Five Years of Zombies, Run!

Five years ago today, we launched Zombies, Run! on the iTunes App Store, only six months after our Kickstarter.

When Naomi Alderman and I came up with the idea behind Zombies, Run! back in the summer of 2011, neither of us had any notion that it’d be this popular and last this long. I thought Six to Start would work on it for one, two, maybe even three years, and then move on to something else.

I have been playing Zombies, Run! on and off for the past three years. I have recommitted myself to running beginning in the last summer. I cannot begin to tell you how this has helped me as far as my health and fitness. The stories pull me in each time I go out for a run. If it weren’t for Sam, Archie, Dr. Myers and all the other wonderful characters, I would not have stayed with running as long as I have. I pour myself into the story and the role of Runner Five. Thank you for the imagination and ingenuity it took to make this app. Hopefully it will continue for years to come.
 — Olivia

We hoped for success, and we got it: almost 4 million downloads and a quarter of a million active users. What we hadn’t anticipated was just how just how much our players would come to love our game and story — and how much their lives would be changed by it.

So for our 5th birthday, we asked our players for their stories of Zombies, Run! We’re also revealing some of our internal stats… Continue reading “Five Years of Zombies, Run!”

Introducing Racelink

I used to hate running. It was tiring, painful, and boring. That’s what inspired me and Naomi Alderman to come up with Zombies, Run!, a running game and audio adventure that makes running more fun.

Since its launch in 2012, Zombies, Run! has become the most popular smartphone fitness game ever, with over 3 million downloads, 250,000 active users, tens of thousands of paying subscribers. But quite apart from the numbers, the most rewarding part is receiving emails and tweets every day, from people all around the world, about how our little app has changed lives for the better.

…Now we’re making races better with Racelink

I used to hate running, but now it’s a regular part of my life. I’ve run plenty of races; of 5ks, 10ks, and half-marathons in London, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and beyond. They’re fantastic motivation to exercise, and nothing’s more exciting than running with thousands of people at the same time. That’s why in the US alone, 19 million people completed running events in 2014 — a 40% increase since 2010.

But no-one likes waking up at 6am to travel to the race start, or enduring an endless queue for the toilets. And no-one likes feeling left out when they aren’t lucky enough to have a race happening at a convenient time close by.

That’s why Six to Start is launching Racelink today. It’s a new platform that allows charities and brands to create their own ‘virtual races’. Virtual races are like traditional races — they charge an entry fee and provide real rewards like medals and T-shirts — but they take place in a location and time of the entrant’s choice, making them much more accessible and convenient for everyone. Continue reading “Introducing Racelink”

Two Million Runners Five

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!

Yep, it went pretty well!

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. Continue reading “Two Million Runners Five”

Apple Watch First Reactions

Speed

It’s annoyingly slow. Apps that display information from the internet (social apps, news apps, transport apps, maps; i.e. most of them) can take a few seconds to open, and then a few more seconds to display your desired data. I’ve already installed and deleted entire swathes of apps that suffer from this issue; the NY Times app, BBC News, Twitter, Twitterific, Foursquare, etc.

Compared against the very first iPhone, the Watch is very impressive in its capabilities and speed. Compared against the iPhone 6, it’s hard to justify using the watch at all for these apps. The good news is that any performance improvements Apple engineers can eke out of the hardware will have a knock-on positive effect on the entire watch experience – and I trust that they will have every motivation to succeed.

In contrast, apps that communicate solely with the phone (e.g. Music, Overcast, Calendar) or on the watch (Stopwatch, Timer) are reasonably responsive and useful.

Display

The screen is gorgeous, but small. It’s baffling and laughable that there are so many news apps on the watch. I suppose news junkies may find it entertaining to look at headlines, but the experience is so slow and poor compared to reading a screen of text on the iPhone that I expect few people will bother.

The screen size also makes it difficult to understand and use complex apps, like Maps, Citymapper or Transit. Apple and third-party developers are clearly trying to address this through tricks like Force Touch and by simplifying interfaces and use cases, but they need to do much more work to make the apps useful.

Fitness

The fitness tracking, on the other hand, is excellent. It counts my steps and distance accurately enough that my Fitbit is not long for this world. The built-in Activity app is also really quite well-designed and motivating, to the point that I fear for the future of third-party fitness tracker app developers. Consider the advantages that Apple has over them:

  1. Apple’s fitness tracking app is pre-installed, both on the watch and on the iPhone.
  2. It has access to private APIs and sensors; third-party apps can’t yet track heart rate, operate independently of the phone, or function in the background quite as well.
  3. It can be added to watchfaces as a ‘complication’. That alone is enough to elevate it over any third-party app, and I doubt we will see that capability opened up within the next 2-3 years.

