GB: It's been well over a year now since you left mainstream developing to go indie. How's the indie life been treating you?
Brian: Good. It was definitely a difficult mindset to get used to at first after coming from a mainstream development process, but the necessary adjustments have been made and the only real difference between our operation and a big dev studio is that it's much harder for us to walk over to our coworker's office to ask a question, being that most of the team is spread out all over the world.
There's always going to be challenges and tradeoffs for this kind of development, but I think the team has done a great job and the internet seems to agree, which was odd because the internet is usually a writhing ball of hate, doubt, and meh, so we were really happy to see so many people excited about Dead State. Most importantly, people seemed to get what we were going for and that we weren't just releasing Zombie Game #531,622 - that was the most satisfying part, actually.
GB: So... why zombies? Even though you're taking a different approach by focusing on the survival angle, are you concerned that the zombie theme has been overused during the past couple of years?
Brian: I must admit, I'm pretty tired of zombies in games myself. And mostly that's because zombies divorced from their fiction are bland. They're fun to kill in games, sure, but just throwing zombies in to try and capture the horror of zombie movies is like throwing broccoli on a table and calling it a farmer's market.
I'm not terribly happy about the state of the zombie game. People should be rightfully getting burned out on them because of the constant addition of them to every game (two more actually added them while I was writing this). At its core, our game is not about the zombies. It's about a world in crisis, it's about survival, it's about the ugly truth of human behavior - all the things the zombie genre is usually about, when you look past the zombies. There have been some good zombie-themed games in the last few years - Plants Vs. Zombies, Dead Rising - but I don't think there have been many games that have used zombies in the way that the best zombie movies use them.
GB: Zombie survival is an entirely different beast in comparison to straight-up zombie horror. It's had some strong titles in different media. What particularly inspired you to take this direction?
Brian: The simple answer - I wanted to make the zombie game I always wanted to play. We could have done an apocalypse brought about by economic collapse, but the zombies made the game easier to explain and more fun from a gameplay perspective (make noise, it attracts zombies, who will attack any humans, regardless of what team they're on). The social breakdown really just provides an excellent setting for an RPG because of its lack of structure and the difficult decisions you have to make. In so many games, the law and structure of society - even fantasy society - forces a very rigid narrative on you. I guess it doesn't need to, necessarily, but the fact that we could get away from random quest-givers, merchants, or social hierarchies allows us to rethink a lot of RPG standard mechanics and story structures. It was very liberating.
I've been through a natural disaster before, so there's a bit of that influence too, but in the way of wondering what would happen if no one came to restore power, and order, and food delivery and so on. Since I think everyone who has seen a zombie movie has probably wondered, "what would I do?" even fleetingly, the idea of giving players the chance to play out such a scenario seemed like a great experience to build a game around.
GB: An atmosphere of stress and survival can be set up in many ways. How important is it to you to add actual gameplay mechanics to immerse the players rather than just writing and visuals?
Brian: The stress and survival aspects were what we designed the game around - if we couldn't get that right, we wouldn't have committed to the project. We started conceiving the game around the hunt for resources such as food, and then thought about the shelter management, then worked on morale and NPC moods and the different ways it could affect AI, such as panic. We looked at what games did wrong with their food systems and adjusted it so that the food, the morale, fuel, are all similar to a kind of currency - I don't think it will take players a long time to grasp how it works. Once we were sure the mechanics wouldn't be frustrating or potentially game-breaking 90% of the time, we began fleshing out the secondary systems and started thinking about characters and game events. The story only reinforces the situation, and provides some characters that react to the player's success at keeping them alive. If we're successful, the player's stress will come from their story and combat decisions - we need food, we need to go scavenging, but if someone dies on the run, morale will drop and it's already low, that kind of thing.
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