Zombies, Run! Interview with Adrian Hon

During the UK’s recent flurry of gaming conventions, we stopped by the Six to Start head office in Gospel Oak, London, where we got the chance to sit down with Adrian Hon, CEO of Six to Start and the co-creator of the wildly successful fitness app Zombies, Run!. Adrian talked with Niall De’Ath about the company’s success, and where it may go in the future.

Niall De’Ath: How did you get started in the gaming industry?

Adrian Hon: Like a lot of people who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, I’ve been playing games my entire life. Of course, most people don’t go into the games industry, but I was always interested in game design. My dad used to bring back computers and BBC Micros back home and I always found the idea of designing games really interesting. When I was at school, the way you became a designer was either by becoming a developer or programmer, which basically meant having to be, as I understood it, really good at maths. I was pretty good at maths, but wasn’t really good at maths, and so I thought, well, I don’t really want to do that.

I was really interested in science and biology at the time. You could also become a designer through being a tester, which I thought sounded like the most tedious thing I’d ever heard of, or you could become an artist. There weren’t really a lot of ways; you didn’t have indie developers and you didn’t have the internet really back then. As a result, the way I got into the games industry was a completely different way: through alternate reality games back in 2001, when there was this ARG for the movie A.I.

I found that fascinating because it was a completely different kind of game taking place online, with phone calls and real world actors. The thing I really liked about it was that I could see how they made it and I thought, well, I could make one of those! I know how to make websites, I know how to do emails and stuff, and it was a few years after that when I had been writing a blog about ARGs, I got hired at Mindcandy to go design big ARG projects. And that’s how it happened!

ND: You gave a TED talk at 17, when most people that age are concerned with sleeping through to adulthood. What was your experience in such an undertaking?

AH: Well back then, people didn’t know what TED was. TED really took off in the last five years, and I remember at university I needed to take time off to go to this conference. These days, if a first year undergrad said to their dean, ‘Oh, I’ve got to speak at TED,’ they would be like, ‘Holy shit, we’ll fly you there ourselves!’ But back then it was more like, ‘What the hell is this conference, no you can’t go,’ so I eventually said that I was going anyway; I mean, what were they going to do?

It was not a big deal to people here (laughs), because no one knew what it was, but when I went I realized what a big deal it was. I remember on the first day, and I didn’t know anyone there (it was one of the first times I’d been to America, I’d only been once or twice before). So I went to the convention centre, and there’s not many people there, but there were two people, Sergey Brin and Larry Page – the founders of Google – just hanging out, because they didn’t know anyone either. So we just said, ‘Yeah screw this, let’s go get a sandwich.’ A sandwich with the creators of Google! So yeah, the rest of the event was just like that: ‘Oh look, there’s Jeff Bezos, let’s go talk to him’.

The reason I went was because I was talking about this whole Mars thing, because it was what I was interested in when I was a teenager. The reason why I got invited is because they seemed to think I was some kind of authority because I had done some stuff, but the real reason was because I emailed the organizer and said, ‘Hey, I think I could give a good talk, can I speak to the populace?’ And of course, you can imagine emailing TED now; they wouldn’t even reply and even then, it was like that. I remember the organizer said, ‘This is ridiculous, no one asks,’ and he was kind of impressed by the balls of it. So yeah, it was a fascinating experience. It didn’t really lead to anything; it’s not like I’m still doing space science and it’s not like I email the Google guys and they know who I am. But it was an amazing experience, although whether I went to it or not didn’t make a huge amount of difference in the grand scheme of things.

ND: Where do you take inspiration from when designing a project?

AH: Most people get it from everything and anything they experience. From games, from walking around and talking to people, watching movies and TV shows. I think the important thing is having a variety of interests. If everyone in the games industry plays the same games and reads the same books, watches the same TV shows and has the same friends, then the output is going to look pretty similar. And frankly that is the case for a lot of AAA games – but if you have a lot of people from different backgrounds who have different interests, then you have much different types of games, such as Zombies, Run! It’s just important to do the stuff that interests you. Look at something different and cultivate it in a unique way.

ND: Zombies, Run! has amassed a large and dedicated fan base of over a million users. What do you attribute its success to?

AH: Well, I think there are a few reasons for that. One is that it has a great name, a great hook, it’s got a great gimmick. You just hear the name ‘Zombies, Run!’ and you get it: I’m going to run away from zombies and that helps you get fit. I think if it was just that, it would have sold 100,000 copies and that would be great, but if it was just a few missions of hearing groans in your ears and you running away from them, that would be fine – but it wouldn’t go very far.

