Episode 62: Adrian Hon
Elizabeth and Flourish talk with Adrian Hon, co-founder and CEO of the independent game developer Six to Start and one of the creators of their most popular game, “Zombies, Run!” Topics covered include ARGs, moderating forums, POV in games, fan/creator interaction, accessibility in gaming, and more. Plus Flourish pitches him what will surely be the next big hit in fitness games, “Zombies, Lift!”
[00:00:00] As always, our intro music is “Awel,” by Stefsax.
[00:00:49] If you haven’t tried Zombies, Run!, why not? Learn more about it here!
[00:01:14] The Fansplaining ep about the Episodic conference is here.
[00:05:06] Interstitial music, as it often is, is by Jahzzar.
[00:08:35] Our interview with Sean Stewart was delightful, if we do say so ourselves.
[00:19:51] Naomi Alderman’s book The Power won the Bailey’s Prize and sounds pretty great!
[00:36:30] We can’t find the original site that challenged walkers to make it to Mordor! There are a lot of ‘Walk to Mordor’ challenges now, but none of them are the original. Anyone have a link?
[Intro music: “Awel” by Stefsax]
Flourish Klink: Hi Elizabeth!
Elizabeth Minkel: Hi, Flourish.
FK: And welcome to Fansplaining, the podcast by, for, and about fandom!
ELM: [laughing] You're very bouncy right now.
FK: I'm super bouncy!
ELM: OK. This is Episode 62, entitled "Adrian Hon," who is our guest!
FK: [laughs] He's our guest and I'm really excited to talk to him because he is part of the team behind "Zombies, Run," the running audio drama game mobile app which also has a pretty significant Tumblr following and...
FK: and is a lot of fun!
ELM: OK. So yeah, he's the, I think he's the founder/CEO of Six To Start, which is the company that makes Zombies, Run. And I met him at Episodic, the conference that we just ran that I talked about last episode, where he was presenting with Naomi Alderman who is the lead writer on Zombies, Run who people may know her work. She's a popular novelist.
ELM: And we hung out afterwards and Adrian was awesome and I thought had some really interesting stuff to say about fan/creator interaction and obviously I don't think we talk about games nearly enough. OK. OK. Let me say what I know of Zombies, Run and then you as someone who has done it tell me if I'm correct.
ELM: It's a running game.
ELM: Which means it's like a running app which you know, helps you track your progress and stuff if you wanna run more or I don't know what people's goals are when they run. Run period, just the end, just run...
FK: Learn to, like a common one is couch to 5K. Go from not being able to run at all to running a five kilometer race.
ELM: Gotcha. So it's that but it's like a first person narrative game where there's a zombie apocalypse.
FK: Right! Yeah! So basically you get the game and you decide if you want to run for half an hour or an hour, right, you turn on location services if you wanna track where you've run, you set up a playlist like your own music, that you wanna run to if you want to run to music, or you can not have music on. And then you hit go, and you start running, or walking, you don't have to run necessarily to do this. And you hear some music and then you hear some zombies coming up behind you! And then you hear someone going, like, "oh my god who is this? Who picked up this headset?" And then it turns out that it's some people at a base camp and you are in a zombie apocalypse trying to escape some zombies and you've picked up this headset and they don't know how you found it, you just found it discarded and they start talking you through what you need to do in order to escape the zombies and get back to their base camp and help them out.
And then you, you know, at the end of your first run you've met your new friends who have rescued you from this postapocalyptic wasteland of zombies, and you've run away from some zombies, so you get little audio updates throughout your run saying "run faster! The zombies are coming," or "it's OK, walk now for a little while." And then yeah, over the course of however long you want to... there's many many seasons of it, you can do this for almost ever.
ELM: Oh wow.
FK: It's a lot, you get new content all the time and they refresh it with new content. And you also do things like, as you run you pick up stuff for the base camp too? So for a long time, I don't know if this is current, I'm not using it right now, but for awhile there was this minigame additionally where you had the base camp and the more you ran the more supplies you picked up and you could build up your little online profile which had your base camp. It'll say things like "you got a sports bra!" and the female character in your earpiece is like "HOLY SHIT DIBS!" [ELM laughs] Cause everybody, if you have to run because there's no more gas because it's the apocalypse, you need sports bras, and no one's manufacturing them anymore. So anyway, yeah, it's super fun and you get very very invested. While I was, I ran with it for awhile, did the couch to 5k thing, was working on 10k, and then eventually gave it up because I got into weightlifting mostly. There were times I would be weeping while I ran.
FK: Because something emotional happened!
ELM: OH MAN.
FK: It's a great experience. And there's people who write fanfic and so forth for it!
ELM: Yeah, so the Tumblr fandom is like...is it about the characters who you meet?
FK: Yeah! There's a lot of characters at the basecamp and you learn about them, and you also meet other people out as you run. Sometimes you're on a run and you encounter other people who are surviving in this zombie apocalypse.
ELM: That's interesting, awesome. OK. Well, that was a really good summary and it made it sound really great.
FK: It is really great! I actually, I'm so, I love this game so I'm really excited to talk to Adrian.
ELM: Awesome. I am really excited to talk to him as well, so should we call him?
FK: Let's do it!
FK: Alright, I think it's time to welcome Adrian to the podcast. Hi, Adrian!
Adrian Hon: Hi guys, how you doing?
ELM: Oh, good, how are you?
AH: Very good, thanks! Just speaking from deepest darkest Scotland here.
ELM: See, this is the best time of year in Scotland though, don't you agree.
AH: Yeah. Fires, drunken people, it's great.
ELM: I mean, there are fires and drunken people other times of the year as well.
FK: And also three PM sunset? I can't.
ELM: It's charming!
AH: It's not quite that bad. But it's almost that bad. Yeah.
ELM: It's only November! In December is when it really gets...I personally really enjoyed it when I was living in Edinburgh, so.
AH: No, it's good, it's good.
ELM: You have to like darkness, that's basically it. Anyway, let's get started. You and I met at the Episodic conference, which we talked about in our last episode. What I didn't get a sense of in that is you're a creator in the fan/creator divide, but are you also a fan?
AH: I'm a massive fan. I was just, I've written fanfiction, I think the biggest fanfiction thing I wrote was for Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri game.
