How the maker of Perplex City and Zombies, Run! plans to make you walk.
Adrian Hon does not publicly call himself a futurist. All too often that word is appended to biographies without warrant. For most it could easily be replaced with "wanker" or "quack."
But Adrian Hon is the real deal. His book, The History of the Future in 100 Objects, plots humanity's course out to 2114. It is remarkable for not only its scope, but also its tone. Hon talks about the future as it affects the human condition, and he is hopeful.
These days anyone can publish a book, and you might call Hon a quack if it weren't for his success in gaming, where he puts his futuristic eye toward making money.
For the last 15 years Hon has been in the right place, with the right project, at the right time. He has succeeded quietly, building up his company Six to Start not once, but twice from nearly nothing. And his accomplishments are evidence of his ability to see what is possible in games, not merely what is profitable.
A futurist looks to the future in order to illicit a conversation in the present. An entrepreneur does the same, but uses that conversation to sell a product.
Hon is a futurist and an entrepreneur. And it all began with a trip to California.
Mars, Martha and the Beast
Teenage Adrian Hon had a few unusual passions. First was his membership in the Mars Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to the exploration of the Red Planet. It is known for its gonzo simulated Mars expeditions in the Utah desert and Canadian arctic.
All in all, it's a pretty nifty organization to put on a resume. However, Hon's TED talk on Mars exploration, delivered in California in 2001 when he was just 17, may have held a bit more weight. An application to Cambridge noting that you once spoke alongside Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Martha Stewart at TED11 is bound to stand out among typical teen accomplishments.
"Sergey Brin thought it was funny and introduced me to people as 'The guy from Mars.'"
"I first heard about the TED11 conference way back in 1999 from a Mars Youth mailing list. ... Perhaps, it was thought, we could get someone from the Mars Society to give a talk at the upcoming TED11 conference, which would be about the youth and the elderly?
"Not one to take a back seat in these things, I immediately visited the website. ... Putting on my hat of Confidence (along with the watch of Naivety) I fired off an email ... listing my modest achievements and then demanding to know how I could become a speaker.
"Five weeks on, I received a fat express delivery package ... Inside was a book of CD videos from the TED9 conference ... [and] ... a single letter inviting me to speak there.
"[I was one of the first to arrive and] ... Sergey Brin and Larry Page, co-founders of Google, showed up and I went off to lunch with them ... Cue a hugely enjoyable lunch at a [Subway] where most of the conversation was given over to how we could get to Mars ... Sergey Brin thought it was funny and introduced me to people as 'The guy from Mars.'"
After his speech and his acceptance to Cambridge, Hon would go on to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Oxford. But to hear Hon talk of it now, that's almost completely irrelevant. Academic pursuits were eclipsed by his second passion: an alternate-reality game (or ARG) called The Beast.
Designed by Microsoft to promote Steven Spielberg's film A.I., it was the first of its kind. An obscure credit in the movie's poster, attributed to a fictional person (Jeanine Salla) with a fictional title (sentient machine therapist), led down a rabbit hole that swallowed hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of Hon's young life.
He became the co-moderator of a discussion group, the Cloudmakers, dedicated to solving The Beast. There were multiple mysteries, dozens of subplots, all linked together by fake websites, text messages, pictures and videos. There were even clues scrawled in public restrooms in major U.S. cities. It was an experience that overlapped the real and the virtual world, an experiment in storytelling that crossed boundaries between print media, the internet and film.
"Everyone is very blasé about it now. ... But [in 2001] it literally just hadn't even been done. Someone kind of did it for some horror movie, but this was the first full-blown thing ... It was a great story, it was great world building ... What was really fascinating actually is a lot of the people who played it — the player community wasn't massive, there were 6,000 people on the mailing list which back then was a lot — and all those guys have actually gone on to become game designers. So that game was incredibly influential for almost a generation of people."
Of all the players in the world, Hon was in the deepest. He alone knew where all the virtual bodies were buried, in the end writing a 130-page walkthrough of the game and being invited by Microsoft to the post-game debrief in the U.S. That walkthrough grew into a blog where he began to analyze and theorize about ARGs more generally.
As a result he was better able than anyone else in the world to bring about the next generation of ARG experiences.
At 19 he left Oxford to pursue his dream of making that game.
In 2003 Michael Acton Smith, the founder of a startup game developer called Mind Candy, reached out to Hon. He shared a fascination with ARGs, and wanted more than anything to make them profitable. Employing him first as a consultant, Smith eventually convinced Hon to join him as his first employee. In Smith's London apartment the pair began trying to solve the problem of how to elevate ARGs from flash-in-the-pan promotional pieces to full-fledged commercial games. The solution they settled on was a collectible card game (CCG) called Perplex City.
