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Interview: Undead Labs' Jeff Strain

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Posted December 2, 2009 - By Stephen Johnson

Interview: Undead Labs' Jeff Strain

Last week, we brought you word of Undead Labs, a game development company created by MMO development veteran Jeff Strain. Undead Labs is in the earliest stages of creating a console-based zombie MMO. Because I love both multiplayer online persistent worlds and the shambling undead, I needed to know more, so I caught up with Strain to dig up details on what could be the must-play game of the future.

G4: I would personally like to thank you for making a MMO that doesn't have elves in it.

Jeff Strain: You know, its funny; I have to tread carefully because fantasy is my roots that's what got me in the industry. That's what I worked with for 14 years that I been in the industry, and I still love it. I don't have any disrespect for the fantasy universes out there, but I'm like you. I want to do something different, and it's time to do something different. I Everybody is reacting very favorably to an MMO that treads in the new territory.

G4: Is it more risky to make a MMO not in the realm of fantasy?

Strain:  Absolutely. I think you have to look at two aspects of risk. One aspect to risk is doing something new and bold, for which you can point to no previous success and we are going to be like that. Another aspect to risk is doing what everyone has done before. So if you made a formula for the successful MMO and stick to it exactly then you would wind up making MMOs that are already out there. You really have to choose your battle and be innovated where it counts. Anytime you're doing something new, it's risky. The answer to your question is yes, but I also think for me and for this company to make a PC fantasy MMORPG would be more risky just because there is nothing new under the sun.

G4: Often, when game companies announce new MMOs, they say they're coming to consoles, but the console version always see to get dropped and they come out for PC only.

Strain: We're not saying it's for PC and consoles; we're just saying it's for consoles. Having been in the industry for more than a decade in the MMO industry in particular, I can tell you that both the technical and design challenges of creating an MMO that is equally at home on PC and console is a very daunting undertaking. I know exactly why some of those big announced projects that were PC MMO and have a console version never saw the light of day, because you spend all your time trying to solve these issues of interfaces and play mechanics. Console gamers have different expectation about how they play the game. And even people who play both... I'm a PC gamer and a console gamer. I love them both, but I have different set of expectation when I sit down with my PC than I do when I jump down on my couch with a controller. What's important is to say: Here's the game we are making. Using the Halo analogy, first person shooter were PC genres games. Bungie took the chance of saying "We're going to make a first-person shooter for console players and meet their expectations for what that should be like," and look what happened. They defined an entire category of gaming on the console.

G4: Do you think MMOs are just inherently better suited to PCs because of the social aspects?

Strain: You don't have it on console because nobody has done it on console. I wouldn't agree with the statement that console gamers don't want it or wouldn't be equally excited to have large virtual online communities. I don't think they have been given the opportunity to have that yet. Console gaming has always been a more social type of gaming if you look at the content of your buddies coming over your house and having a pizza party and throwing the controllers around and everyone jumping into multiplayer gaming action. That's incredibly social, that's one of the most fun aspect of console gaming. PC has given us the ability to have social interaction in a more widely distributed network, but again in almost solitary way. It's you sitting on your computer playing with someone over the internet. What I think can happen with consoles is blending both those social interactions together. I would love to imagine a game that I can both play online with my friends when they're at their houses or have that party. I can invite some friends to come over; we can grab the controllers and the screen splits intelligently, and we can go on missions together. That's a very compelling idea for how this could blend those two social interaction.

Interview: Undead Labs' Jeff Strain

G4: Can you give me a rough idea of whether this will be an action game or a more RPG style game?

Strain: One of the questions you are trying to get out there is what are the differences between a PC MMO and a console MMO in terms of the actual combat. I don't think console gamers are going to be happy with your traditional PC MMO mechanics. Selecting a target and then selecting an action on that target, and having limited interaction as that combat plays out. That's not what console gamers expect in a game; it's not what I expect in a console game. If I'm holding a baseball bat, I want to push the X button and make the bat swing. I think the fundamental way you interact on a individual level with the game world has to be different than what we have seen on the PC side. You can't just take a PC MMO template and drop it off on a console and expect it to work. That why I want to target consoles specifically because all these little decisions -- all the way from how you move, how you interact with the objects in the world, how combat played out -- all of those have to be given the care and attention that they need to be right for the console gaming experiences. It's just very difficult to blend those across the multiple platforms. To answer your question directly: I think for the minute-by-minute play it's going to feel like a traditional console game where pushing the X button will swing your weapon, and there is more physical movement throughout the game world, but I will blend into that all the large scale social dynamics that you expect in a great MMO and the persistent world.

G4: On a scale of 1-10 how far is it from being a completed game?