FK: Oh my god yes.
AH: So, if anyone remembers that, that was like a spinoff of Civilization, and it was a particularly interesting game because it had all these different science fiction factions, and it's not under my name, so you can't find it, thankfully, but it's bad. But yeah, I've definitely been a fan, I've written fanfiction, in fact the way in which I got into video games was through being a fan. I was a fan of an alternate reality game back in 2001. I loved it a lot, kind of a superfan, and got into it that way. And yeah, I'm still a big fan of...I mean I guess most people are these days but I'm a big fan of a lot of TV shows and games and movies and that sort of thing.
ELM: Can you talk a little bit about that transition then? Since you came into being a creator from the fan side.
AH: Yeah. You know, I always was interested in video games when I was growing up, you know, my parents, my dad brought back a PC, like a BBC Micro I should say, when I was like 3 years old or something. He was a professor of engineering at the university, so he'd always bring back these PCs and computers and we wouldn't get consoles, we'd get just business machines. [laughs] So we had Windows NT instead of Windows 95 or something, which was not very helpful.
And so we played all sorts of weird games, and I always wanted to make video games, but it just seemed during the 90s the way in which you would do that is either by being a programmer and I just, I didn't think my maths was good enough. It probably would have been fine, but it just seemed like your maths had to be much better. And that's probably maybe true because the tools these days are a lot better, it's a lot easier to make video games now than it was back then, which is great. So either you had to be a programmer or you had to be a tester, you'd work your way up through being a tester and that's a really horrific experience because you have to spend thousands of hours testing bugs and you eventually get to make a game. And I didn't want to do either of those, it just sounded horrible.
And I was at university and there was this new movie coming out called AI, Steven Spielberg's AI. Which is cruelly misjudged, in my opinion, I think it's a really good movie even though people think Steven Spielberg ruined Stanley Kubrick's vision. But anyway, as part of the promotion for the movie, there was this poster and it had all the usual credits on it, director, actors, actresses, camera people, whatever and there was one credit for a person called Janine Sala and her title was Sentient Machine Therapist. And it's like, well, that's a real thing? You know.
So a lot of people thought oh, this is just a joke, a kind of injoke, but if you googled her name and this was back in 2001 so this is still kind of weird to do this sort of thing, if you googled Janine Sala's name you would find her fake university website. You would see her phone number and you'd call the phone number and there'd be a voice mail and that would lead you through these rabbit holes through to all sorts of different websites and eventually real world interactions and puzzles and things in the real world. Just a really amazing story, genuinely fantastic story, and really interesting game.
It just took over my summer, I got completely obsessed with it. I was one of the main moderators of the community and I remember thinking after that, "I could actually make one of these!" You don't need to be a programmer, I could totally make this. It would just be a lot of work, but I feel like I have the skills to do that. And I started writing a blog about alternate reality games, and I thought to myself, literally I thought at the time "this will get me a job one day. It might take a few years, but I think I'm going to get a job out of this." And three years later I got a job offer just as I was about to start my PhD so I left my PhD and started just making these sorts of games!
FK: Can I just say that, so we had the guy who wrote The Beast on our podcast awhile ago.
AH: Oh yeah!
FK: And it has been so amazing hearing all these people came out of the woodwork who were like, "yeah, that was it! That was the thing that showed me that you could make stuff like this," or that you could get involved with an online community and find new things. It's wild. I don't think that it's something that gets very much credit in mainstream pop culture as being really seminal, but it seems like it was.
AH: I think it was one of the first... I mean, back then, and it's not really that long ago, 15 or 16 years ago, it was just...there weren't as many people online, obviously, as there are now! It was still a bit weird. And even if you were online, you weren't necessarily talking to other people or doing stuff, and so obviously alternate reality games are kind of a bit more meta and now it's kind of old hat, everyone knows what ARGs are. Or they can sort of figure it out fairly quickly. So I met so many interesting people and made a lot of friends through that, and I think that it just kind of speaks to...if you were involved in that community at that time you were probably a little bit weird and had a lot of spare time [laughs] and were really into what was, you know, realistically a very difficult game to get into, right? If you made this game now, I think I'm not sure how many people would play it, because it was just a very high barrier of entry. But it just seemed really special at he time.
ELM: Can I just say when Sean Stewart was telling us about this, I was thinking about the hypothetical person who would be walking by the movie poster [FK laughs] and reading that, because he described it like that was your entry. And I was just like, man, who are these people? So you are that person. You read the movie poster. Or did someone else tell you?
AH: I will say, I think as with a lot of alternate reality games the truth is not quite as beautiful as I have said. They put up the poster, I'm not sure how many people actually found out about it that way. The way I remember finding out about it was through Ain't It Cool News, which was still a thing back then. And someone, there was a photo, Harry Knowles posted up a photo and highlighted the name like "wow! Check this out if you google this!" and it's like hm, how did he find out about that though, huh? Did someone send him that in the mail? That's ok! I don't mind. It's still a great game. I think also Wired, someone had seeded Wired magazine or wired.com. I think that's OK generally.
FK: I will report that today, having planned an ARG for a television show that didn't actually come to fruition, pour one out for that show, it was amazing to me that now the ARG community is so put together. They found it way before I imagined anyone would...it was obviously, everyone says this about collective intelligence, people find things. But now there are people who just read movie posters, every movie poster, to see if The Beast is in there.
ELM: That's funny.
AH: People are looking out for that sort of thing. And they assume, if I'm watching a TV show and there's an email address or website or phone number, it's like, I will...I actually won't call it, I'll just go search on Twitter to see if anyone else has called it up cause I'm too lazy. [laughter] I was reading a David Mitchell book, I can't remember if it was Cloud Atlas or something else, probably a newer one, and he had a web address in it. Like an actual one, not a 555 phone number, a real web address, so I typed it in and oh, it's not been registered. It's not a real thing. I thought, number one, why didn't someone...doesn't David Mitchell know about ARGs? [laughter] He seems like the sort of guy who would know! He seems very genre-aware! So I registered it, and I sort of made an ARG for his book.
ELM: Oh my God.
FK: A fan Cloud Atlas ARG.
ELM: Wait, was it for Cloud Atlas?
AH: It wasn't Cloud Atlas. It was probably Slade House or whatever, one of the newer ones.
