750,000 miles run in aggregate by runners using the game—not bad going for a leftfield idea with no budget for marketing.
"I do quite a lot of running and for a while I’d wanted to do a running game to make running fun," says Adrian Hon, co-founder and chief executive of Six to Start who came up with the idea with Orange prize-winning novelist and game writer Naomi Alderman.
"Naomi had just joined a running club. We were talking one day and she told me one of her instructors had asked them what they wanted to get out of running. While everyone else talked about getting fitter, one woman said: 'to escape the zombie apocalypse’! When Naomi told me this the idea just stuck."
Hon set up Six to Start as a digital agency back in 2007 after leaving Mind Candy, the London-based creators of Moshi Monsters, where he met and worked with Alderman on the alternative reality game Perplex City that ran from 2005 to 2007.
With a staff of just three, the boutique agency quickly established a reputation for ground-breaking games-based content for clients such as Penguin Books, the BBC and Channel 4 for which Six to Start created Smokescreen—an acclaimed online game to promote media literacy. But by 2011, Hon was looking for opportunities to publish its own ideas.
"Like many agencies and developers we really wanted to create our own products to retain creative and financial control," he explains.
"So when Naomi and I had the idea for Zombies, Run! though we could have gone for grant funding, or partnered a games publishers or even a broadcaster, we felt the end result would be stronger - and less of a compromise - if we raised money direct from potential users."
So the pair put together a Kickstarter page and official web site outlining the concept. Though not the first running game, theirs was different because of its narrative structure, the fact that running is central to the experience rather than a side effect of a game mechanic, and it was fun, not competitive.
"The idea was to have secrets, mysteries and tales of the people and apocalyptic environment that you run through," Hon explains. "In short, we wanted to create a world filled with stories and characters that make you want to run. It’s not a crude and empty system of points and levels, it’s a game that’s about what it means to be alive."
The Kickstarter campaign quickly raised $73,000 from 3,000+ donors—five times the initial target—and generated more than 30,000 Likes on Facebook, generating powerful word of mouth ahead of launch.
"Donors were offered an advance version for free, but when people saw the price we were asking for the full version many thought we were crazy," Hon admits. "But the $7.99 price point has worked as there’s nothing else out there like it and people are used to and willing to pay a premium for health and fitness apps."
Having doubled its staff to six in the past few months, Six to Start is now busy developing upgrades for its game and additional content for the web site to enrich the Zombies, Run! online experience. Meanwhile, work is underway on a further self-published game details of which remain under wraps.
"What’s always interested us is putting gaming into entirely new contexts—to appeal to normal people, rather than traditional game players," Hon explains.
"Our primary interest is and always has been storytelling, which is certainly not the case for most developers. And that’s what we’ve become, really—not a digital agency any more, but a content developer."
Six to Start’s goal isn’t to make the next Angry Birds, even if doing so would make it more money, he insists: that just wouldn’t fit the creative culture.
"The creative approach we have here comes from staying small and flat and taking time to fully discuss each and every idea," Hon says.
"To an outsider this might seem shockingly informal. But having worked on big games and written thousand-page documents to support them, it’s now clear to me that the best creative work comes from allowing people the space and freedom to take a good idea and run with it.
"It’s the only way to make a good idea great."
- Crowdsourced funding provided a way for this digital agency to take greater control over its own destiny by developing its own original intellectual property
- With no marketing budget, covering development costs with money from potential end users also created a powerful social marketing platform
- A passion for storytelling, rather than competitive gaming, is Six to Start’s creative driving force - which sets it apart from many in the digital games space
- Collaborative storytelling is also key - which comes from a flat organisational structure and freedom to run with an idea rather than get bogged down by development process
- Think small-er: "You can be successful in games development without creating the new Angry Birds"