If youÂre a fan of zombie survival horror games not of the FPS variety, you must have heard of State of Decay by now. If for some strange reason you havenÂt heard of what may well be the best zombie game of 2013, itÂs the first offering from Undead Labs, a studio founded by former ArenaNet founder Jeff Strain. The studio was formed in 2009 with the original goal of developing a console-based MMOG featuring those shambling flesh-eaters that we all know and love.
Undead Labs set its development plans forth in two phases, but itÂs possible that publisher Microsoft initially only gave the green light from publisher for the first, likely to test the waters and see just how viable the project might be. That project was codenamed Class3, a label that later became known as State of Decay, an open world sandbox zombie survival game that literally starts you off neck deep in the zombie apocalypse.
The meat of State of Decay is in gathering up other survivors, scavenging for supplies, and setting up outposts and a base of operation to keep the hordes of undead at bay. State of DecayÂs launch came with a few issues and a basic storyline that wasnÂt entirely fleshed out, but for zombie survival fans, there was plenty to do ranging from scavenging supplies to frantically trying to save other survivors or allies that often times comes down to a choice of where to be and who to save as it all takes place persistently, sometimes ending with a survivor becoming the main course of a zombie buffet. And if there was an ÂOh $h**Â moment of 2013 on our yearly game awards, it would have likely been botching a simple search while scavenging and bringing down a massive horde of undead on our location. ItÂs at times like that, my friends, that diving head first through a two-story glass window is actually a good idea, especially if your impact point is near the car. A broken leg is easier to deal with than a shredded torso.
State of Decay received several updates following its launch to improve gameplay along with its first and only DLC to date, Breakdown. Breakdown was a different beast from the original game in that it ramped up the difficulty by removing the story and letting players focus solely on the survivability aspect of the game. As you explored the map of Trumbull Valley, you can eventually find an RV that can be repaired for a quick escape with a few other survivors. From there you move on to the next rank of the map. The map itself remains the same each time but the amount of zombies and their damage increases, there are noticeably more specialty zombies, and supplies and vehicles are radically decreased at higher ranks and placed randomly on the map.
State of Decay hit Xbox live last June and quickly sold over 500k copies. The titleÂs arrival on SteamÂs early access in September helped push it over the 1 million mark. Not too bad for a game that was originally developed for Xbox Live Arcade and restricted to a 2GB limit. Makes you wonder what Undead Labs could do if you turn them loose on a full size project. And thatÂs where Class4 comes in.
Undead Labs announced last Friday that theyÂve signed an extended multi-year, multi-title development agreement with Microsoft. And while Founder Jeff Strain couldnÂt go into detail about what the agreement involves about the worst kept secret in Zombieville, thereÂs plenty of information about what the original goal of the studio was with Class4.
ÂWeÂll be able to share details later this year, but as with State of Decay, we think itÂs best if we just keep our heads down and build some prototypes before we talk too much,Â Strain wrote on the Undead Labs website. ÂFor now, suffice it to say there are big things going on with State of Decay.Â
While Class4 hasnÂt been formally announced, itÂs safe to assume that itÂs most certainly one of the multiple projects that the Microsoft development deal includes (publishers do love their sequels). If youÂve been following Undead Labs since it was founded in 2009, you may already know about Class4. If not, just keep on reading because hereÂs what we know so far.
Class4 was originally presented as a zombie MMOG, or as Undead Labs lovingly once called it, an MMOZ. It was the purported dream project of the developer, and also, at the time, targeting consoles only. Luckily, the developer realized the advantages of the PC platform and ported State of Decay over.
Undead Labs teased many early development details for Class4 prior to the announcement of State of Decay. This was likely more of early conceptualization than anything else as only bits of concept art and feature ideas were discussed. But Jeff Strain has gone on record saying that both Class4 and State of Decay were being developed simultaneously.
ÂClass 4 is being developed simultaneously with Class 3. You can think of Class 3 as the platform for Class 4. There's a big difference between saying that you're going to create an open-world survival zombie game and saying that you're creating an open-world survival zombie game that can then quickly turn around and evolve into an online world. In terms of the scalability of our content, how robust the player engagement technology is, and our production pipeline -- all of that has to be engineered towards the greater demands of a full-scale online world. Ultimately, as we develop the game (Class 3) we're also developing Class 4.Â Â Undead Labs Founder Jeff Strain, March 2011
The team always had two intersecting games planned, the first of which was State of Decay, a game that was originally a co-op introduction to the story of the gameÂs world. As often happens with development, things got cut, one of which was the co-op, making it a single player game. But despite that, State of Decay was still a huge success and a fun experience. Class4, however, is a different beast.
Long before Class3 became State of Decay, Undead Labs revealed some of what they had planned for their MMOZ. And while they later tried to distance themselves from the MMO label by calling the title an Âonline virtual world,Â many of the concepts of the game are still very MMO-like.
