Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review: Zwift

Last week the realization kicked in -- the days are getting shorter and so are my week night rides.  While I've ridden in the dark before, unless it's during a low traffic period, I try to avoid riding on county roads in the dark.  So I figured it would be a good time to start going over some indoor options.  The first of these I tried out was Zwift.

So what is Zwift?  In a nutshell, think World of Warcraft meets cycling.  Your bike is on a trainer, hooked up to a computer.  You ride your bike, and on the screen you are riding in a virtual world with many other people.  Sound simple?

Zwift Requirements
  • A computer from the last few years.  Can be a Windows PC or a Mac.  If it's a desktop you might be able to beef up an older system with a new video card.
  • ANT+ Connectivity.  For most people this means buying an ANT+ USB2 stick.  Most will work (except the older Garmin USB1 stick).
  • A way to get power, using one of the following:
    • A supported smart trainer.
    • A power meter.
    • An ANT+ speed/cadence sensor coupled with a supported "dumb" trainer. 
  • A heart rate monitor is not a requirement but it is definitely nice to have!

For my testing rig I used both a Windows laptop and a Windows desktop.  I had a Suunto Movestick Mini for ANT+ USB.  I have a Wahoo SC (supports dual bluetooth & ANT+) coupled with a Kurt Kinetic Rock'n'Roll trainer (supported by Zwift).  I also have a Wahoo TICKR heart rate monitor that I pair. I've been using my titanium road bike (aka the Titan) equipped with a blue Tacx trainer tire. Last but not least a 42" plasma TV and a TV dinner tray to hold my mouse, keyboard and other amenities.

Setting Up
In order to get up and running, first you will need an account.  After answering the usual questions (name, email, password), Zwift gets a little personal.  Some of this info is needed to put together your avatar correctly (gender, height) and it factors your weight in the game.  Don't worry, it's not going to make your avatar obese... mine definitely doesn't have the kegger that my body does in real life!  Last but not least, it asks you metric or imperial so it knows what you want information displayed in.  I always get so torn here; I prefer my distance in kilometers and my weight in pounds.

The next screen you see brings you into a pairing configuration.  This is where you set up your gear.  This was pretty painless to do.  If you are trying this out and can't see your gadget, remember many of them need to be "woken" up.  For a speed sensor, simply passing the magnet over the sensor will do.

Once you wake them up, you are able to search for them.  You only have to search for them the first time time; the next time around it will see them the moment they wake up.  After connecting my heart rate monitor, I connected my speed/cadence sensor.  Because I was using a speed/cadence sensor my next step was to select a trainer.  I quickly found the "Kurt Kinetic" setting and I was ready to go!

One last thing before hitting the course.... a challenge!  Currently Zwift has two long-term challenges.  You can choose either "Climb Mt Everest" for a total of 8848m of elevation or "Ride California" for a total distance of 1283km.  These are distances that are cumulative over all your rides.  In addition to a profound sense of accomplishment, there is also the promise of in-game swag

I've always had a fondness for long distance riding so I went with the California challenge.

Next I was asked if I wanted to just ride or if I wanted to start next to someone.  If you are looking to meet up with a friend this is handy.  But in this case I just wanted to try the whole course, so I selected "Just Ride."

Riding in Zwift

So at this point I appear in the game, at the side of a road.  I hop on my bike and start spinning.  My virtual self starts to mirror my movement and away we go.  Sure enough, I found my speed higher when going uphills and slower when going downhills.

 As you can see from the screen shot, there are a few display components.  Here is a rundown of each:
  • Upper left has a blue box.  This has your wattage in large white font.  Below is your current cadence and heart rate.
  • Between the blue box and white box is a faint circle.  When you have a power-up, this is where it is displayed.
  • The white box contains some other details.  First is your in-game speed, which takes into account the slope you are on and your weight.  Next is the total number of kilometers ridden this session.  Following this is an indicator of how high you've climbed.  Then the duration of your current session.  Below is a bar showing your points to your next unlockable item.
  • On the upper right are two profiles.  One is for your vicinity; it shows the grade of the slope, nearby riders and any nearby finish lines.  The one below is a profile of the entire course, showing you where you are, other riders, sprints, climbs and the lap finish.
  • Taking up most of the right side of the screen, is the riders near you.  This shows you riders in front of you and behind you.  You can see their name, nationality, estimated time from you, the watts/kg they are generating and how much distance they've racked up this session.

One of my first questions was, how do I steer?  Well, there is no steering component.  Your avatar will happily zip between riders and everyone will coexist nicely.  Though I noticed with my Kurt Kinetic R&R that I would lean into turns; it didn't have any in game effect but it made the simulation feel a lot more realistic.

