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Play your way to productivity

Is it a running app? Is it a game? Both, it turns out. And pretty good ones too!

Zombies, Run! is a rare example of a really good gamified running app. Or to be more correct, it is an audio-only alternative reality game. If you're not familiar with what an alternate reality game is, it's basically a game that creates a different reality using the power of your imagination. In this case, with the help of a story unfolding as you run after a zombie apocalypse.

After having completed just more than 10 missions of Zombies, Run! I'm eagerly awaiting what waits in the next season. The more I play, the more I want to play. The best of all, I can see my fitness levels improve. But what makes this game so engaging? Why is it that it can get me running when on my own I tend to look for any excuse to postpone or skip my run? This post analyses the game using the Game Thinking framework to look at what exactly makes this game so engaging and fun.

How it all started

It all started with a running club survey to find out why people run. The majority of responses were rather predictable, like wanting to lose weight or getting fit, but one answer stood out with a response of "To survive the zombie apocalypse."

The outcome is an audio only alternative reality game used by 10 million users globally that guides you as you go on special missions to save the world, escaping zombies while uncovering the mystery of how the zombie apocalypse started.

How it works

It's simple to get started. All you have to do is choose your favorite running music, select your mission, start running and immerse yourself in the story actively imagining that you're really being chased by zombies. Imagination and play is the key to enjoying this game. Although, without using your imagination it will still be fun, but it is so much more fun if you are willing to suspend reality for a little while as you go on missions as Runner 5, guided by the team in Abel township's radio tower.

The story is broken into different parts played between listening to your favorite music from your personal playlist. Each season consists out of a number of missions, telling the story of how the first zombie came to be and how to survive the apocalypse.

As you run you pick up supplies which you can later use to build your base in another mini-game within the app. But my favorite part of the game I discovered one day when I completed my daily mission but wanted to continue running. I was pleasantly surprised with the radio mode which, like a radio station, has conversations about random topics at specific points between music.

The core system feedback loop

The core purpose of the game (from my perspective) is to increase personal well being. Typically, people run either to increase their physical health, mental health, or emotional health. You might want to get fit or lose weight, increasing your physical health. Or, you might run as a means to manage your stress levels or anger management tool. Whatever your reason for running, ultimately, the goal is to improve your personal well being.

For the purposes of narrowing down the target user, I narrowed the purpose down as runners who use running to managing stress. From a systems thinking perspective, the primary feedback loop contains the causal relationship between experiencing stress at work and running. When you experience stress you go for a run which reduces the stress until it builds up enough for you to need to find an outlet for it again in a balancing loop that looks something like this.

Core systems diagram showing the main feedback loop

Zombies, Run! is your companion to entertain you while you run, making you feel better and thus increasing your personal well being.

The core learning loop

While the feedback loop communicates the overall systems behavior, the core learning loop is the heart of the system. It consists of the one thing in your product that users can get better at. A concept unique to the Game Thinking framework, it is a pleasurable activity people come back to do over and over again which drives longterm engagement. Without something to get better at over time, people quickly loses interest, which is why adding points and leaderboards so often doesn't work.

The core learning loop is the reason people keep coming back. In the case of Zombies, Run! this activity is running, which taps into an existing intrinsic motivation and enhances the probability of going for a run by making it more fun and less alone. Essentially, it augments and strengthens a healthy habit you already have with the aid of some game mechanics.

Image of the core learning loop

For the casual runner who wants to manage their stress more effectively, the trigger to initiating a run might be something stressful happening at work. They put on their running shoes, pick the next mission, and off they go, being transported to a alternate reality overlapping their current stressful world experience. Their stress levels reduce with the release of endorphins as a result of the workout, and their emotional and mental well being increases as a result of the entertaining story unfolding and having to run away from zombies, allowing them to totally forget about the stress at work.

The missions can be set for different durations and with different difficulty levels, allowing users to increase their fitness as they evolve with the game.

