The original State of Decay on PC and Xbox 360 was a big hit for developer Undead Labs. Fulfilling the fantasy of scavenging an open-world during the zombie apocalypse, it forced players to make tough choices to keep their crew of survivors alive--all while avoiding packs of undead looking to disrupt their fragile community. Now, four years later, State of Decay 2 is approaching its May 22 release, and the team at Undead Labs--including founder Jeff Strain and design director Richard Foge--were keen to share what they learned from their past success at a recent press event for the upcoming survival game.
For more content on State of Decay 2, be sure to check out our impressions, along with videos about our experiences exploring the world in co-op play.
GameSpot: Since State of Decay came out, survival games have really picked up, especially on PC. It's a really popular genre. To Undead Labs, what makes the genre great?
Jeff Strain: Well, survival is a very broad bucket. You can say that DayZ is one kind of survival, and Fortnite and PUBG are other kinds of survivals. Our specific incarnation of it is a little bit different, in that it's more of the long game through survival. It's a game of investment for your survival. And what's interesting to us is that the formula that we have of this core loop of the open sandbox simulator world, the RPG characters, the base building and all the simulation mechanics, and going out in the world, scavenging resources, bringing them back, investing them into your base and building out long term infrastructure. That hasn't been done. We still feel like that particular formula is one that is unique to State of Decay, and that's why we call it survival fantasy.
I think one of the reasons it really resonates for us is because it's playing to a fantasy that a lot of people have completely aside from video games. The way this game started, literally was me sitting around with some friends after seeing a zombie flick and comparing our survival plans. "What would you do? What would you do?" That phrase right there, "What would you do?"
One guy was going to go to Costco and board up the doors. One guy was going to go out and commandeer the Washington State Ferry, and go out to sea and isolate himself. Like, everybody had their own plan and that was like, no game captured that, right? And that's what we wanted to do.
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Why don't you think anyone has taken that on before you guys?
JS: I don't know. When we first announced the game, people said, 'Eh, does the world need another zombie game?' We sold 5 million copies of State of Decay. It turns out that it really resonated with people. And I'll tell you--I think the truth is there's a lot of people in the world for whom if the zombie apocalypse broke out tomorrow, they wouldn't be entirely sad about it, right? It's a chance to put your own wits to the test.
I may not have been the high school football star, I may not be a Wall Street wolf, right. I may not be a captain of industry, I may not be the hottest, most buff guy, or the most beautiful woman on the planet. None of that matters in the zombie apocalypse. The only thing that matters is how smart are you and can you marshal the diminishing resources here and pull all this stuff together and survive when other people who don't have the same unique insight or skills will perish. It's like an alternate reality where you can be a superstar, and I think that really appeals to a lot of people. It appeals to me.
How has development been going for State of Decay 2 during the time since the release of the original game? And what sort of fan reactions stuck out for you?
Richard Foge: When we first set out to make games at Undead Labs, we had a vision for this long term big picture of what we were gonna make, which was this crazy zombie MMO thing. After the first State of Decay came out, folks were responding to it very positively. They loved how the first game worked. They loved the intimacy of it, kind of that small town vibe. They loved playing it. What they were asking us for wasn't an MMO. But what they were asking for was loudly saying, "I just want multiplayer. I just want co-op." I feel like it'll be weird if suddenly it's this MMO, massively populated with people.
We were in this really great position of being able to listen to people who already love the game, and make [the game] they were looking for, instead of trying to make this thing that we had thought of years before, you know, this stepping stone into that [MMO]. Development of the game took a long time. Transitioning [graphics] engines was a big deal, getting your entire development team up to speed on new tech and all the stuff that went into making this game look better and feel better over the last several years.
What was one of the biggest lessons that Undead Labs took away from the original game that you all were more cognizant of for State of Decay 2?
RF: It's interesting because one of the biggest lessons came from one of the DLC packs we released. We introduced sort of an endless mode to the game called Breakdown, where you could kind of keep going with a community from one place to the next while the difficulty was increasing. The thing [fans] liked about it the most was that it didn't have a linear narrative. It had a structure [related] to what was going on, but it really let players control the pace and respond to the events that were taking place in the world; [it let players] really make their own stories with their communities. It didn't have any specific starring characters--except for Lily--who kind of was just a necessary component that we couldn't get rid of.
That was one of the key inspirations for the structure that we have in this game. We wanted it to be the case that players were experiencing their own unique stories. [We wanted] the choices they were making about how this community was going to survive to drive the story of that community as opposed to a linear arch that everybody [would] go through.
State of Decay 2's narrative is more intertwined with the world simulation. How does that work, mechanically? What does progression look like in State of Decay 2?
JS: Think of every character you rescue as having story potential. You saw they each have their own unique traits and backgrounds, and there are missions and dialogue chains and things that can happen that come along with that character if the conditions are right for them. There are decisions that have to be made that dive into ethical quandaries, and what you say will result in events that can affect your community's overall morale. All these [aspects of the game] can flow in to how those potential stories express themselves and when you have a community of eight or 10 different survivors in it, then there's always something triggering and happening.
There's definitely a classic narrative structure--a beginning, a middle, and an end where all these things can happen. Every play through the game is effectively the story of your community. And as you go through it, by the time you finish with that community, you will feel like your time there has been defined by a story that you've helped define. And it's different for everybody who plays.
Co-op is hard to do, especially with big games like this. What are the limitations of co-op in State of Decay 2? When I join someone's game, what persists, and what doesn't?
JS: We really thought long and hard about how we were going to do multiplayer in State of Decay 2. The fans of the original were not asking for PvP. They were not asking for...