The game retailed in packs of six cards next to games like Magic: The Gathering. Unlike other CCGs, Perplex City used luxe four-by-six-inch cards with lavish art. You didn't need a stack of them to play. Each of the 256 cards contained a discrete puzzle of some kind — quirky things and brain teasers ranging from obtuse number cyphers to pop-culture trivia.
The front of Perplex City cards were ciphers within puzzles inside mysteries.
When arranged together the 256 cards created maps and messages.
In and of themselves they were interesting, something to ponder with a cup of coffee in the morning in place of a crossword puzzle. Many remain unsolved to this day. But the fiction, indeed the game, went much deeper than the puzzles. And if the expense of a CCG was the stick, then the carrot was a $200,000 cash prize for the game's winner.
Perplex City was a fictional place that existed in a parallel universe, one where society revered mental acuity like ours venerates athletic skill. Citizens of Perplex City would solve puzzles in order to rise into the elite class, and only the very smartest were invited to join the academy in the city center. Mimicking that meritocracy, each game card had a unique code which, along with the puzzle's solution, earned players points on the Perplex City global leader board.
"They would be entertaining on their own, because they've got logic puzzles and mazes and some of them were easy and some of them were hard. But they would weave together because there would be clues on them, like microdots or heat-sensitive ink. You would have to go and use a magnifying glass or a microscope to read the text. Or you have to hold it over a flame and try not to burn it. Or you'd have to hold it outside in the sun, because it was ultraviolet-sensitive ink."
The game had layers of puzzles. Some cards led to websites, phone numbers and email addresses. Players who found these secrets were treated to sophisticated interactions with real-life actors that played out through text messages, phone conversations, emails and even online text adventure games.
Capstone events occurred in London and San Francisco, where some players were invited to meet up for a day of interactive puzzles, while others participated simultaneously through the Perplex City website. Eventually these two groups would discover a mole had infiltrated their group. The conclusion of the events involved a foot chase through the city, and the mole escaping by helicopter.
"I don't think I've had a more stressful experience than that, where literally anything can go wrong. Like the helicopter doesn't work or something. ... You'd probably call it like a cult hit. And it got a fair bit of press. But this is before Facebook, really. Certainly before Facebook really took off really, anyway, or was public. Before Twitter. Before the iPhone. Before the notion of what social media even meant. So it was just harder to do the kind of stuff, the ways in which you would spread something like this today, and so everything just cost a bit more."
What kept players engaged in that time before social media was less the interaction with other players and more the narrative of the game itself, the unfolding mystery of it all. It was a tale of rivalries, abductions, theft and even murder. The deeper players went, the more story they found.
And that narrative would not have been nearly as strong if not for Naomi Alderman.
Like Hon, Alderman came to games after making a dramatic change in her life.
She had earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Oxford, but went on to a life and career somewhat separate from her academic pursuits. She was in Manhattan, working at a law firm, when she watched the World Trade Center towers fall in 2001.
"I realized that there were people in the towers that day who were probably thinking to themselves the same thing that I had been thinking, which was, 'You know, I'll just do this job for another few years and then I'll go and write that novel I always meant to write.' And then that's that. Snap the fingers. That's the end of that. So, I thought, "Well I had better get a move on with writing this novel that I always meant to write." Also I had reached a bit of a cul-de-sac in my life. I didn't really like my religion anymore. I felt I was living in the wrong city. I didn't really like my friends. The man that I was in love with turned out to be gay. My job wasn't right. Just none of it was right. None of it was right. And it's quite liberating when you get to that point, of looking at the whole structure of your life and going, 'All this has to go.' Because anything that you do then is better. Whatever you do is OK. You can do anything. So, I quit my job. I came back to England. I enrolled in a master's in creative writing. I went to work for a charity whilst I was finishing my novel, then this bolt of lightning struck me about Perplex City and so I went to work on that."
After that day Alderman decided to change everything. Up to that point she had felt trapped, and the unspeakable tragedy of that day woke something inside her. She abandoned her social circle, her boyfriend and her apartment and enrolled in a creative writing program. The change suited her, and while she was working on her first novel she discovered Perplex City and joined the staff at Mind Candy. There she met and became good friends with Hon. Together with a small team of collaborators they built Perplex City.
In 2007, two years after it began, Perplex City ended when an amateur archeologist solved the final puzzle and was awarded the cash prize. The game had been profitable for Mind Candy, and the company began production on a sequel. But the founder took the company in a different direction toward social games. It now publishes the popular children's game Moshi Monsters.
Sadly, the interactive online elements that made up Perplex City have been left to wither. The broken stubs of websites lead to 404 pages and 500 errors, while emails and texts go unanswered. You can still find the cards on eBay — but there's no one left to play with.
Hon pressed on. He left Mind Candy and founded his own company called Six to Start with his brother Daniel in 2007. Working from Hon’s apartment, their goal was to create ARGs for advertising purposes while they developed the technology to build the spiritual successor to Perplex City. For a time the contract work paid well. They were busy creating small games for private companies and rock bands, and transmedia experiences for Penguin Publishing and the BBC.
