An Outbreak of New Info from Undead Labs' Jeff Strain

Updated Tue, May 24, 2011 by B. de la Durantaye

If you're a Guild Wars fan, you're likely a Jeff Strain fan. One of the three original founders of ArenaNet, Jeff put his fantasy MMOG revolutionizing days behind him in late 2009 to start Undead Labs and unleash his team's creativity on the zombie survival horror genre. In a new interview discussing Undead Labs' projects in detail, Jeff gives us a glimpse (complete with new concept art) of the two Undead Labs projects in the making, and how we might soon get to put our own unique zombie survival strategies to the test!

The big question: What type of game is Undead Labs making? We're seeing same-screen co-op but also mentions a vast virtual world, a global in-game community, and social tools from online games. Is it a MMOG? Is it a lobby-style co-op game?

We have two games under development. Our first game, codenamed ‘Class3’, is an open-world zombie-survival game that we will release for the Xbox LIVE platform. The follow up, codenamed (shockingly) ‘Class4’, is a full online-world zombie-survival game, also developed for Xbox 360.

Is ‘Class4’ an MMOG? No. Not in the traditional sense of the classic PC MMO with warriors, levels, XP, and assigned quests. There are already some fantastic PC MMOs out there — and a few more in the works that look quite promising — but that’s not the kind of game we want to make this time. We love online games with vast shared worlds and passionate player communities, but we’re ready to try something new by bringing those aspects of MMOs along into a different type of game.

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Contrary to belief, not everyone loves a parade.

At the Lab we refer to the game we are making as a “survival sandbox” game. We want to drop you into the heart of a zombie apocalypse and let you put your personal survival plan to the test in an open world, with no predefined quest paths, no levels, no corridors, and no canned character progression; just you, your plan, your equipment, and your wits.

‘Class3’ will be a smaller, focused game experience that you can play solo or with a few friends. ‘Class4’ will bring that core game experience into a massive, shared online world with thousands of players.

Is it just zombies or are there other frights out there lurking in the dark?

‘Class3’ and ‘Class4’ are all about the zombie apocalypse. We are not re-skinning orcs and calling it a zombie game. At its heart, the zombie genre is about survival in the face of societal collapse and the complexities of human relationships in the face of dwindling resources. That is the experience we hope to recreate, so don’t expect to encounter 20-foot boss zombies, mutated Werebears, or emo vampires.

That said, the greatest enemy in any apocalypse scenario is often our fellow survivors. Just as in the world today, most people are basically cool, but a few can be real douchebags. The zombie apocalypse would probably amplify those personality traits further, drawing a clear line between people who have your back, and people who would be happy to stab your back. While the fundamental conflict is “humans vs. zombies”, you can bet we’ll be working in the human conflict as well.

One of the challenges with console gamers is that while they may subscribe to a service, typically they’re not too eager to pay more per month to play a single game. Does this reflect in your planned revenue model? What is that model? Box sales alone, subscription, microtransactions?

Who wins: orcs vs. zombies? Probably both.

First, we should be clear that this question is only relative to ‘Class4’, since ‘Class3’ will be distributed and priced as an Xbox LIVE Arcade game. I agree that a subscription on top of a subscription is a tough sell, so yes, that issue factors heavily into our ongoing discussions with Microsoft about the ‘Class4’ business model.

Subscriptions have the benefit of being simple and clear, and they allow the designers to focus exclusively on making the game fun; but they also feel like paying the water bill. You have to do it if you want water, and you understand that it can’t be truly free, but it’s still yet another bill to pay every month, which just doesn’t mix well with the fun of playing games.

Microtransactions give players the freedom to play the game for free — which is awesome — but can also lead to designers spending more time worrying about what is for sale rather than what is fun.

Both models have strengths and weaknesses, but the good news is that we have some time to figure it out and get it right. Our priority right now is to ensure that ‘Class3’ is a fantastic game that you want to play, because after all, if we don’t make an awesome game, none of the rest of it matters.


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