I think the reason why it’s had this lasting success is because quite frankly, it’s a lot better than it really needs to be. I mean it doesn’t need to be good; it could just be a shitty app and it would sell, but instead it’s got an amazing story, written by our co-creator Naomi Alderman; it’s got fantastic writing by a whole load of people, including Matt Wieteska, who did the radio; it’s got great gameplay, great support, and great actors and it’s a fantastic story and experience.

We don’t spend any money on advertising; it’s all word of mouth and people writing about it in the press that fuels its popularity. It’s important that it’s got this hook and that it’s got this good name, but that on its own won’t do anything – it needs to be a good game as well.

ND: The latest season of Zombies, Run! is on its way; what can fans expect this time around?

AH: There are few different things. One is obviously season four of the story, for which Naomi is writing 40 amazing missions. I’ve read the first 20 and they’re super cool, and I think fans will really like them.

On the app side, there are a lot of things to improve the core running experience for beginners and the long-time followers. A lot of it is listening to the fans, like, for example, making it easier to listen to your own music on the Spotify or Pandora apps.

Another thing is that quite experienced runners go out for an hour or two hours. They want to listen to multiple missions all in one go, so we’re allowing people to binge-run the story. There’s things like estimated mission duration, adjustable zombie chase difficulty and we’re trying to open it up to more people. Later in the year, we’re looking to improve the gameplay: we want to improve the base builder, the online and social experience, and we want to add more and more for later seasons and beyond.

ND: Six to Start keeps its fans updated and aware of future projects via social media. Why do you think communication with consumers is important?

AH: I think it can be helpful because it helps keep them more engaged, and means that they can tell their friends. I don’t think you need to be tweeting or Instagramming 24/7 to have a successful game. Plenty of games companies are not that active, or even active at all! But they’re really good game designers, and they do well. I think if you like doing social media, and you like letting people know what you’re up to and you get energy from responding to fans, then you should do it – but if you hate it, don’t do it! People can tell that you hate it, and you’d be better off making a better game.

ND: You’ve previously praised games such as Journey for its focus on atmosphere and tone. Do you think that story can be more important than gameplay?

AH: That depends what kind of game you’re making. In a lot of games, the story is more important and can be more impactful than the gameplay. Here’s what I think from a systems point of view: I can totally understand it when games academics and game theorists praise the purer side of games such as SimCity or Minecraft. Those are simulations, and you can’t do them with a TV show or a movie, which are less interactive. If you were to draw a spectrum of TV on one end and SimCity on the other, The Walking Dead, Journey and Zombies, Run! would be further to the left, with the left being TV.

It’s very easy to treat the uniqueness of systems present in games as somehow meaning that they are better. I find that so tedious and boring, and frankly, it’s true in the most superficial sense. I mean yes, SimCity is something that you can’t do on TV. I love SimCity; right now I’m playing Cities: Skyline. It’s weird because it strikes me as something Silicon Valley nerds with no empathy would say, ‘You know, obviously that’s a better game’, but it’s very spotlight thinking. It’s like saying, ‘In my mind, this is better than a choose-your-own-adventure game,’ but really, they are both good games. The fact that we spend so much time getting excited about the next Marvel movie, watching TV or reading books should tell us that a story will be with us for quite a while longer despite how strong gameplay is.

ND: Zombies, Run! was funded through the Kickstarter platform. What’s your opinion of crowdfunded projects?

AH: It’s good. There are a lot of games out there that are getting made that probably wouldn’t have existed if not for crowdfunding. I’m very glad that we have Kickstarter and Indie Gogo to thank for that. Zombies, Run! probably wouldn’t exist probably without Kickstarter. While most games may be delayed or may not be what people set out to make, I think that Kickstarter is a really good, really hard lesson in project management. We were really fortunate that before Zombies, Run! we were a work-for-hire company, a digital agency. My job was making games, making websites and apps for Disney, Microsoft, Channel Four and Sony. We had deadlines, and if we didn’t meet the deadlines, we didn’t get paid. We knew how to work. So if you are making your indie game for the first time and you don’t have good experience, you’re probably going to be late! And you might miss an estimate of what you’re going to be able to do. Really, that’s not very surprising, because most people consider going to Kickstarter without much experience.

As long as most people who back projects understand that, it’s okay. I think that if you get super upset about spending ten bucks or twenty bucks on something that’s late or not what you expected it to be, then that’s a shame, but that’s also Kickstarter. If you don’t want that, then it’s better to wait for the game to come out; buy it then!

ND: Do you have any advice for people looking to get their project funded?

AH: The best thing, other than already having a solid following, is making a playable demo that’s good; that’s the best convincing you can do. The more you show, the easier a time you are going to have convincing people that what you have is good.

