It’s been five years since Dumb Ways to Die hit the internet, but those little beans are still finding new ways of ending up dead. Since the original video, Dumb ventured into the mobile gaming scene and now hopes to give VR a shot. All of this has kept the brand alive long enough that the song has even been used to make fun of PUBG. To get an insight into why Dumb has lasted longer than most viral video fads would allow, I had a talk with the CEO of Dumb.
… Sorry, hold on, is CEO of Dumb your official title?
Well, let me get you a card! [Leah proceeds to hand me her card.]
… Oh my god, it is! IT’S REAL!
My friends thought my LinkedIn account had been hacked when I updated it last!
So, you’re the CEO of Dumb, but what is it that you did over at Dumb?
Well, I’m an executive at Metro trains, and I head up corporate relations and business development. One of my responsibilities at Metro has been marketing, and that’s where all of this started. It was a marketing campaign around rail safety, so it started there, we put the campaign out there, and then this thing took on a life of its own! We fuelled it, and it was largely designed to keep the safety message alive. Now, it takes management and some oversight, so a fair chunk of my time and certainly my team is dedicated to Dumb Ways to Die.
So, it started as a safety message, and then it blew up.
It still is a safety message. Pretty much everything we do, there’s an underlying subtlety of safety. If you asked most people, I think they’d know it’s about safety.
Over the years, do you think the brand still has safety at its heart?
Absolutely, and that’s a real value for us. We see ourselves as the safety champions of everything. We have some fun with it, because it has to be entertaining, you can’t be too serious about this stuff. We have ‘be safe around talk like a pirate day’ and ‘be safe around Halloween’ or ‘be safe around St Patrick’s day’ and every other day that might be out there.
Has it been the same team throughout the whole journey?
No, it hasn’t. I’m the only one who has been there from the start. There’s been a few others that have come and gone through it, but I think with my oversight of it, the brand has stayed the same. Dean has been here for quite a few years, Jasmine is only one year in.
The start of all this was that you wanted a safety message that used humour because the other methods weren’t working?
We didn’t actually specify humour, but we didn’t want people to feel scared. So, fear was out, and blood and gore wasn’t what we were about. As long as you follow some pretty basic rules, the train network is very safe, so we didn’t want something, particularly who we were targeting, to frighten them away.
Was it mainly because the message wasn’t getting through that you avoided fear or was it more about doing something different?
More the latter. We knew we needed to do something different than what we were doing instead of the ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ style posters. The brief was “here’s our problem, here’s what we don’t want, give us some options.” We wanted to see something different.
How many options did you initially receive?
The way these marketing rounds tend to work is you’ll get three and they give you their preferred. We’d been through a couple of rounds of that and nothing was really nailing it. Then they rang my marketing manager, Chloe, as said, “Just a heads up before you come in…” – you know how they try to warm you up – “We’ve come up with a song.” and Chloe said, “Okay, I’m hanging up now,” and they said, “No, no, hang on a second.”
And then you heard the song and knew that was it?
Pretty much. We saw some initial sketches, and the lyrics were pretty much there. Then it was just a matter of how we bring those sketches of these beans to life, so that’s where we worked with Julian Frost, who did the animation for us. A lot of the work came down to keeping it really simple but giving them quirky little subtleties.
Like the guy who’s on fire always has fire on his head
Exactly. We’d worked through it and eventually sat down with everyone to watch it through, and it was pretty close to being done. We’re sitting there, everyone’s looking at the screen, looking at me, back to the screen, and I watched it through three times in a row. Then I said, “Now, about the rail characters…” and you could see the fear wash over them, “When you go up against a train, you don’t come out with bandages and band-aids. We need to get more violent with them. I want to slice them, dice them, run a train track over them.” and it was music to their ears, but it was exactly the right thing to do. We were trying to demonstrate that the dumbest ways to die are the train related ones, so we couldn’t go soft with that.
So, the music video comes out, but at what point did you decide to pursue making a video game?
It was only days, within the week. It leaked out on a Friday in The Age newspaper, we were madly watching it all weekend going berserk. Early next week, we were thinking about how to keep it going and where to take it next. With Julian’s experience as a game developer as well as his animation, it was just a very logical next step.
What prompted you to make a game, though? It’s not often you see a viral video capitalise on its success by making a video game.