Business objectives

The core business objective is to entertain runners while they work out in an attempt to motivate them enough to upgrade to the paid version, and thus maximize each user's lifetime value.

This is a proven business model that works in the gaming industry. It removes the friction for new users to get started by not asking too much from users too early, aiming to create a product so delightful that users are willing to pay for more.

Zombies, Run primarily makes money from subscriptions to the Abel Runner's Club, with its more than 10 million active subscribers. Secondary to this they also offer merchandise in their shop which allows them to build their brand further and create sense of belonging between users. But who are these 10 million zombie chasers?

Who is the main user?

I can only speak for myself as I don't have access to details on who these 10 million runners are or why they choose to play this game, but my best guess is that it's for anyone looking for a more entertaining way to run. Maybe you're a couch potato that just can't get yourself to run, or maybe you've always been a runner but lost your motivation to run more regularly (like me). Or maybe you want to start running but don't feel fit enough to join a running club.

I narrowed down the personas to what I call the casual runner as professional runners will most likely want a lot more statistics from a running app than what is currently available. It's the ideal companion for any runner who needs a buddy to cheer them on, or simply would like to run while listening to an engaging story.

It is not for everyone, though, particularly those who isn't open to the concept of a zombie apocolyse or using your imagination. Like any good story, it really becomes fun when you become part of it rather than sit on the side simply observing. Having an active imagination will help bring the story to life. The good news is that they recently added Marvel Move which provides an alternative to the zombie theme.

The core user journey

Another concept I find extremely useful from the Game Thinking method is having a high level core user journey which outlines the mastery path for a user. It starts with discovery, followed by onboarding or getting started. Next is the core value proposition in the form of the core learning loop, and finally, the mastery phase is for those who have remained loyal to the game and are now the brand ambassadors.

Let's look at the mastery path with some of the top reasons why it's good or what can be better. For a more comprehensive look at each level, look at the summarized product teardown here.


As the app is unlike any other app it doesn't show up as a recommendation in the app store. It is usually discovered via word-of-mouth. The core job-to-be-done story for this phase is:

WHEN I am looking for a fun way to work out

I WANT to ask my friends what running app to use

SO THAT I don't have to filter through the overwhelming lists on the app store to find one that works for me

As the app is usually discovered by word-of-mouth, it is sought out by users already committed to convert to use it, which means that the majority of people finding it also decides to continue to the next phase, namely onboarding, making this probably one of the most effective channels.


Once a user decides to download the app and try it out, they typically want to get started as quickly as possible, not sure yet whether they will continue using the app or not. The core job-to-be-done story for this phase is:

WHEN I decide to download and try out the app

I WANT to get started as quickly and efficiently as possible

SO THAT I don't have to spend hours learning and customizing yet another app I'm not even sure I will use again

Although the setup is not as intuitive and easy as I would like it to be, with the music player as one of the most essential parts to augment the running experience rather confusing to setup, it is relatively quick and easy to get started.

The seasons and missions are clearly numbered and there are only four settings that can be changed. The defaults are also very suitable for a new runner, which means even less to worry about when getting started.

The only downside is that you have to register as a player which is unlike most freemium games which allows players to get started with the minimum amount of friction. Only when they are committed will they be asked to complete registration. Although it allows for the accasional transactional email to be sent on certain milestones, it doesn't really warrant registering from a user's perspective.

The recent addition of Marvel Move to the game has also added to a rather confusing home screen. It's not obvious where to start and there is only a call-to-action for Marvel Move with the label of "Start your fitness adventure" which might be interpreted by new users as the only entry point into the game.

To make onboarding for a new user easier I would either re-arrange the home screen to be more in line with the mastery path of a new user (see example in the teardown). Alternatively, I would simplify the initial home screen to only show the choice between different adventures - either Zombies, Run!, Marvel Move, or Venture. When a user has selected their adventure and logs in again, the regular screen as it is will make a lot more sense. It will also greatly reduce the cognitive overload and allow the game to add complexity over time.

