Review: The virtual world of Zwift – Just a game, or will it change the way we train?

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It’s been nearly a year since Zwift first launched as an invite-only beta and since then its popularity has grown at an impressive rate. It seemed as if every second ride on Strava over the Australian winter was recorded with Zwift, with more and more riders turning to the emerging platform to keep their indoor training interesting.

Part training tool, part massively multiplayer online game and part social network, Zwift claims to transform ergo sessions from a dull grind into an enjoyable and rewarding experience, allowing cyclists to ride with and against others in a virtual environment.

While Zwift is still in beta, the team behind it has had 11 months to iron out any major kinks so we thought it was time we put it to the test.

What you need

In order to get the most immersive Zwift experience you’ll need to use an electronically-controlled stationary trainer. These devices allow proprietary or third-party software (in this case Zwift) to control the resistance of the trainer, thereby simulating gradient changes and other environmental factors such as wind or changing road surfaces (e.g. cobblestones).

The Zwift software can be downloaded for free (at the moment) for either Mac or PC. In order for your computer to communicate with your trainer, you’ll need an ANT+ USB key, which costs somewhere in the vicinity of $50.

This ANT+ key also allows you to connect your computer and Zwift to other compatible devices, such as cadence sensors, heartrate monitors and powermeters.

paireddevices

While using an electronically-controlled stationary trainer is the ideal situation, it’s also the most expensive, with trainers like the Wahoo Kickr costing well over $1,000. A more reasonable option is to use a regular stationary trainer and a powermeter (at the expense of automatic resistance control), or even just a trainer and a speed sensor.

We were fortunate enough to have a Wahoo Kickr electronically-controlled trainer to use during the review period.

Setting up

Once you have all the equipment, you’ll need to install Zwift and create an account. From there it’s a case of customising your rider avatar. You’ll have just one jersey and one bike to choose from initially, but as you spend more time with Zwift and ‘level up’ your avatar, you’ll unlock more.

The avatar customisation process.
The avatar customisation process.

With your rider created you’re then prompted to pair Zwift with any ANT+ devices you might have and input some basic personal data, including weight (to calculate power-to-weight ratios), age, gender and your nationality.

At that point you’re ready to play.

’Playing’ Zwift

You have two options when starting a ride: “Just Ride”, which will get you started right away, or joining a rider that’s currently logged on — perfect for ‘riding with’ a friend or acquaintance.

At the time of writing there are just two courses available to riders, with only one available at any given time. For a short window during the Road World Championships you’ll be dropped into a virtual version of the road race circuit in Richmond, USA. If you’re interested to learn how the Zwift team recreated the course in-game, this post from DC Rainmaker is worth a read.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 4.07.59 PM

Outside the Road World Championships, you’ll be riding the ‘Watopia’ course, a 9km loop which features plenty of twists and turns, some descending and a couple climbs, including a 900m-long ascent at 5% (see image below).

When the game starts up your rider avatar is standing by the roadside waiting for your input. Start pedalling and your avatar will do the same. As you make your way around the course, and assuming you’re using an electronically-controlled trainer, the trainer’s resistance will change to simulate changes in the gradient.

As you ride you’ll pass (and be passed by) fellow human riders (solid-looking avatars with a rider name) and by AI riders (ethereal blue figures; see image below). Jump in the slipstream of either type of rider and you’ll feel the drafting effect as an easing in the resistance.

Riding the Watopia KOM with a handful of AI riders around me.
Riding the Watopia KOM with a handful of AI riders around me.

The Watopia course features one King of the Mountain (KOM) segment (the 900m climb mentioned above) and one sprint point, while the Richmond Worlds course has two KOMs and two sprints. (Each course can be ridden in the opposite direction too, opening up a range of other segments).

Whenever you start one of these segments you’ll see a comparison pop-up on screen, showing how your effort compares to the current KOM or sprint classification leader. These are people that have the best time on the sector in question, of all the players logged in at that particular time and that have completed that effort during the current session. They are indicated with a special colour in the player list on the right of the screen (see KOM leader K. Andrews in the image below) and their avatar can be spotted wearing a special jersey.

