The Dead Talk: Fort Zombie Interview

By Kieron Gillen on September 22nd, 2009 at 12:40 pm.

When we heard news that Sword of the Stars’ maker Kerberos were, as part of the route to sci-fi RPG Northstar, making a town-based zombie-defence game by the name of Fort Zombie, our response was immediate. To do lots of stuff. And part of that stuff was dropping them a mail, and asking if they were up for a chat about their imminent undead-escapades. And lo! the Lead Designer Martin Cirulis was. We present the results here, in what we call “An interview”.

RPS: I understand this is a spin-off from your NorthStar development. What was the thinking behind doing a smaller, spin-off game first?

Martin Cirulis: The logic was that here we are with the core parts of a large, ambitious project already in place, but at least a year’s worth of content development and over arching feature placement still left to go. So on a day-to-day basis, we are developing the art pipeline for character and prop/set assets, basic AI routines and experimenting with various lighting and physics systems. After a couple months of that, the “Hey, there could already be a game here.” sentiment started to be felt more and more. Not a game on the size and scale of NStar, but something fun and RPG-ish and shooty was definitely begging to be put together as something beyond just simple test bedding.

Enter a figure animation test that used very basic models for people stand-ins, a shout of “Hey! Those look like Lego zombies!” And the rest is history!

RPS: What inspired you to take a more graphical, action-lead approach to the burgeoning zombie-defence sub-genre? Did you draw inspiration from all the webgames that have been around, or is it parallel evolution?

Martin Cirulis: We love all kinds of zombie games and we approached FZ in the same basic way we did SotS. For SotS the question was, “What if you could play all those classic 4-X space games but with real, modern FX, weapon detail and 3-D combat environments?” For FZ it was ”What if there was a Zombie Defence game that used modern production values not just in terms of 3-D action but also in terms of some RPG detail, yet was still quick-n-dirty fun?”

It’s fun to stand behind barricades and shoot but we really wanted a game where you had to go out into the “physical” world and find those materials, weapons and people all while dodging the wandering hordes and so FZ became an expression of that desire for the next level of action and detail while not wanting to bog everything down into an experience that required 2 hours of session investment to be any fun or get anything done.

RPS: Could you talk about the random tile-aspect to the city? How varied are you looking at a game to be?

Martin Cirulis: The game, and the original NStar engine itself, is about getting every ounce of variety out of every art asset created. The best way to keep a city from being the same old thing every time you enter it BUT not being a randomized nonsensical mess is to get a handle on what your basic building block (or in this case, tile) is going to be. In the case of FZ, that primary tile is the “Property”.

Each Property is a designed and built set piece with inlaid props, findable items, zombies, etc. etc. A fairly large library of Properties are mixed and matched according to a set of rules and placed along streets and alleys in order to create a “Neighbourhood” and it is there that the player enters their mission. Each Property comes in with a set of variants so that the player gets that realistic sense of a town with varied neighbourhoods that contain structures that become familiar.

So in essence, yes you may wander down a street 4 days into your game and go “Oh, look it’s the local fast food joint, in our case a ‘Willy The Fox Burgers’ franchise! I wonder if they will have supplies in the meat locker like the last one? Or how many zombies might be there?” And then when you get closer, perhaps you find out it’s already been stripped clean and wrecked or even reduced to a burned out husk.

RPS: How about the actual defence aspect itself – how do you alternate between the going-and-getting-stuff stages and the defending-the-base bit?

Martin Cirulis: The main game premise is that you are a survivor who has decided that Piety is as far as you are willing to run. It’s time to make a stand. You know there is a wave of zombies from the big cities crossing the heartland and that wave is going to break over Piety sometime over the next couple of weeks. Your base has got exactly that much time to be beefed up with people, barricades and traps.

Given that, each day is crucial as you race the clock. You assign tasks like building or medical care to whatever people you have recruited; decide who you will take with you on your expedition that day, and what sort of rumours you are going to chase down. Do you look for survivors? Food? Ammo? Should you survive not only the mission and the trip there and back (there is always a chance to run into unavoidable hordes when traveling) you can then store what you have found in your stronghold and see where you stand. Tomorrow, people are going to need to be fed, barricades and traps under construction are going to need special materials and tools and you are, once again, going to have to put yourself on the line rescuing people and gathering more things that are so desperately needed to prepare for the final night.

RPS: You talk about other survivors with special abilities. Care to elaborate on this? I can understand what finding a rifle would do to help fairly naturally, but a few examples would really allow me to grasp what that means?