FK: OK. Amazing. So no one's found it yet though?
AH: Oh, it's [sighs] I don't know if anyone found it. I registered the URL, I pointed it at a Tumblr blog and I put stuff up there and yeah. Who knows what happened to it.
ELM: You're telling us you don't want us to publicize your ARG.
AH: I'm saying that it might not be there anymore so it might be embarrassing. [laughter]
ELM: Alright, alright. Going back chronologically, so you got a job! You left your PhD and you started making games. I'm curious about that.
AH: So I think there's a definite...this was back in 2004 when I started that job. It was a company called Mind Candy, and I actually had a couple of other offers to work on games before then but I just didn't really see how they would make any money, because with ARGs, most ARGs even today are really based around marketing campaigns for TV shows and movies. And I just...I don't really wanna do that. I suppose if it was a really cool TV show or movie I might...
FK: No, good call. Good call.
FK: Listen to the voice of experience, GOOD CALL.
AH: And I've done that since then, but you know, I wanted to make...I wanted something that was sustainable. So the idea of the game that I worked on, Perplex City, we would sell these puzzle cards, a bit like trading cards or Magic the Gathering cards, packs of six, at places like Borders or Amazon or whatever. They'd cost like $5 and each of the cards would be this really beautiful puzzle. Everything from word search up to something really, really complicated, some sort of cryptographic thing. And of course as with all ARGs, the solution to a puzzle might be a phone number or might be an email address, a web address, or a GPS coordinate, and if you did that thing, you called the phone number or emailed the address, it would lead you through a rabbit hole to a story that was just epically long. It was 18 months, it sort of killed everyone involved. It was only meant to be 9 months long, it ended up being 18 months long because turns out printing cards with all the special effects we had on them is really hard.
I was the lead designer of that game, looking back it's astonishing that we made 256 cards and we did this entire alternate reality game that was filled with multiple smaller games inside it. It's just, when you're 21, you can do anything, why can't we do all these things? And the fact is we didn't, no one in the company knew what the hell we were doing. It was 2004 and the second dot-com boom hadn't happened yet so there was just a lot of money flying around. And we had a lot of players, we sold millions of cards, but it just didn't really make quite enough money and I think it was too hard to get into, as with a lot of ARGs. It had quite a high barrier of entry, but people loved the cards, we sold a lot. People, there's still people who love Perplex City now. It was a lot of fun and I did that 3 or 4 years.
ELM: And then you started your company.
AH: Yes. So with my brother and another couple of people from Mind Candy, we left to set up Six to Start, which was the company we started in 2007. And the idea was that we'd continue making these alternate reality games and we would make them for TV shows and movies and games and that sort of thing, but we would save up money and eventually make our own game. So the second thing was true, the first thing was not. [laughter] As it turns out, there's a thing called competition and everyone's trying to undercut each other so it was just hard enough to get any work whatsoever and just stay afloat as a small team of 5 or 10 people, let alone bank hundreds of thousands of pounds or whatever. And that...it was, you know looking back, of course I think oh wow, how fun was that? We worked on so many different games, we won some amazing awards, we won Best of Show at South By Southwest in 2008, which was just really tremendous for a project we did called We Tell Stories for Penguin where we told six stories that could only be told on the internet, like some amazing writers.
We did all sorts of things, treasure hunts for EBay, something for Death Cab for Cutie, we did something for Muse, we worked on ideas for Disney Imagineering for the theme parks, all sorts of crazy stuff. But we just didn't really make any money, you know?
ELM: Even with all that you didn't make any money? Man.
AH: No, no, it's just really expensive to run a company! And also people just want...I don't know, maybe we weren't very good at negotiating, I guess. I think that what happened in terms of business was we're probably best seen as a very creative digital agency. That's what you would probably call us now. A small group of people who could make ideas and make apps and websites and we specialized in things that combine the real world and storytelling and gameplay. And the issue was when we started out, that was really unusual. And by 2010, 2011, a lot of the big ad agencies like M&C, Wieden and Kennedy, that sort of thing, were starting to buy companies like us, buy people like us, and build up that capability. So what we were doing, it was still really good, but it wasn't quite as unusual.
And we were still kind of cheaper than everyone else, but if you're Coca Cola or if you're Volvo, or General Motors, you are going to go with the bigger company over people like us, even though we'd won awards. So it just got very difficult and so we thought well, we've got to stop doing this.
ELM: And so you just started doing your own games. That's what you started focusing on.
AH: Yeah. We had...I was at the point where I was like, well, I don't really wanna keep on making games for other companies, and it was just, it wasn't what I wanted to do with my life. I remember sitting down with my friend Naomi who was also at Episodic, Naomi Alderman who wrote The Power and Disobedience and so on, and we'd worked together, we met because we hired her as lead writer for Perplex City back in 2004 for Mind Candy. We were friends, we occasionally, and we were having lunch, and I said you know I really want to make a running game, because I'd just started running, and I think my best ideas tend to be ones where I solve my own problems.
And I was like, well, running, man, when you start running it's just so boring and painful and I hate it [laughter] why has no one made a really good running game? And she said, she just joined a running club, an online running club for women, and they asked everyone who joined why did you want to run? And some people said I want to go get fit, other people wanted to lose weight, and one woman, not Naomi, one woman said I want to survive the zombie apocalypse. [laughter] I kind of laughed and then I sort of groaned, zombies, I hate zombies, I'm sick of zombies. This was back in 2010, even by then...
ELM: You were already sick of zombies.
AH: I'm already sick of zombies! But then I said look, having said that it makes so much sense. Not just from an immediate oh, you've run away from zombies, but from a kind of dramatic story universe point of view, it's really good. There's so much drama, there's so much tension, there's a lot of interesting stuff going on from a gameplay point of view, and from a sort of narrative point of view people have often said "oh, why didn't you make Werewolf Run? Vampire Run?" and all of this stuff. It's like, why would you be always running away from a werewolf? You just get in the car! James Bond or Jason Bourne, they don't just run all the time! They do run, but they don't run all the time. So we wanted something that would be able to sustain a huge amount of story, and of course within a postapocalyptic world, of course you'd be running all the time.
