In a mobile gaming industry dominated by “free-to-play” titles and their in-app purchases, this is one of the case studies showing that independent developers can have a successful paid – as in pay upfront – game.
All of which leads up to the fact that, as of this week, Zombies, Run! is going free-to-play. But, so Six to Start’s boss Adrian Hon hopes, from a position of strength rather than weakness.
“The market has shifted towards free games, even though we still sell many hundreds of copies a day globally. Making paid apps is really difficult,” Hon told the Guardian ahead of the relaunch.
“Yesterday, Zombies, Run! was about No 30 in the top paid apps chart in the UK, which is quite a high ranking, but that means about 50 sales, which tells you something about people’s appetite for buying paid apps. It’s a bit like hardback books, where a Top-10 bestseller only has to sell 300 copies.”
From today, Zombies, Run! is a free download, with its first four story missions included, and another mission playable for free every week.
(If you’re new to the game, it gets you to run, jog or walk while listening to the audio adventure, gathering supplies as you go to build your base back home. It has a proper story at its heart, courtesy of author – and Guardian columnist – Naomi Alderman.)
People will be able to pay $2.99 a month or $19.99 a year to unlock all 200 story missions – arranged in TV-style seasons – for unlimited play, as well as Interval Training and Airdrop modes.
People who paid for it first time round will get full access to the first three seasons of missions, as well as one a week from season four for free, and can then pay $7.99 a year to unlock all the remaining content.
“We have a great hook: run away from zombies in the real world and get fit. But it’s not really easy to convey that on the App Store. What we really need to get people to do is just try it,” says Hon.
Zombies, Run! has always been about the crowd, right from the point in 2011 when Six to Start and Alderman raised $72.6k on crowdfunding website Kickstarter to fund their plans for a game where players would “rebuild civilisation after a zombie apocalypse by running in the real world”.
Six to Start is thinking hard about how going free-to-play will (hopefully) bring a bigger audience to Zombies, Run!, which will in turn fuel Hon’s plans for expansion.
“Something like 15-20% of the players who have ever bought the app over the last three years are still playing it,” says Hon, who admits he wasn’t sure whether that was a good or bad thing until he met people in Silicon Valley who were impressed by the game’s retention rate.
That percentage will go down once Zombies, Run! is a free-to-play game, but its overall audience should increase considerably, from its current 150,000 to 200,000 active users to millions if all goes well.
That will bring new commercial opportunities – Six to Start is exploring the idea of audio advertising, with Hon citing the “extremely high” rates for popular podcasts like Serial as inspiration.
“For something like Serial, it was $50-$100 per thousand users – basically you’re getting five or 10 cents for every person that listens to you,” he says. “We’re thinking about treating Zombies, Run! as if it was a podcast, but also about how not to make it really annoying, and how to do it in a way that doesn’t break the fiction.”
A bigger audience will bring new creative possibilities too: for example, books, real-world events and even official Zombies, Run! races.
“Even with a million players it was a bit marginal whether it was worth us doing more of these kinds of things. Once we go free-to-play and we have millions more players, it becomes much more interesting and worthwhile,” says Hon.
“We are deep into the planning of the first book set within the Zombies, Run! universe, and there is potential for original audio dramas that are not about you running away from zombies, but which are set within the Zombies, Run! universe.”
Hon’s background is in alternate reality games (ARGs) and he’s keen to bring some of that experience to his company’s current work. “This has that ARG aspect to it. I would love to do something that is like [immersive theatre company] Punchdrunk, but more interactive and gamey.”
In hindsight, teaming up with a novelist – Alderman – in those early days was a very smart move: providing the narrative backbone that makes Six to Start’s game much more than just zombie noises spurring people to run, and setting it up for expansion beyond a game now.
“We didn’t think: ‘If this got big we could do books and events and a TV show and movies.’ It just seemed like it made sense, and would be really original and fun. It was like: ‘How come no one’s done this?’” says Hon. “It also came from the belief that story makes a lot of experiences better.”
This is a subject close to Hon’s heart, with that background in ARGs. He also says that it’s a sharp contrast to the game design philosophy of some of Six to Start’s peers in the mobile games market, where the mechanics of tapping and rewards can seem more important than traditional narrative.
“I’ve been going to mobile games conferences recently where the notion of story, to a lot of games developers, is the worst thing in the world. Because having a story in your game is inherently ‘not scalable’,” says Hon.
“It makes it harder to translate, so you can’t get those amazing dollars from non-English-speaking countries. And unless you’re Harry Potter or Marvel, most stories are going to put someone off: they’re not going to be universal.
“So a lot of games developers think: ‘Why would we do story?’. There’s a weird sense that if you make a game that can’t be played by 500 million people then it’s not worth making.”
Hon suggests that this may be particularly the case in the UK – or at least in the dialogue around free-to-play games in the UK.
“A lot of people involved in the mobile games industry in the UK have finance backgrounds, so they like games like Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans: these are very easy to model,” he says.
“If you put The Hunger Games as a movie or Harry Potter as a book in front of them, they wouldn’t know what to do. It’s just too risky. But the downfall of that is I don’t think we’re going to be playing Candy Crush or Clash of Clans in 10 years’ time.”
Like other mobile games companies, Six to Start is mulling what devices people will be playing games on in 10 years’ time.
Smartwatches, for example – a device category that seems well suited to fitness games like Zombies, Run! in the long term, even if there are restrictions in the shorter term with what can be done on these gadgets.
Hon combines enthusiasm with scepticism on the opportunities for smartwatch games – something that was clear from his even-handed speech at a mobile games industry conference earlier in 2015. Six to Start is making Apple Watch and Android Wear extensions for Zombies, Run!
“I think people are losing their minds about wearables! And I say that as someone who really likes wearables. A lot of developers don’t realise how limited the SDK [software development kit] is. You can’t really do much with it, although you can show stuff. You can’t really do a proper Tamagotchi-style game yet,” he says now.
“The more exciting stuff is going to come when we have more control of the hardware: I think Apple is going to do a native SDK later this year. I’m amazed it’s happening that quickly to be honest.”
He adds that developers need to think about what’s appropriate for these devices, especially for fitness apps and games like Zombies, Run! where a common-sense approach will help developers avoid pitfalls. And, indeed, help players avoid potholes.
“The idea that you could look at, say, a live map on your watch and see zombies on it? I don’t know, a lot of people design these games without being runners or trying out the technology. It’s not safe running while looking at your watch!” says Hon.
“That’s not to say there aren’t cool things you can do with wearables and exercise. There are. But you have to think about how they fit into the shape of the workouts and routines.”
The conversation comes back to indie games and paid games and the chances of success for Zombies, Run! as it takes its risky step into free-to-play .
“This isn’t the common story of ‘Oh my God, we have no money left, we’d better go free-to-play’. If we had no money left we couldn’t go free-to-play with the marketing and support costs!” says Hon.
“Ultimately, we just want more people to play Zombies, Run!, and we think we can do that in a way that’s not going to turn it into a terrible game.”
This article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Thursday 14th May 2015 09.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010