Strain: Well, I think there are two phases to game development. There's what I call planning a prototype, where you have all these big ideas, and you go with all this rigorous methodical refinement to make sure that they are actually feasible for the game world. For a team of people who haven't been down this path before, the only way you can determine if these ideas are going to work out is by actually building them and seeing if they work out and resetting if you need to. On the other hand, if you have an experienced team of developers, you can get a lot closer to putting down the ideas on paper and having some confidence that it's something that can be done in the constraints of the technology. You know the design goals you want to achieve. We are quite far down that process in the design and putting rigorous methodology behind making sure we can actually pull this off. So on a  scale of 1-10, if i break the project into these large components, then I'd say we're more than half way through in the first phases, but in the term of implementation, we've got a long way to go. We're a new studio; we just announced our studio, we've got a big mountain to climb.

G4: Can you tell us who will be on the team?

Strain:  No, I can't but I think there will be an announcement soon.

G4: In terms of the tone of the game, is it more funny or scary? More Night of the Living Dead or Zombieland?

Strain: Good question. One of the things I think is essential to making an MMO zombie game versus a shooter game is that element of humor. Whenever you're making an MMO, your first priority has to be creating a world where people want to live. I don't want to live in a burnt-out post apocalyptic trashed world. That's not fun for me. It might be fun for 10 hour in a single player game, but I'm sure not gonna go build a community with all my friends and people around the world and live in this alternative reality for a long period of time. That's why I think with the zombie genre, the beauty is you don't have to tear up the world. Yes, it's post apocalyptic, but what you're really talking about is the collapse of society. You're not talking about everything being destroyed, and that has its own charm -- its own missions; its own quest built right into it. Here we've inherited the Earth, our mission is to restart society and hold off the zombies and take back what we've lost. But now we have a chance to do it right, and I think that's something people actually care about. You don't have to force feed them story.  It's like you get it right away, and in terms of the two examples I've always envisioned this more of a Zombieland type of horror in that yes there is horror and credible menace and credible threat. One of the great things about Zombieland was the road trip aspect. Who would have thought a zombie movie could have a road trip? I think that's all part of the world being yours; all the rules are gone and you've inherited this earth: What are you gonna do with it?

G4: Why zombies? Why now?

Strain: I understand where you're going with this. People ask all the time, "Why are you making a zombie game? Why are zombies so popular right now?" I think every generation has a bad guy, it's unapologetic we have to destroy this menace at all costs. We've had Nazi, commies, terrorists. We've had polluters. I think zombies very much fill that role now as a threat that's going to destroy what you love. And not in some abstract, "There's this kingdom in north and you're the royalty, and you don't know it, and you're a farm kid, and danger comes looking for you, and magic trolls and stuff." That's all very compelling for a fantasy mindset, but not on a personal day to day level. I think zombies represent: This is my world and they destroyed it, and I'm gonna try and get it back.

G4: Fast or slow zombies?

Strain: Haha, that's like religion! But it's a fair question. If I'm gonna say I love zombies, I need to answer that. So I'm a fast zombie guy, and I know that makes me a heretic in some eyes. But my thinking in the terms of the game world is that I don't have to pick one or another. The beauty of a zombie MMO is this isn't a game like a traditional fantasy MMO where there are 1,000 different monsters and you derive a certain amount of pleasure from killing them. The zombie genre is more about how you interact with large groups, and how those large groups can be manipulated to your detriment or your advantage. There are understood mechanics and lore that, as a game designer, lets me go build a world around those mechanics. There's an understandable way that they behave so it's natural for the player to go and build and construct things that will interact with the game. But when I look at slow zombies or fast zombies, they both have compelling mechanics. Slow zombie have got large group and you can manipulate that group.  Fast zombies are more threatening on an individual or small group level. I want to be able design a game around those. So even I am a fast zombie guy, I really want to integrate the compelling aspects of both types of zombies in a game. I think you can do that without seeming to try to appease people. I think you can do it in a way thats very natural and consistent in the game universe.

G4: Will players be able to play as zombies

Strain: Personally, as a player, I'd be very excited to see that happen.

G4: When can we expect to be able to play this game.

Strain:  I'll go out there with the standard disclaimer, MMOs are huge complicated endeavorers. It takes a lot of resources and a lot of people. Having said that, we're going to be structuring ourselves differently, which will allow us to get it out more rapidly. Having said that: It wont be out this Christmas or next Christmas, after that it become a little bit fuzzy, we have a few more years.

G4: I hope there's no actual zombie apocalypse between now and then.

Strain: Well, it would be good source material wouldn't it?

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Interview: Undead Labs' Jeff Strain
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