The lights are on
Anyone who has played Valve's Left 4 Dead knows the dread and exhilaration of cooperatively blasting through an undead horde. However, gamers might have been able to experience the zombie apocalypse years earlier if Irrational Games’ Division 9 had been completed. The premise was this: Division 9 would have put players (and their friends) in the middle of an ever-encroaching zombie menace. Co-op gameplay, scarce resources, base-building, and strategic rescues were a part of the conceptual blueprint. In our recent visit to Irrational Games, we talked to the team about how the game started and what it could have become. We also saw a slice of Division 9 in action – and with our exclusive demo trailer at the end of this feature, you can see it, too.“The reason we were frustrated with zombie games at the time was they never had the sense that you got for Dawn of the Dead, because there was really only Resident Evil at that time,” explains Irrational’s creative director Ken Levine. “That there was this group of survivors and they had to gather resources. They’d lock themselves up in the mall, and then be like ‘Oh, s---. We don’t have any food. We have to go out into the world and take these risks.’ And that was the game design, basically. You have a group of survivors, and these resources. You’d have to take on risks to get more supplies, ammo, and people. You sort of build up your group of survivors.”“It had strategic elements, too,” adds lead artist Shawn Robertson. “Like getting the power back on for a certain section of the city. From then on, any missions you’d do at night would be lit.”Art director Nate Wells adds: “We also had some really odd notions of base-building mechanics. At some location, you could get a transmission from a doctor who was trapped. If you went out and got him and brought him back, you would have a doctor installed at your base. Or you’d find an engineer who could make new weapons. There was going to be a whole RPG-style base-building mechanic. But the real innovation was the concept that the zombies never stop. The zombies are infinite. And now, just a few years later, there are plenty of games that treat zombies that way.”
“It was about holding back waves of enemies – I always think of Robotron – and you make these decisions moment to moment,” says Levine. “Do you stop to reload? Do you stop and heal each other? Do you stop and barricade a door? All these tactical decisions where the enemy was time, because there’s always going to be more zombies.” [PageBreak]
Essentially, Division 9 was an expanded version of the Left 4 Dead formula – years before the Left 4 Dead phenomenon started. In the history of Irrational Games, this falls somewhere between the release of SWAT 4 and the studio’s acquisition by Take-Two Interactive.Division 9 started as SWAT 5. Levine explains: “We were finishing SWAT 4, and Vivendi actually wanted us to do SWAT 5. This is one of those points where the money would have been really nice, and they were really good to work with, but I looked around and thought ‘What else have we got to say about this game?’ We didn’t really have anything else to add to what we did [with SWAT 4]. But I wanted the money really badly.”In an effort to land SWAT 5 while still retaining Irrational’s signature style, another game concept in the works at the studio – tentatively called The Infected – was adapted to the SWAT universe. “Nate [Wells] and I were toying around with a pitch for a game called The Infected, which we brought to Ken, and we basically had the idea to turn it into Zombie SWAT,” says Robertson. “Vivendi was like, ‘What’s your pitch for SWAT 5?’ ‘Zombie SWAT.’ Crickets.”“It started as a joke,” admits Wells. “Arrest five Draculas. Kill all Frankensteins in this level. Universal movie monsters versus SWAT.”“I remember going around pitching it and the person would be ‘Zombies? Who wants to play a zombie game?’” remembers Levine. Joe McDonagh, Irrational’s director of creative development, adds with a laugh: “Someone said to me, ‘We don’t think zombies will be big in 2005.’”Despite initial resistance, Division 9’s innovative ideas and (theoretically) fun gameplay brought it to the edge of production, only to be stymied by unfortunate timing. “We had a week to put together a demo, and we saw an opportunity there, and we actually sold it to Vivendi,” Levine tells us. “They were ready to buy it, but we had just sold the company to Take-Two. I think we would have been very successful with it. It would have come out around the same time as BioShock, maybe a little sooner.”
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