Pausing is pretty easy, just stop riding.  As soon as you coast to a halt the pause screen comes up.  This will allow you to change various settings including things like screen resolution and the way your avatar looks.  Unlockables such as jerseys, bikes and wheels can be enabled here.

Right away you start to notice the other riders.  Some are blue and translucent while others are more solid looking, with kits on and different bikes.  The former are computer controlled riders (or bots) and the latter are real people.  On the right hand side of the screen you can see the names, nationality and power reading (in watts / kg) of a rider.  Everyone's name is in order of what order they are in front/behind you so the order does change often.

A few seconds later and I pass through the start gate of the lap.  A random selector begins flashing through icons until one lands.  Possible selections are:
  • Aero Boost.  Icon resembles an aero helmet with sunglasses.  Makes you more aero for 30 seconds.  I particularly like this one as it doesn't have any requirements.
  • Draft Boost.  Icon resembles a white van.  Reduces your drag reduction by 70% for 30 seconds.  Of course, you need to be drafting for it to work.
  • Lightweight.  Icon resembles a feather.  Lowers your weight by 8 lbs for 15 seconds.  I both like and dislike this particular bonus.  I like that it doesn't have any pre-requisites but I hate that its only 8 lbs.  I could be biased but I wish it was a percentage of weight instead of a static amount.
  • Large Bonus. Icon resembles a large + sign.  Gives you 250 points. (Yes, points covered later).
  • Small Bonus.  Icon resembles a small + sign.  Gives you 10 points.
  • Breakaway Burrito.  Icon resembles... a burrito!  Mmmmm burrito!  This particular power up seems to have been disabled; what it  was supposed to do was make you un-draftable for ten seconds.
So what's up with points?  Well, you get the points by riding or by getting the bonuses.  Riding 1 km nets you 20 points.  Eventually these points get you new levels, where new gear such as jerseys, bikes and wheels are unlocked.  To recap thus far; you are in a massive multiplayer online world, battling it out for points and gear... starting to sound a lot like World of Warcraft isn't it?

While I'm riding I notice a large animation on the screen that appears like two cyclists getting closer or further together, with a sign that says "CLOSE THE GAP".  I realize it's indicating for me to draft the player in front of me.  That's right, the game has drafting.  It doesn't seem to match real life drafting.  In real life, I am a quite the wheel-sucker.  But in game I can't seem to stay behind at a steady rate.

At certain places there are segments. Currently there are three; sprint, KOM and lap.  Sprints are fairly flat and short.  KOM's (aka King of the Mountain) are usually climbing based.  Last but not least, the lap is usually the entirety of the course.  Winning first place gets you a jersey; green, red polka-dot and orange respectively.

With the segments come a few more details.  Your display at the top of the screen expands with a few more details.  The most prominent on is your time and the slot you are competing for.  It also gives details on how far away the finish line is, your estimated time of arrival and your personal record time over the past 30 days.  An additional cell pops up on the left hand side of the screen -- it varies between the current standings of the segment and your personal attempts at the segment.

As I approach the first large incline, I notice my speed slow to a crawl.  I start to mash the pedals down to make more power, which ends up translating as a trickle of speed.  It kind of feels like climbing in Gatineau Park.... I'm going very slowly and straining very hard.  The main difference is gearing and cadence.  In the park, I'm in my climbing gears and trying very hard to keep at least 70 RPM.  In Zwift, I'm in faster gears, and my cadence is higher.  This is the experience from a non-smart trainer point of view.  I'm told on a smart trainer, the resistance can increase or decrease depending on the slope, which provides for a realistic experience.  That being said, from the sweat pouring off me, this feels plenty realistic!

With more game-play come more goodies.  There are achievements unlocked for power challenges, like sprinter apprentice for hitting 800 watts or Sprinter in Training for hitting 900 watts.  One particularly amusing achievement was called "Shut up Legs" for holding 500 watts for ten seconds.  Some are speed based, such as Speed Demon at 50 mph (most speed challenges I saw were for MPH even though I was set for metric).  Other achievements exist for distance challenges, like Marathoner for riding 40km at once.

Zwift Mobile Link
I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the Zwift Mobile Link.  This application is for iOS and Android.  If you aren't logged into Zwift it enables you to sneak a peek at who is riding.  If you are online, it becomes both a handy dashboard, action menu and display of other riders around you.

