Zombies, Run! is an augmented audio* running game for the iPhone and iPod Touch. You put your trainers on, your headphones in, and when you start running, you hear the game and story all round you, coming straight to your ears. It's a game for everyone who loves or wants to love running, jogging, and walking.
*We just made that term up.
The Dream: An original, self-funded gameWhen we founded Six to Start, we had a very simple plan: we'd make brilliant games for great clients and when we had enough profits saved, we'd make our own game. Either that, or we'd make our own game in our spare time. Easy!
Or maybe not. Believe it or not, it turns out that making brilliant games is really very difficult; if you're spending all of your time trying to make We Tell Stories or Smokescreen - two highly original projects - as good as they can be, you don't have that much time to do anything else. In 2008 there was the financial crash, which didn't help our clients all that much; and during all of this time, we were trying to learn how to run a company.
We've had time for a few experiments, like Werewolf 359, an online framework for playing Werewolf, and Wanderlust, a location-based storytelling engine that integrated with Foursquare. Around this time, we'd also been developing an action game for the iPhone with time travel and ARG elements - unfortunately we let the scope grow too far and we didn't have the skills to do everything we wanted to. A simple mistake, and one we were determined not to repeat with Wanderlust, which was made entirely in-house, and we tapped our writing buddies to craft stories for it. Despite being made in just a few weeks, it got a decent amount of attention and also boosted our confidence that we were going down the right path.
The Running DeadI'm a keen runner. I didn't always use to be one - I hated it at school - but over time I've really fallen for the sense of freedom and energy that you get from running, and of course, it's got to be one of the cheapest ways of keeping fit. Being an early adopter, I've always had a close eye on running tech, buying two successive versions Garmin Forerunner GPS tracker and having three different running apps on my iPhone.
There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that knowing your exact pace and distance is a fantastic way to make running better and more fun; it makes your progress - both in a run and as a runner - much more transparent. That's why RunKeeper, Nike+, and Garmin Connect are so popular.
And over the years, there have been various 'running games' out there, including Seek and Spell, PacManhattan, Journey to the End of the Night, and the more sedate Pokewalker. These are all really interesting and I've played most of them, but most of them aren't really about running at all. They often involve running, but more in the sense of running as a side-effect of the game mechanics rather than "I'm going to spend 30 minutes running 5km this evening".
There are even other augmented reality running games out there where players avoid enemies or collect loot that has been superimposed on nearby roads and parks! But because they often require you to look at your phone's screen to find the next waypoint or whatever, you can't really do any extended running unless you want to get injured. That's not necessarily a bad thing - not everyone wants to run - but it's not ideal for regular joggers or runners, who prefer to stick to one or two or three familiar routes (which is antithetical to the discovery-centric nature of many location-based games).
On the flipside, sites like Fitocracy, Superproof, and Nike+ are attempting to add badges, levels, points, and collectibles to running. I am sure that some people like these things and find them motivating, but they all seem centred around the idea of competing, either with other people or with yourself. The truth is that for many recreational runners, running isn't always about beating your personal best time or distance. Running is fun and tiring and exhilarating and painful and freeing; it generates numbers, but those numbers aren't the reason we run.
So we wanted to make an iPhone game that was really about running (or jogging, if you like). Our first idea was based around actual geography and was more classically game-like, but it didn't seem like it would have enough longevity and was a bit too geared towards hardcore runners, so we weren't that satisfied. Then we talked to Naomi Alderman - who became our lead writer for this game - about it and we came up with the brilliant idea of setting the game in a post-apocalyptic world of zombies where running would be an essential and life-saving skill. It was also clear why you would run - to help gather vital supplies for your people. Naturally, there would be a story delivered straight to your ears, and much more behind it. Everything fit into place.
Making ItEven better, making Zombies, Run! was something we could do almost entirely in-house, and it would exercise all of the skills that we'd been honing for years - new forms of storytelling, great user experience, sound design, ARGs - they're all essential for this game.
We did some proper feasibility testing to make sure we could actually make the game well and in a reasonable amount of time - creating an internal prototype, writing the script, recording the audio, adding SFX - and everything looked good, so we began creating the Kickstarter trailer. While Zombies, Run! isn't as difficult to explain as other games we've made, it's not quite like anything else that's out there. Other than saying "It's like Nike+ but with zombies" we felt a live-action trailer and interview would convey what the game was all about.
We've also had many long discussions about how we balance storytelling and play in the game; at one end, Zombies, Run! might just be a podcast - at the other, it'd be a highly complex system. We're somewhere in the middle, and the same applies to the game mechanics: we made a deliberate decision not to have traditional points or XP or levels. We do have analogues to them, but they're much more integrated into the fiction of the game. They are the people in your base you want to save. They are the things that will feed and clothe and protect them. They are the secrets, mysteries, and tales of the people and the barren environment that you run through.
In short, we are creating a world filled with stories and characters that make you want to run - a world where your ability and drive to run is a matter of life and death, not just for yourself but for the people around you. It's not a crude and empty system of points and levels, it's a game that is about what it means to be alive.