Another element already mentioned, that could be better, is how the music player is handled. The difference between what is an external player vs the Zombies, Run! music player is not clear (to me in any case!). In the previous version I also struggled with the music setup, as I couldn't select my current music players even though I selected the external player option. Eventually I referred to the website where I discovered they integrate to Shuttle music and once I downloaded and setup a playlist in this music player, I could start my run. I'm also still wondering whether Shuttle is considered an exernal player or the Zombies, Run! internal player.

Another issue with the music player is that the new version doesn't allow you to select a playlist or change it once selected, making it harder than what it needs to be to get started. Simply modifying the text to be more clear would already be very useful. Ideally, though, the user interface should allow for a more seamless integration between music players. How the different music players (Shuttle vs anything else) is handled by the game should be invisible to the user with only an option to select a preferred music player from the apps already installed rather than asking the user to determine whether it is internal or external.

Habit building

Habit building is by far the most important part of any app. This is the core learning loop and the core job-to-be-done story for this phase is:

WHEN I see the improvement in my well being from these regular runs

I WANT to have a variety of missions to complete and adapt the difficulty as I get more fit

SO THAT I can feel like the hero of my life and anticipate the unfolding story, knowing there's always more to come

The main reason why the game is so engaging is the story. Admittedly, I'm not really a zombie fan, but this one is rather entertaining, especially when you discover radio mode after you've completed a mission.

Like any good series, each mission ends leaving you want to come back to know what happens next. What works really well in addition to the captivating story is the ability to change the settings to make your runs longer and more difficult. By default, for example, the zombie chases are off.

Switching zombie chases to on means at random times in your run you will be approached by zombies. If you don't run fast enough you drop some supplies, which motivates you to run faster for interval training. What makes it challenging is that it can happen at any time during your run. It could happen right at the start when you haven't warmed up properly, or it could happen as you climb a steep hill close to the end of your run when you're already tired.

It is a masterful tool to help you get stronger on your run. It's also one of the key parts of the game that really adds to the experience. The unpredictability makes it fun.

After each run you can use some of the supplies you've picked up on your run to build your world, or you can simply look at your stats, broken down into splits for each kilometer (or mile) run (see example below).

Image of a run log

In the previous version there was a monthly stat as well showing how your runs compare to each other for a month, however, the newest version excludes any summary graph, which places the emphasis on entertainment running and less on serious runners.


Mastery is for the loyal users who are also the ambassadors of your brand. I have only completed about 10 missions at the time of writing this post and don't consider myself a master yet. The imaginary core job-to-be-done story for this phase could be:

WHEN I regularly complete seasons and finally feel like the hero of my life

I WANT to be treated like a valuable community member

SO THAT I can feel valued and experience a sense of belonging

Although I'm not sure what the Abel Runner's Club entail and how much sense of community there is, the one aspect I felt is missing on my solo runs was being able to share it with others. I remembered when I first started running and was part of a running club. We went for runs every Saturday as running with other people and getting a medal was what motivated me to come back.

The game is designed for a solo runner. The one thing I would change to make it more rewarding for long term players is to be able to become an organizer for a virtual or local running event where people can run together, or even in a relay.

Finding the fun

So what exactly makes this game fun? And how can we use these insights to apply to productive work? We'll first list the top 5 reasons why the game is fun from a gamer's perspective, and then move onto applying these mechanics to daily productive work.

1. Engaging narrative

The storytelling is masterful. Everyone is really good at something and these game designers knew they weren't strong on aesthetics, so they focused on what they are good at, namely story telling. The story helps put you in the alternative reality, creating an emotional connection between the survivors and you.

It helps that it is rather comical and the exaggerated, controversial, and sometimes crazy sounding stories makes me laugh every time.

2. Adding your own playlist

Categorizing people into the four primary types of players, self-expression and personalization is a key player type, regardless of age, genre, or gender. People enjoy being able to express themselves or make something more personal to them. Being able to mix your own playlist with the story is definitely one of the top reasons why this game is so good.

