How Typing of the Dead: Overkill survived its studio's apocalypse

Facing a closing studio and a four-month deadline, the team behind Typing of the Dead: Overkill could have collapsed. Instead, it brought one of Sega's most beloved cult classics back to life.
Three days ago, Steam users were surprised to discover a curious entry in among Valve's annual Halloween sale: Typing of the Dead: Overkill, a remake of Sega's cult classic combination zombie shooter and typing tutorial. Developed by small UK studio Modern Dream, this followup to the 1999 arcade and Dreamcast original shuffled onto Steam under Sega's publishing label with zero fanfare or advertising. It didn't need any. Instead, news of the release spread organically and like wildfire across social media and message boards. In an era where games are often announced years in advance and there is seemingly no shortage of nostalgia for old titles, no one seemed to have any idea where this had come from. "It's a credit to the original and how much of a following it still has, that in this day and age when a game can fall from view so quickly, this is exploding," says Ollie Clarke, founder of Modern Dream and project lead on Typing of the Dead: Overkill. "And no one who has been buying this game knows just how hard it was to get it released." It's a story that befits Typing of the Dead's dark horse nature. A project conceived in June of this year, Clarke and his small team of originally eight developers had just four months to make, test and ship the game. Even under normal circumstances, this would be a staggering task -- add in the death of a studio, a nullified contract, no hardware and no money, and things start to seem very apocalyptic indeed.

Not with a bang, but with a whimper

Life (or un-life) for Typing of the Dead: Overkill began at Blitz Games Studios, a company founded in 1990 by twin brothers Andrew and Philip Oliver. 175 employees strong, the Leamington Spa, UK-based studio was best known for developing licensed games for several major franchises. Additionally, among its staff were several who had developed the engine for House of the Dead: Overkill, the 2009 prequel game released onto Wii and other platforms. For this reason, Sega and Blitz struck up talks about the possibility of taking the engine and House of the Dead: Overkill's assets to work into a new Typing of the Dead -- a modification just as the original had been. "Unfortunately," says Clarke, "Blitz did get to the point where it was going into liquidation." Word came down on the morning of September 12th. Clarke, a manager at the studio, was one of the first to hear the news. "I just felt stunned," he recalls. "I went downstairs and I could see the team heatedly discussing how the frontend would work. They were working so hard. And I knew what was going to hit them and it was an awful moment. I really believed in them, that they could -- they just needed some time to make the game." Clarke went back upstairs and cornered a colleague in charge of business affairs, prodding him as to whether it was possible for his team to keep developing the game in the face of Blitz's closure.
"He looked at me and distinctly said, 'not a chance.' Normally that would have been the end of it, but we carried on talking," says Clarke. "The smart thing to do would have been to take the [last paycheck], cry in a bar for a few days, find another job, and let Typing of the Dead rest in peace, never to see the light of day again... We didn't have the contract, we didn't have the place to work, we didn't have PCs to develop on. [But] over about 20 minutes we came up with a plan as to how we were going to do it." Clarke and his colleague examined the terms of Sega's soon-to-be-nullified contract with Blitz, determining that in light of Blitz's liquidation all rights would revert to Sega. Thus, in theory, the developers could take the half-finished build and approach the publisher for a new license. Armed with this knowledge, Clarke went back downstairs and broke the news to his team: Blitz Games was folding, they would all soon be jobless and likely without income -- but there was a chance that, at the very least, they could finish the game. "To everyone's credit, they jumped on it," says Clarke. "We knew it was going to be a bloody nightmare, of course. We knew there were going to be a lot of hoops we'd have to jump through. A lot of things needed to line up. I think that if we had thought about it clearly, we never would've tried to do it."

"No matter what, I'm about getting the games out."

The very next day ("a Friday the 13th; lucky to some") Clarke met with several senior executives from Sega to explain the situation and outline his new proposal. "I really can't stress enough how kind, supportive and generous those guys were," says Clarke. "They're game makers themselves. They come from the same background as us. I think they'd been through this themselves once." Sega agreed to Clarke's proposal, and three days later, Clarke crowded the entire development team of Typing of the Dead: Overkill into his apartment. They had six weeks to finish the game. "It was like those start-ups you see in films. Computer cables running everywhere, working on laptops," Clarke says keenly. "I remember one guy in particular, a quiet but very experienced member of the team... He turned to me and said, 'No matter what, I'm about getting the games out.'" Clarke and his team couldn't ship Typing of the Dead: Overkill working on laptops from a crowded apartment, however, so Sega stepped in. The publisher offered up office space at its Leamington studio, Hardlight. Within a week and a half, the team had settled in, ready for the final sprint. "Over the coming days and weeks we were very lucky. Everything that had to happen, happened the right way. It was really down to this kind of can-do energy that everyone associated with it had, from Sega Hardlight, to the team. Even the ex-directors of Blitz were very supportive and wanted to see us finish this game."
For the purposes of the license with Sega and seeing that the group got paid, Clarke organized the team under Modern Dream, the side project through which Clarke had released several small, independent titles in the past year. "We killed all the bugs, we set up the boss fights, we implemented all the effects and explosions, tested compatibility, tested and re-tested every one of the levels, made sure it had the right difficulty curve... and we got the game out, miracle of miracles," says Clarke. "And this has all literally happened within the last six weeks."

"From disaster to not only survival, but doing well."

It was Sega's marketing team that decided to launch Typing of the Dead: Overkill, without warning, onto Steam just in time for its Halloween sale. A risky move with potential to backfire -- but then, how would anyone advertise a game like Typing of the Dead, even in today's market? "It's not something I would've done, but they were absolutely right," Clarke acknowledges. Clarke says he hasn't seen the numbers yet -- and really, not a week into release, it'd be too early to call -- but Sega informs him that the game is performing much better than expected, and Clarke says he's been thrilled to see word of mouth spreading over Twitter and message boards. As for the team, Clarke reports that each of them has already found new work with other companies. "Except for me!" he clarifies. "I've got the taste for [leading a studio] now I guess, so I've decided to take Modern Dream forward with a smaller team and see if I can carry on making games. It's a mad thing to attempt, by anyone's standards. If you want to make a good living, don't make games." But, Clarke continues, "I love games, and I want to carry on doing it. And I've come to appreciate that there are a lot of good, talented people in this industry that want to see games made. It's possible -- it's hard! -- but it's possible to get it done. And if we can pull it off then we should carry on trying to make it happen." Typing of the Dead: Overkill, meanwhile, will continue to see support from the studio in the form of an upcoming multiplayer update ("we're doing that right now, over the weekend") and some other additions still to be announced. In the meantime, the team is riding high on enthusiasm. "The most satisfying thing there is now is just all of the positive feedback that we've been getting," says Clarke. "We're all really happy right now. We've gone from disaster to not only survival, but doing well."
The core team behind Typing of the Dead: Overkill. Left to right: Russell Callaghan, Tim Page, Jonathan "Jogo" Evans, Fred Williams, Ollie Clarke, Dan Chapman, Andy Keeble, Jim Hargreaves, Jonah Buckley and Tom Weston.

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