Martin Cirulis: Once again it helps to focus on the bigger picture of FZ. Yes there is a lot of shooting zombies where that rifle is a big help, but that’s not all of it. You just can’t FPS your way through the final horde no matter how many guns (of which there is a large variety) and bullets you manage to find. You only have 2 arms… hopefully.

The key to FZ isn’t just that you are the biggest zombie butt-kicker in the world, (because that’s been done pretty hard in more than a few, much more expensive games) but instead you have to think of yourself in the game as the man with a plan. You are the one guy who has just had enough. You are going to bring people, and tools and weapons together and draw the line that says “no more”.

Given that you just can’t go through the game as the multi-armed death machine, king-of-all-abilities, those barricades need to get built while you are out of the base, so wouldn’t another survivor who used to be a carpenter be useful? Someone has to take care of the wounded and speed their recovery so wouldn’t a former doctor be handy? And even out on missions, you may be good at a few things, but it sure as heck would be nice to have someone along who’s especially skilled at convincing others to join you or has an excellent chance to spot the box full of Jerky hiding under that pile in the back of the wrecked store.

RPS: And, on a more philosophical note, why zombies? Big zombie fans? What do you love about them?

Martin Cirulis: Gotta say… “Yep, we loves them Zombies!”

When your creative staff consists of an accomplished horror writer and 2 wargamers who have played everything undead that could be found, it didn’t take more than a few seconds of watching the test animation models shuffle through the early levels of NStar before our faces lit up with evil smiles. The whole team in fact are pretty into fighting the zombie menace and watching all of the Undead movies. I have worked in very few places where you can walk in on a zombie discussion and mutter “Don’t use the Zed word… it’s rubbish!” and everyone gets the reference.

As to why we all have a zombie thing? I don’t think we have really spent much time analysing our tastes too much. I suppose it revolves around them being both the implacable enemy of life AND the perfect metaphor for one’s loss of humanity. They are the terrifying tools of entropy wrapped up in a skin of what used to be human. Can’t think of anything more terrifying to be facing or more satisfying to put down for the hard count.

RPS: We too are terrifying tools of entropy wrapped up in the skin of what used to be human. Thanks for your time.

Fort Zombie will be available this autumn. We’ll bring more details as it emerges from the sodden earth.

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48 Comments »

  1. Jim Rossignol says:

    This looks fantastic. And I’d literally heard nothing about it. This site is very informative, I must say.

  2. Dan Lawrence says:

    I agree with this Jim fellow! What an exciting article and what an excellent website this is.

    More of this sort of thing I say.

  3. Ian says:

    Still sounds a bit like a 3D Zafehouse. This is a Good Thing.

    • Ian says:

      Of course I don’t mean 3D Zafehouse so much as Zafehouse with any graphics at all.

  4. Cooper says:

    A zombie game with… …brains?

    (KIll me, it hurts)

  5. Fat Zombie says:

    This game sounds very, very fun. I’ve wanted a ‘proper’ zombie defense game for ages. And the acronym is FZ, too! So that should make me feel more popular indirectly.

    “FZ is very good!” “Yeah, I love FZ.”

    (For that reason it must succeed).

  6. Malagate says:

    This makes me happy, especially if it is FPS-cum-zombie defense. That would remind me of certain maps of Zombie Panic: Source, but better implemented for defending rather than just head shotting to glory.
    Also, it's pretty much Autumn already, if it doesn't come out soon then it will be a winter of LIES!

  7. Kommissar Nicko says:

    I’ve not heard about this either. Here’s to hoping its as smooth in its execution of many tasks as Sins was–Sins is one of the few RTS-type games that I could get through without saying, “TOO MUCH SHIT GOING ON AT ONCE AAAGH!” I can definitely see TOO MUCH SHIT GOING ON becoming a problem.

    • Heliocentric says:

      Kerberos made “sword of the stars” not sins of a solar empire”.

      Or were you alluding to something else?

  8. Schmung says:

    I genuinely have never heard of this game. It sounds splendid. Tell us more RPS.

  9. Stevo says:

    Coop? Please say coop please.

  10. phil says:

    Any word of a Wallnut guest appearance in the game? I only ask as there appears to be a half grown Sunflower on the desk.

  11. Ian says:

    Wall-Nut would be good. If the game had Tall-Nut then Alec would be in heaven. Only that he’d spend all the time gazing at Tall-Nut adoringly rather than going out for supplies.

