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Leviathyn Exclusive: Interview With Undead Labs, Developer Of State Of Decay

This week, Leviathyn got a chance to pick the still-alive brains of the newest darling developer to enter massively populated zombie-videogame arena. Undead Labs’ new game, State Of Decay, was released on the 5th of June on the Xbox Live Arcade to strong reviews and some excellent sales in its first days. And little wonder.

The game’s blend of open-world survival gameplay and procedural, random resource management provided a refreshing take on the now-stale zombie genre. And it’s not even finished yet- an update for the game will be released at some point which will add a pure sandbox mode, for players who really want to tackle it their own way without the story. We caught up with Sanya Weathers, Undead Labs’ Director of Community, via email, and asked her some questions. (Due to Undead Labs being based on exactly the opposite side of the planet from where this writer is based, email seemed like the most sensible option for an interview).

Leviathyn: State Of Decay is one of the few modern console titles which focuses on the progressive simulation of its gameworld rather than a scripted environment. What do you think is the benefit of simulation over scripting? Is there a perfect balance between the two?

Sanya Weathers: The easy answer is that a simulation means much more… replayability. Spell check says that’s not a word, but it should be. No two playthroughs of State of Decay are the same. In fact, it’s been really interesting: people will report that the game is too hard or too easy… right up until they play it again, and bam, totally different experience.

Scripting is a hell of a lot easier to test!

State Of Decay Review

The game doesn’t do a very good job of introducing you to it’s myriad, complex menus and systems. When you’re confronted with screens like this, with little to no tutorial, it’s a bit overwhelming.

But one isn’t better than the other. You’ll note we do have both. Where the perfect balance lies is more a function of what the developer wanted to do. Scripting gives people a direction, a little focus. It takes you for a ride, and in a game, that’s a good thing. We just wanted to make a game that was more about the player creating his own ride through his own choices (or lack thereof).

L: On that note, State Of Decay is very much about the gameplay and experience over the story, although there is ‘main quest’ which follows a plot. Is the game’s plot something which will be continued in later games, or is State Of Decay a contained universe? More importantly, will Undead Labs continue their focus on gameplay mechanics first, story later?

SW: Anything set in the State Of Decay universe will see the story continued. Or maybe expanded is a better word.

But I think you can safely assume that our games for now will be more about experience than story. Not to denigrate the story, but the story you tell yourself will always be more compelling and personal.


state of decay review

Home upgrades like gardens let you bring in a constant source of food. It’s up to you whether you build, or upgrade, them or not.

L: There are clear parallels with other zombie games in State Of Decay; from Dead Rising and Dead Island, all the way to The Last Of Us and The Walking Dead. Was so much previous work in the field a boon or a hindrance? Did you draw a lot of inspiration from other games, or did you try to develop your own ideas first and foremost?

SW: We have been in development since 2010, and the design of the game dates back to 2009. We didn’t look at other games, to be honest (and the latter two games didn’t even come out until long after our plans were locked down). What we were inspired by was the entire zombie genre of books and movies, and the basic premise of “what would YOU do if the apocalypse started tomorrow?” We followed a very organic path of “if X, then Y” from there.Everyone at the Lab is a long time game industry veteran, and the freedom to follow an idea without worrying about what people think is awfully important to us.

L: What issues did you experience over the game’s development? Did you look to any other zombie games, open world or no, to overcome problems? 

SW: The main issues we encountered had to do with the fact that no one had tried to do anything like this before. The complexity of the resource management interconnected with the psychological management, combined with the offline time passage, made for something very unique, and there wasn’t anything we could look to for a fast solution if we hit a wall. It was definitely a challenge.


state of decay

As Sanya says, the world can be incredibly unforgiving at times- but this is just part and parcel of what you get in a simulation-driven game.

L: As a small downloadable title, State Of Decay has a surprisingly large world and is remarkably good looking. How did you find working with the <2GB file size limit on XBLA? Was space an issue? Did you use any specific tricks to fit so much in?

SW: It sure forced us to be creative (and to make some really tough choices – oh, swimming and fuel management, we still miss you). There were a lot of very technical things with compression that I don’t fully understand, but I’m told that the technical achievement is pretty spectacular.The guys themselves are pretty blasé about it. All in a day’s work for them.

L: How do you feel about the next generation of consoles in regards to the future of the zombie game? What do you think can be achieved with more storage and more power?

SW: When you start developing a game, you have to try and guess where the hardware will be in a few years’ time. I know that there has never been a machine yet that would do everything a game designer can dream up, and that for every technical innovation, there will be a designer pushing the boundaries until their hands bleed.

In other words, there are so many possibilities that I don’t want to bother limiting even my fantasies. I’m looking forward to virtual reality chambers!

L: Will we be seeing Undead Labs’ next title on the next generation?

SW: We’re going to be around for as long as people want to play our games.

L: You chose to focus on a singleplayer experience for State Of Decay’s first iteration. How do you think multiplayer features can open up, or be developed in a zombie survival videogame? Especially when high-level resource management and procedural events are of such importance.

SW: Well, we designed it originally for a coop experience. Someone to guard you while you loot, someone to fight by your side and cover you when you’re wounded, someone to track down missing people while you deal with an infestation, someone to develop different and complementary skills to your own… all of that will make the story you tell with our game a lot deeper. No AI can ever be as good as another person.

True multiplayer, or massively multiplayer, or any kind of mode where you’re competing with other people for resources, involves making a different game (albeit with many of the same systems). The mechanics in this one assume cooperation, not competition, and I know too much about people to think it would work!


state of decay review

Sanya says that originally the game was intended to be co-op- but single player held out.

L: Does Undead Labs plan on moving into the retail market in the future, or is the downloadable market an indefinite focus? Are there any benefits from working on download-only titles?

SW: Every game is different, so I can’t answer that question very well. We’re an independent studio, so what happens with each game will depend on the publisher. In this case, the thing that seemed best for trying out something no one had ever done before was a small (by our standards) scale project on XBLA. What happens next with the IP depends, again, on the publisher.

I happen to love this download thing. A full retail copy requires you to commit to a release date before you have ANY clue how the development process will end. You have to have a distribution pipeline. You have to commit enormous amounts of money to distribution and marketing and a hundred things that have nothing to do with the game itself. And then everyone wonders why games ship “too early.” They didn’t ship too early, they shipped on a date chosen months if not years earlier without benefit of a crystal ball. Argh, stop me from ranting. It can be done, but it’s nervewracking.

L: What current zombie media (books, games, films, etc.) are you guys currently enjoying? Which would be your favourite?

SW: Of course we’re all loving The Walking Dead. Who isn’t? Great show.

L: Thanks Sanya! Thanks Undead Labs! Godspeed, and good luck on wherever the next stage of the zombie apocalypse takes you.