ÂWe feel that ÂMMOÂ has become highly associated with a specific game design template, and we donÂt want people to assume thatÂs the kind of game we are makingÂ. Â Undead Labs Founder Jeff Strain, February 2011
The initial pitch from Undead Labs for Class4 included servers filled with thousands of players forming groups to and build up their base defenses to keep the hordes of undead at bay, not unlike State of Decay but on a much grander scale.
ÂUltimately youÂll try to locate other friendly humans and increase your chance of survival through numbers. Together, you may eventually gather enough materials and defensive measures to move into larger shelters like an abandoned house, and potentially clear out other nearby establishments like the local 7-ElevenÂ
ÂA lot of it has to do with how real world the stories areÂ aside from crazy hordes eating your flesh. ItÂs everything you see, like the breakdown of human society, the challenges people face trying to survive, figuring out if there are others you can trust, learning to work together.Â Â Undead Labs 2010
The Class3 and Class4 codenames for the projects were both a nod to the literary works of Max Brooks, who authored The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z as well as significant to the timeline of the story, essentially measuring the level of disaster by class, with 3 being the aftermath of the initial zombie outbreak and 4 basically code that society has pretty much gone to hell in a hand basket.
ÂClass 3 and Class 4 are kind of like Richter-scale numbers for zombies. Class 1 is just a small low-level outbreak in a rural area that's easily contained. Class 2 is when a certain region in a country might be affected. Class 3 is more like, say, China drops off the grid for six months. Class 4 is a total societal collapse -- it's the global zombie outbreak. What we're trying to do with the name is give a nod to zombie literature like the Max Brooks books (World War Z). What we're trying to do is both pay homage and to give a better scale of each title.Â Â Undead Labs Founder Jeff Strain, March 2011
The goal of Class4 was to take State of Decay massive, and if nothing has changed that will involve expanding on the original systems and adding a few new ones. And while State of Decay didnÂt manage to implement a weather system, it did have a creepy day/night cycle. Undead Labs has also hinted at the Class4 crafting system and how players can gather materials to help keep the hordes at bay.
ÂHell yeah! WeÂll keep the mechanics for things like this pretty simple in Class3, but youÂll be able to drive a truck to a construction site, load it up with materials, and then go back home to reinforce your baseÂs perimeter. At least, youÂll have that option. And we highly recommend doing so.Â Â Â Undead Labs, February 2011
While a business model is far from being announced, the industry has been heavily trending towards the free-to-play or buy-to-play model with microtransactions, something that was a bit different when Class4 was originally discussed. So take the following response given by Strain to a question about the possible business model with a grain of salt as a lot has changed since that time.
ÂThis is of course a lengthy discussion that weÂll need to undertake with our publisher, so I donÂt have a definitive answer, but I can give you some insight into the way we currently think about this.
The current dominant business models for online world games Â subscriptions and micro-transactions Â each solve a set of problems at the cost of creating new ones.
IÂve previously expressed that while the subscription model is not exactly loved by the gaming community, it does have the benefit of being a simple, clear, and above-the-table contract between gamers and the publisher. Each month, the game either earns your business or it doesnÂt. The developers have a singular goal: ensure that the game is fun enough to keep people playing. I like the clarity and purity of that model, and I like that it keeps designers doing what designers should be doing: creating fun. On the other hand, subscriptions are yet another monthly bill to pay, which ranks right up there with rent and car payments as an effective joy kill.
Existing micro-transaction models make it easy to get into a game and let you pay as you go, but IÂve also seen them cause game designers to spend their time focusing on things other than making a fun game, such as channeling players through in-game stores or creating escalating pricing structures for in-game items. I also dislike the slippery slope of what is defined as something you purchase versus something that is a core element of the game experience. We see the phrase Âfree-to-playÂ kicked around a lot these days, and some of these games are good games, but we all know that nothing is truly free to play; they are simply blurring the line between playing and paying.
Both models have their strengths, but IÂm hopeful that we can also find a way to avoid some of the weaknesses. IÂve challenged our designers to think through the concerns IÂve raised with these business models and be ready to work with me on some new ideas. We may not be able to satisfy everyone on this issue, but perhaps we can get close.Â Â Undead Labs Founder Jeff Strain, February 2011
Given that Microsoft is the publisher, itÂs pretty much a given that this will at the very least start off as an Xbox One and possibly even 360 exclusive. Just don't expect Microsoft to ever let it near the PlayStation 4. We may eventually get it on PC as we did with State of Decay, but whether thatÂs at launch or later is anyoneÂs guess. Sadly, my money is definitely on later. Microsoft is quite fond of exclusivity, even if itÂs limited. As for the rest, weÂll have to wait and see just what Undead Labs is cooking up for our shambling friends.
What did you think of State of Decay? Are you looking forward to whatever Undead Labs is cooking up with Class4? Tell us below.