Did you know a jar of Marmite is useful for crushing zombie skulls? No? Then let me introduce you to a clever little fitness (stay with me here) app called, Zombies, Run!
It is a superb example of good writing, clever programming, and how both professions can work together to create something wonderful.
The hook? The app presents a story that stars you. Apocalypse has hit, zombies are everywhere, and you are holed up with a couple other humans trying to save the world. You earn your keep by running missions: you leave the compound and run around gathering supplies and weaponry, all while dodging the un-dead.
A moment of clarity here. I hate working out. Not for me the refreshing run after a day at work–I’d rather do a cannon-ball into a vat of tortellini. But this app is so engaging and smart that the story keeps me distracted from my dislike of exercise.
I looked up an interview with the creators. Besides being funny and articulate, they embodied two key elements of great creative production: 1) good writing and story-telling; and 2) close collaboration between the artists who work in words and the artists who work in code.
First, the value of good writing and its impact:
” … a game like Zombies, Run! can be extremely easily utterly ruined by bad writing. And if you think you have a “good story” but cannot tell me the hook for it, you do not have a good story.”
Zombies, Run! has wonderful hooks–every mission is different, beginning with a “last time …” recap and ending with a “next time …” teaser. The characters are diverse, engaging, and occasionally suspect. An additional hook for me: the actors use words such as “escutcheoned” and “dulcet,” and, being a British production, ample deployment of the afore-mentioned Marmite.
The second part of a powerful creative production: a strong relationship between writers and programmers. You could call them both “creatives,” in ad agency parlance. The app’s writer observes:
“Writers, make friends with technologists. Technologists, make friends with writers. We two breeds are not so different. We can make wonderful things together.”
And the “technologist” follows:
“And by ‘make friends’ we don’t mean ‘go to a 1 hour speed dating event,’ we mean that you should really try to immerse yourself in what constitutes good storytelling in a range of media and to seek out interesting practitioners, and likewise, to understand the capabilities and limits of popular tech like smartphones, and to understand how the development process works.”
Many an earnest creative project has foundered on the shoals of technical development or dreary copywriting. It takes effort to understand each side, to get humble and learn how the opposite profession must work to realize what you both are envisioning.
This isn’t often discussed in marketing blogs . Encountering it made me explore the app’s interface, which revealed thoughtful engineering (I signed up for the virtual race with a fingerprint) and more fun writing (in the supplies list, under baseball bats: “Try to resist yelling ‘home run’ every time you take a head off with it.”)
What I love most about this little app, however, is its smart recognition that there are those of us who want some fun encouragement, without onerous score-keeping or boring bragging. The creators know they’ve found a niche:
“When Zombies, Run! was launched, I figured we had maybe six months before someone like Nike or Adidas ripped off the concept wholesale. Almost three years later, and still no-one else has even come close. It’s like other companies have absolutely no interest in making fitness more fun for normal people; or if they do, they think everyone in the world is either a hardcore running fanatic who wants to crush their friends into the ground, or an uber-nerd who’s only motivated by points and progress bars. It’s baffling.”
Baffling indeed. Why wouldn’t Nike and its ilk want a piece of this market? Maybe they don’t want to make the effort–it’s easier to just trot out the old “points and progress bars” and assume we all want to be ripped athletes. Maybe they don’t know any great writers. Maybe they haven’t required the writers to party with the technologists. There’s no story.
Oh well. Every time I fire up Zombies, Run! I am the valuable, the speedy, the mysterious Runner 5. Now that’s a great hook.