Run Legends Is a Clever iPhone RPG You Play With AirPods — And Your Legs
And the faster you run, the stronger your attacks are.
Three-dimensional, “spatial” sound is having a moment.
The groundwork was laid by the popularity of 5.1 surround sound systems, but the current obsession with spatial audio sweeping through companies, both small and large, has a certain extra flavor to it. I think I could call it a taste of “futurity,” that just so happens to be arriving when companies like Meta, Apple, Google, and more are considering what role they could play in immersing customers in virtual worlds through augmented and virtual reality, and competing more directly with each other through subscription platforms and storefronts.
Surrounding yourself with sound might be an attempt to stand out, but it isn’t all marketing gimmicks. Unique uses of sound technology designed for movie theaters and expensive speakers are bubbling up in unlikely places. One example is an upcoming iPhone app (tentatively slated for April 24) called Run Legends, created by Talofa Games, which showcases the role immersive sound could play in mobile game design.
How Spatial Audio Works
To understand what exactly Run Legends (and Apple’s spatial audio feature) is trying to do when you load up the app and pop in a pair of AirPods, you have to understand what spatial audio is. Apple is most loudly waving the banner of the term as its branding for Dolby Atmos support, but it exists elsewhere under different titles and facilitated by other technologies, like DTS:X or Sony’s 360 Reality Audio (one of the selling points of the company’s WH-1000XM5s).
Essentially these technologies treat sound sources as three-dimensional objects that can be “placed” in a virtual space during the recording and mixing process so that a streaming service or app can recreate the layout on your headphones or speaker system of choice. That means sound can come from beside you, behind you, and even above, immersing you in a soundscape rather than placing you in a theater in front of it.
Dolby Atmos, the popular and seemingly most widely supported option, was originally designed for theaters but has quickly come to just about every kind of audio device or experience willing to throw its weight behind it. Recent speakers from Sonos, like the Era 300, are specifically designed to support Dolby’s spatial audio solution, with drivers placed in the speaker so that sound can reflect off the walls and ceiling in a room to simulate a theater’s ceiling-mounted speakers. The biggest limiting factor in all of this is the actual Dolby Atmos tracks you use. New songs may be recorded with Atmos in mind, but remasters of older tracks can be hit or miss.
How Run Legends Uses Spatial Audio
Attempting to reproduce spatial sound with a pair of AirPods complicates things further, but still does a fair bit to make listening on the iPhone more compelling. Run Legends' selling point isn’t spatial audio exclusively, but the tech does a lot to elevate a game that’s 50 percent or more driven by sound.
Jenny Xu, the CEO and founder of Talofa Games, connects Run Legends to her history with running. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she ran for MIT before entering the world of game development and has long wanted to create a “heads-up” game that gets people outside and brings them together.
“Everything you need is given to you through the audio and the haptic cues from the phone.”
“What we mean by ‘heads-up game’ is one that you play without needing to rely on your screen,” Xu explains. “Everything you need is given to you through the audio and the haptic cues from the phone.”
Run Legends is the latest permutation of that idea, a mobile, sound-based RPG that puts you in turn-based battles where the speed of your movements determines the moves you do and multiplayer allows you to “run” with friends, regardless of where they are. Running with friends is often the easiest way to make the monotonous task of knocking out a few miles bearable. The logic follows that adding RPG battles could take it to the next level.
Hopping into Run Legends, you select a mission and the gear you’ll be wearing. To start, that's a pair of spiked running shoes, with one attack tied to a faster pace and a healing move tied to a slower one. Your “Runnegade” training missions walk you through the basic setup of the game, learning your pace (you can walk and play if you want) and leading you through the basic setup of the mission, which combines narrative audio transmissions with battle sequences. Leveraging spatial audio, attacks fire off around you, and a mixture of in-game sound effects and dialogue cues signal when to change your pace.
The game tries to strike a balance between showing and telling. Run Legends’ RPG-inspired combat allows for some affordances, of course — characters shout their moves. But other elements like oncoming attacks or your health status are communicated entirely audibly.
“There's kind of like a hierarchy of needs, and the first one that is most foundational is [the] ‘player must understand what's happening,’” says Andy Frank, Talofa Games’ audio director.
The challenge of Run Legends or any immersive experience that relies on sound first is that the complexity of the game shifts to what you can hear, and whether or not you are able to track something depends on how all of the audio is mixed together. Frank was able to use voiceover, sound effects, and music to make that happen, with the extra secret sauce of being able to place sounds in a virtual environment (spatial audio) to help keep things distinct.
The result is battles that are simple in a sense, but somehow more engaging for how the in-game powers and the audio react to your changing movements. It helps to make a task as frequently mindless as running or walking have an interesting texture. It’s not the same as dunking your head in a VR world, but there’s more to it than what you get out of a two-dimensional app and more reasons to go back.
While explaining the basics of Run Legends, Xu and Frank were quick to note to me the game stands on the shoulders of giants when it comes to audio-driven experiences on the iPhone. Zombies, Run!, a running game that tells a more linear zombie narrative through essentially radio plays, is a clear predecessor to Run Legends, though its ambitions landed in a different place entirely. Xu and Frank’s game is surprisingly systems-driven in contrast, with upgradeable items, abilities to keep track of, and progressions systems to manage on top of the core mechanic of moving and listening to play. Part of that is intentional. Frank says they wanted to avoid setting up a “content treadmill” of story where they “have to keep turning out over and over again.” Instead, the story is told on the battlefield, changing with the strategic choices you make. “It's more of a story of action than it is a story of words and betrayal.”
“It's more of a story of action than it is a story of words and betrayal.”
Immersive Sound is Here Now
The insights Talofa Games are discovering could be important. Until true, glasses-based AR is widely available, there’s no reason sound shouldn’t be a canvas that designers use to create experiences and deliver information. Run Legends is just what that looks like as an RPG, but why not follow the same logic with other kinds of apps? Should every notification and interface option be read out loud? What could be controlled with your movements?
Having used multiple pairs of what passes for “smart glasses'' in the 2020s, there’s definitely room to explore. The technology to create the kind of immersive visuals the tech industry is pushing for is years away from being feasible and even more from being affordable. Immersive sound is here now. It’s hampered by hardware and heavy-handed mixes, sure, but it’s currently a lot easier to pull off too. I’m frequently reminded of Google’s “Little Signals” design experiment, which tried to offload the annoyances of notifications and reminders into soothing, moving, and non-descript objects in the world around you. No one’s jumping at the opportunity to turn their text tones into puffs of air, but that core desire to spend less time looking at your screen and more time actually existing? That seems like something people would get behind, and it might be best delivered in spatial audio.