FK: Plus zombies are slow, so even if you're really slow at running, you can still outrun a slow zombie, right? You can basically be walking just a little bit fast, you don't have to be a good runner to outrun zombies, you just have to move somewhere.
ELM: Werewolves are fast, right? They're like wolves! They go fast.
FK: Vampires are super fast!
ELM: Well, it depends on what vampires.
FK: Oh, you're right. If you're Nosferatu you're not that fast.
ELM: Some vampires are slow.
AH: And also zombies can't be reasoned with. Werewolves, maybe.
FK: They don't try to seduce you.
AH: Right. You can try and talk to a werewolf, you can try and talk to a vampire and tell them, like, well, maybe we can make a deal. But zombies, no.
ELM: You cannot talk to a werewolf, I'm sorry. A werewolf will bite you, that's that, that's kind of the point.
AH: OK, some might try.
ELM: Then you may as well be writing "Wild Animal Run" if it's a werewolf, right?
AH: Well, that's why we didn't do it!
ELM: Running from bears. [laughs]
FK: But that was right around the time that Walking Dead started coming out too, though, right?
AH: It was.
FK: So you managed to just, even though you were already sick of it you managed to hit the zombie wave.
AH: I thought we might be, I thought the wave might be ending, I thought that might be it. You know? Cause Left 4 Dead was big then, I think Left 4 Dead 2 had already come out. Resident Evil, all that stuff, and so as it turns out I actually think that zombies, it's...zombies are a bit like fantasy. As in, there's a big genre. Zombies are a genre, I think, and they're not gonna go away. Even westerns haven't really gone away, although they're not as popular.
FK: They're kind of coming back, in fact! It's wild!
AH: And I think that from a kind of cultural point of view, zombies are good particularly for video games and also for TV shows because we feel guilty, I think, rightly so, about having ultraviolent TV shows or movies where you just kill humans, right? Even criminals or Russians or Chinese people, whatever, we don't like that. But it's still kind of oddly satisfying to shoot at humanoid characters. And a zombie, you don't have to feel bad about killing a zombie. Although I'm sure in 50 years' time people will pick up this recording and say "Look, Adrian's a bad person for not liking zombies," so I don't know.
FK: I think that's really clever though, right, because you're also pointing at the kind of thing that animates The Witcher as a game. The entirety of The Witcher is about how you feel bad about killing these maybe-not...you're like, who is a monster in this space and who is it OK for me to kill and who should I let go and all of that. I think it's something that comes through a lot of stuff now.
AH: Yeah, and the defining characteristic of a zombie is that they are mindless. Of course it gets interesting if you say maybe they're not mindless, but.
FK: Welcome to iZombie. Hello! We've crossed this point now!
AH: Yeah, exactly.
ELM: I feel like, Flourish and I did a special episode about Buffy and we ended up having a 15 minute diversion where we talked about the ethical ramifications of killing various creatures or whatever.
FK: Whether Buffy was consistent about what the deal was with vampires and their souls...it's not.
ELM: Yeah, yeah.
FK: This is really interesting though because it's the kind of thing that people often react to in fanworks, and there's been a ton of fanworks about Zombies, Run specifically. Do people pick up on this stuff when they talk about...I mean maybe you can't talk about that...
ELM: Wait wait wait, you skipped a question which is "do you engage with Zombies Run fanworks."
FK: There's a lot of them, do you engage with it, you're right, that's...
AH: No, not as much as Naomi does I think. I know there's a lot of fanfic out there and it's just, I haven't really read much of it, that's all. I've read a bit of it cause we've done some fan competitions, I imagine that's an interesting thing. We've hired fans, we've certainly commissioned fans to do writing for Zombies Run, but I'm not super engaged in that, and it's just...I don't read much fanfic in general, so that's not anything particular to Zombies Run. I know it's out there, I like surprising people on Twitter when I reply to them when they have their own intense emotional, you know, shipping discussions on Twitter and the Zombies Run twitter account will sort of go and surreptitiously like all their tweets and they're like "the jig's up!"
ELM: Oh man.
AH: "They know about our shipping!" But no, I'm not super into that. I do talk to the community. I think as a creator you have to have some level of distance, I'm sure you've heard that from other people before. It just, otherwise you can just burn out or you get a bit too close and for example I used to talk to people quite a lot on the Zombies Run Reddit in the first couple of years. And then it just got a bit toxic as Reddit occasionally does, I just boycotted that community for the next three or four years.
ELM: Did you find that your presence there was part of the toxicity? Having the authority figure in the room turned into...or was it just, were things devolving on their own also and you were like "goodbye"?
AH: Well, the problem was specifically with that was that I quite liked answering questions, even difficult questions, about what we do. I think that's fine. What happened was that we went, Zombies Run went free to play about two or three years ago, and people just got really upset about that, cause free to play...in the sense that before that it cost eight dollars or four dollars to have that and you would have in-app purchases for additional seasons. Then we went to more of a Netflix model where you pay like twenty dollars a year to get everything. and people just lost their shit. It's kind of funny because if we did that now no one would care, so just a little bit early.
There was no real moderation on that community, so it was just kind of insults and stuff constantly. I tried to have a proper discussion about it, I said hey, I get where you guys are coming from, we very deliberately introduced this kind of legacy membership for people who already bought the game, so effectively they certainly didn't lose anything and they got a very cheap membership of eight dollars, so sixty percent less. Anyway, as it turned out no one really cares anymore. But I think what made me realize it was just difficult to be on that community was that there was not really anyone there who's kind of willing to draw any kind of lines whatsoever about what sort of discussions you would have in that community. And I'm not saying, it's not my community, I don't own it, and that's fine, but it was like, well, if there's not gonna be any rules then I'm not gonna stay here.
FK: Right. So at least, like, on Twitter you can decide what you respond to, you can block people, you can create that space, but if you're in the Reddit and there's no moderators really taking care of the space in any way then it's just sort of a wild space into which you either can insert yourself or not and that's the only control you have.
AH: Yeah, and I'm fine. I've set up several different forums in my life, and I've been part of forums back from when I was a kid, eight years old, which is probably not advisable. [laughter] I know how important it is to have moderation, cause otherwise you just see the same problems cropping up again and again of cliques and things are bad and just unwritten rules, and you just need to write down those rules! As we know now. You need to have guidelines about what's acceptable and what's not.
