Run for Your Life: Alex Macmillan

Lead game developer Alex Macmillan wants to keep you out of the clutches of the hungry undead and into mobile games that blend elements of the digital and physical worlds.

 

Games don’t need fantastic storylines to be fun or commercially successful says Alex Macmillan. Describing his game Zombies, Run! as “a delivery mechanism to the story,” Macmillan and the rest of the gang at the London-based mobile development outfit Six to Start are so serious about creating compelling game narrative that they teamed up with established novelist Naomi Alderman to co-craft a heart-pounding plot to go with the interactivity of gameplay. The combination is paying off. Zombies, Run!, a mobile running app that pushes users to exercise by providing an audio apocalypse-themed storyline, has garnered more than 550,000 users and spawned a sequel to the game and a 5K training app.

Back when the game brainstorming began in 2011, nobody knew if there was a market for walking corpse-themed exercise programs. Zombies, Run! was largely funded through a Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $72,000 in just over a month due in no small part to its awesome rewards including the opportunity for donors to create and name their own in-game characters, voice a zombie scream by calling Six to Start’s hotline and “giving us your best ‘Help, my trachea is falling out of my rotten neck’ impression,” and help design a custom zombie-themed mission. With the success of the campaign came the responsibility to live up to the expectations of the more than 3,400 backers who were metaphorically foaming at the mouth to see the game in action. Here’s how Macmillan, Alderman, and Six to Start pulled it off.

Get In Media: Why did Six to Start choose to fund Zombies, Run! through Kickstarter?

Alex Macmillan: It has been incredibly clear to me that by using Kickstarter, you can see immediately the level of enthusiasm that people have for your idea. So, being directly in touch with the people who are immediately ready to say, “Yes. If this existed, I would buy it and even better, I will give you money now to make sure that it does exist in the future,” that’s incredible. That’s immediate and powerful validation that you’re working on something worthwhile.

GIM: What were the challenges and benefits of fundraising that way?

AM: The challenge is getting people’s attention, absolutely. It’s not particularly challenging to put a project on Kickstarter, but the challenge is to see that people actually see your idea. That does come down to having a clear and concise video pitch and making sure that all of the text on the pages is very tightly written and communicates very effectively. Beyond that, it can’t work unless you’ve got a good idea to begin with. Aside from the hard work we put into making the pitch and talking about our projects in a clear and concise way, it was just that it was such a good idea that people were so willing to share it. Thanks to how readily people shared the page, vast numbers of people saw the page and many chose to back the project. 

GIM: Six to Start has stated that you guys were surprised at the number of sight-impaired users who played the game.

AM: It’s true. After releasing Zombies, Run! we received a huge amount of communication from everybody who was playing the game. One common pattern that we saw in emails that we were receiving was specifically from people who were sight-impaired. I was surprised because I just hadn’t really considered that a running game would be popular among people who are sight-impaired. It became very obvious, of course, that people who are sight-impaired still very much want to exercise and the fact that we had created a game that was built around telling a story was what made the game so appealing to them. So, yes, it became very important to us to understand how to make our game accessible to those people.

GIM: Do you think that building accommodations like that will become increasingly important in the future?

AM: Certainly for us Zombies, Run! is a game and we built it with a visual component. To do that, we used a tool that meant that the phone’s own ability to describe what was on the screen to people who are sight-impaired was hindered by the actual game component. The device is already designed to be accessible to people with visual impairment, so it should be our responsibility as developers to make sure that our app works with the technology that’s available in the device. I hope that all developers would consider the same when building their apps.

GIM: What other surprises or challenges did you encounter building the game?

AM: It was business challenges, really. It was just a matter of making sure that we delivered an app that met our own quality standards while also keeping to a schedule. That’s another benefit of Kickstarter. When people give you money so that you can complete a project, you have a responsibility to them to say how long you believe it will take and then you’ve made basically a promise to every backer, so it’s important that you keep things fixed to that time scale, rather than going back to those people who supported you and saying, “Well, we discovered that it was more difficult than we thought it would be, so we’re just going to take an extra two years to finish the game, if you don’t mind.” You have a responsibility, and so we worked very, very hard to make sure that the release came out in a timely fashion. That was the biggest challenge.

GIM: How did you project an accurate timeline for producing the game?

AM: We used the usual business practice of project planning, Gantt charts and breaking the project down into its sub-components and making as reasonable as possible estimates of how long it will take to complete each one. It was a moderately complex project because we had so many strings of development. We had to write the code, but there was also the production pipelines, the audio content, which starts with scriptwriting. Then you need to audition, cast, and then record. There were many weeks of sound editing after that. We drew up Gantt charts and made the best estimates we could and as close as we could, we stuck to them.

GIM: Storytelling is obviously a huge portion of the app. Would you mind giving me a bit of information on how you mixed having a great story with the technical components of the game?

AM: Well, in terms of being confident that we can deliver a great story, we have no greater asset than [novelist] Naomi Alderman. She’s a prize-winning author and her books have been hugely successful. We know that she can pull it off. I’m very proud with Zombies, Run! that I’ve been able to build a game which purpose is really to serve as a delivery mechanism to the story, that the game is really built around delivering Naomi’s story. In that way, the game doesn’t get in the way of allowing her story to come through.

GIM: Were there any obstacles in working with somebody who’s coming from a traditional writing background with getting that story into an app or a mobile form?

AM: I would say that it works because Naomi was part of the genesis of the idea. So she was with us every step of the way. We had continuous feedback from her about the story and from us to her about the app that we were building around it. It was because we worked so closely together that it was possible to make sure that her story works with what perhaps is an entirely new format. You say “from a traditional story writing background,” but that’s not really true. Naomi is a huge fan of computer games. She often goes on [British radio station] Radio 4 talking about computer games, specifically from a literary novelist’s perspective, so it wasn’t a case of looking for an author and then hoping that they would be able to deliver us a script that would work. Instead, it was much more of a cooperative process.

GIM: What advice do you have for people who are looking to become independent game developers?

AM: It has come about for me because of doing what I love. My answer to that question would be to work hard. If it’s something that you’re passionate about, you just need to get out there and do it. So, if you’re a writer, you need to be writing. I have always been a developer and I feel like I got this far because I spent all that time working on my own projects and making sure that I was available to work for other people.

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