Day 1

I received the watch yesterday morning and proceeded to fiddle with it throughout the day. I initially blamed its slowness on our poor office internet, but it became clear later in the day that it was just slow, period. Tried a lot of third party apps, and deleted almost all of them.

Day 2

Went to the British Library to see the Magna Carta exhibition. Didn’t fiddle with the watch much at all, except to:

  • Play music and podcasts
  • Occasionally look at my step count
  • Let a kid play around with it (he’d been staring at it for ages, his mum was amused)

Battery was still at ~80% by 4pm – very respectable. Then went for a 1 hour run, tracking it as an ‘Outdoor Run’, which took the battery down to ~60%. The watch was initially very distracting and reminded me why I stopped wearing GPS watches – frankly, I don’t need to know my distance or calories in real time. Plus I only realised afterwards how to change the distance units to km (it’s by a force touch on the ‘start run’ screen, obviously).

When I run, I wear my iPhone on an armband so it’s really inconvenient to switch between music and podcasts, or to select specific tracks. The watch – despite its slowness and small screen – made doing those things perfectly easy, which was delightful. For me, that alone is practically worth the purchase price, given how frequently I run and how much I enjoy listening to podcasts and music.

I expect that other people won’t care about that stuff at all (maybe they only listen to a set music playlist, or they keep their phone in their pocket while running, or they don’t run at all) but perhaps there will be other things that they really appreciate. The ability to see the weather or read tweets on my watch isn’t a big deal to me if I have my phone in my pocket; but if you don’t have pockets, it’s a much bigger deal.

So, we’ll see.

Problems Running with Google Glass

In the summer of 2014, we developed a version of Zombies, Run! for Google Glass. Glass was discontinued in January 2015, but the lessons we learned from testing it still serve as a useful caution for those working with heads-up displays.

A common use case for Glass was fitness and exercise activities such as running and cycling, where it might be useful to see a map or speed/distance information:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1uyQZNg2vE

Running with Glass for just a few minutes, however, belied Google’s claims; instead of seeing a large rock-solid, perfectly-focused display as seen in their promo videos, you get a bouncy, hard-to-focus-on screen that’s just as likely to cause nausea than inform you of your split times.

As we tested and developed on Glass further, we discovered yet more problems, big and small. Some will be easy for Google or other manufacturers to address, and some may be inherent to heads-up-display technology for the next few years:

Problems

  1. It’s not waterproof. This may be OK in California, and it may even be OK in London if you’re just walking around with a handbag or backpack — but not if you’re running.
  2. While running, Glass bounces up and down, making it hard to focus on the display. I’m told that if you press the nosepads in hard, you can reduce the bouncing, but this can be uncomfortable.
  3. The voice recognition was uneven and unpredictable.
  4. It was embarrassing to use the voice recognition while outdoors and running.
  5. Being out of breath while running is not conducive to accurate voice recognition.
  6. The trackpad was unintuitive, and also very conspicuous/embarrassing. I often ended up taking photos when trying to do something else.
  7. Using the trackpad while running was inconvenient and error-prone, since Glass was bouncing all over the place.
  8. Trackpad gestures, and the Glass UI in general, was baffling. Even after using it for several runs and trials, I still ended up accidentally closing apps or navigating to the wrong spot.
  9. The ‘nod your head’ gesture to wake up Glass was unreliable, despite my many efforts to calibrate it properly.
  10. The Glass display requires you to focus at infinity. This can make it tiring when you need to regularly switch focus between the path ahead and the screen.
  11. The display can be difficult to view when outdoors and in the full sunlight.
  12. The display, contrary to widespread belief, is not that large, and it floats in the top right of your vision. That means you can’t show much detail — only a few short lines of text and graphics.
  13. Glass must be tethered to a phone to work. I like my gadgets, but it’s another thing that can go wrong while running.
  14. The SDK was under rapid flux and many things didn’t remotely work as well as they should. That’s to be expected in a prototype product, but not when we were racing to develop for a deadline (the UK launch of Glass)
  15. The built-in speakers and earpiece were too quiet and uncomfortable.
While testing Zombies, Run! Glass Edition, I’d always wear the shades in order to look slightly less silly. It mostly worked.