It bridges the gap between your familiar running music and adds to it by inserting audio clips with an engaging story. This means you keep what you already love, and add something that makes the experience even more entertaining and breaks the monotony of your maybe overplayed playlist.

3. Random zombie chases

The random zombie chases is one of my favorite parts of the game and adds to the engagement. As I'm running away from zombies I literally can't focus or think of anything else. If you're trying to manage your stress, try running away from zombies!

What makes the zombie chases fun is probably the core of a playful experience - randomness. While the rest of the structure of the game is predictable and the same, the zombie chases adds an element of excitement with its randomness.

4. Radio mode

Discovering radio mode after completing a mission was so entertaining for me that I set my run purposefully to a shorter duration so that I could spend more time listening to the rather funny radio mode. What makes this fun is that it's again, like the random zombie chases, unexpected. It's like the end of any Marvel movie that shows a clip after the credits have rolled for those who are true Marveller's (is that a word?).

Another reason why I enjoy radio mode is that while the zombie story can be heavy and serious, radio mode is really funny and much more light than the main story.

5. Configurable

Flow is an essential part of an engaging experience and this game gets it right! Being able to change the duration and difficulty of each mission gives me a sense of control and a feeling of freedom. I don't feel constrained by what the designers want me to do and feel I have choice in how I want to run. Meaningful choices are another core game mechanic that greatly enhances any experience as it increases the level of autonomy of the player

How to use these insights at work?

So now that we've unpacked the main reasons why the game is fun to play, how might you use these same mechanics in a more serious environment? Like the workplace?

1. Turn projects into stories

A project, like a story, has a start, beginning, and end. The story arc, or hero's journey, applies as much to any project as any good TV series. So why not have a producer perspective next time you manage a project? Why not break the big project into interlinked parts with a definite end to each episode, but a clear link to the next (coming next) episode and starting with a look back to the previous episode, always keeping the bigger theme into consideration?

2. Create a team playlist

Consider using music as external trigger to change the overall mood of the team. Ask each team member at the start of the meeting or workshop to write down their favorite happy song as warmer. Then, during the meeting while surprise them by playing their songs while they are perhaps doing something that don't involve talking.

3. Inject randomness

Not only is randomness the essential game mechanic, it is also the key to creative, also called lateral thinking. Whenever the energy in the room feels a bit stale, or thinking seems to go around in circles, inject some randomness.

For example, you might pull a card to force a connection between the object on the card and your situation. Each object on the cards are from the Soup, Soap, Sand game from the Thinker Toys book, thus regardless which card you pull, you can easily list the characteristics. Using any word can sometimes result in people being stuck not able to break down the object into its main features or characteristics.

Another version of this technique is a gamestorming game called Forced Analogy, which aims to force a connection by using the object as an analogy.

4. Reward those who go the extra mile

All games have easter eggs like Marvel movies and discovering radio mode in Zombies, Run!. It stimulates curiosity as players are constantly searching for suprise gifts in the game. Why not use this same mechanic by randomly rewarding those people who go that extra mile at work?

Recognize the people who stay late, put in extra effort, or do more than what's expected from them with a pizza delivered at their door, or a coffee voucher, or simply a handwritten thank you card.

5. Design for flow

One of the goals of every and all work places should be to increase the flow and with that autonomy. Why not handle onboarding in a more game-like manner? Rather than spending a week or longer on onboarding, start small and only roll out the procedures, policies, and responsibility over time.

For example, don't ask employees to read the entire playbook when they start and learn every system. Allow them to start with a lower risk project and incrementally increase their responsibility, adding complexity to the work each time.

Make space for play

Work doesn't have to be boring, serious, or feel like a drag. If we can turn something like exercise into a game, why not work? It makes sense, after all, to motivate your employees and co-workers. People who play well together work well together.

Consider making space for play and play your way to productivity. You'll be pleasantly surprised at the tangible and intangible benefits of play at work.