Plague Inc.

Posted on by Ali S. Khan

Plague Inc

James Vaughan, founder of Ndemic Creations, spoke to CDC staff on March 20, 2013 about his new mobile app, Plague Inc.  Within the game, players select a pathogen and strategize how to evolve symptoms, transmit the disease, and counter actions taken by world governments and scientists. With a successful disease, players can watch as governments fall and humanity is wiped out.

I became interested in Vaughan’s game as a tool to teach the public about outbreaks and disease transmission because of how it uses a non-traditional route to raise public awareness on epidemiology, disease transmission, and diseases/pandemic information. The game creates a compelling world that engages the public on serious public health topics.

For PHPR, using non-conventional methods to communicate with the public has worked really well in the past through social media and blogs posts.  We were very excited to welcome James to CDC and learn more about using other digital platforms to reach a general audience.

“CDC uses digital media to raise awareness on health issues that the nation faces today,” says Katherine Lyon-Daniel, PhD, Associate Director of Communication at CDC. “Meeting with industry leaders is a great way to learn more about reaching new audiences through mobile apps.”

I sat down with Mr. Vaughan to learn more about the game, its creation, and what he plans to do next.

How did you come up with the idea of Plague Inc.?
I made Plague Inc. as a hobby.  I was a strategy consultant in my day job, but I wanted to give myself a creative challenge in my spare time.

Plague Inc. is a bit like the film Contagion except that you are the disease! The 2008 flash game Pandemic 2 gave me the idea of spreading a disease around the world. I liked the game, but thought it could be even better if it had deeper strategy, a strong narrative, increased realism and a lot more. So – I decided to make it!
How long did it take to develop Plague Inc.?  
It took around a year to develop the game. I could only work on it in the evening and on weekends. Because I had never made a game before, it was very much a case of learning as I went.  Luckily, I found three great freelancers who were able to help.

How did you ensure it was a realistic game?
Without a medical background, I did a lot of online research in order to make sure it felt realistic to players.  Luckily, I have always been very interested in biology as well as economics and current affairs.  This helped a lot when I was building the algorithms and models inside the game.

A critical stage in the game is the ‘Infection Cycle’ that dictates how people become infected with a disease and how they infect others. The game revolves around this stage, and I spent months making sure that it worked properly. The core design is based on the concept of ‘basic reproduction rate’ and I found lots of great papers online which taught me more about it.

What kind of audience does Plague Inc. reach and what do they get from it?

Plague Inc. has been downloaded over 10 million times worldwide and over 200 million games have been played to date. As an intelligent and sophisticated strategy game, I think Plague Inc. appeals to people looking for something more meaningful and substantial than the majority of mobile games. It makes people think about infectious disease in a new light – helping them realize the threats that we face every day.

An interesting fact is that it has also become an educational tool – teachers and professors often get in touch to let me know how they used Plague Inc. to illustrate biological and economical concepts to their students.

Were players of Plague Inc. interested to know you had been invited to the CDC?
Yes, the reaction to the news has been extremely positive and people are keen to know more! In the first 24 hours after I announced my visit to the CDC almost 1 million people had seen tweets about it!

I think people were excited to see that a prestigious organization like the CDC was interested in the game. A lot of people also hoped that visiting the CDC would give me ideas for future updates of the game (which it did!)

What did you learn at CDC?
It was fascinating to meet the people who are working hard every day to keep us safe from the type of threats that Plague Inc. features. I got a tour of the Emergency Operations Center and Broadcast Center, as well as a trip to the CDC museum. This gave me a lot of contextual information about how the CDC works, which will help me add a greater level of realism to the game in the future – especially in terms of how humanity reacts to outbreaks.

What are you working on now and what do you have coming out next?
Plague Inc. is still proving to be an incredibly popular game, so my main focus must be to keep improving the game and adding new content for players. Recently, I released an update which added a zombie-themed plague, as well as translating the game into four other languages.  In the next update, I will be adding a new game mode for players, translating it into Japanese/Korean and hopefully adding some CDC content!

Posted on by Ali S. KhanTags , , ,

29 comments on “Plague Inc.”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Consider global applications: FELTP and training for other diseases. Smart phones and other tablet-like tools are popular and available overseas in most resource restricted countries. Most learn quicker if it is “fun”.

    I played the game and enjoyed it. The issue I have is that well, it is clearly inspired by pandemic 1 and or 2 which is an old flash game that has been out for years. Granted to each his own but still give credit where credit is due.

    I played the game, and I love it! After game, accidentally, on some site I saw a film “Contagion”. They have the same story, same stragedy, even same music at the end of the film! And after I found that, creator was inspired by film! The music is incredible part of game and film. It’s great!)
    I want to say “Thank you” because it’s one of the best game, that I ever played!
    (And, between us, I thought that last moments of film showed, that disease was started again)

    Played it on pc for the first time a few days ago. The first disease was the most interesting to me, as it actually triggered some sort of emotional response, which is rare for a game without any kind of story. Made my little bacteria highly infectious but with very few and minor symptoms and after billions were infected, I made it cause total organ failure. Watching the death toll skyrocket and the map go dark red was quite a chilling experience.