It wasn’t all bad, though. Glass showed promise in a few areas which should give hope to other HUD manufacturers:

Advantages

  1. It was genuinely useful and interesting to see a live readout of my speed, distance and pace at a glance. Despite all the issues mentioned above, it’s still safer and more convenient than looking at a watch or phone.
  2. Since my runs are usually only one or two hours, the relatively short battery life wasn’t a problem at all.
  3. Glass has an accelerometer and gyroscope. Since Glass is always worn on the same position on the body (unlike a phone), these can be used to track certain types of gestures and exercise reps pretty accurately. We didn’t do this, but other apps did.

Overall, Glass was a flawed prototype, marketed in an extremely confusing way. There are plenty of hurdles before HUDs will be worn by the same number of people who run with smartphones, including weatherproofing, interface, bounciness, better SDK — but it will happen in the next 5–10 years, I think.

The Longest Race of my Life

24 hour events have always attracted a certain fascination. By definition, they’re demonstrations of endurance, and when the world is transformed at night, what might be a common activity like walking through London turns into something that is slightly thrilling and illicit – and therefore, very attractive to a particular type of person.

In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be taking part in the Relay For Life event at Battersea Park, to raise money for Cancer Research UK. It’s not quite as exciting as the 197 mile relay race described in the New York Times – for one thing, it’s just around a running track, and for another, it’s not actually a race (more of an excursion) – but it’s still promises to be a lot of fun, and of course, it’s for a very good cause. Cancer is treatable, and it’s curable, but only if the research is funded.

If you can, please sponsor me; you can do it online using a credit card, and the money will go directly to Cancer Research UK. Even just a few pounds will be a real help. For those who are hesitating, I have something that might tip you over the edge (hopefully towards donating)…

£5 Limited Edition Special Offer

If you donate £5 or more, you will receive an exclusive online photo of me holding up a piece of paper with your name on it (or short message of choice) during the race. For sure, it’ll be a memento to show the grandchildren – you’ll be able to say, “Yes, I knew Adrian before he became El Presidente of the Martian Dominions.”

£10 Super-Incredible-Limited Edition Exclusive Offer

If you donate £10 or more, you’ll get something even better. I’m not sure what it is yet, but it’ll be very cool. Really, the suspense is worth it alone.

Frisbee Golf

There are about 100 times more frisbee golf courses in the US than there are in the UK. This put something of a dampener on my enthusiasm to give it a go after reading about it in Kim Stanley Robinsons’ Fifty Degrees Below, but then, I already knew there weren’t any courses in any of the parks I’d been to in London.

Frisbee golf is exactly what it sounds like – throwing frisbees along a course to reach a ‘hole’ which for frisbees is more like a chain basket. If that was it, I wouldn’t be that interested since I’m not that great at frisbee and not that interested in golf, but KSR’s description of doing frisbee golf while running sounded like real fun. Running is a fine thing to do, and I try to do a few miles whenever the weather’s good, but let’s face it – it’s not that interesting. Especially when you live in a city.

It takes games, or at least variability, to make running more interesting, which means things like fartlek or high intensity interval training; or perhaps hash hound harriers. The problem with the former is that ultimately, HIIT gets pretty boring as well, and the latter games tend to require multiple people, which is all very good but potentially tricky to organise.

Hence frisbee golf. It sounded like a great way to combine running with throwing and hitting stuff in a reasonably artful way. Given that my local park, Clapham Common, doesn’t have a frisbee golf course, I resolved to simply run laps around the park throwing a frisbee at trees in sequence. Getting the frisbee was the easy part – £2 from a nearby shop. A couple of hours later, when I got together with a couple of friends to throw it about, it became painfully apparent that my frisbee skills had dramatically atrophied since about seven years ago, when I’d played ultimate frisbee at Cambridge for a term. I was still okay at catching (not a terribly useful skill when you’re doing single-player frisbee golf) but my throws were going all over the place.

“This is what the cerebellum is for,” reminded Alex.

“I can feel my inferior olives working,” I admitted. Sure enough, after some practice, we were all much better.

This evening, after a pretty long day at work, I ventured out half an hour before sunset to give it a try. I felt distinctly wary about the fact that I would look like the result of a freak mind-meld between a human and a dog, throwing a frisbee around, running over to pick it up, and then throwing it again. As a result, I decided to run around for a mile to get my courage up and find a more suitable spot. Towards the centre of the common, I found a rather nice area with trees spaced about ten or twenty metres apart, and chucked it around. This was pretty fun, but it seemed a bit silly to be sticking to one spot when there was multiple square miles of greenery around, so I went over to a long tree-lined path and zig-zagged across it from tree to tree, going downwind. Now this was nice, and I didn’t get even a single comment from passersby.