And it was just clear, and there are Reddits where there are very good rules and there's very good moderation, I like them! That's fine. But the default is that there isn't. We now run our own private forum for Zombies Run and there's I think decent moderation there. We very rarely have to actually tell anyone off at all. One person basically said "well, if you don't like it, you should just ban me." We said "well maybe we will," but we actually didn't, it's just fine. People are very well behaved on our forum. Maybe that's because they play Zombies Run and that makes them nice people! Who knows. [laughter]
FK: I don't know, I mean, it's really refreshing to hear somebody talk...coming from a perspective of having been a moderator and having engaged with this stuff. I feel like a lot of times when I talk to people who are in positions of power over whatever cultural thing, game or TV show or whatever, they don't have that background and often that can make it difficult to...I think, that can often make it difficult to sort of get enough space on the conversation when people hurl insults and so forth.
AH: You see that when you have creatives or celebrities that get excited about talking to their fans on Twitter or on Reddit and then someone asks a difficult question and they just freak out, they go crazy. Look, it's the internet. I'm not saying it's good, that's just what happens, and you need to choose where you talk to people. And you can do that! You don't need to talk to people everywhere, and that's fine. Some people just refuse to talk to people on Twitter, or who just have their own mailing list, that sort of thing. Or they just talk to people on Facebook! That's also good.
ELM: It's interesting though talking about the idea of, like...I'm just thinking of you being a creator in a space, in this fan/creator space, right, where there's no one moderating, whereas on Twitter, just like you said, Flourish, it's like the creator does have some modicum of control...but no one is actually moderating the conversation beyond the creator being like "and I'm not talking to you, you're blocked." Because people can come by and talk to you whenever if you open that door. No one's actually moderating the conversation on Twitter. Any conversation on Twitter.
FK: Right, except that people won't see it unless they...right? So the person who has the most power in the Twitter conversation is the person who is the creator or the celebrity or whatever because they have all the followers and so forth and people see what that person retweets and talks about. They could see things in the hashtag or whatever, but...
ELM: People definitely do searches for their favorite thing.
FK: Yeah, it's true, I just feel like there's a different...I see what you're saying but I think it's somewhere in between those two things.
ELM: Yeah, yeah yeah.
AH: Twitter isn't designed to help people see who's doing at-replies. You know? Or just...you can do it, but it's clearly not designed, whereas Reddit or other places are designed to let everyone have an equal say and Twitter's not like that and so if you're a creator you can just ignore all the questions and most people wouldn't be able to tell. Of course if you know how to use Twitter you can see, oh, what are people at-ing at the celebrity and you can find out there's a thousand questions, but most people won't really know.
AH: Twitter's interesting because I don't, again, I sort of don't really...I personally don't really get into that, I follow people who really, I know people who are really good at Twitter, the sort of people who consistently get 10,000 or 50,000 faves and who are not famous. And it's just like, I mean, I kind of look and I think, well, I'm not going to be at those stratospheric heights. So I use it transactionally, I guess, for Zombies Run and just talking with friends. Facebook actually has more of our fans than Twitter, and we do a lot of talking there. And actually when we do a post it's actually easier for people who are unhappy with us to sort of have their voices heard because other people like them and the replies float up, they get upvoted, as happens on Reddit as well obviously.
FK: Out of curiosity, how do you deal with the way that Facebook sort of throttles your posts? Prevents everybody in the community from seeing your posts? [AH sighs heavily] Is that just a consistent problem for you as well as everyone else?
AH: I mean, it's...obviously a problem for content sites, content-driven sites. For us we've been just unusually blessed with Zombies Run where people just find Zombies Run and we don't have to spend any money on it. [laughter] I don't know how to they find it anymore now, it's not through rankings. It's just through word of mouth I guess. Every day there's another 2,000 or 3,000 Zombies Run users who just download the app. It's amazing.
ELM: Wow, every day!
AH: Yeah! And that's an average day. We've had days when there's 50,000 people. So we use Facebook for telling people about "hey, what do you think of this T-shirt design?" or whatever. And of course if you're a fan, I think Facebook will show...Facebook detects you interact with Zombies Run posts, and they'll show you more of those. And of course you can pay to have your posts be shown to your fans, which is just ridiculous, but you can pay for that to happen, and we do that when we are doing something that will make money. So for instance we want to sell this board game then we'll throw in... [sighs] God knows how much money we've spent on Facebook. Probably thousands or maybe tens of thousands of pounds, it's so ridiculous, to promote stuff.
FK: It occurs to me that because you also have the app through which you can push, you know, information of this sort, you're maybe at a little bit of an advantage if someone's playing Zombies Run and they open up the app and there's a thing that says "you can now buy X!" Great, you've just messaged everybody who's actually playing it.
AH: Exactly. We have the app, which is a great way of reaching people, we have audio ads, so we play those to people who are not subscribers, so members, and so before every mission we get a sort of podcast style ad saying "hey, subscribe!" or "buy this T-shirt!" or whatever. And we have email so we send monthly newsletters out at this point, to 1.2 million people or something like that.
I'm always really sensitive against not wasting people's time. I don't like getting newsletters, but there's some I do that have interesting information. So you turn in into content marketing, in a sense, I guess. If we're turning out a newsletter and we don't have enough news we'll just go "here's a letter from one of the characters!" It's not gonna sell you anything, it's just here's a fun thing, here's a delightful thing.
One of the best thing we do to engage our users...sounds so dry when we say "engage users." One of the nicest things that people like about Zombies Run, so if you use Runkeeper you probably get an email saying "hey, you've run 100 kilometers, well done! Here's a drawing of a, here's a gif," or whatever. It's like eh, fine, who cares. Well, in Zombies Run because it's a story when you've run a hundred kilometers you get a letter from one of the characters saying "hey Runner 5, well done, we knew you could do it, here's a drawing from this thing, you should be really proud of yourself." So it is an achievement, but it's also just another bit of the story. It's not plot, but it's an interaction with the character and it doesn't feel super artificial I guess.
FK: Yeah. You know, it's funny I keep thinking about how Zombies Run is a lot like...probably around the time you guys were beginning to develop Zombies Run you may have seen this, there was a website that was about running or walking the path of Frodo in Lord of the Rings.
