Giant Bomb News

30 Comments

This Fitness Developer's Secret Sauce Is Story

Zombies, Run! and The Walk have been big successes for Six to Start, even as some in the fitness world are still scratching their heads.

The start of a new year brings with it health resolutions and commitments that will, in all likelihood, prove fleeting and temporary. But Six to Start has already helped some make those fitness dreams stick.

Zombies, Run! and The Walk developer Six to Start didn't mean to become leaders in fitness games development, it just kind of happened. The digital agency once focused on work-for-hire projects for Microsoft, Disney, and other companies, including developing material for ARGs.

In fall 2011, Six to Start pitched a Kickstarter project called Zombies, Run! The premise was simple: a running app with a storyline during the zombie apocalypse, a plot that unfolded as players ran. The studio wanted $12,500 to build it, but the Internet rewarded it with $72,627. Six to Start CEO Adrian Hon prides his company on managing to hit its Kickstarter-promised release date of February 2012, too.

"Unusually, it actually came out on time," he laughed.

The game was a riff on Six to Start's previous work--it's not hard to see the ARG connection. Around this time, Hon was starting to get into running, and realized there were few options when it came to running games, especially so on a phone.

"One of the things that, I think, sets us apart from people who are making fitness apps is that we aren’t naturally athletes," said Hon. "I mean, I do run regularly now and I enjoy it, but I still remember, back when I started running, it was painful and boring and you just want to avoid doing it. Anything that would help--a story, a game--would be really valuable."

In the early days of Zombies, Run!, Hon was one of the game's regular testers. The problem? It was below zero.

But he moved forward out of motivation. The key part is motivation, and cracking it is hard. If getting healthy isn't enough of a motivator, maybe a story can help. That proved the distinction for Zombies, Run! Thematically, it made perfect sense for a running game, and other ideas started falling into place.

"You really want to find out what happens next," he said. "That’s a crucial thing. Hopefully, when it’s Sunday morning and it’s raining outside, you don’t think 'oh, I can’t be bothered' you think 'oh, I can’t wait to find out what happens next, and I’m gonna go run no matter what.' That’s where storytelling can be really valuable."

When it’s Sunday morning and it’s raining outside, you don’t think 'oh, I can’t be bothered' you think 'oh, I can’t wait to find out what happens next, and I’m gonna go run no matter what.'

Zombies, Run! has since seen two seasons of content, with a third on the way. The game has attracted more than 750,000 players, and confounded the fitness world. When Hon and his team have attended fitness conferences, they receive blank stares in return.

"It’s just really surprising because we tell people about this at conferences that storytelling can be really valuable," he said. "And it's just…they cannot comprehend it. They get badges and they get points and all this other gamification stuff. But they don’t get stories, and that’s partly because if you are naturally quite fit, or you are quite fit, you don’t need a story--you just go and run. But for everyone else, it’s a bit different."

Working out isn't easy. Like anything else worth a damn, it's an investment that doesn't pay off for a long time, and you don't notice change immediately. When I started running, my wife and I would head to the gym together, the companionship a form of encouragement and pressure. "She's here, so I better actually try today." As the days and weeks went on, I discovered what I "liked" about running, what made it tolerable for me, and eventually found my own motivators to keep doing. Besides my health, I catch up on podcasts. My wife, who has since gone on to become a marathon runner, has a specific set of music playlists meant to keep her going during the long, lonely training sessions for her big race days.

Even now, Hon's impression from the fitness community is that Zombies, Run! is seen as a fluke, and the world's obsession with zombies (see: The Walking Dead's TV ratings) must be the explanation behind its success. Six to Start is hoping The Walk, the company's recent spy-themed release, will help prove that theory to be junk. The biggest difference between the two is clearly apparent in the title: walking.

Near the end of 2012, Six to Start noticed a competition being run by the UK's Department of Health and National Health Service to encourage software development to get people healthier.

"We thought 'hey, we do that!'" said Hon. "So we came up with a new idea that wasn’t about zombies or running. Something that would have a broader audience. That’s where the idea for The Walk came from, a game that almost everyone could do. Almost everyone walks."

The Walk isn't about the intensive bursts of exercise that are encouraged by Zombies, Run! It's a longer investment, especially from a storytelling point-of-view. You'll need 90 days to see The Walk's thriller to its conclusion, and Six to Start views its latest creation as something to live alongside the Nike Fuel Band and Fitbit's of the world. It's meant to encourage a healthier day-to-day life.

"It’s not so much about 'well, now go out for a walk for half-an-hour,'" said Hon. "It’s more like 'just go and walk an extra five minutes every once and a while.'"

Six to Start is not a fitness company, though, and Hon doesn't expect it will continue to make these types of experiences forever. But it's worked out very well so far, and it's planning to support Zombies, Run! and The Walk so long as people are continuing to enjoy them. And while storytelling has proved a working formula for Six to Start's fitness games, it's by no means a rule for other developers.

"’I'm not saying that every fitness app should have a story, not at all. If you look at Wii Fit, that was really successful. Arguably, Dance Dance Revolution, that was really successful. Those are just really fun games, and that’s the other side of it. You wouldn’t call them gamified. They’re just fun to play."

Patrick Klepek on Google+
47 Comments
Posted by PistolPackinPoet

great app and makes running entertaining with the audio stories

Posted by gaftra

Really great idea! Wish they made a version of this for only working your vanity muscles at a chain gym.

Posted by mediaguy

The only thing that kept me running after the C25K (couch to 5k) program was Zombies Run. There's no doubt in my mind that I would have given up without it.

Posted by poheroe

run!!!!!!!!!!

Edited by DavoTron

I've been using 'The Walk' recently. It's great!

