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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.

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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+