FK: So you would walk and you would keep track of what you were doing, you would tell everybody today I made it to Mirkwood! You know. Today...I mean that's the Hobbit but whatever. Today I made it to... [laughs] Today I made it here, today I made it there, today's the day I meet the Riders of Rohan. It's interesting because for a little while I was, at the time, running and tracking it, I was like oh let's do this. What was interesting to me about it was how it gave a sort of full body experience to the story, right? As I was walking along, thinking about...this is a little bit like we talked about Adventure Lunch.
ELM: Oh, your Adventure Lunch, Flourish. Did you ever have Adventure Lunch? Where you ate hard cheese and a crust of bread under a table, pretended you were adventuring?
AH: That's cool.
FK: Like when you're a kid! Or when you're going on a hike and you purposely pack.
AH: A bindle stick kind of thing.
ELM: This was Flourish's entire childhood apparently. And her husband's. Separately.
FK: And lots of other people's!
ELM: That's true.
FK: Many many people did Adventure Lunch. They didn't know what to call it but now they do. It's making me think about how there's an embodied aspect.
FK: Potentially, to story, that we don't pay very much attention to a lot of the time, but it seems like that's what Zombies Run is all about.
AH: Well, and uniquely Zombies Run is a first person experience. So you are...that's what sets us against a lot of other zombie stuff. Or running stuff or story stuff. You, the player, are Runner 5, and that makes it...first person novels are always so weird, I find it quite hard to read them. Italo Calvino and that sort of thing, If On A Winter's Night, I just find that really hard to read them...
FK: Wait, the first person was what made If On A Winter's Night hard for you? Hold up! [laughs]
AH: Wellll...yeah, I just...yeah. So I think that it makes people identify so that's why, there's a lot of Runner 5 cosplay. And the Lord of the Rings walking thing predates Zombies Run for sure, and I still think it's really cool, because if you really invested in Lord of the Rings you think, oh, now I'm walking over the mountains, you know, and that's one of the things...so there's probably more you could do with that actually. That's sort of what feeds into our other app, The Walk, the idea of this long journey that you're trying to get through, and I think we want to do more around that as well.
I mean the really important thing is that we try and make all of this stuff that comes from the voice of Zombies Run, from the voice of characters, really well-written. And Naomi writes a lot of that, but she doesn't write all of it. Most of it does pass in front of her, which is kind of special. So it's not like there's a massive team of writers just churning stuff out and it's of variable quality. Usually all the stuff is of pretty good quality.
ELM: And by a proper novel writer who is popular. [laughs]
AH: Yeah, yeah.
ELM: Which I feel like probably not every game company...I mean I don't know actually. Maybe I'm speaking out of turn about whether there are a lot of...that wasn't my question...
FK: Oh my god it's so complicated. I'm not gonna tell you I'm just gonna say that the question of writing in games, as I'm sure Adrian will also say, is a very complicated one that starts with the way the writing can be composed, goes on to who will do the writing, and where in the process the writing happens, it's a mess.
AH: It's very problematic, yeah. It's not good. I...yeah. I sort of have a lot of sympathy for games writers but I also think that, I don't know. Yeah.
AH: What can I say? A lot of it is bad. A lot of it's bad! A lot of games stories are bad. But is that the writer's fault? Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. I think that the game designers and game producers and game developers have extremely bad taste in storytelling. They don't know what a good story is or they do know but they just don't care.
FK: Or they think that a good story is going to be like a Hollywood movie and that's somehow gonna make it into a good game story and that's not how that works. That's not how it works! They're different media! Go back!
AH: My joke has always been that game developers watched one movie and read one book, which is Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. That's it. [ELM cracks up] That's why almost everything sort of comes down to massive...I mean, I like Mass Effect, it's great...
FK: Wait, the people who made Uncharted definitely watched Indiana Jones. [laughter]
FK: Maybe it's the Harrison Ford oeuvre.
ELM: Did they watch Air Force One, is that what you're saying? His finest work? His finest work. That's right.
ELM: I had a literary question. Well, this is...it's really interesting though talking about it too. Naomi Alderman is a novelist, that's why if you're saying that games writers have read one book and watched one movie...
AH: Well, no, OK, not the games writers. The games designers.
ELM: Right, OK. Yes. I understand. This is interesting to me but my question was gonna be about POV just to step back a bit is like...my question about the Lord of the Rings game that you're talking about, were you Frodo? Or were you Frodo's...taking Frodo's journey?
AH: It wasn't really a game, it was more like a website where you would type in "I've walked 5 kilometers today" and it would say, it was so simple, it would literally say now you're at Mirkwood or now you're at Rohan or whatever.
AH: So you have to do the imagining yourself.
ELM: That's interesting too though, because alright, you're playing it, maybe some people did think "I am Frodo playing this," and some people thought "I am centering myself in this story." It's interesting thinking about how you guys are writing first person narratives but you, the narrative perspective, is still this blank canvas. Right? You're not being assigned a bunch of traits for you. As a first person novel often...there's a character who is the I character. Not the reader. Right?
AH: So, I mean, and I'm gonna be cribbing this from Naomi, but we have a few rules about how to do first person in Zombies Run. And I think it applies to other video games as well like Half Life. Half Life is a really good example of, and Half Life 2, is a really good example of a first person game where you the character is a blank slate. Because often when you have first person games you're not a blank slate. You are a character, you've got a name, you've got a history, and you learn about that history, and sometimes it's surprising. Whereas in Half Life or some games...some games subvert it, like Bioshock. But with Zombies Run you are meant to be a blank slate and it is meant to be you so we always say the character Runner 5 should always do what a smart person would do. And that the same should be true in Half Life. You shouldn't do anything stupid because you the player, we're going to assume you're not stupid.
And we're not going to withhold information about, oh, turns out you're actually a mass murderer! What a surprise. I think that's OK, that's fine to do, for Bioshock or whatever that's perfectly fine artistic decision. But I think if you're going to have an ongoing story, especially one which is kind of linked to your health, you know? That's a weird thing with Zombies Run, what we do actually matters for people's physical health, and mental health. We don't wanna play tricks on people. So I can confidently spoil people and say look, not in Season 10 of Zombies Run will you discover that Runner 5 knew they were the King of England or something. [laughter]
AH: Spoilers! That's definitely not gonna happen.
