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Q&A: Jeff Strain On Undead Labs' One-Two Zombie Punch For XBLA

We speak to veteran World of Warcraft developer Jeff Strain about building open worlds on console using systems that support single-player, co-op, and massively multiplayer titles alike, at his new studio Undead Labs.

Mike Griffin, Blogger

July 21, 2011

6 Min Read

[Veteran PC developer Jeff Strain and his team at Undead Labs are now crafting ambitious zombie survival titles exclusively for Xbox 360. We speak to Jeff about building dynamic open worlds on console using systems that support single-player, co-op, and massively multiplayer titles alike.] The easy road for a developer targeting the zombie survival genre might be to embrace the most popular current templates and run with them. Smaller studios have recently peppered digital storefronts and web portals with zombie-slaying derivatives, many of them distilled forms of Left 4 Dead’s co-op formula, framed in various camera perspectives, and focusing on more linear, highly-scripted maps and modes. This is not the dusty apocalyptic trail being traveled by Seattle-based Undead Labs. The studio recently partnered with Microsoft Game Studios for not one, but two open-world zombie survival titles -- to be published exclusively on Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade. Currently veiled by code names Class3 and Class4 (a direct homage to Max Brooks' best-selling The Zombie Survival Guide), both games will chronicle the same world and events. The first game will hit XBLA as a single player and co-op entry point into the post-apocalyptic world, while a second game -- the larger massively-multiplayer expression of Undead Labs' vision -- continues to be developed in parallel. After choosing to develop both titles in the console space, Undead Labs elected to build the projects within many overlapping systems, toolsets and rules. The goal is a dynamic and procedural world that reacts to a player's actions, whether they’re devising ingenious blueprints and traps to corral the undead, or ramming a salvaged SUV through a flesh-hungry horde to rescue a child. Jeff Strain, Undead Labs' founder and executive producer (known for key contributions to World of Warcraft and Guild Wars) tells Gamasutra why making a server-hosted online world game isn't the scary part. Rather, ensuring the game is also a superb third-person open-world console experience is likely to be the challenge. This project is kind of breaking new ground on XBLA. What sort of crucial technology hurdles are you looking to overcome in Class3, ahead of the online world game of Class4? We certainly have our work cut out for us on the technology side of this project. Class3 is, without question, among the most ambitious Xbox LIVE Arcade titles ever produced. We're using a cutting edge, high caliber 3D engine, which we'll announce soon, and while that gives us the rendering and animation punch we need, we have to do significant work to support the kind of open-world gameplay we want. A lot of the open-world gameplay you've talked about is dynamic content, and if that's going to be online it may require tweaking a mainstream engine. Unless you're going for a very scripted approach? We have substantial work to do on our development tools. It's not sufficient to just create pre-scripted encounters and drop them into fixed locations. Instead, we need content creation tools that are specifically geared toward creating an open world game that responds dynamically to the decisions you make. The drop-in, drop-out second player option you're doing in Class3 is a baby step compared to pulling off large-scale multiplayer with a huge concurrent player population in a dynamic world. Sure, making a server-hosted online world ain't like dusting crops. But you know, we've done that before, and that's not the scary part. The scary part is that our server-hosted online world is capable of supporting a large population, and that it also supports the fast, visceral combat and direct interaction with the environment that we've talked about. We've got some amazing programmers to put on this challenge, and concrete plans on how to make it work, but you can bet we'll be pouring a ton of energy into it. Players have responded positively to your pledge to include slick, split-screen two-player gameplay in both Class3 and Class4. That's a nice feature for guests or couples who want to tackle the zombie apocalypse together in the living room. Hey, don't toss slick, split-screen play out there as if it was a solved problem! It's one thing to support split-screen play for shooters with relatively constrained levels, but it becomes a much more challenging problem for an open-world game where the players can be on different sides of a very large world. We're putting some serious blood equity into this system as well. In the realm of gameplay, Class3 is an excellent opportunity to tune your console action and make it a really standout part of the experience. Are you always looking ahead to Class4, in terms of how far you can push the action envelope towards the larger online world game? Yes and no. It would be silly to design the game without any thought about how the gameplay would translate into an online world game. We're fortunate to have a ton of online world game experience on our development team, which makes it easy to intuitively know what will and will not work in an online world game. On the other hand, in our experience, the number one reason that massive online world games fail -- both before and after release -- is because they're just not that much fun to play. Not fun, or sometimes too unfinished to wade through? Sure, we can all think of ambitious online games that had technical challenges at launch, but because they were fun, gamers stuck around while the developers worked out the kinks. It's much harder to name a not-so-fun game that survived solely on its lack of technical glitches. So it makes a lot more sense to us to focus on making an open-world game that is an absolute blast to play, and only then turn our attention to the technical challenges of translating it into an online world game. MMOs have complex control schemes, but that's typically on PC, not a pure console experience like this. Are you trying to carry over the control scheme from Class3 into the online world game? We fully expect to nail down the control scheme in Class3 and have it carry over intact to Class4. As you point out, we're not trying to replicate the PC MMO experience on the controller. Class4 will be a full online world, but it won't at all resemble what gamers currently think of when they hear "MMO." We're addressing this project from the perspective of bringing an online world to a fantastic third-person open world console game, rather than trying to shoehorn a great console game experience into the old online world template. Is it refreshing to walk into the studio each day, knowing that you're building a top tier console game after a decade-plus of doing strictly PC stuff? I'll tell you from the gut that this is quite simply a dream come true for all of us at Undead Labs. Everyone here has been involved in some of the greatest games ever made -- like Warcraft and StarCraft, Halo, Guild Wars, Half-Life, Diablo, Team Fortress, Counter-Strike, God of War -- but each of us also feel that our career so far has been the perfect preparation for this game. Plus, the game has an open world zombie survival theme that you and the whole team clearly love. Let me be clear; I'm not saying this as an official company response. Instead, I'm saying that, on a very personal level, this is the game we're here to make. Everything came together at just the right time, in just the right way, to allow us to do this. We have the rocket fuel we need. Our task now is to ignite it.

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