Outrunning the undead

Founder and CEO of independent games developer Six To Start, Adrian Hon, chats to about his award-winning fitness app, Zombies, Run!

Credit: Six to Start

Credit: Six to Start

The light is fading. Over my panting the sound of groans can be heard in the distance. I have to keep running. Suddenly, an alert sounds in my ear: zombies detected. I break into a sprint. My operator calls for covering fire as the gates open and I near the safety of the camp. The undead are gaining on me as I put on a final, desperate burst of speed, and arrive, gasping, at the door to my block. Earphones out, I begin staggering up the stairs after a run well done. A quick check of my time and distance and Runner 5 lives to fight another day.

For many of us, the desire to keep fit is overcome by the difficulty to remain motivated long enough to make a real change. With app, Zombies, Run!, games developer company Six To Start, led by Adrian Hon and writer Naomi Alderman, puts users in the trainers of the mysterious Runner 5 of Abel Township, a few years after a deadly virus has begun to turn humanity into the shambling (and sometimes sprinting) undead. Now in its third iteration, the game offers over 160 missions, each lasting for 30 minutes or an hour, with a cohesive story of post-apocalyptic heroism and intrigue combined with the user’s own shuffled music. ‘Zombie chase’ sprint sections give each workout an interval training edge, and ‘Zombielink’ allows runners to track their stats down to details such as how much they speed up when ‘Eye of the Tiger’ starts playing.

Six To Start is a London-based startup and while Zombies, Run! is certainly their biggest project thus far, they have a varied history of projects that bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds. Founder, Adrian Hon, originally worked for Mind Candy, the company behind Moshi Monsters, on a game called Perplex City, an international treasure hunt both online and in the real world. After a few months, he and some other employees left to start up their own company in 2007. “Initially we were a kind of digital agency, working for people like Channel 4, BBC, Disney and Microsoft, creating all sorts of game-like and story-like experiences on the web, mobile and in real life.”

These include creating a nationwide puzzle for BBC Two’s 2011 programme The Code, and hiding USB sticks containing portions of British rock band Muse’s single, ‘United States of Eurasia’, in cities around the world. The latter was produced in just one week. “We do pretty much everything, to be honest. We design everything, print the books, send the emails. For the Muse project, we worked with volunteers to hide the USB sticks in their respective cities.”

The turning point for the company came with their seminal fitness app, which has seen huge success since its inception. “We [Hon and Alderman] just went out for lunch and were throwing around ideas for cool apps and websites, and Zombies, Run! was one of those ideas, so we thought, ‘all right, this looks like a good one.’” Hon is careful to qualify: “Having said that, there are a lot of things that I think are good ideas.”

Although Hon has experience in the area, it was the first leap into crowdfunding for the company: “I think we were really pleased by its exceptional Kickstarter. This was back in the days where people in the UK and the US didn’t even know what Kickstarter was, so to get $73 000 was tremendous, and it was really awesome to get the press and people talking about it. It was also a big moment when it launched and people started buying this app which only cost $8. It was a huge turning point for the company. We had more people coming to us, but the popularity of Zombies, Run! was such that it basically wasn’t worth doing any other work at that point.”

The move to crowdfunding was a welcome one, as Hon finds a number of flaws in the previous method of working. “The first is that in order to get, say, £50 000 to produce something, there are a number of people to convince in a big client like the BBC. To pursuade people like the producer and the commissioner, there are processes, committees and rules, which makes it a very idiosyncratic decision. Beyond all that, people are more likely to give money to people they like. I’m not saying that it’s all corrupt and biased, but it’s how humans work. It seems merit-based, but it’s not, so even if you are successful, the people who you had relationships with will eventually leave and you have to start all over again.

“Secondly, big clients are commissioning products that they aren’t going to use. They have to try to guess the minds of the public, and some people are good at that, some are terrible at it. Most are terrible, so they might commission games that aren’t very good. Suddenly you’ve been given £50 000 to make a game that noone likes.”

It is this loyalty to a good idea that makes crowdfunding such an attractive option. As Hon says: “At the very least, you know the people who are giving you the money actually like your idea, because they’re the ones who are going for pay for it and play it. There were people who told us, ‘that sounds like a really cool idea’, but before the Kickstarter we didn’t know if they just had bad taste or liked us. But when 3000 people give you money for a game that doesn’t exist, you can be fairly confident that it’s a good idea.”

Alongside Zombies, Run!, Six To Start also developed The Walk, in collaboration with the NHS, designed to get more people partaking in low-impact exercise. With Zombies, Run! 4 currently in development, however, it seems that Runner 5’s story is far from over, not least because of the impact it has had on the lives of its users. “It’s not a perfect game, but it’s one that a million people have bought, making their lives more entertaining and, unusually, making them healthier. We’ve had emails from thousands of people telling us how it’s changed their lives. A few even claim it has saved their lives because they were depressed or dangerously overweight. Even if I never did anything again, I’d feel like I’d helped people. We’ve done a lot of great projects in the past, but I think Zombies, Run! is what we’re going to be remembered for.”

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