I think that the flagship Kickstarter project for video games is FTL: Faster Than Light. FTL was an amazing success. Everyone always says, ‘Well, Kickstarter only works if you’re famous’, but these guys were based in China and no one knew who they were. They didn’t have any social media and they hadn’t made a game before. If you look at the project page on Kickstarter, it was about two hundred words when they started. All it was as a video, some screenshots and they said, ‘Here’s a link, go and play the demo’. And the demo was really good! It was also a really good idea for a game, so they made tons of money. That’s what you should do.

What you shouldn’t do is just go on there, make a bunch of mock-ups and say you’re going to make the world’s most amazing game; people won’t believe you. Even if they do, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make it. You really need to do something that’s quite unique in some way. You see a lot on Kickstarter and it’s just a generic platformer, a generic RPG or a generic simulator. Why would people back that when they can just go and buy the same experience right now on Steam? You have to really have something that’s quite different.

ND: With your upcoming title Nova First Contact using both a physical card deck and electronic devices, where do you think the marriage between tabletop gaming and electronics could take you?

AH: That game is something that we’re super interested in, but isn’t in active development right now. We were playing the Xcom board game last week, which is a lot of fun, and while it’s not particularly sophisticated in terms of how things work, we found it really interesting. I think that even with HoloLens and the Oculus, there’s something people really like about physical board games. Consider that people will think nothing of spending £30 or £40 on something that they might play once or twice, but worry about spending £4 on an app. That tells you the sort of value they place on physical games.

At the same time, a problem for a lot of board games and the reason why you wouldn’t have 100 million people playing Puerto Rico is that they are really hard to learn and keep track of. I feel that the tutorial, the manual and game management is something that a computer should do. I remember trying to play a fairly straightforward game, PowerGrid, for the first time, and I think it took me about an hour or two. That’s a fairly short time reading the manual, checking Board Game Geek and watching videos until I figured it out. It’s not really something you can expect people to do if you’re in competition with the iPhone, Candy Crush or some Steam game. It might be fun for the first 20 seconds, but imagine if in order to play Candy Crush, you had to spend the first hour figuring how to make it work!

So, in terms of functional stuff and gameplay, there’s loads of cool things you could do in terms of randomization and difficulty. The challenge is that because we have such a diversity of devices, not everything has the right screen size and not everything has Bluetooth. It’s not that easy to go create a hybrid digital/physical board game that’s not super clunky and doesn’t involve scanning QR codes.

ND: With the Oculus Rift and HTC’s mobile VR headset Vive coming to the market soon, can you see Six to Start collaborating with these products?

AH: That’d be a lot of fun, but we don’t really make 3D games. I think we’ve got good ideas; however, that’s not enough. We’ve got an Oculus here, so we’re certainly interested in this sort of thing. It’s not our natural skillset, however, so I’m not sure if that’s something we’ll do any time soon. But anything can happen; before we made Zombies, Run!, we’d never made a fitness game, and we’d never made an iPhone App before.

I think that thanks to Unity and Unreal, it’s actually probably easier in some ways to make VR games; maybe more than making certain types of mobile games. The issue is, you can’t sell VR games, so why would anyone make one? We know the guys at Oculus and they are open about it as well. You can’t expect there to be a real thriving market for VR games when A, consumers can’t buy VR hardware and B, even if they could, they can’t buy VR games; there isn’t a platform to do that. But we’ll see, maybe you’ll be able to buy a consumer VR headset at the end of the year, maybe next year. Then it’ll be a year or two before it really starts kicking off. So, 2017 and 2018 is when we may all be walking around with Vive, Steam VR or Oculus.

ND: What do you want to see in the future of Six to Start?

AH: There’s quite a few things we want to do. Zombies, Run! is our flagship game and it’s really gratifying and kind of astonishing how popular it is. It’s one thing to say it’s been bought by a million people, and it’s easy to think it’s just a number.

A million, that sounds like a lot; one hundred thousand sounds like a lot. But you can walk outside and just talk to someone aged 25 and say, ‘Hey have you heard of Zombies, Run!?’ and chances are they or one of their friends plays it. I think it’s what we’ll be doing for as long as people keep on playing, and we want to keep on improving it. I just saw a photo of someone who got the game’s logo tattooed on them, so people care about it. It’s more than just an app; it’s a brand. There are things we want to do beyond the phone like books, events and races. There are all sorts of things for Zombie, Run! that we can turn into something even bigger than what it is at the moment.

I feel like it is a stretch to say that in five years’ time Six to Start will be making the world’s best digital board games or the best VR games. But it’s not impossible, given what we’ve done in the past.

ND: Thanks very much for your time, Adrian. You can check out more of Six to Start’s work via their official website.

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