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.
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?
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.
What would you consider some of the other fundamental elements that make the console crowd different from the PC crowd, and how do address those elements on a design level?
It’s always difficult to make generalizations about an entire community, but I think we can draw some reasonable conclusions about the console gamer community. In short, console gamers want to play games that feel like console games. Attempts to port the PC experience to the console — regardless of genre — have usually met with failure.
Consider games such as GoldenEye 007, Halo: Combat Evolved, Pikmin, Civilization Revolution, and Halo Wars. Each of these games were representative of traditional PC genres (First-Person Shooter, Real-Time Strategy, Turn-Based Strategy) that had historically failed to succeed on the console platform. These games, though, were built from the ground up for console gamers. By creating a true console experience and achieving (in some cases massive) critical and commercial success, these games helped dispel the notion that these genres “just weren’t suitable” for the console platform.
"We’re not looking to spin an existing genre; we’re instead hoping to create a new genre."
The key is to focus on the culture of the platform, rather than the technical aspects of the platform. You can connect a keyboard to a console, but the culture is voice communication. Conversely, you can connect a headset to a PC, but the culture of online communication on the PC is via keyboard. By focusing on the culture of voice communication, we can build a game experience around it, such as communication via walkie talkies, or commandeering a local radio station to broadcast to other communities.
Of course, the key cultural difference is interaction with the world through the controller, rather than a keyboard and mouse. We know it’s technically possible to create a game that can be controlled by both, but by focusing exclusively on the controller we can give players the kind of visceral, action-based character control and world interaction that console gamers expect.
To be clear, we don’t think focusing exclusively on the needs of the console gamer community results in a better game experience; but we certainly think it results in a better console game experience.
What sorts of things will we see in Undead Labs that bring a new spin to the gaming space?
We’re not looking to spin an existing genre; we’re instead hoping to create a new genre. Specifically, we want to create games that focus on survival mechanics — including securing resources, building communities with our fellow survivors, achieving short-term survival and planning for long-term sustainability, and ultimately finding ways to rebuild society. We want to bring together the best elements of open-world gaming and traditional MMO gaming on the console platform by blending sweet action with an evolving, dynamic world and true player choice and empowerment.
How well does a world of zombies translate into an online world? Part of the horror of ‘survival horror’ is that you feel vastly outnumbered and in danger at every step. How can you still give this same kind of experience in a game that also promotes in-game community? Don’t they run the risk of cancelling each other out?
Portrayal of survivor communities is a staple of the zombie genre. In particular, modern takes such as "World War Z", "The Walking Dead", and "28 Weeks Later" explore the concept of trying to build and sustain communities of survivors in the zombie apocalypse. Of course, basic human nature and the complexities of personal relationships often add another element of stress, which is another interesting angle for our designers to explore.
"I’ve always wanted to play a game that let me answer the inevitable “what would you do” question that always comes up after watching a zombie flick with friends."
From a game design and balance perspective, the questions is not whether you can survive, but instead for how long. Being a part of a community allows you to stop worrying about your minute-by-minute survival during the day. However, communities grow, and resource demands increase, and expectations and hopes continue to rise. While it may have been enough to eat canned beans for the first few months, you can’t live on them forever, even if you have an endless supply. In order to grow and thrive, you’ll need renewable clean water, seeds for gardens, perhaps even electricity eventually; and all of those needs will drive you back out into the world, ranging further afield to find needed supplies. In short, back out into the shit storm.
How much of the RPG element, if any, do you bring into the game? Is there armor and weapons to be collected? Leveling up? Skills and abilities? Classes?
We’re not ready to discuss details of character progression at this point. As a survival game there will certainly be a heavy emphasis on finding gear, including weapons, protective clothing, vehicles, shelter materials, and the natural and human resources necessary to sustain and grow your base. I can also tell you that roleplaying, in the true sense of your character having a unique identity and role to play in your community and in the field, is a key focus of the game. We’ll be revealing more details on this when we’re ready to start talking about concrete play mechanics.
What about the game has you the most excited, personally?
I’m a huge zombie fan, and I’ve always wanted to play a game that let me answer the inevitable “what would you do” question that always comes up after watching a zombie flick with friends. What would I do? Head to Costco and board up the windows? Commandeer a Washington State Ferry and take it out into Puget Sound? Set up a base next to Lake Washington to ensure a clean water supply? Head to Alaska?
There have been some great zombie games over the past few years that really nailed the horror aspect of the genre. There have been many great open-world sandbox games that give the player a true sense of freedom and agency in the world. There have certainly been some great PC MMOs in the past decade that really showed how much fun it is to play with your friends in a vast online world. But no game has really tied all of these genres together into a true simulation that let me test my own zombie-survival plan with my friends in an open, dynamic virtual world.
That’s the game everyone at the Lab dreams of making. And I can tell you that right now, it’s looking pretty damn good. ;)
While we're working on our survival plan (we're thinking of something involving either Shawn of the Dead-style vinyl LPs... maybe a Flowbee), Ten Ton Hammer would like to thank Jeff Strain for clearing up Undead Labs' take on the zombie apocalypse in Class3 and Class4.