  12. Karry says:

    Soo…whats with the stupidly wide ads on the main page ?

  13. goodgimp says:

    Anonymous Coward said:
    Coop? Please say coop please.

    Kerberos are huge MP fans, but no, no multiplayer for Fort Zombie. They felt it did not jive with the gameplay and considering they usually carry the torch for the importance of multiplayer gaming, I'll take their word on it (as much as I would have liked to see coop as well!).

  14. Kieron Gillen says:

    Helio: I said Sword of the Stars. I haven't mention Sins of the Solar Empire. Or have I, and I am blind?

    KG

  15. Archonsod says:

    They’ve been pushing this since before AMoC was released. Kerb’ have also hinted at a Halloween release, though just my luck it’s uncomfortably close to Dragon Age, Alpha Protocol and Borderlands release dates.

    Is it just me, or does the Christmas release rush get earlier every year?

  16. JonFitt says:

    My interest in this game has increased further.
    If the implementation is as good as we all think it could be in our brains (braaaaains), then we could well have an RPS favourite on our hands.

  17. AW says:

    I find the screenshots compelling because they have some of the look and feel of the towns in the Terror Attack scenarios in X-Com/UFO Defense.

  18. Dominic White says:

    On the Sword of The Stars note, I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating here – it is proof positive that Kerberos know what they’re doing. It was rushed out and incomplete at first, but just trust me here and buy the Complete pack off Steam. It’s cheap, and it’s probably the best spacey 4x game (ESPECIALLY in multiplayer) since Master of Orion 2.

    Seriously. No joke. It’s that good.

    They’re pretty much the perfect crew to be doing a game like Fort Zombie.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      I admit, I’ve had a copy on the side and I’ve been meaning to try and find time to look at the blasted thing.

      KG

    • Dominic White says:

      Be warned – there are some bits that are weak about it. The art and voicework are definitely amateur hour, but the fluff writing is actually really solid stuff. Glorious pulp sci-fi, and a setting that I’d love to see an up-close RPG in.

      There’s a weird learning curve to it, not aided by the lack of solid documentation. It just feels weird and alien (and not in a good way) until at some point – about five hours solid play for me – it just clicks, and then it’s 4am and you’re going for just ONE more turn, just like always.

    • goodgimp says:

      Mmm, I dunno about that. I think the voice work was intentionally “B” scifi in tone. (See: Human and Hiver voices, especially). If you match the voice to the little picture graphics for events (research running overbudget, or breakthroughs, etc) I think the humorous intent is shown.

    • Dominic White says:

      Oh, there’s definitely a lot of tongue-in-cheek stuff. It’s just that some of them lay it on a little too thick. The human science reports in particular are quite grating. Still, any complaints I may have about the voicework are balanced out by the semi-regular Mystery Science Theater easter eggs.

      I personally love the picture the Morrigi get when you haven’t assigned a research project. Space-dragon-crow-things know how to chill in style.

      One of my favourite things about it in general is how each race feels quite distinct. I especially like playing as the Zuul, because unlike the other races, they really only have one option – rapid, brutal expansion ALL the time. You have to play them like the psychotic bastard space-wombats that they are, enslaving everyone you can, burning whoever you can’t, and strip-mining their worlds into hollow husks while breeding a swarm large enough to keep the assault moving. Never stop, never back down, keep biting and tearing and hurting them.

      Meanwhie, the Hivers – the space-bugs that you’d assume would fit that role – are a much more patient and strategic race to play as. It’s all about the big picture, and planning each move a dozen steps ahead. Mainly because their drive technology is terrible at getting them to new pastures.

    • Vinraith says:

      I have to agree (almost) completely with Dominic, here. It’s a brilliant game, one of the best 4X space titles since by beloved Ascendancy. Gal Civ 2 might be a hair better in single player, but it’s focus is totally different (much more on colony and empire management), so the two can easily coexist. For multiplayer, there’s nothing else that comes anywhere close in the 4X space genre.

      I was skeptical too, and actually had the game sitting on my hard drive for months before I made a concerted effort to get into it, but it really is very good. I must admit, I knew I was hooked when it quoted MST3K at me.

  19. Lord_Mordja says:

    “Mainly because their drive technology is terrible at getting them to new pastures.”

    And then you get farcasters…

  20. Vinraith says:

    I love Sword of the Stars, and consequently love Kerberos. I have to admit, though, that if it weren’t for the developer I wouldn’t give a game of this genre/subgenre a second glance, the zombie thing is pretty badly played out. Still, uninspired settings can be overcome by great gameplay, here’s hoping that’s the case here.