JS: They weren't, right? All they told us was, 'I love State of Decay and I want to play with my friends.' And so we did some soul-searching and said, should we just do that? And so the goal was very much, let's take that core desire and make it as easy and frictionless as possible. And we didn't want to get in to, [registering] ownership of communities together and when one person leaves do you divide the resources?
Instead, it's just very simple drop in and drop out. I've got my world, you've got yours. You can come play with me as much as you want in my world. I'm going to play with you as much as you want in your world. When you bring your characters in, they have access to all of the facilities. They can craft things. They can get medication or take advantage of the infrastructure that you've built. They can help you round up supplies and rescue other characters for the base. Find things in your world. Any weapons, or items, or firecrackers, or C4, or whatever I find in a world, I get to keep. My character dies in your world, my character's dead.
Even though there's all these characters to play as, it seems like the setting itself--the areas you go to and the overarching zombie-apocalypse--is the true central character. And many of the survivors are these secondary characters coming in.
RF: That's a really interesting perspective. If you take in a lot of really popular zombie fiction right now, in particular some of the shows, you're following a specific set of people. They're interacting with other sets of people. That's pretty much what you're gonna be doing in State of Decay, interacting with these sets of people. If you're able to zoom out a little bit further and take the big picture in, would you care about this group of people quite as much [as you do] about their drama? Not necessarily, but it's meaningful because you're with them. You care about it because you're invested in their journey. That's the relationship we're looking for players to have with their communities in State of Decay 2. The world story, what's going on, the setting--that's kind of the big picture.
Imagine how weird it would be for us to have this online multiplayer about this open world that's supposed to be about you, if they showed up and it was the exact same character in maybe a different part of the story than you are in. We felt that would be kind of disruptive to the overall feel of the game experience that we wanted folks to have, to literally be playing the same story from different perspectives.
Was there one thing that sticks out for you as something that Undead Labs was able to accomplish?
RF: Honestly, a big part of it is being able to capture the feel of State of Decay and still have the multiplayer involved. I'm very proud of that, that we were able to achieve something that makes it feel like this is your story. You're having a separate story and basically we're all existing in the same continuity in this world simultaneously. I feel like when we play together, [in] multiplayer it really does feel like I'm bringing somebody who is surviving over into this spot. I'm really proud of the way that the game cohesively works in that way.
Aaron Greenberg has previously said State of Decay's price point ($30 USD / £22 GBP / $40 AUD for the base game) was because Microsoft wanted to build a long lasting community and get a lot of people into it, does that ring true to what you originally had in vision for State of Decay 2?
JS: We want to grow, and support, and nurture, and build the State of Decay series for a long time. I would far rather have 5 million players paying $30 than 2 million players paying $50, right? And regardless of the math on that, it's just a statement to everybody, that our goal here is not to throw something over the wall and make as much money as we can on it, and then move on to something else. We're in it. It's a lower price than you would normally see, but we hope the trade-off is that will have a much longer [lasting] community that we can build a relationship with over time.
You obviously have set up State of Decay to easily incorporate additional content such as new maps. That's definitely something on the cards?
JS: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
With Xbox Game Pass, first party titles will be included at launch--which includes State of Decay 2. How does that model affect the success of this game and how does it affect you guys as a business?
JS: Game Pass is a funnel. It brings people into the game. If you take the long view and envision that you want to have customers over a period of years, rather than months, then it makes sense to bring as many people into the game as fast as you can. Build a relationship with them. Get them enjoying what you've made. And then, give them new stuff to buy over time. Shopping is fun when you love what it is that you're buying.
We're obviously always going to be very respectful--we've already been on record saying that this is not going to be a loot crate game. This is not going to be an energy [-based] game--there's no zombie coins in the game. We're not [working on] a microtransaction business model, but we are definitely going to say, "Hey, you guys are enjoying the game, here's [our] Daybreak DLC, a big new expansion to the game; here's a whole new mode you can play; here's some entire new maps with new missions and new challenges." That's the kind of relationship we want to have, where we announce something like that and everybody says, "Awesome, I'm all in, because I love this game."
Undead Labs is an independent studio--am I right in assuming that Microsoft owns the State of Decay name?
JS: They own the name and the specific incarnation of it, yeah.
Do you think that would ever put a limit on Undead Labs and what you guys want to do with this series? Or has it ever had any effect?
JS: Look, Microsoft backed a game that nobody in their right mind should of touched.
Were you having trouble before Microsoft came along?
JS: Nah, we talked to them from the very beginning. I mean, we're in Seattle, they're in Redmond. I knew that I wanted to build a great console game and a great PC game, and it just made sense to work with them. But going out with a game that's permadeath, which at the time in 2009/10 when we started developing nobody [was doing]. That's game design 101. You don't do permadeath,are you guys on crack?
And now it's all the rage.
JS: And also with that just kind of general formula that I was talking about, there were no comparables. Big publishers get nervous when they can't say, 'Oh, it's like PUBG, only it's got dragons.'
So we came up with this grand vision for what this thing could be, and to their great credit, [Microsoft] said yeah, let's give it a go. And so they've been a good partner and as long as we're making State of Decay games, Microsoft will be our partner in that.
Now, you're a big D&D guy...
JS: How do you know?
It's in the bio Microsoft sent me.
JS: Oh, that's right. Does that say that in my bio? Okay.
You're a Dungeon Master, so you must have a lot of ideas floating around your head. Do you have any grand ideas for games that don't involve zombies?
And are those things you might want to pursue in the future?
Do you think the name 'Undead Labs' restricts you in branching out too much?
JS: Well, there are undead in D&D, aren't there?