ELM: This kinda ties into a question that I wanted to ask you because it seems like you guys were coming from this place of really wonderful good faith about your...your users, is user the right word I guess? We already disparaged that, but meh. Fans?
ELM: Players. One thing that really struck me during the talk that you guys gave at Episodic and also listening to you now is ideas about accessibility on all sorts of fronts. So talking about how at the talk you guys were talking about how a lot of running apps are...if you are not super buff fit guy, right, you might feel like it'll make you feel bad, right? But also listening to you talk about ARGs and Facebook and things like that, talking about barriers to entry for certain gaming experiences, and it sounds like you guys are really working against stuff that has a high barrier to entry with your work now. Do you think that's true?
AH: Yeah, and I think there's, you know, a few things that come in to that. One is that, look, from a purely commercial point if view if there's lower barriers to entry you can probably make more money, all things being equal. And making money is not a bad thing because that's how we keep the lights on. If we didn't make any money, there would be no Zombies Run.
Obviously we do want, we do want it to be accessible, and that sometimes goes against making money. So we spent time on making Zombies Run voiceover compatible, which is not something that comes for free on most iOS apps. Voiceover is an option that allows blind people and people with sight problems to use apps. So we made an entirely different version of the base build, which is graphical, that is accessible to people who are blind. I can guarantee you we didn't do it to make money. To be sure, if you looked at the calculus we lost money. Which is why I always find it really weird actually. We get emails from advocates saying "if you added this feature you'd sell more copies to blind people!" I don't think that's true and that's not really the reason why we do it. We just do it because it's the right thing to do.
I suppose if we were broke we wouldn't do it, but I think that businesses have a responsibility; if it doesn't break the bank we should do it because it's a good thing. And see how much it means to people! And I think that's where the human connection matters. I still, I probably shouldn't do this, but I still look at support emails and things like that and I look at Twitter and I see what people say about the game and most of it is, as the internet is, people complaining about things they don't like. But as that's the way of things...but there are people who email and say, I'm disabled or this app helped me recover from cancer, whatever, and you just think, OK, this really matters.
So in terms of accessibility, it's an important thing to do. It matters a lot to people, it can change people's lives, we should do it.
I think just more prosaically, Zombies Run and the stuff we did at Six to Start was a direct response to something like Perplex City or alternate reality games actually. I remember after we finished Perplex City I was very proud of that game, but by the time we got to the end people basically had to play through 18 months of story to figure out what was going on. In the same way that if you want to go and start watching Game of Thrones you would have to watch every single episode, right? But that's okay, because you can do that, and it's all sort of entertaining and you could sort of mainline Game of Thrones in a couple of weeks if you were really into it.
ELM: My parents just did! It took 'em like two weeks, Jesus Christ. [laughs]
AH: And so from a mechanical point of view that's one of the problems of ARGs. You can't really replay ARGs because they're sort of time limited.
FK: And they're about the group of people you're with, right?
FK: So much of it's about, it's like saying "let's replay this LARP." No, that's not how that works.
AH: Right, cause it's not a single player thing. Let's replay...I'm gonna replay World of Warcraft on my own. You can't! You can't do that. And so Zombies Run is a single player experience. And you lose something with that. I love multiplayer experiences and massively multiplayer experiences, but they're harder to get into. So I think just from an artistic satisfaction point of view we want to do something that would stand the test of time and so that means that even though Zombies Run has been out for six years or five years, people can still start now, and the work that we did from the very first episode is still valuable because people can still play it.
I think that's why books and TV shows have such long lives, because you can read Lord of the Rings, it's still a big book...that's one of the sad things with video games. You can't actually play PS2 games these days, or some point and click adventures. We're gonna keep on updating Zombies Run, but we have to keep on updating...you don't need to update a book to keep it readable.
AH: So that's important.
FK: Adrian, are there other things that you particularly would like to talk about that we haven't touched on?
AH: Uh...I don't know! I think that, I find that the podcast is so interesting because it sort of is...your podcast is so interesting because it's kind of an interaction between fans and creators, and I wish more creators had been fans, because they would sort of...or they were fans of something...I think that's becoming truer as time goes on. It's hard not to be a fan, engage in the fan community, now than it was 20 years ago. I think it would be great if more fans, you know, obviously pursued their passions and became creators, although that's not always possible.
ELM: So I feel like, and I mean Flourish can speak to this well too, but she's not the guest here, but obviously across all sorts of entertainment industries, right, whether it's games or movies or books or whatever, there's an understanding on the creator's side that it's great when people are coming, have been fans, and wishing there were more people who understood fans. Because they see fans now and they're a little confused and they're trying to work it out. But do you think that there are ways that you value the fact that you came from being a fan into the creator space that they're kind of missing? Like, the benefits that you find that it brings? Do you find that on the creator's side people don't really understand the exact things that you took out of it?
AH: I think they don't really, I don't know, I just think a lot of creators don't really know how to deal with their fans. They either get way too invested and sort of end up playing sides...and I think that having been a fan of I don't know, Babylon 5 or something, where you just go through this intense cycle of pain and disappointment [laughter] and happiness, and it's just...you sort of realize after you've done that for a decade or two, you realize you know what, people...fans are going to overreact to whatever you do. They're gonna be so overjoyed when something good happens and so disappointed when something bad happens. And you'll already know that if you've actually been a fan. That sort of intense state of emotion.
And it's great to have people who are so intensely attached. That's why people react in that way. And I know now that when people tweet at us...people have come to the office, you know, they've come to the office with flowers and stuff, or whatever, and...which is amazing!
ELM: It's very nice!
AH: You just know that, okay, that's great, but we need to...the focus is on the work. You know. And making it good. And making it for everyone. For the vocal fans and for the fans who are not so vocal. And that's...I'm not saying you should ignore fans. Far from it. We take criticisms really seriously. We have seen some really legitimate criticisms of the writing of the game where we've gone, oh, wow, we did that wrong! Or people have taken it the wrong way, and we should change how we do things. And I think it makes a game better if you look at what people are saying. But you need to just calibrate that in a way that sort of takes into account that people are really passionate and, you know, it's like when you...when you form a crush on someone, you need to know that it's not real. It's not going to be like that all the time.