Well, in our first game, it wasn’t about generating revenue to keep it going. There was no advertising in it, but pretty soon we realised that if we embedded some advertising in it, the game could pay for itself, we could start updating it, make another game, do some other things.
How many Dumb games are there now?
There’s two at the moment, and there are four junior apps. They’re the ones that are more age-appropriate with no death.
Why did you decide to pursue VR?
We’ve always been early adopters of all sorts of things. We’ve got an Apple TV game, and a few other things. We always try to get on-board with those things, and sometimes it’s just about partners you’re working with and what their skills are. Playside have done some good things in VR/AR, so working with them, they’ve remade the second game for us, so we started talking to them about this and other potential pursuits.
But… Why VR? Because if you’re trying to get a message out there, not huge number of people won’t have VR headsets at home.
Yeah that’s right, and it’s a very real concern. Who knows whether this will end up as a full-blown game, but it’s a thing of the moment. It’s helped us at PAX to attract a lot of attention, and we are serious about exploring it though, don’t get me wrong. The question is really whether it’s VR or AR, but we think the game will translate well into AR. You’re right, though, is that it’s one of the challenges of VR generally is the accessibility and the headset volumes at set prices.
Back in Perth, we’ve just seen Constable Care open an AR road safety school. Do you see Dumb Ways to Die going down that road?
Quite possibly. We’re looking at VR beyond gaming, and we’re already piloting it to train drivers. So, I think we can absolutely see the potential in VR, it’s just a matter of if it’s here yet.
How do you take Dumb Ways to Die and translate it into a VR experience?
The brand is at the forefront of all these things, and it is a challenge to take these 2D characters and put them into a 3D world. At the same time, we’re also looking at webisodes, so do these beings speak? Do they have some kind of mumbling language? How else do they interact? What is their world like? So, the VR experience has been one element of a much larger exploration into getting to know these guys on a deeper level.
What’s your level of gaming expertise?
It’s right down there at about 0.5 out of 10. My work has taken me down that road, but it’s certainly not a natural place for me. That said, I don’t think you need to be an expert so long as you work with experts. That’s the thing for us; I know what works for our brand, I know what works as fun entertainment, and I just need to know enough to make the right decisions. I do what I have to do to know enough of that, but I am very happy to work with partners who are the experts.
You’ve played the game now. Was it your first VR experience?
Well, it’s the first VR gaming experience, but I’ve used VR in Metro before. This is my first VR gaming experience, though.
Do you think it will get the message through?
I think so. We’ve been talking to people who’ve been playing the game today and teasing some of that out. That’s the beauty of bringing something like this to PAX. There are people who know gaming and VR pretty well, so we’re exploring with those that are at the peak of gamers, I suppose. Find out if they think it’s fun, if they like it and what else they’re taking away from the game. For me, I think VR really gives the player a great deal of control. With the mobile apps we do, you have to do a certain mechanic to keep the little beans alive. In VR, you’re literally putting the game in the hands of the player. You keep the little beans safe, but plenty of people have fun doing really dumb stuff with them too. I think it’s still getting the message through, because it’s still very dumb stuff (and it’s very obviously dumb) that ends up killing them.
Do you think that’s why it’s lasted this long? It’s such a simple idea of “it’s dumb”, so just asking, “What’s dumb in VR?”
Absolutely, and there’s so much dumb material out there. I think we’ve got so much material out there that the sky’s the limit!
If you’re taking it further and further, how far do you think it can go?
So long as we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we could keep going for 5, 10 years, maybe more! It’s big in Australia, but it’s actually bigger in the US and other overseas countries. I was in a plane in the US going from Toronto to Denver or somewhere, and there was a girl sitting next to me playing Dumb Ways to Die. And she was from India. So, it is the world over, and it’s extraordinary. We’ve had over 6.3 billion games played. To be fair, that’s games played, so not that many downloads. I think it’s about 285 million or so.
Only 285 million.
Yeah, it’s been a very significant thing, and we’re very proud of it. We’re very aware that new games are coming along each day, though, so we’re always trying to keep it fresh and interesting. We do what we do, and we enjoy it, but we feel a real responsibility to keep it moving.
Here are some other places where you can show your support for Dumb Ways to Die:
Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/developer?id=Metro%20Trains