Zombies, Run! just passed the two million sales-and-downloads mark. It’s the fifth-most popular running app in the US, and the most successful smartphone fitness game of all time — a phenomenon on par with Soulcycle, Crossfit, or Tough Mudder.
Four years ago, we began as an fun, amusing app idea on Kickstarter. Today, we’ve become a massive community with mountains of fanfic, incredibly supportive players, meetups across the world, and this month, one of the world’s biggest virtual races.
This is the story of how we got there — told through a lot of graphs and data.
It’s also the story about how we achieved our goal to make running more exciting, by putting you into a world where running really matters.
In Zombies, Run!, you aren’t running just to get a faster split time or to lose a couple of pounds — you’re doing it because a young child has been abandoned in the zombie-infested wilderness, or because a horde is headed right for the neighboring town and their radio is out, or because a traitor has stolen vital supplies and people will die unless you track them down.
Role-play for running
In 2011, I sat down with our co-creator and lead writer, Naomi Alderman, to sketch out the game’s design and story. As ‘Runner Five’, it would be your mission to collect supplies, rescue survivors, avoid zombies, and rebuild your base from a few shivering survivors into a fortified beacon of civilization. And you do this by walking, jogging, or running in the real world.
You’d automatically collect supplies (like ammo, water, food, and electronics) so you’d never have to look at your phone or press any buttons while running. Instead, the game would use your speed as input and your headphones as output.
In other words, Zombies, Run! was born as an app. It needs GPS or accelerometer sensors so we can adapt to how fast and far you’re running, and it needs headphones to deliver the audio story and notifications.
Our reliance on technology isn’t necessarily a virtue — it can make everything more expensive and complicated — but it’s the only way of delivering the immersive, reactive experience we wanted.
We decided that experience would include 23 story missions and 7 procedurally-generated supply missions in Season 1. And if it went well, maybe we’d make a second season!
We didn’t need to worry about that, as Zombies, Run! became the most successful videogame on Kickstarter in 2011. Even better, it was released precisely on time six months later. Since then, we’ve released four seasons spanning over 200 missions and 40 hours of audio story.
Our guest writers include Margaret Atwood, Joanne Harris, and Elizabeth Bear. Our voice cast and production — led by Audio Director Matt Wieteska — is second to none. As Naomi often says, Zombies, Run! is far better than it needs to be.
As an audio-driven game, our players are mostly from English-speaking countries like the US, UK and Canada. No surprises there.
Many people think that the majority of our players must be male, because zombies, right? Wrong.
Turns out, a story featuring strong characters of both sexes written by an award-winning author attracts equal numbers of women and men.
Zombies, Run! cost $7.99 when it was launched on the App Store in February 2012. Even then, it was an eye-wateringly high price, but demand was sky-high:
While our Android sales have never equalled our iOS sales, they have steadily grown from about a third of our income to over 40%. Our Zombies, Run! 5k Training app ($1.99), which serves as a prologue to the main app’s story, has done particularly well on Android:
Since 2012, the vast majority of downloads and revenues have shifted to free apps. There are many notable exceptions like Monument Valley, Dark Sky, and Her Story, not to mention our own fitness games, but the trend was very clear.
In late 2014, we decided the long-term success of Zombies, Run! lay in becoming a free-to-play subscription-funded service. While the core experience would remain essentially unchanged, we spent the next six months improving the UI, UX, and reliability to cope with the new pressures we’d come under (e.g. massively increased support load). It was an enormous jump (a pivot, even) for Six to Start.
The risks were clear. Yes, paid apps attract fewer users than free apps, but most or all of their revenues come up-front; in contrast, free-to-play apps have to work much harder to convert free users into paying subscribers. We had no experience with this, and no data on revenues for other subscription-based fitness apps like Runkeeper or Strava, other than the fact that they appeared to be pretty low.
But the opportunity was huge: a lot of people had always been intrigued by Zombies, Run! but weren’t prepared to pay any up-front amount to test it out. Becoming free-to-play would eliminate that problem.
In May 2015, we flipped the switch. Users could get a limited amount of free content (accompanied by some audio advertising), or they could become a Pro Member for $2.99/month or $19.99/year and unlock everything. Of course, people who’d previously bought the app — our “Legacy Players” — got unlimited access to almost all the content and features without further expense, because, you know, we try to be good people.