    God, PLEASE don’t make zombies, zombies are over! At this point I’m about ready to bring sparkly vampires back instead of more zombies.

    Haven’t played this yet, though I intend to as I liked Pandemic 2. I just hope you made it so you don’t have to pretty much rely on pure luck to get into Cuba or Madagascar.

    This game is brilliant, and really one of the main reasons I chose to focus my dissertation on the spread of disease and how it is made accessible to the public. It has a fun element to a very real concept. I love it

    CDC could negotiate copyrights licenses for the use of the game plataform and engine (to modify, use and others…) in exchange of academic support for the game. That would be great!!

    I would not buy this game, due to reason of it being hostile to population. Any person with a bad tweak can turn into weapon because this game has given them a bad idea.

    You should have built a game to prevent and save population instead such as only developing and giving ideas how to stop such spead.

    @Dictaka Do you honestly think someone could turn this game into any type of weapon? You do realize that you cannot actually modify a disease or bacteria from your cell phone. If someone has that type of knowledge they could do it anyway. This game in no way would allow you to start infecting people regardless of what you do with to it.

    I don’t think Dictaka means they’ll use the phone, i think they mean it’ll give someone an idea to do something similar….
    ….which is equally ridiculous.


    Your concerns are unfounded. Playing Plague, Inc. will not make anyone an epidemiologist or a biowarfare expert any more than running around with a plastic lightsaber and making ‘voom’ noises makes me Luke Skywalker.

    If you examine Plague, Inc’s. gameplay, the decisions you make as the pathogen highlight some of the basic principles – how a pathogen spreads, how the environment works against it, and so on. These are the same elements researchers must study when working with something like Ebola, so we are able to develop medicines like ZMapp and not run around spreading nonsense like ‘it’s God’s punishment’.

    For that matter, biowarfare along the lines of what you are suggesting has been portrayed in popular media before – as with Tom Clancy’s ‘Executive Orders’ (1996) and ‘Rainbow Six’ (1998) – long before Plague, Inc. arrived on the scene, and with a considerably larger audience.

    lol everyone just started ripping into Dictaka it was funny as.

    That guy didn’t go to school 😉

    The game is hardly realistic, as every new mutation you buy with DNA points is always immediately active on all existing pathogen in the world. Something that would never ever happen in real life. The chances of a certain mutation happening simultaneously all over the world, and multiple times during the limited lifetime of humanity after the disease start spreading… Nah.

    So let’s not worry about someone being able to copy this into a real life attack. It’s simply impossible.

    Let’s just enjoy this great game, and be grateful it also teaches people things.

    And I agree credit is due, since the entire company is called Ndemic. There’s no coincedence there, they are obviously playing on the success of earlier games called Pandemic (boardgame and flash game)

    @The Docter

    “Ndemic” is a clever spelling of “endemic”. In terms of contagion, it refers to diseases found in a specific, defined area. That’s got nothing to do with “earlier games”.

    With regard to the basic idea behind the game? The creator DID and DOES acknowledge he got inspiration from “Pandemic”. Maybe actually read the article.

    I’m not sure about that @The Doctor. The Candida Auris outbreak occurred almost simultaneously around the world, so the origin of this new strain is still being researched (the first outbreak started in 2009). Diseases and the likes are very adaptable, and the new strain can spread rapidly. Granted, it wouldn’t happen instantaneously.

    Here I am playing Plague Inc. in my room and I see that a new virus surfaced in china irl. My first thought was only 400 infected and its been noticed. This shouldn’t be able to get too far. So cheers to Plague Inc. for helping me avoid panicking and thank you CDC, WHO and others for watching for these things.

    a crap ton of players are playing Plague inc. so i also want to try this game it looks fun.

    @Random Guy your reply has me in tears of hilarity hahaha I can’t believe the evolution of these comments..

    I’m don’t get lose in conspiracy theories, although I must admit that I’m naturally superstitious (“hmm, that COULD be what happened”)… but the see-it-to-believe-it part of my brain is much louder. All that being said, is ANYONE ELSE rereading this thread, wondering if @Dictaka was onto something?

    Lol and especially to the know-it-all commenters, speaking so confidently about how unrealistic they believed the gameplay felt in the Plague Inc. app and insulting @Dictaka for suggesting that it may spark ideas in some genius psychopaths… as unlikely as it is, who knows if some evil closet-scientist didn’t mutate a coronavirus in his secret lab 😂

    Bite your tongues. Spread kindness and awareness. And never forget that ANYTHING can happen. Humans are smart, but biology is smarter (considering we are just a piece outside this massive ecosystem of a planet, trying to figure out how it’s operating around us..)

    Do not doubt the power of the universe because with as little as we understand about it, something unknown can easily come and disprove anything we thought we knew. We have so much to learn!

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Page last reviewed: April 18, 2013
Page last updated: April 18, 2013