Six to Start, the developers of hit fitness game Zombies, Run! announced the next game in its series of gameified exercise adventures. The studio's next game is Marvel Move, a comic book adventure-themed title that pairs running workout programs with audio adventures starring the company's famous comic book characters. Six to Start says the game will be out in the summer of 2023.
Marvel Move will launch in tandem with a new app from Six to Start called ZRX, which will contain both the Marvel-themed exercise game and future seasons of Zombies, Run!. Like the current version of Zombies, Run! (which initially launched as a paid application), access to Marvel Move will require a monthly subscription. A spokesperson for Six to Start declined to share specifics on the cost of the subscription at this time.
It's a major step forward for the company behind Zombies, Run!, which first released to commercial and critical success all the way back in 2012. In the eleven years since, the company has released fitness apps like The Walk and Dungeon Runner, but none had quite the impact of the original post-apocalyptic game.
That isn't to say the idea of combining game design and exercise apps hasn't remained popular. Advancements in motion controllers have fueled Ubisoft's Just Dance franchise, and Nintendo released Ring Fit Adventure in late 2019. The genre also received a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime boost in interest during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sales of these games and other app-driven exercise equipment spiked (though some like Peloton have come crashing down hard in the years after).
Six to Start CEO and co-founder Adrian Hon has watched the rest of the tech world try and crack the intersection of video games and exercise, and has plenty of thoughts about how a decade's worth of lessons have gone into Marvel Move. In a chat last week, he said that the genre is benefitting from marginal improvements to technology like GPS and Bluetooth audio—and that it's still waiting for another tech advancement as powerful as adding GPS software to smartphones.
Marvel Move improves what went right for Zombies, Run!
Hon's perspective on how Six to Start has grown its exercise-driven business is fascinating. When the company broke ahead of the pack in 2012, it was able to take advantage of the fact that high-quality GPS tracking on smartphones was a brand new innovative feature. By pairing that tracking tech with high-quality fictional audio (author Naomi Alderman penned the main story, and science fiction authors like Margaret Atwood and Andrea Phillips contributed some tales), the company was able to do more with its central zombie-themed gimmick.
But according to Hon, the last ten years haven't provided any major technological advancements for exercise apps that are as impressive as the original smartphone. "We tried everything," he said in reflection. "We tried Siri, we tried Apple Watch [games], and it's still not quite there...in terms of cost-benefit."
"It's really hard to make a good game that lives on Apple Watch...trying to combine a game, plus fitness app, plus good audio on a wearable device—no one's done it."
The advances that fuel Marvel Move are instead in the form of better-quality audio. Hon pointed to two major advancements—one tech-driven and one cultural—that are influencing the new game. Potential Marvel Move players are likely using better headsets, and they're already listening to long-form audio in the form of podcasts.
"It's worth it for us to produce really high quality audio now," Hon said. "It lets us tell better stories—which maybe sounds a little bit weird—but now we can be sure people can hear [sound effects] better."
High-quality audio however, is still an expensive affair. That's not just because equipment and talented engineers come at a high price, it's because high-quality audio takes a long time produce. "I'm a little bit jealous of game productions that don't have so much recorded audio, because they end up being so much faster to iterate on," Hon joked. "If you want to change a line in audio, you're going to go have to have a conversation with the production team."
Thor, the X-Men, and Daredevil are among Marvel Move's first characters
To manage those production challenges, Six to Start made major changes to how it structures content in Marvel Move. Zombies, Run! began life with a linear story that would grow over regularly released seasons. But that meant all new content had a major bottleneck, because all of the team's effort had to go into producing one continuous story.
Hon said that the team took inspiration from Zombies, Run!'s 5K training program—an alternate gameplay mode that told a different kind of story, and could be self-contained in the format of training players to run a 5K.
In Marvel Move, the game's story content is divided among five adventures. Norse gods Thor and Loki take point in the app's 5K training program, while other stories feature characters like the X-Men, The Hulk, Daredevil, and the magical duo of Doctor Strange and the Scarlet Witch. The stories are self-contained, which helps manage the scope of audio production, and gives Six to Start a chance to play with different narrative genres.
(Hon did say with a sheepish grin that he would "love" to do an adventure that crosses over these characters in the fashion of classic Marvel crossover events like Secret Wars, Civil War, or the Infinity Saga.)
But none of this will work, Hon said, if the stories themselves aren't interesting and seamlessly integrated into the running gameplay. "The more story, the more audio [you have], the more you need to make sure it's actually good," he commented, noting that other fitness exercise apps following in the footsteps of Zombies, Run! often have "bad" stories with "not great" acting. Improvements in podcasting and game storytelling mean players have high expectations, and it's up to developers like Six to Start to meet them.
"I think if we tried to do this 10 years ago it would be like 'that seems really weird,' and would people really get it if Thor says 'okay, now you have to go and do this thing'?" Hon continued. "Now we have a few tricks up our sleeve on how to do that narratively speaking."
As someone who built an exercise routine of of Zombies, Run!, it's exciting to see Six to Start jump back into the fray with a new app and new world of stories. It'll also be worth watching if their success lets another studio with strong audio storytelling chops take up the baton and contribute to the genre.