Downloads shot up:
What about subscriptions? It’s early days, but it’s looking good. Retention rates are high, and crucially, conversion rates are increasing over time. This is partly because it takes most users a few weeks to burn through the free content in the app, and because we’ve worked very hard at improving performance and features since our admittedly buggy launch:
Our subscription revenue split is about 60% iOS, 40% Android, with Android steadily closing the gap. With our 5k Training app, it’s closer to 50:50. The majority of players opt for auto-renewing monthly subscriptions, although — for now — the majority of our revenue is from annual subscriptions.
At the time of writing, we’re the US’ #3 most-downloaded Health & Fitness app, and #1 most-downloaded running app
Of course, rankings change rapidly, so here’s how we compared against other running apps across August and September. Not to toot our own horn too much, but we measure up nicely against the Nike/Under Armour/Adidas/VC-funded competition:
Our Incredible (Players’) Journey
Plenty of people sweat when they’re exercising. Some people laugh. A few people even cry. But only our players do all that in a single 30 minute period, which is why the Zombies, Run! community is unlike any other.
What does that mean?
It means thousands of fanfic stories and artwork; meetups in dozens of countries; new running buddies, and new friendships.
It means we’ve commissioned — and paid — many of our talented fans to create comics, cartoons, scripts, and other art, in order to nurture that community. Several of them have even ‘ascended’ and become regular script writers and artists for our games.
The feedback our fans provide is incredibly rewarding, and constantly reminds us why we make this game. We’ve received tens of thousands of testimonials and emails and tweets.
People try Zombies, Run! because they hear about it from their friends — not because of advertising or press coverage (we do get a lot of press, but you’d be surprised how few long-term players it generates).
It means Zombies, Run! has generated a thriving cosplay community, a bustling set of Tumblr friends, multiple Facebook groups, and we’ve held official meetups in New York, London, and even at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Everyone who’s made Zombies, Run! grew up as a fan of genre stories (plenty of us have written our own fanfic!), so we want to foster the best community possible.
And our rich storytelling and characters has meant we’ve sold tens of thousands of t-shirts, hoodies, sweatbands, bottles, and posters. Most recently, we announced our first-ever Zombies, Run! Virtual Race, taking place later this month.
Like a traditional race, you get a medal, a bib, a certificate, and your name and time on a leaderboard. Unlike a traditional race, you can run anywhere and at any time within our week-long race window, which means it’s universally accessible.
And while you aren’t following a route we’ve cordoned off, you are following our story, through our unique, exclusive audio mission that is synced to 5k and 10k distances. When entrants pass certain points in the race, they’ll hear our story, and we’re sure it’ll be a race experience like no other.
We sold out our initial allocation of 1000 places in just a few days, and then we sold out an additional 1500 places shortly afterwards. That’s 2500 people paying $45 to enter — not bad for our first race.
Entrants also got access to our Virtual Race forum. In the first 12 hours, 1200 people registered and made over 1000 posts. One of the most popular threads was a player-created Global Meetup Map:
Zombies, Run! has always been a potent brew of digital and physical, so perhaps it’s not surprising that a Virtual Race would be so popular. We have plans to do more races in 2016, and to make them even bigger and better. I don’t think we’re anywhere near the limit of what’s possible.
We provide email support to every single user, paid and unpaid. Currently, we’re answering 80% of tickets within 24 hours and 30% within 8 hours; pretty much the best possible speed given we don’t work on weekends.
We aren’t obliged to do this, but we want to do this. We have to fight to win every player and every subscriber, and we think we can do that by providing a great all-round experience.
Before making Zombies, Run! free-to-play, we spent a lot of time improving the app’s UX and help resources. That’s how we kept our support ticket load flat, despite massively increasing the number of our active users.
We also try to be transparent with our community. In our bimonthly “State of the Township” blog posts, we share our development roadmap so players can see what features and improvements to look forward to. We also talk candidly about the good things and bad things happening with the app:
In our first post in June, we gently set expectations of what we could reasonably achieve:
Our apps — Zombies, Run!, ZR 5k Training, The Walk, Superhero Workout, Step Buy Step, and Dungeon Runner — are made by a core team of under  people. In comparison, both Runkeeper and MapMyRun employ over 50 people, and Runtastic employs over 100 people. So we’re small, but we punch above our weight — especially given that we have over 1.5 million players.