ELM: I think that's a good analogy!
FK: And also when they do something that you don't like, that's also probably not as real. Your offense and misery that they dared to do that, your crush!
AH: It can be really personal! But you know what, maybe it's not so personal. So. You know, it's just about...it's about mental health. And I don't wanna sound jaded about the whole thing! It's about just you need to have that kind of bounds otherwise you just can't make this stuff for more than a year or two. You'll just go crazy.
FK: What you described actually, to me you did not sound jaded. It sounded as if you were describing, what is it, is it like the cycle of...the cycle of...the world is suffering and eventually when you concede that there is this cycle of suffering and actually your joy also adds to the suffering! Then you can transcend this and, uh... [laughter] achieve nirvana or just be able to make games without being constantly stressed out about your fans.
AH: Yeah, this is like...I'm a fan, I remember sitting down to watch the latest Star Trek with Naomi. And the first two episodes I was like, this is just dreadful shit. I hate it. And by episode 7 it's like OH MY GOD THIS IS THE BEST STAR TREK EVER.
FK: I KNOW IT'S GOTTEN REALLY GOOD RIGHT?
AH: And so you realize, you know what? You just gotta give it some time. It's OK. We didn't, we're fans, we're humans as well. [laughter]
ELM: Flourish just wanted to talk about Star Trek the whole time, didn't she.
FK: I'm restraining myself so hard right now.
ELM: Keep it back, keep it back. [laughter] I think that's, I really appreciate the...yeah, I feel like at this point, I feel slightly jaded, because I'll be like "yeah...fandom is just like everything's patterns and cycles and fans are always gonna do the same shit." It's like well, yeah, but OK, it is what it is. I still enjoy being a fan.
AH: It is what it is, and people fall in love in the same way and they break up in the same way, and it's still really important, you know? That's just...
ELM: Date the same bad person over and over again.
AH: Well, and maybe people learn a little bit. And it happens in a different way every time.
FK: They break the cycle. This is becoming a very distressing...
ELM: Fandom therapy.
FK: Metaphor. [laughter] I think that we're almost out of time, though.
ELM: But no, it's not...I think that there was a lot of un-distressing bits of that answer though! You know!
FK: I agree! [laughter] It just started going off the deep end when we got to relationship counseling! In general this has been amazing having you on, though.
AH: Thank you so much.
FK: It's rare that we get to speak to someone who, you know, who has sort of all the different sides and experiences that you have, so.
AH: Thank you! It's been very very good questions. [laughter] You actually know what Zombies Run is. Believe me, sometimes when I've talked to interviewers, they're like "so what is this game? Do you actually go outside and run?" It's like hmm, you could find that out just by going to the website!
ELM: I think, Flourish, you've played it before, haven't you?
FK: Yes! I have to say that I am now dedicated to powerlifting and it's done more for me than running ever has, I'm sorry. But the only way that I ever got to enjoy running was through Zombies Run.
ELM: Oh no way!
FK: The one time I ever got a runner's high was through playing Zombies Run.
AH: Brilliant. I love it.
ELM: OK, so Zombies Lift is the next app you're going to... FLOURISH! [laughter]
FK: [obviously THRILLED with this concept] PLEASE YES. I would love it. I got so disappointed when I stopped running and I was like, this is way better exercise for me personally, but...
AH: Someone pitched me on a sort of D&D version of crossfit! And I was like, hm, how do we make that work?
ELM: Flourish is gonna die.
AH: I thought they had a really good idea about it, but I was just like, we'd need quite a lot of money to make that work. There are some D&D themed gyms out there.
FK: Yeah! There are, there are, there are. Oh man, but instead of Crossfit you could do it with something simpler like powerlifting [ELM bursts into laughter] I mean what I like... alright I'm gonna stop, I'm gonna stop.
AH: Cause you would have a party, an RPG party that you'd be doing it with, and you'd have quests...I don't know. So it's just like, ah, well.
FK: That could be your way into a multiplayer game!
AH: Yeah! We have thought about it. But that's another.
ELM: Flourish is ready to collaborate with you RIGHT NOW.
FK: That's so true though. [laughter]
FK: Well thank you so much for coming on.
ELM: Thank you so much.
FK: This has been wonderful.
AH: Thank you for having me!
FK: Well, that was everything I hoped it would be. How about for you?
ELM: And more.
FK: And more! [laughter]
ELM: Yeah, that was fantastic. I, this is like, to take something good and make it bad though. Every time I talk to someone who I think is really thoughtful about fan/creator stuff, just makes me sad about all the people who are so dumb about it. That's the most pessimistic spin possible, isn't it?
FK: Yeah, it is. It really is.
ELM: But you know what I mean, though? You're like UGH why can't everyone be like YOU?!
FK: I'm gonna be a little angel and I'm gonna say, oh thank goodness there are people like this [ELM laughs] and there will be more soon because everybody else is going to get driven mad by the cycle of fan engagement and eventually, you know.
ELM: OK, that's a positive spin.
FK: That is a positive spin!
ELM: Good, thank you. Alright. Yeah. That was fantastic.
FK: I think that we are basically running out of time, though.
ELM: Yeah, we gotta go.
FK: If you would like to support us and our work, including our Medium which still has wonderful articles, it has them all the time, then you can hopefully pledge to our Patreon! If you've got some spare cash, that's patreon.com/fansplaining. You can also send us your comments, thoughts, etc. We have a Tumblr, fansplaining.tumblr.com, the askbox is open, anon is on, please be nice; our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. There's also a phone number on our Tumblr, call that and you can leave us a voicemail message, which we love. And we're on Twitter, @fansplaining, Facebook, our username there is Fansplaining, and we really hope to hear from you!
ELM: So this episode is coming out on Wednesday November 29 and we are wrapping up the most recent tiny zine! So if you've been toying with the idea of pledging at the $10 level or if you're our current patron and have a little more cash to spare and are interested in upping it, I think that by the end of the weekend, the first of December, if we have you on there you will be on list to get one in the mail!
FK: You will!
ELM: It'll be quite festive! If you like festive things, we're comin' your way.
FK: We're always festive.
ELM: That's right!
FK: Talk to you later, Elizabeth.
ELM: Bye Flourish!