In addition to the KOM and sprint classifications there’s also a jersey and leaderboard for the fastest time for a whole lap of the course (see image below).

Safe to say I wasn't challenging for the best time on the Richmond course.
Safe to say I wasn’t challenging for the best time on the Richmond course.

Depending on who’s online — and your own ability, of course — a jersey might or might not be within your grasp. I had several attempts at both the sprint and KOM jerseys on the Watopia course and the closest I came was third in the former.

For those of us with a competitive streak (i.e. most of us) the possibility of nabbing a jersey is great motivation to attack the various sectors around the course. In fact, I ended up riding harder than I’d planned on just about every Zwift session, unable to resist the urge to attack “just one more” KOM.

My best effort on the KOM, without using any power-ups. As you can see from the leaderboard on the left, I was a long way off the KOM jersey.
My best effort on the KOM, without using any power-ups. As you can see from the leaderboard on the left, I was a long way off the KOM jersey.

In addition to the KOM, sprint and overall jerseys, there are other ways Zwift will do its best to keep your attention and ensure your time with the game feels like much more than just a trainer session.

Gamifying the ergo session

As can be seen in the following screenshot, Zwift shows a considerable amount of information on screen in addition to your avatar in the game environment:

Tackling the cobbled KOM on the Richmond Road Worlds course.
Tackling the cobbled KOM on the Richmond Road Worlds course.

All of the regular ride data is there — speed, power, heartrate, cadence, distance covered etc. — as too is your location on the course, the gradient of the section of road you’re on and an orange experience points bar, showing your progress towards the next level.

Zwift does a terrific job of drip-feeding you small rewards as you ride around. For every kilometre you cover you’re given 20 points. Moving up to the next level will unlock more jerseys and other gear which you can use to deck out your avatar.

Note the "+20XP" pop-up at the top of the screen. You get this for every kilometre you complete. The timer on screen that reads 29:58 shows time it took me to complete the Watopia sprint point, the leaderboard for which can be seen to the left.
Note the “+20XP” pop-up at the top of the screen. You get this for every kilometre you complete. The timer on screen that reads 29:58 shows the time it took me to complete the Watopia sprint point, the leaderboard for which can be seen to the left.

You’ll also unlock the occasional achievement. These are designed to provide a sense of satisfaction, beyond the satisfaction of the riding itself, and become unlocked when you achieve certain feats, such as riding a set distance in one session.

whoa nelly

At the start of each lap of the course you’ll also be given a new power-up which gives you a superhuman boost for a brief time. These include reducing your weight for 15 seconds (making it easier to climb), increasing the draft provided by riders you are slipstreaming, or simply giving you more rider points, which go towards your level.

Here I am using the Featherweight power-up on a climb, which reduces my weight for 15 seconds.
Here I am using the Featherweight power-up on a climb, which reduces my weight for 15 seconds.

And then there are the other little motivators that add to the Zwift experience, like the indicator that pops up on screen when you get within reach of another rider’s slipstream. It’s surprising how motivating a simple “Close the Gap” graphic can be.

"Close the gap!"
“Close the gap!”

The companion app

The Zwift smartphone app (for iOS and Android) ads a handful of extra features to augment the gaming experience. You can use the app to get your avatar to flick their elbow (to call a following rider through for a turn), wave to fellow riders, change your view, or to use your smartphone as a second screen for your ride data.

You can also use the app to send out group messages to those around you, or to hand out Zwift’s equivalent of kudos: a “Ride On” with a giant thumbs-up that becomes visible on the recipient’s screen.

Finishing your ride

Once you’ve finished your ride and your avatar has come to a stop by the roadside, you’re presented with a summary screen. Here you’ll find your best five-second, one-minute, five-minute and 20-minute power outputs for the ride, and how they compare to your best overall. You’ll get all the other data you’d expect from the ride as well, including your power and heartrate distribution.

The post-ride summary screen.
The post-ride summary screen.