Our second post in August directly and honestly addressed the eternal question of ‘why do things come out on iOS before Android?’:
…Development is harder on Android. This isn’t an experience unique to Zombies, Run! or Six to Start — many developers say the same thing, which is why apps and games like Instagram, Hyperlapse, Google Hangouts, Fallout Shelter, 80 Days, The Room, and Monument Valley are launched or updated on iOS first. But why? This Savvyapps blog post discusses issues like device fragmentation, maturity of development tools, and OS adoption rates; they estimate Android development takes 2–3 times longer than iOS. Whether or not those numbers are ‘true’, we’ve observed that trend ourselves.
F***ing Zombies, How Do They Work?
Zombies, Run! was not designed primarily as a performance-monitoring tool like other apps (although our map traces, split timegraphs, and stats certainly tick those boxes). No, it was designed as a motivational tool, to excite, arouse, and distract — to motivate people to come back again and again, and to run again and again.
Lately, studies have attempted to evaluate the efficacy of Zombies, Run! As a former neuroscientist and experimental psychologist, I’m pleased to see the effort, although I also know how difficult it can be to run them with small sample sizes and with a moving target like Zombies, Run! But the early results are intriguing:
Effects of a Smart-phone Application on Psychological, Physiological, and Performance Variables in College-Aged Individuals While Running (International Journal of Exercise Science):
…both sexes felt more inspired to run using the Zombies, Run! application than running with no auditory stimulus (P = .003), males felt more confident they could complete the trials (P = .02), females felt they exerted themselves more during the zombie run (P = .03), males were more motivated than females to run faster to avoid losing items (P = .005) and males felt more motivated than females to collect items and improve their in-game township (P = .002). … both [sexes] were more motivated to run with than without the application.
Apps for IMproving FITness and Increasing Physical Activity Among Young People: The AIMFIT Pragmatic Randomized Controlled Trial (Journal of Medical Internet Research) compared Zombies, Run! (an ‘immersive app’) to Get Running (a ‘non-immersive app’):
The nonimmersive app received less positive feedback around motivational aspects (eg, “Using the app became too tedious”) … Although in AIMFIT both app groups produced comparable fitness effects, the design and features of the immersive app received more positive feedback (and no dropout) and, therefore, these aspects should be considered for future app development.
Effects of Performance Versus Game-Based Mobile Applications on Response to Exercise (Annals of Behavioral Medicine) compared Zombies, Run! to Nike+ Running:
…we did observe a marginal difference between the two app conditions on the attentional focus (associative/dissociative) measure, which may have some relevance to future app development … We believe that this research is an early suggestion that developers should focus more attention on creating apps that could help new exercisers dissociate more readily.
Finally, the American Heart Association is funding the University of Texas to conduct STEP AND GO: A Study of Technology-based Exercise Promotion, an ongoing 12-week examination of the changes caused by Zombies, Run! in adults.
Zombies, Run! was born as an app that treats smartphones as wearable computers. It’s unlike any other fitness experience — more immersive, more dramatic, highly scalable and highly accessible.
We released Zombies, Run! at almost the perfect time, just as smartphone adoption was soaring, and as devices were becoming powerful enough to run the app in the background. But in the grand scheme of digital/physical fitness experiences, we’re still very early.
So, what’s next?
We’ve been thinking about multiplayer (synchronous and asynchronous) for a long time, along with true location-based gameplay. I’m not aware of any game, fitness or otherwise, that has had long-term commercial success with those features — and no, the Google-funded Ingress doesn’t count.
That’s not to say that such games are impossible, but it requires some smart design. We have ideas, but the difficulty is on par with creating a brand new sport, and that doesn’t happen very often.
Then there’s wearables. Our office is overflowing with Google Glasses, Apple Watches, and Android Wears. Thus far, we haven’t seen any truly compelling smartwatch ‘apps’ yet, but it’s obvious that being able to glance at your wrist and see your pace and distance while running is useful. We’ll be doing basic things like that in the near future, while also exploring ‘wearable first’ experiences in 2016.
ZAAS (Zombies As A Service)
Zombies, Run! is an app, a fitness experience, a story, a technology, a brand — and a service.
I mean that in an unironic sense. It is a privilege to make running more exciting for millions of people. We’ve achieved something special, on a massive scale that is nevertheless sustainable and good.
Our players rely on us to keep the app working, the servers humming, and the story fresh. What do we want to see in four more years? Zombies, Run! still working and still helping people, in even bigger and better ways.