On June 14, 2023, Zwift Announced the release of the Zwift Play controller and multi-input gaming, putting Zwift interaction at the user's fingertips and the future in the company's hands
“We feel this is going to be transformative for the Zwift experience moving forward,” are the words Zwift’s Director of PR, Chris Snook, used during the press conference. VP of Content Mark Cote couldn’t hide his excitement and, at one point, said, “You will have to take them from my dead hands because I can’t Zwift without them.” But perhaps most profound was when Co-Founder & Head of Product at Zwift, Jon Mayfield, professed, “What’s certain is that indoor cycling is going to get more interesting from here on out.”
What’s all the Zwift Play fuss about?
Introducing Zwift Play—Zwift’s latest hardware offering is the culmination of years of research, development, and investment in the future of virtual cycling and the promise to change the way users Zwift. Zwift Play units are game controllers for your bike that puts Zwift interaction at your fingertips and eliminates the need to reach for a cumbersome keyboard—for most things.
The Hub of the Zwift Experience
Zwift says that the heart of the interaction between the user and the app is the Zwift Action Bar. The newly revamped feature that appears at the bottom of the Zwift screen contains many of the necessary actions required during a ride or training session, like toggling between views and heart rate and power zones, pausing workouts, engaging Power Ups, and social interactions like giving Ride Ons.
In recent game updates, Zwift introduced a Coffee Stop and Rider Teleport feature to the Action Bar. Coffee Stop allows the rider to step away quickly without losing the group. Accessing the Rider Teleport pop-up from the Action Bar enables riders to jump between Robo Pacers or ride with friends. [Author’s note: Great feature!]
Both “Quality-of-Zwift” enhancements signal the intention to highlight and advance the tool as the centralized hub of the Zwift experience.
Zwift Play brings Action Bar control to the user’s handlebars where they need it, with controllers that attach via a rubber strap to most drop bars. Modeled after the standard gaming controller with navigation arrows on the left and control buttons on the right, they also have joystick-like pads for steering and braking.
Zwift Hardware History
Zwift hardware has had a checkered past. In 2021 the company pre-announced a Zwift trainer called the “Zwift Wheel” and a bike named the “Zwift Ride.” In 2022 Zwift scrapped the project plans and restructured, including layoffs reported to impact the hardware division significantly.
The company got back on track later in 2022 with the Zwift Hub smart trainer. Essentially a rebranded unit produced by JetBlack, it seemingly required little in-house research and development and emphasized simplifying the onboarding process.
At first glance the craftsmanship, quality, and function of the Zwift Play look like it hits the mark. Pre-announcement test units didn’t arrive in time for a hands on review. However, the quality-assurance protocols and feature forethought make it clear that it wasn’t thrown together or rushed out.
Is the Zwift Action Bar the Heart of User Interaction?
With Zwift Play, the company places significant risk and investment in the assumption users utilizing the Action Bar are more engaged in the platform. By eliminating the need to reach for a keyboard or take their eyes off the screen, it enhances the user experience, keeps riders focused on the product, and makes them more apt to ride more often and explore other features.
Efficient and effective interaction is challenging without a well-thought-out setup, and Zwift Play is the “perfect pairing,” according to the development team. For many Zwifters the ease and convenience the Zwift Play affords is a value they may be more than willing to pay.
At present, only 15 percent of Zwifters use the Action Bar, according to Zwift market research, and the company wants to change that. Users with touchscreen devices are three times more likely than Mac or PC users. Some Zwifters would counter that premise and downplay the Action Bar’s necessity.
The Zwift Companion App is suitable for navigating Zwift from your phone mounted on the handlebars for the few instances it is required. Zwift Play doesn’t solve the Text Chatting problem, the primary reason many users reach for their keyboard or phone. The community and social aspect of Zwift is what sets it apart and deserves an emphasis that Zwift Play lacks. So few use the Action Bar because there isn’t a good reason for many at the moment.
The Zwift Beta Multi-input Game Experience
Zwift intends to give users a compelling case by revolutionalizing the virtual cycling experience with the simultaneous launch of a new Zwift Beta Game Experience. Making Zwift a multi-input interaction has always been in their plan. The steering, braking, navigation, and selection functionality of Zwift Play unlocks new possibilities.
The company designated a software team laser-focused on enhancing the multi-input immersion with Zwift Play at the innovations center. Launching in Beta allows the community to guide development and Zwift to monitor user data.
Plans to enhance real-world cycling simulation include moving steering and braking to the forefront. Introducing draft visualization, wind positioning, and cornering adds another dimension and opens the door to varied race scenarios, including a velodrome. It also allows the option to make in-game equipment decisions more significant with performance dictated by terrain and conditions. The adoption will require reworking the physics model and changing how some Zwifters view the game.
More gamified elements are also in the works. Repack Ridge, Zwift’s 2019 vision of mountain bike singletrack with steering controlled using the Companion App, will be replaced by “Repack Rush.” The newly envisioned time trial course with a Zwift twist tests the rider’s steering and braking skills by featuring time bonus pickups, speed boosts, and hazards.
Gamified workout blocks will use similar digital incentives to unwittingly motivate users into interval training in a Saga Out Run style. Mario Kart pickup games, battle royale gaming formats, and team-based challenges, including all Triple-A game designs, are on the table. The possibilities for users to find re-engineered content on Zwift are tremendous, as is the potential to tap into the future.
What's to Gain?
Surely Zwift would like to capitalize on the 620% spending growth on bikes and bike accessories between 2020 and 2023. Even if every user purchased a unit, the profit would be a small percentage of Zwift’s revenue.
For a subscriber-based company, there must always be an emphasis on discovering the next generation of Zwifters. Video Gaming is commonplace and an essential fact of life for Generation Y, Millenials, and future generations. Tapping into that potential and getting maturing gamers interested in Zwift may be the key to commercial solvency, and youth have much to gain from fitness-oriented gaming.
At What Cost?
It could come at the cost of widening the gap between traditional cyclists who use the platform only for off-season training or hardcore racers and Zwifters who are drawn to the social aspect and gamified elements. Many original Zwifters shun adding technical complexity to already challenging onboarding and daily usage.
Competitive racers are the minority on Zwift but the user base segment with the most loyalty and retention. However, the loyalty lies in finding the most accurate and trustworthy racing. Steering, braking, and other things to consider are not necessarily at the top of the list for non-gamer racers drawn to athletic, not digital, competition. With the recent departure of Zwift’s Cycling Esports Commission Chairman and the head of ZADA (Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis) to create the race-focused platform indieVelo, racers may not be Zwift’s focus.
Zwift will find value in the Zwift Play and new Beta Gaming Experiences by securing subscriber base growth and retaining non-racers, where the most turnover occurs. At a promotional price of 99 dollars, pounds, or euros, Zwift wants to get one in your hands so you can decide for yourself.
Zwift Play is available for purchase in the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union exclusively on zwift.com/play.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!