When it comes to video games, zombies have been a staple of survival horror since long before the more widespread pop culture invasion of the 2000s. Much like the rapid viral outbreak used as a plot device in most zombie fiction, the whole zombie thing has reached epic saturation levels in nearly all entertainment mediums.
A question that needs to be asked, then, is how can H1Z1 distinguish itself from the zombified masses and prove itself to be more than just a blatant ripoff of DayZ? More importantly, will H1Z1 transcend its own genre trappings and prove that it has an identity as unique as the pinnacle of the zombie genre, Zombeavers?
Hardcore Survival: It's What's for Dinner
During a recent roundtable discussion for H1Z1, Senior Designer Jimmy Whisenhunt attempted to shed some light on what makes the game tick, and why SOE opted to go the route of hardcore survival rather than a more traditional MMO setup where character persistence and advancement is the entire focus of gameplay. If there is any one aspect of H1Z1 that gets me most excited, it is the notion that hardcore survival means at least a partial return to one of the biggest things lacking in most triple-A MMOs over the past decade: consequence.
Death penalties have become little more than a 20 second setback and coin sink. Failing doesn't really matter much when there's nothing at stake, so we've been conditioned to accept failure as a staple of gameplay. Sure, it always sucks to fail, but without any meaningful consequence, it ultimately doesn't matter. Probably the only lasting facet of consequence is in competitive gaming or PvP systems where win / loss ratios still matter to some degree.
Otherwise, MMOs have pretty much become a largely Care Bear gaming genre.
On a scale of One to Zombeavers, I'd rank adding non-hardcore servers to a game like H1Z1 at about an eight.
Apparently SOE recognizes this, so it's good to know that the studio that helped spawn the genre with a title rife with consequence is attempting to ignite at least a partial return to making death sting again. The original EverQuest death penalty was not only somewhat harsh by today's standards, but had gameplay systems to support it. But the entire point was that, by making death sting, it became something you wanted to avoid at all costs.
That can have a major impact on gameplay. Not only does it help insure that player skill matters, but it also means that your chances of survival increase exponentially if you play socially.
This is a perfect fit for a game like H1Z1, so SOE is attempting to bake in enough systems to support both sides of the survival coin. At the same time, they also need to make a buck to even bother with the cosmic dance of MMO development, so there is some talk of more Care Bear / PvE-focused server options sometime down the road.
This is one area where I think SOE should stick to its guns rather than trying too hard to be all things to everyone. On a scale of One to Zombeavers, I'd rank adding non-hardcore servers to a game like H1Z1 at about an eight.
Feel free to interpret that as you will.
Friends, Enemies, and Pancakes
There is a huge difference between hardcore gameplay versus hardcore gamers. How do you keep the game attractive to more casual gamers who just happen to prefer hardcore gameplay?
The answer is to make sure that social gameplay actually matters and has systems to support it. While the Early Access release won't necessarily have much baked-in support when it comes to social systems, this is one area where the H1Z1 can leverage the fact that the game is built using the same back end as PlanetSide 2.
PS2 does a great job with scale in general (H1Z1 will also be leveraging the ability to create a massive, seamless world with loads of players on the same server), so its entirely possible that players in H1Z1 could eventually form more granular social hierarchies than the typical one-size-fits-all guild approach.
The ability to settle in and fortify a location is also going to be a huge thing when it comes to survival. This also has some social depth once you have groups of players settle in relative proximity, with other groups having the ability to bust your doors down and take your stuff. This is sandbox gameplay at its finest, because even though zombies and the need for food to survive will be staples of day to day life, the fact that your fellow players can essentially create gameplay by choosing to be friends or enemies and acting directly on that decision can be a huge thing.
Another subject that came up during the H1Z1 roundtable is the ability to spread infection as players, and whether we'd ever see cannibalism enter the picture.
The short answer is that both are entirely within the realm of possibility, but there are no definitive plans to bake either into the game for the time being. While I'm sure the ability to spread infection as human players could add some serious tactical depth to gameplay, being able to outright consume your fallen friends and enemies might cause more than just a raised eyebrow with the ESRB. A human corpse (zombie) eating a human corpse is totally fine, but a live human eating a human corpse is pretty much the stuff of taboo when it comes to appeasing our ratings board overlords. Go figure.
The entire discussion gave me flashbacks to Cabin Fever - a film notably from the same producers as Zombeavers - in particular to one of my favorite scenes of all time. Check it out above and then take mental note that if someone in H1Z1 starts shouting "Pancakes!" you should probably start running.