Three Stages of Playing Zynga’s “Running with Friends”

Stage One: No, thank you.

My first thought when learning about the new iOS game “Running with Friends” from Zynga:

"Another endless running game, really?"

Running games on mobile are popular; Canabalt, Temple Run, Mirror’s Edge are great examples of the genre (we even prototyped one ourselves in 2011). The basic premise of an endless running game is simple. You run sideways or forward continuously, and avoid obstacles by tapping and swiping to jump and turn. The game is over when you run into an obstacle, and it gradually gets harder with increasing speed. The goal is to survive as long as possible and collect as many shiny objects as possible. A lots of games have come out on mobile platforms to capture the value from this popular genre. Most add minor tweaks to the core gameplay with new skins on top. I rarely find them better than the originals.

Stage Two: Why can’t I stop playing?

But Running with Friends had been prominently featured on the App Store and I couldn’t resist giving it a try. (Yes, the marketing power of an App Store feature)

I was hooked. What it does really well is creating a sense of in-the-moment accomplishment. The narrow escapes. You’re still tapping to jump over various things and swiping to turn and move, but the arrangement and placement of obstacles (especially the moving ones) and collectibles allows you to FEEL more skillful at the game. You might think you were simply moving left to collect more stars, but you also just dodged an incoming motorcycle right before it hit you.

Avoiding obstacles is only the start. Once I discovered that destroying obstacles and jumping on bulls gives you more stars, the game got even more interesting. Now I’m no longer avoiding other runners and bulls, I’m looking for them to take them down! A crate is in my way? Now I have to decide if avoiding it and collecting stars in the lane to my left will give me more stars, or if I’d get more stars by sliding into it.

Then there are the combos where the clever arrangement of moving bulls allows me to jump from one to the other and create a combo. Again, a great sense of accomplishment when I pull one off. The items are where you spend your virtual coins (gems). Running with Friends is a Free-2-play game and the coin economy is key to monetization. Monetization discussion aside, the way items work in the game actually provides a huge incentive for players to try different strategies in the game - the items monetizes the game while keeping the game fresh.

Of course being a “with friends” game, there’s the social aspect of competing with others, too. The part I like the most is seeing other players’ “ghost avatars” when you are running - giving the game a real sense of competition in an otherwise pretty solitary experience.

Stage Three: Ok I am done with this.

After two weeks of daily Running with Friends, I lost interest. I opened up the game this morning, finished the remaining rounds that were waiting for me, and decided to uninstall the game, which was surprising to me (and my wife) since I had been playing it quite a bit.

It’s still a fun game to play, but it stopped offering anything new or interesting to me. I felt like I’d seen 90% of the game, and getting a higher score is never motivating enough for me to keep playing a game. Playing it started to feel repetitive, like jogging but without the physical and mental benefits.

Here lies a problem I find in current endless running games - sooner or later they all run out of steam. Could an endless running game, especially one that focuses on playing with others, be more like Chess, with simple rules but expansive moves? I’m sure someone will come up with one that does that. But until then, I am hanging up my sneakers.