They believed they were on the cusp of something great, but could never quite scrape together enough cash to make their game happen.
Six to Start boomed, and then busted. They laid off almost all of their employees, then moved out of their lavish office and back into Hon’s front room.
"[Our plan] sort of worked and it sort of didn't. It worked in a sense that the games were very original and we won lots of awards, which was great. But it didn't work in a sense that we were still pretty new to running companies, and also the recession really hit around 2008 and so marketing budgets, gaming budgets really dropped. And so there really wasn't a profit margin anymore. So we were making these games, but we weren't really making any money."
Eventually, Hon's brother left the company. Their contracts dwindled in both number and size thanks to the recession. The company was on life support.
Around this time Hon discovered Kickstarter. His first effort, the futurist book A History of the Future in 100 Objects, was modestly successful. And so he and his small team began brainstorming how they could use this new marketplace cum promotional tool to gather enough capital to keep Six to Start running.
After a jog, Hon had an epiphany, and once more turned the course of his life. His next project would inject him and his struggling company into the future of gaming through the App Store.
The kind of ARGs Hon was building had broad appeal in that they created a lot of awareness for a brand or a product. As far as Six to Start's customers were concerned these marketing expenses were just the thing, splashy and flamboyant. And they were successful for those willing to pay for them.
Few made it to the end, and in the case of Perplex City there was only one player who even finished.
But for building a player base, ARGs were shit.
First off, ARGs were incredibly proficient at weeding out players. A website launching the game might get a lot of hits, but as the game progressed more and more players fell behind or lost interest. Few made it to the end, and in the case of Perplex City there was only one player who even finished.
Complicating the problem was their high expense. Handcrafted experiences had to be created for the internet (including websites and videos), other forms of media (like text messages, voicemails and minigames) and for the real world (events, actors and props). For Six to Start it was no longer a game-design problem. Instead, it became a technology problem.
"This has been the Achilles' heel of [ARGs]. ... A lot of the early ones — and a lot of ARGs still now — effectively are done by hand in a sense that someone literally just puts up a website and if they want to go and change the website they go and change the HTML. Which means that a) you're going to be able to play them once. ... It's all sort of human driven. And that's kind of OK for time-limited marketing campaigns. But let's say you want to charge people 10 bucks to play this thing. You're going to have to make it probably personalized, single-player, repeatable. You're going to have to put a lot more automated stuff in, maybe some AI. Suddenly it becomes a technology problem. And actually the technology has never been, historically, that great behind ARGs. There's never been a good scaffold."
In the end, it was a problem they couldn't solve. So Hon found a new problem. If the most exciting part of an ARG was the personal, human interaction to be found in a text message, or a phone call, or an actor shaking his fist at players from the skids of a rented helicopter, how could technology replicate it? And multiply it? And monetize it?
The answer was Zombies, Run!.
There were run trackers available for the iPhone. Hon used some of them in his workouts. But the iPhone was also an entertainment platform, capable of delivering movies and TV, the internet and radio, all in one device. The futurist in Hon saw the possibility in his hand, and the game designer saw a transmedia experience waiting to happen.
Around that time Alderman was taking a beginner’s running class. One of the women taking the class with her said she wanted to learn to run in order to escape the coming zombie hordes. So when Hon brought her the idea for a running game, Alderman knew immediately who players would be running from.
When you put on your headphones and hit the play button on Zombies, Run!, you are simultaneously in the real world and in the game world. Imagine virtual-reality goggles for your ears. Using the iPhone's built-in accelerometer and GPS system, the program knows where you're going and how fast you're running. It creates goals to reach, places to explore, allies to meet and enemies to defeat. And it does it all with inexpensive voice acting. No websites to build and babysit, no actors to keep on staff and no Oculus Rift to create. Hon saw a way for high production costs to give way to high-profit microtransactions.
She had become a wildly successful author since finishing Perplex City. She believed in Hon's crazy idea and agreed to partner.
Based on the success of the Kickstarter for his book, Hon planned a campaign for Zombies, Run!. When it closed in October 2011, it was the highest-grossing Kickstarter game ever, generating over $72,000. Just a few months later Double Fine Adventure came on the scene and pushed that number into the millions, but it was Hon who first saw the service changing, and the futurist in him put his company where it needed to be to succeed.
Since Zombies, Run! on-time release in February 2012, more than 650,000 copies have sold, a third of them at the original $8 price tag.
And the secret sauce came once again from Hon's old friend from Mind Candy. Alderman had become a wildly successful author since finishing Perplex City. She believed in Hon's crazy idea and agreed to partner with Six to Start to write Zombies, Run!.