Posted by Sin4profit

Wonder if Six to Start would get into making VR versions when/if virtual reality becomes better established.

Edited by Brodehouse

@gaftra: You don't listen to stories when working on your vanity muscles, you listen to wrestling theme music

TIME TO PLAY THE GAAAAAAME

I thought Zombies, Run was novel but... I'd rather run with a pedometer program while listening to audiobooks about topics I like than listen to a slightly interactive(?) audiobook about zambies.

If it were Nicaraguan Death Squads, Run! then I would play it.

Edited by haffy

I haven't got a smart phone or I'd probably try it out but how is this different from C25k plans? If it makes you run harder or faster I'd say that's a negative aspect of Zombie run not a positive.

Posted by Dark_Lord_Spam

@gaftra said:

Really great idea! Wish they made a version of this for only working your vanity muscles at a chain gym.

"That ripped zombie is pumping 50s! Quick, lift harder!"

Posted by Hassun

This is one of the very few examples of gamification which seems interesting me.

Sadly I do not even own a smartphone so I can't really try it.

Posted by Brendan

@gaftra: There are no such things as "vanity muscles". To a certain extent, exercising and building muscle prevents osteoporosis (among a host of other musculoskeletal problems) later in life. Working the upper body is important to. And yes, that includes the core+abs, to prevent injury to knee ligaments such as the ACL.

Posted by nonekjr

Might try "The Walk" for some motivation. Anyone who tried it, does your phone have to be constantly connected to the internet while walking around, for it to work?

Posted by Teoball

Wow, the headline made no sense to me at all since I've never heard about any of this before. The article cleared it up thankfully.

Posted by zeekthegeek

Wonder if Six to Start would get into making VR versions when/if virtual reality becomes better established.

Probably not. To make this work the right way requires GPS tracking of motion - there is accelerometer support but it honestly sucks.

Posted by mrcraggle

This really is an awesome app that adds a lot to your work out, it's just a shame the devs gave up on the Windows Phone version so quickly.

Posted by serverfull

It was an awesome idea but didn't work for me. I don't run with music but Podcasts and the original verison only did story bits between songs.

Edited by Megasheep

I thought Zombies, Run was novel but... I'd rather run with a pedometer program while listening to audiobooks about topics I like than listen to a slightly interactive(?) audiobook about zambies.

This was my experience as well. I would rather use a fully fledged GPS tracking app (Runkeeper or MapMyRun) and listen to something else. I didn't find the 'story' to enough to keep me interested.

Posted by TowerSixteen

Cool. I'd never use it - Times like that are thinking times, for me - but more diversity and options for things is generally good.

Edited by Jugglerman

That sounds fun, I might try this out for kicks and see what happens :)

Edited by 20ozmonkey

Good timing on this article. I just started up Zombie, Run! yesterday after buying it over a year ago and only doing one run with it. I'm going to check out The Walk as well.

Edited by redcouch

This is SO MUCH FUN. I never liked running with headphones, but this app won me over. And the zombie chases cut my avg mile by almost 2 minutes in 2 wks.

Posted by AMyggen

This seems like a really cool idea.

Posted by Sergio

Interesting, but I'd rather listen to an audiobook with a better story. I also just got a fitbit like Brad, so I'll use that to track my progress.

Edited by Thejugglingbum

SCOOOOOOOPS!!!!

Posted by chocolaterhinovampire

I am really thinking about getting into running come late-february/march when I move back home. This looks like a good way to gamify the task

Posted by NeonBlackJack

Now if only they'd make Zombies, Run! work with Spotify. It's just no fun when the musical interludes are the few shitty random songs I still have physically stored on my phone.

Posted by MormonWarrior

It's too bad I found Zombies, Run! to be extremely frustrating. It didn't communicate very well how close zombies were to me and how fast I needed to go...I couldn't tell if it was the direction I was running or how fast or what. It seemed really opaque. Loved the concept though.

Posted by zeekthegeek

It's too bad I found Zombies, Run! to be extremely frustrating. It didn't communicate very well how close zombies were to me and how fast I needed to go...I couldn't tell if it was the direction I was running or how fast or what. It seemed really opaque. Loved the concept though.

The way to avoid the zombie chases is just to speed up about 20 percent for 30 seconds. There's no direction tracking period for that stuff.

Posted by MormonWarrior

@mormonwarrior said:

It's too bad I found Zombies, Run! to be extremely frustrating. It didn't communicate very well how close zombies were to me and how fast I needed to go...I couldn't tell if it was the direction I was running or how fast or what. It seemed really opaque. Loved the concept though.

The way to avoid the zombie chases is just to speed up about 20 percent for 30 seconds. There's no direction tracking period for that stuff.

Yeah, I read up on it after my run and I found that irritating. I'm not sure what 20 percent faster even is and my house is in the foothills so it's hard to keep a uniform faster speed when running uphill.

Posted by bgdiner

Seems cool in theory, but I doubt they'll be able to dethrone music as the chief distraction for runners for very long.

Online
Posted by probablytuna

This is a pretty neat idea.

Posted by michael_katarn

I just picked this up after the interview to try and change up my usual running routine (old bombcasts) only to find out you have to put your own playlists of local music in. Sad to say I have no local music or playlists on my phone. So I havent actaully tried it yet.

Then I had a great idea. I have a greatest hits set of the old Shadow radio dramas. Is it the best idea ever to put those into my zombie radio playlist? Or is that the worst idea? Radio play within a radio play? I could also make another playlist with the BBC Hitchikers Radio Play. Brilliant or dumb? I gotta try it out, a radio show needs some good old timey ads and the Shadow discs have all the old Blue Coal home heating ads. Great stuff.

Posted by Branthog

I would likely enjoy this if I wasn't a fat old cripple.