If you’ve got a Strava account connected to your Zwift account (which can be set up via the Zwift website), you can then upload your activity direct to Strava. If you’ve ridden the Richmond course your Strava data will make it seem like you’ve actually ridden in Richmond. If you’ve ridden the Watopia course, you will appear to have ridden on the tiny island of Teanu in the Solomon Islands.

The benefit of being able to upload Zwift rides to Strava is that you’ve got all the same analysis tools and segments functionality you’d have with a regular ride. The downside is the potential for Zwift times to be faster than real-world efforts (in the case of Richmond) due to discrepancies in power readings and the use of power-ups. Thankfully, Strava designates Zwift-recorded rides as “Virtual rides” and the use of “Virtual Segments” should help appease anyone that’s worried about losing their real-world Strava KOMs to people riding the course via Zwift.

Reflecting on the experience

In my limited time with Zwift thus far, I’ve been thoroughly impressed by the experience. I’ve found myself enjoying time on the stationary trainer much more than I did in the past and the virtual kilometres tend to pass by much quicker than I’d expected them too.

As someone who enjoys playing the odd videogame, I found myself being motivated by Zwift’s gamification of the riding experience. Every achievement unlock did feel like something of an achievement and I enjoyed watching the progress bar fill up as I collected points on my way to the next level.

At times, away from Zwift, I’d find myself thinking that I should jump online and “gain a level or two” — in my mind, the appeal of the cycling was almost secondary to the gaming aspect. And then, when I logged in, I’d find myself riding much harder than I had anticipated doing, attacking the KOMs, trying for the sprint points, always trying to hold the wheel in front.

I feel like I barely scratched the surface of the social features and I didn’t get the opportunity to really ‘ride with’ anyone, famous (see below) or otherwise. I also found it reasonably challenging to maintain any sort of cohesive group with the riders I naturally encountered along the way. You do notice the effect of drafting but it seems somewhat challenging to maintain formation when you can’t control your left-and-right position on the road — the game automatically moves your avatar to the side if it’s about to hit another rider.

I would have loved the option to ride more than two different courses (even with the ability to turn around). Zwift has said that, because the social aspect of the game is so important, the company is wary of “separating users too much between many courses”. Hopefully as the user base increases in size, Zwift will be able to offer many different courses without losing the game’s community vibe, as first-person shooter videogames have managed to do, for example, with their many multiplayer maps.

I had a few technical issues to contend with throughout the review period, mostly to do with getting the Kickr to talk to Zwift via ANT+, but thankfully Zwift has a useful support section to help troubleshoot such issues.

The biggest issue I encountered with Zwift, though, was a delay between gradient changes on screen and the resistance being provided by the Kickr. Seemingly every time my avatar would hit the start of a climb and the gradient would increase on screen, it would take up to five seconds to ‘feel’ that gradient change through the pedals. This had the effect of breaking the game’s immersion to some extent. It’s an issue Zwift is aware of and working to change.

Visually, the game is impressive with the Watopia course being particularly beautiful. The Richmond course feels a little sterile and cold at times, likely because the city is disconcertingly free of any life or movement beyond the odd cyclist quietly tearing up the Worlds course.

There's not much life on the streets of Richmond.
There’s not much life on the streets of Richmond.

In closing

Spending time on the trainer can be a mind-numbingly boring experience and one that nearly all cyclists will avoid if they can. There’s no doubt Zwift makes that experience more enjoyable and something that it’s even possible to look forward to.

Of course, very few cyclists will find Zwift replacing their regular, outdoor rides, but it can only be a good thing having an immersive, indoor cycling experience to call on when the weather is horrible outside.

While Zwift already has a compelling product on offer, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for the California- and London-based company. The addition of further courses will only be a good thing and Zwift has indicated that, this summer, it will be rolling out structured workouts in what is likely to be a play for the space currently dominated by the likes of The Sufferfest and TrainerRoad.

It’s not clear exactly when Zwift’s beta period will end and when users will have to start paying but, when it does, it will also be interesting to see what impact that has on the existing Zwift community and the platform’s growth. For the moment though, it’s a more-than-compelling product and one that I’m looking forward to spending more time with.

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