Unfortunately, single-player frisbee golf running is quite hard on your back; bending over to pick up the frisbee a hundred times, combined with running, is not comfortable. So it seems to me that either I have to learn how to throw the frisbee several times further, or I need to find other people to play with. All in all though, a fun diversion and I’m already planning to try out some aerobies.

Race time

My time in the Liverpool Half Marathon turned out to be 1:46:28, which is not quite as slow as I’d been fearing. It’s still a few minutes slower than my last try but not too bad. My position was 1250th out of a total number of roughly 3750.

A nice trip

Due to the overwhelming public interest in the results of my run in Liverpool yesterday, I’ve decided to post a brief update here. Basically, I think I did OK – I’m not sure exactly what my time was, but I’d be surprised if it was less than 1:45. That’s over two minutes slower than when I ran the same distance in Liverpool late last year. The main reason behind this is that I haven’t trained nearly as well for this race as for previous races; weather and work have conspired such that I’ve only been running 10km once a week for the past few months (if that). Normally I’d want to run at least twice or three times this distance every week, especially for a half-marathon. There are other reasons, which I will get into shortly.

The organisers have made huge changes to the Liverpool half-marathon since October. The entire route has changed so that it starts in Sefton Park, winds around for a few miles and then goes down the hill towards the waterfront and then loops back again. In other words, no running along picturesque dual carriageways any more. They didn’t allow parking at Sefton Park and so everyone had to take a bus from Albert Dock. Despite several thousand runners, this worked incredibly well and the queues were essentially non-existent. In fact, all aspects of the organisation were very impressive and a vast improvement on last year.

The weather was reasonably good at the start of the race; occasionally sunny with little wind, maybe 5 or 6C. I had a slow start since I had to wind a torturous route through lots of slower runners (very fun, but time consuming) and then got into a nice rhythm of perhaps 7.8mph. Apart from a downhill stretch, I either maintained or increased this speed for perhaps the first nine miles. Actually, I really enjoyed the time between the three mile and nine mile mark; I felt very comfortable and managed to overtake a bunch of people.

Unfortunately, there was an uphill section for maybe half a mile at the nine mile mark. This killed off a lot of people but I was determined to get it over with and I made decent progress. The problem was that this sapped my energy a fair bit so that at the ten mile mark I was beginning to flag. At around eleven miles, the organisers played a cruel trick wherein we actually ran past and away from the finish line. Psychologically, this was a blow since you feel like you’re just treading water until you get to the end. I’d slowed down to a dismal 7mph speed by this point and was feeling incredibly hungry when I tripped over something and went flying. It wasn’t my laces and it wasn’t the kerb. I’m not entirely sure what it was, maybe a branch or something. In any case I banged my knee and arm fairly hard. After checking for about a second that I hadn’t seriously damaged anything, I picked myself up and started jogging along.

The nearby runners were very helpful and asked whether I was OK, which I was for the most part, except for having a sore leg and feeling pretty winded. I slowed down even further to maybe 6.5mph and didn’t feel particularly happy until the twelve mile mark when I decided that I should stop feeling sorry for myself and just get on with it. This, combined with the soft strains of ‘Danger Zone’ from the Top Gun soundtrack, managed to keep me from being overtaken any more, and soon enough I was at the end.

I definitely felt in worse shape after this race than the last one. Part of this was due to the fall, no doubt, but I just wasn’t as fit as before. As soon as I received my race bag, I guzzled down a free bottle of Lucozade, which tasted almost sickeningly sweet. I can’t imagine how anyone could drink it without actually exercising. Anyway, I was so hungry I didn’t care and I even ate the cheese flavoured oatcakes in the race bag, which under normal circumstances I’d probably have set on fire and thrown into the sea, rather than contemplate eating.

Despite the slow time, I’m not that disappointed. I didn’t expect to improve on my time from last year given my lack of real training and the new route or my fall didn’t help matters. As for the iPod, it’s hard to tell if it made a big difference but I suspect that it kept me from running any slower. I’ll post my final time here when I receive it.

Good Intentions

Things to do in the next few days:

Run the Liverpool Half-Marathon on Sunday. I suspect my time will be the same or worse than last time, given the fact that I’ve only been training once a week for the last few months. Then again, the awesome power of the iPod Shuffle playlist might manifest itself and motivate me to run faster. Who knows.

See Rilo Kiley play at Borderline on Tuesday. Should be a lot of fun, because it seems like a small gig and there’s no boring opening act to wait through. Rilo Kiley has been getting a very respectable amount of publicity lately due to their tour and new album. Clearly I was there first though.

Other things to do: write more about ARGs! If only I had the time…