I’ve followed Undead Labs since the beginning. I read founder Jeff Strain’s introduction three years from today and admired his philosophy on video games. That paired with the fact that his studio was going to create a post-apocalyptic, survival-horror, zombie infested MMO made me keep a close eye on their progress.
It is incredible to think how much has changed and has been created over the course of three years in both of our lives. All these years have passed and we are on the verge of playing the first title created by the studio. State of Decay (formerly class3) is set to hit early 2013 and although it is still flying under the radar, every critic that got their hands on it are falling in love.
Undead Labs has a minor horde (community) growing in the background – discussing features, gameplay mechanics, customization, survival aspects, and everything in between. It is like a community full of zombie apocalypse enthusiasts who are jumping at the opportunity to play a simulation.
When this game goes live though, I hope this “underground hipster fan base” explodes and the hype machine powers up. When your fan base actively says “I was supporter of this game before it was cool” that is when you know you are on the right track and your popularity is growing.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the team at Undead Labs and as this is roughly our third collaboration it felt pretty special, especially as this is the first time I have talked to them since I’ve seen actual gameplay.
1. Obviously the original supporters that jumped on board for a potential Zombie MMO on the Xbox were disappointed to hear that State of Decay (the arcade game) won’t release with co-op initially. I mean with studio resources and time constraints, I understand why this is so, but what determined that resources would go elsewhere? I always have looked at State of Decay like the demo for the MMO, you have a chance to start building a huge community that will be able to provide feedback, shape the MMO, and also let Microsoft see that people are ready and willing to get behind your innovative idea.
Well, part of the reason is because State of Decay isn’t a demo. It’s a standalone, full featured XBLA game. Yes, our intention has always been to showcase some of our most innovative systems, and get feedback from our community before we commit those systems to a massive online world (with a massive online budget). But we want the people who play SoD to feel like they got a top notch game and a great experience.
As a team, we have a lot of experience with how to make a multiplayer game. We’re also trying a lot of stuff that is either entirely new, or stuff that hasn’t been done in this combination. So that drove our reasoning. The way the survivors form a community, the base building, dynamic content, resource management… all of the things that make State of Decay a survival simulator had to take precedence.
We’ve got a great community right now with a really favorable signal-to-noise ratio. I’m confident that we’ll get excellent feedback from them and anyone else who decides they like what we’re doing.
2. When Jeff presented the idea of perma-death months ago it blew me away. It seems like such an obvious decision, but with the current trend in games, everyone (myself included) never thought that was a possibility. If there is anything that makes you fight a little harder, become more invested, or simply care, this feature does it. What difficulties did this present in designing the game? Was perma-death responsible for putting a deeper focus on an in-depth base/fortress system?
I was just chatting with Phinney (James Phinney, our creative director/lead designer) about this. He said that while permadeath and a deep focus on the base system definitely go hand in hand, it was the idea of the community that came first. Permadeath came up quickly after that, and the idea got everyone excited.
He says, “Since then, permadeath has been a big factor in how we view everything about the game. I don’t know that I’d call many of the effects “difficulties,” though. With any game, you have to find the fun and define your core principles and work from there. In doing so you re-shape how you’ll approach a lot of the other design choices you’ll make. I will say that even though balance is always a difficult change, our combination of permadeath and no reloading saved games puts a lot more pressure on every aspect of balance to be right.”
There’s a fine line that has to be walked with perma-death. The survivors had to be strong enough to last long enough for you to get attached, otherwise death holds no sting. The game needs to be open-ended enough to allow you as the player to make consequential decisions. And there’s a key word, there: Game. This is a game. It’s supposed to be fun. Each survivor is unique and special, but if the loss of one survivor completely gimps the game and you have to start over, that’s not fun.
Walking that line, and balancing a system with so many moving parts, is a challenge. But a fun one.
That’s amazing to think that a game world is being created with perma-death in mind, it will be interesting to see how you layout the game world because of this.
3. I am a huge fan of character customization in video games. Understandably it won’t be in State of Decay as you will focus on having a lot of different survivors, with different attributes, and different personalities, that the player controls. That being said where is the team’s head at in terms of player customization for the MMO? Also what are your feelings on a possible personality quiz that determines your initial attributes when you start the MMO?
Ah, but there is customization! You need to think of your community as a single organism. In a more typical game, if you want your character to be stronger, you add points to strength or focus on plus to strength gear, right? In State of Decay, if you want your “character” to be stronger, you’d want to look for physically strong survivors and rescue them, add them to your community.
Or if you want to add sharpshooting to your character, you either rescue a top notch marksman, or you spend the time training your community members as marksmen.
You aren’t one person. You’re a group of people. But the same principles of customization still apply.
Obviously, the online world will be different, although it’s far too early to talk specifics. I would still encourage people to think of themselves as part of a group. You don’t need to be brilliant at every single thing, as long as one of your fellow survivors has complementary talents.
Your quiz idea is neat. You should join the community and put it up on the forum ;)
I will only join if I am granted the forum title “Staff Magician” as I feel like it is confusing yet interesting enough for people to appreciate my posts.
4. Sort of a fun question, but I am always curious. Do you see the Kinect being utilized for either of your titles? I have been dying to see a game let me create a character that scans my body dimensions like height, weight, length of extremities, build, et cetera and give me at least a decently crafted representation of myself. Hell, even if the Kinect heard me scream “HELP!” and the AI changed their focus to help me, or a marker would go over my head and another player was made aware of my dilemma would be neat enough.
Have you seen a movie called Avalon?
I don’t think the tech is there yet. But I think it will be.
5. Final question, more studio related than anything. What is the game plan? State of Decay is step two in my eyes (step one being assemble an awesome team that is excited to create a world), and could be the beginning of great things. I would love to know the future of your timeline even if it is basic.
We’re targeting early next year for State of Decay. Right now, every ounce of brainpower is focused on getting a terrific game out the door and in front of our community. After that, we ramp up the team and get cracking on Class4. The things we’re learning right now will help us finalize our best guess on how long Class4 will take.
I know you know that already. Honestly, UL is the most transparent company I’ve ever worked for. You know that already because that’s the plan. Everything else is just a mundane description of how we’re going to make the plan happen.
That is a plan I can get behind. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, I know you are closer to release than we can even imagine, and it must be exciting and stressful all at the same time. I hope this gave the fans something more to chew on so they don’t send me hate-mail afterwards.
By the way Undead Labs is selling State of Decay merchandise for a short time at cost. I think they are stupid if they don’t sell a fleece with a military-styled symbol on the sleeve, but that’s just me!