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State Of Decay: Zombie Horror Goes Open World

by Jim Reilly on Sep 17, 2012 at 09:09 AM

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Seattle-based game developer Undead Labs finally unveiled State of Decay, an open-world zombie apocalypse title for PC and Xbox Live Arcade due out next year. The project was announced last year under its code name Class3 and debuted at the Penny Arcade Expo earlier this month.

After going hands-on with the game, we spoke to studio founder and executive producer Jeff Strain to get his thoughts on the popularity of zombie games and the challenges of creating a massive title for Xbox Live Arcade.


Game Informer: Zombie games are pretty popular nowadays. Why do you think that is?

Strain: Funny how that works, isn't it? Some of us have been talking about making a zombie game for more than a decade, but we weren't in a position to actually tackle it until a couple of years ago. Even then, it was clear that zombies were on the rise in popularity, but I don't think anyone would have predicted the explosion of zombie games we've seen. Personally, I think it comes to down one thing: zombies are cool.

Zombies are the ultimate enemy. They can’t be reasoned with. Nothing but death will stop them, and that death has to be a gory, visceral thing. They are human enough to horrify us.

I’ve said before that a zombie is the modern world’s guilt-free meat-puppet. As game developers we’ve done orcs, we’ve done Nazis, we’ve done communists, we’ve done terrorists. But there’s no alternative point of view with zombies. You have to shoot the zombie in the head or he’ll eat your brains, so go ahead, enjoy it.

I also think there is a certain guilty indulgence in imagining a world with no rules. Homework? Nope. Big test next week? Screw that. Mortgage? Uh, yeah, I’ll get right on that. Boss is an ***? Wait for him to turn, and then simply do what needs to be done. The zombie apocalypse is the ultimate escape from the complexities of the real world. Life is simple: stay alive or be eaten. I’m sure it would suck in practice, but I certainly see the attraction.

Finally, zombie fans are terrific, passionate people. Exactly the kind of gamer you want as part of your community.

Has the development of the game changed at all to help differentiate from the rest of the zombie games out there now? Or has the design stayed the same?

We haven’t changed our plans at all. From the beginning we knew we wanted to create a game about the core zombie survival fantasy. The central idea is trying to capture that "what if" conversation that you have after watching Dawn of the Dead or Zombieland. How would you survive?

So when you look at the things we're doing in State of Decay, sticking with that original central idea has put us in a pretty unique position. We're trying to create an awesome open-world zombie survival experience. You gather a community of people, build and upgrade your base,  and try to survive after the apocalypse. There’s a great mix of stealth, action, and long-term strategy that’s unlike anything else out there.

What’s the challenge like of creating an open-world game on Xbox Live while staying under the 2GB limit? Has it been difficult?

It’s a big challenge. The scope of the game is not small. It feels like a full open-world environment, not a truncated or enclosed version. When you come driving down out of the mountains or head from one town to another across a river, or along a highway, or cruising through rolling farmland, it just feels like a big world.

So with all this art, animation, FX, vehicles, characters, and VO, it would be easy to go over the 2GB limit. We’ve had to be really disciplined, and our programmers have had to work some real voodoo,  to make sure everything fits. Being able to get the game to everyone directly through XBLA is worth it, though. There’s something awesome about downloading a game and trying it out from the comfort of your living room sofa. We’re really looking forward to that with State of Decay.

Was there ever plans to go the retail route? Or is Xbox Live Arcade the only way Undead Labs could have released the game on console?

We looked for a partner that would work with us to get State of Decay out to our intended audience of console gamers. Microsoft stepped up, and they’ve been great.

Remember, State of Decay is the first of two big steps. It’s the open-world game we refer to at the Lab as ‘Class3’. The second step is a full online-world successor we call ‘Class4’. Class4 is incredibly ambitious with a lot of ideas that haven’t been tried in online worlds. We wanted to make damn sure the ideas were fun before we got too far into the development of a massive world. With State of Decay, we’ll get feedback on the concepts and fine tune our design. While we build out Class4, our community can be out kicking ass in a deep and richly detailed game. XBLA was always the right scale for our intentions.

We were approached by other publishers who would have been excited to work with our team, but some of them weren’t onboard with our plans to pursue a radically new game experience. It’s usually safer to define your game in terms of another game, e.g. “Well, it’s like Call of Duty, but with field mice instead of soldiers.” That’s not how we wanted to roll. Right from the start, Microsoft has been enthusiastic about the idea of a true survivor simulation. They’re the perfect partner for us.

How big is the State of Decay’s game world?

The game world is 16 square kilometers, of which about half is playable area. There are three towns, hundreds of houses, buildings, and stores to explore, and acres of farmland, forest, river bottoms, and forest. I’m not sure exactly how long it takes to run or drive from one end of the world to another. It takes a while. And you’re usually slowed down by things that want to eat you.

State of Decay won’t have co-operative play. Was it ever considered at the start?

It’s no secret that co-op mode was one of our original objectives for State of Decay, because the game currently codenamed “Class4” is an online world. Game development is about hard choices, sometimes, and for the sake of the game, we chose to focus on our core concepts and systems: Survival simulation, action, dynamic content, and player empowerment with meaningful choices and consequences.

We do still hope to introduce co-op mode at some point after launch.

One of the things that impressed me with the demo was the amount of little gameplay touches, like being able to hold open your car door to mow down zombies. Were these something you wanted to do from the start? Or were they added as development progressed?

An incredibly detailed and realistic world was always our intention. You can’t build a great apocalypse simulator without putting in the things people would actually do. Our goal has always been to create a believable environment that feels like a real place, rather than a fantastical environment, because the feeling that this *** could actually happen to me is an important part of what makes survival horror games and movies fun.

And of course our team is intensely creative, and enabling creative people to run with their ideas all the way to the finish line is part of the fun of development.

The demo had a number of clipping issues with the characters and zombies. I understand what you showed was an Alpha build. How far along is the game and how much time do you think you’ll have at the end for bug testing and polishing?

We’re on track for our planned release in early 2013. The game is blocked in from start to finish, so we’re now digging in for several months of hardcore polishing, bug fixing, balancing, tuning, and stabilizing. This is the fun part. Well, unless you think sleep is fun, and then this is the not fun at all part. But there’s nothing quite like watching something you’ve loved and labored over for two years finally come together into something truly awesome.

Will there be any gameplay changes between the Xbox Live and PC versions?

There will be no gameplay changes. There will certainly be graphical differences, but the core gameplay will be shared across both clients.

Will the game’s story connect with the planned MMO Class4? Or are they separate universes?

The universe is the same for both games. As for connections, it’s really too early to get into details, but we think State of Decay players will feel right at home when they log into Class4 for the first time.