Hon and his team built the technology and managed the logistics, while Alderman owned the story. Every plot point, every character and every decision asked of the player would be her responsibility.
"In a sense ... I'm constantly aware when I'm writing it ... that if it's bad it's not just that people are going to get pissed off with the show and turn it off. It's that they're going to stop exercising. I have that responsibility. I feel like I ... [am] ... responsible for the health and the exercise patterns of 650,000 people. If my story is shit and they stop wanting to listen to it, then they stop playing, then they stop running. Oh. That is a responsibility."
The game is still selling briskly, and together Alderman and Six to Start are building the next generation of aspirational alternate-reality fitness apps, a niche they themselves invented.
The British government has a problem with people sitting around all day. Its National Health Service spends an awful lot of money paying for diseases brought on by sedentary living. In 2012 it appealed to British game developers to make a fitness app that would encourage people to walk more, with the added benefit of creating jobs in the technology space.
"If you look at ... what it costs to have someone in hospital, because of health problems because of diabetes or whatever, then you're spending hundreds or thousands of pounds per day. If you can make an app that you can provide to people, or sell to people for a few dollars, and it saves a few people from going to hospital, then you're already ahead. So this [was] a really interesting experiment."
Six to Start's proposal, in partnership with Alderman, stole the show.
"[Laughing] I think I probably am the best person qualified in the world to write stories which are supposed to be interleaved with exercise now.
"One thing is to not make the story too massively complicated, because it's hard to take things in whilst you're running, avoiding small dogs and dog poos and trying to decide where to go next and seeing your friend along the way. It's not like you can be relying on people just sitting watching your movie."
Every game has a barrier to entry. Think of a first-person shooter. Without the right hand-eye coordination and the ability to maneuver yourself in 3D space you can't help but find the game uninteresting. The same is true of Zombies, Run!. If you're not a runner, or can't be a runner, then you can't play the game.
The Walk will be designed, quite simply, to appeal to anyone who can walk. It will attempt to put an exciting narrative in between people and a positive physical activity. But it will also be appointment television for your ears, and the only way to binge-watch will be to get off your duff and move around.
"If you look at the research, we don't just want people to play a game for two days or three days and then forget about it, or just tell people to walk 10,000 steps. ... We want people to walk more throughout the day, the week, the month, the year. These are the time spans we're looking at. We don't want people to play this for just one or two days and then just forget about it. That's not going to do anyone any good. ... [We're making] a game that [will] use storytelling at its core to sort of bring people in and sort of motivate people to walk more."
Instead of zombies, The Walk will be a more broadly appealing near-future techno-thriller. And it will also have a killer activity-tracking application attached to it, one Hon says will put products like the Nike Fuel Band and the FitBit to shame. It will have higher artistic production values, more interesting images on the screen. Players will see their progress on hand-drawn map, discover items and people, audio logs, objects and interesting characters.
"You're collecting found materials. You're collecting letters, you're collecting photos. You're collecting scraps of interesting stuff, and recordings. Alongside the kind of main storyline that you're getting. And so we're trying to construct this world — like, I guess, Gone Home or something like that — where we're telling the story through these different things. And if we're good enough storytellers, and we're good enough world builders, you're just going to fall in love with this and you're going to want to find out what happens more. And the way you find out what happens more is just by walking."
And just like all his other games, Hon says this one will come out on time — in early 2014. Just in time for New Year's resolutions.
But The Walk is iterative. It's an improvement, a modification to a product Six to Start has already made. It's paying the bills while Hon works on another project, something that he thinks will be a new kind of transmedia experience. And this time it's a board game.
Nova: First Contact
The dream of going Mars never left Hon. He still believes that somewhere in the exploration and colonization of the Red Planet lies the future of humanity. The subject figures prominently in his book, which speculates about the first private mission to Mars in the first quarter of the 21st century, and what life will be like for the people who live there in the 2050s.
But just like with Perplex City, Zombies, Run! and The Walk, Hon knows that the journey is often more important than the goal.
His new prototype is called Nova: First Contact. It’s about the journey of a small team of people through space. It uses special cards, each with near field communication (NFC) chips embedded in them.
Players assemble a collection of NFC-capable devices, like smartphones and tablets, to serve as their command consoles. Then a set of NFC cards is distributed among the players. When the mission starts, players will use the cards to control the ship, to prepare its defenses and arm its weapons, to keep life support and engines running. As they travel through space the problems will change, as will the cards, and this small group of friends and acquaintances will be turned into a tight-knit team — a team with its own story of transformation.
Like so many things Hon has brought to life, Nova will be an experience unlike any that have existed before. But to the futurist in Hon, it's merely a logical conclusion, the intersection of human interaction with emerging technology. Hon is not inventing something, he's just once again the first person lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the future.
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan
Video and Audio: Six To Start and Naomi Alderman
Images: Mind Candy, Six To Start and Naomi Alderman