In the dashboard screen, the very top shows you the current boost available.  By pressing it, you can activate the boost.  The next few lines are details about your current session; your power in watts, your in-game speed, your in-game odometer, elevation climbed this session, your total session duration, current cadence and heart rate.  There is a button to run the lap in reverse as well as a button to stop.  I'm assuming it's pause but I haven't tried it yet.

Swiping the screen leads to another menu filled with mostly emoticons.  You can activate actions like waving or elbow flicking.  There is also a group message selection that allows you to speak in-game to other players.

A third screen can also be accessed showing you which players are nearby.

The only thing I didn't like about the app was the way it relayed chat messages.  They usually cover the top part of the screen.  More than once I've tried to press a boost near a finish line, only to press someone's message instead.  When you do this, the app assumes you want to write a message back and opens up a dialogue.  Trust me, you don't want to hear what I'd have to say after you just screwed up my boost on a sprint segment!!

What I like about Zwift
Looks like Zwift gets the job done!
First and foremost, I like the way Zwift makes a trainer interesting.  One of the most difficult things about using a trainer indoors all winter is to stave off boredom.  Zwift helps keep things fresh.

I also really enjoy the zPower aspect of Zwift.  I can see a good estimate of my power without having to fork out for a power meter.  A much bigger deal for those of us who don't have power meters.

The fact that Zwift is a social game appeals to me.  Or maybe it's the old adage of "Misery loves company."  Either way, I get to interact with a bunch of other bike nerds who are enslaved to a trainer inside.  Some nights there are hundreds of players in Zwift, all riding on the same course I am.  It definitely makes it feel a lot less lonely.

I like the way Zwift engages my competitive nature.  In addition to playing with many others, you will find people who end up being the same, or slightly faster, than your in-game speed.  I find that encourages you to try harder, to be far ahead of these other players, rather than sucking at their wheels.  I am a person that responds well to a rabbit in front of me.

The Strava integration is important to me.  I'm a data nerd and I like to see my stats, they help motivate me.  With Zwift and Strava I can easily monitor my progress.  With Strava feeding calorie counts to my food app, this means that my Zwift sessions will also automatically be taken into account.

It's free.  That's right, not even a penny out of my sporran!  Well, for a limited time anyway.  Free while they're in beta.  I get the feeling they are going to start charging this winter.  As long as their subscription fees are in line with Tour de Giro and TrainerRoad, I don't see that being a problem.

What Zwift Needs Prior to Going Gold:
"Going Gold" in video game parlance means the game is at a point where it is a "Gold Master", when publishers ship the game out to be sold.  In this case, I refer to the point where Zwift starts charging subscription fees (as opposed to the current free beta).

First up to bat is workouts.  Yes, it is really fun to ride around in Zwift.  But riding a trainer all winter is going to require some structured workouts.  Having real workouts is something worth paying a subscription fee for.  This is something the Zwift team says they are working on.

I'd list voice chat as a must-have.  Yes, there are better solutions out there already and they shouldn't develop a voice chat in-house.  But they could at least standardize on a system.  Chatting live is going to be a lot easier on a bicycle than the current system of typing on a keyboard.

Teams!  I want to easily identify others in my local club; I want to see their name highlighted or marked in some way, I want to proudly wear our kit while riding in Zwift.  I want to be able to use the aforementioned items in conjunction with this; I want to be able to do structured workouts in sync with my team; I want to be able to voice chat with just my team.

While the two current courses are great (Watopia and Richmond), I can't see myself paying a fee for just two courses.  If I had a number to choose from, it would make a subscription a no-brainer!

Bluetooth!  While I'm already set up for ANT+, I know lots of people who use Bluetooth sensors.  If you already have a Bluetooth speed/cadence sensor or power meter and a computer that supports Bluetooth, its really annoying to dish out additional funds to get an ANT+ stick and ANT+ sensors.  It would definitely make the subscription fee easier on the wallet for people in that situation.  Zwift has posted that they are currently developing Bluetooth connectivity.

Last but not least, a little more polish.  I should be able to enter promo codes or change my avatar without completely logging in.  I should be able to link Zwift to Strava from both the web site (where it is now) and the app.  Maybe a logout screen so I'm never left wondering, "Did it just crash or exit gracefully?"

Well, I've definitely been having fun with Zwift.  At the time of this writing I've clocked close to 200km and 1500m of elevation in-game.  So far it has become my go-to when I want to do an early morning fat burning session.  September/October rain in Eastern Canada is also pretty frigid so Zwift has become my main ride when the precipitation falls.  I'll be watching the development of this software closely.

No comments:

Post a comment