Without Instruction: First Impressions of “Zombies, Run!”

I recently gave the augmented reality (AR) running game Zombies, Run! for Android a try. I’ve been meaning to give this game a go for a while, being a keen runner, a gamified experience involving zombies sounded right up my street. The game can be loosely described as an interactive radio play whereby you progress through the story by completing  a series of running challenges.

Sadly my initial foray into this game was  marred by poor instructions, an overloaded user interface and out of place in-game audio and its only now through sheer perseverance I’m starting to get to grips with the game. For those of you, like me, interested in mobile augmented experiences I’ve provided a few of my thoughts on playing the game below.

The First Boot

The first time you boot the game your presented with the following interface.

Opening screenshot for Zombies, Run
Opening screenshot for Zombies, Run!

There are several things going on here, 1) a sidebar menu button (top left), 2) a news update feed (middle), 3) the game status and start run button (near bottom) and 4) the game configuration settings (bottom). That’s a lot of information to deal with for a game sporting a unfamiliar game mechanic. The game doesn’t present new players with a welcome screen or any instruction s on how to play the game. For a PC or console game, the developers could be expecting the player to read the manual, but for a mobile game I don’t think there’s ever been that expectation.

And so your pretty much left to fend for yourself, which in my case explains why my initial experiences with the game where subpar at best. If you stick to the opening screen you can probably muddle way through just fine but if you open the sidebar menu your presented with even menu options you can interact with and of course aren’t explained. The opening screen shown above actually shows another game feature which is the build-a-base mini-game. For a new player this is just too much information to present without instruction.

Anyways after making some educated guesses as to what I was supposed to do I setup a music playlist for my run, enabled location tracking and something called “chases”.

With that I was finally ready to outrun some zombies and headed outside into the cold night air.

Run! But Where?

The game focuses on the story of Runner 5, the latest addition to a small community surviving through the zombie apocalypse. You play Runner 5 and are tasked with aiding the community by completing various running based missions such as resupply errands and distracting zombies.  The game is an audio based experience which uses motion and time based game mechanics to create the feeling your in a real-world apocalypse during your run.

As you run in the real world the game narrates your journey through the zombie apocalypse. Each mission is made up of a series of story clips which are triggered every so often during you run (based on my experience, the trigger appears to be a timer). Between each clip you’ll hear your music playlist playing on in the background or presumably nothing at all if you didn’t select one. During each mission you’ll also be collecting items and if you enabled the setting, chase challenges. Chase challenges, are the more interesting element of Zombies, Run! Every so often you’ll be informed zombies are approaching and you need to escape them. For me this is what I expected to be the core game experience. However my first few chases where extremely frustrating. The game tracks both the player’s level of motion and physical location. The first time I encountered a zombie the game informed me that a zombie was X meters away and I needed to escape. What it failed to mention was how I was supposed to escape the zombies and in what direction!

Given my own experience with AR and AR games I thought the game might use the player’s physical location to place zombies in a game world and have them chase the player. Obviously this might prove dangerous if it doesn’t take into account the surrounding geography. This in the end wasn’t the case, but given the game doesn’t tell the player anything, how was I supposed to know? All I had was an audio warning describing how far the zombies were away. Obviously the first few chases I failed miserably, fortunately you only drop items you’ve collected when you fail so their isn’t much of a penalty.

Eventually I learnt the game simply expects the player to run 20% faster during these moments in comparison to their current speed. The direction doesn’t matter. This confusion could have easily been avoided by the developers if the audio warning implied the zombies where behind me and I needed to run faster. I wouldn’t have been frustrated from the get go nor had to search the manual out to figure the game out.

Audio Disconnect

I mentioned before the game plays like an interactive radio play. The production values for the story are top notch, think BBC Radio 4 quality. Their a big selling point of the gaming experience as they add to the immersion of the AR experience. However this production quality only concerns the story elements. The in-game audio for non-story elements e.g. picking up items and zombie chases, is generated by the text-to-speech facilitates on the phone. The first time you pick up an item the disconnect between the different audio sources is immediate.  I don’t understand why the developers did this; after playing several missions there isn’t a whole lot of audio phrases they would have needed to record anyways. It just makes the whole experience jarring when the text-to-speech audio kicks in and takes you out of experience. After my first run, the game decided to inform that I should download a better text-to-speech library, but I really didn’t appreciate having to do more tasks to make my experience enjoyable.

Summary

After updating the text-to-speech library and finding the manual I’ve now reached the point I can actually play the game. However for a mobile AR experience I would of expected a much better experience from the get go. If a game is intended to be played outside, and as part of an audio only experience to boot, you need to make an effort to ease the player into the game experience and not expect them to figure it out as they play. This is especially true for a running game where the player is not likely to appreciate having to stop and figure out how the game is played mid-run. The value preposition of the experience radically drops when you interfere with the run.

From what I’ve experienced so far, I don’t imagine I’ll be playing the game for much long. The core game challenge appears to be duration based, the longer you run the more story clips your rewarded with, which isn’t very rewarding. The chase challenges make the game for me but their quite simple and not part of the core experience. I realise their design is ideal for player safety but they could of mixed up the speeds and duration the player has to run to add some variety and perhaps tie them into the runners training objectives.

Overall, the production values of the game are fantastic but their isn’t much of a game to speak of. The running challenges need a lot more work and need to engage the player more during the experience.

What surprised me is that the developer took the opposite direction with their follow-up AR mobile game, The Walk. The challenges (walking based) don’t require any player engagement, you just start a mission and then ignore the game until you walk for the required duration then select the next mission. You can listen to the story clips you’ve collected but its not required.  They also increased the production values for the game’s visual interface, which for an audio AR experience is très bizarre. At least this game started with the  manual.

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