  21. DK says:

    Fort Zombie sounds a lot like a Zombie version of Hinterland – something you jump into for a few minutes and beat in an hour. And then jump in right back for a higher score and seeing new stuff.
    I think it’s understandable that they didn’t want to include multiplayer in it.

    • Heliocentric says:

      That was very much my take.

      Hinterland never really offered much in the way of defensive methods though. Although, “stomping around with 4 healers who rotate healing responsibilities so they can all level up while you tank” is different from “littering the streets with obvious antipersonnel mines and deploying a specialist sniper in a churchtower with bullets and beef jerky.”

  22. Lintman says:

    I had been looking forward to Sword of the Stars when it came out, but Kerberos’ extreme negative reaction to some early bad reviews at release made me avoid it. (I would otherwise still have been interested despite the bad reviews themselves).

    But I did evertually pick up one of the SotS bundles, before the most recent expansion. I thought the game was pretty good, but not great. It sorta felt like it was missing something, to me. I’m not sure what. Maybe a bit more of a SP campaign/scenario setup? (I don’t care at all about MP). For me, no game has yet really earned the right to take over MOO2′s space 4x throne.

    More on topic, I really don’t have much interest at all in zombie games and generally think the genre is way overdone and overhyped at this point (I almost skipped reading this article) — but I have to say that Kerberos’ spin on it actually sounds like something I might want to play. Action RPG with strategic planning elements? Yeah, I’l take some of that.

    • Vinraith says:

      I think, with all the expansions at least, that it’s brilliant in SP. The B sci fi tone, the sense of the map itself being an enemy, and the strong AI all make for a solid SP game experience. There are a lot more setup options with Murder of Crows, as well, since you can customize each race’s starting conditions individually.

      But our tastes may be different. I don’t think MOO2 has a space 4X throne to usurp, as I liked Ascendancy better at the time.

      You have tried Gal Civ 2, right?

    • Dominic White says:

      Yeah, there’s a lot of gameplay elements added with each major expansion, and the final mini-expansion really fills out the ship-building and tech tree. There’s plenty to like in singleplayer in SoTS now, but it has taken a long time to get there. The game should only really be judged on what it is NOW. The Complete pack off Steam has everything.

      I can’t really compare between it and GalCiv2 fairly. GC2 is pretty much Civilization in Space, which, while pretty great in its own right, is halfway off in its own subgenre.

      SoTS is much more ln the vein of Master of Orion 2. Tactical spacey combat, a relatively nippy pace, and no shortage of randomly appearing cosmic horrors capable of wiping out entire empires.

    • Lintman says:

      I haven’t played Murder of Crows – I might check it out at some point.

      For some reason I always confuse Ascendancy with an earlier, disatrously, famously bad space colony strategy game that also had an A- name (which I can’t recall). It was released essentially DOA, and IIRC caused something of a scandal because one of the PC game magazines (CGW?) had given it a great review based on “pre-release” code (and wishful thinking, apparently). I was one of those burned by that and I think I avoided anyting that seemed connected to it. So I unfortunately never played Ascendancy.

      I have played Gal Civ 2 and think it’s very good but a lot of its game balance mechanisms start to annoy me after I play it a while (and are unmoddable). Things like your 90% happy colony going to 65% when its population goes from 16 milliion to 16.5 milltion. Still, it’s probably my current space 4X favorite.

    • Lintman says:

      @Dominic: Buying the complete pack would require me to pay for the original game and first expansion again. Steam would have to have one of their mega-deals for me to do that. Otherwise, I’d need Impulse to sell the two latest expansions individually. (I bought my SotS bundle on Impulse).

    • Dominic White says:

      My favourite singleplayer mode in SoTS is probably progressive mode. You build an empire, fight off enemies until a certain date, and then have to get a ‘migration’ fleet ready to move to the next galaxy, which is bigger and more hostile than the last. Continue infinitely until game over.

      This mode is especially fun with the Zuul, as you feel like you’re spreading a massive, hairy cosmic plague across the universe, ravaging galaxy after galaxy. Helps even more if you individually name and configure your command ships and dreadnaughts. Gives them a bit more personality as they glass world after world, until you finally come up against an enemy you really have to push to get past.

      The game really shouldn’t be played without A Murder of Crows. That’s the expansion that added social techs and improved diplomacy the most, I believe. It’s the point where it became much more of a traditional 4x, and the added depth was definitely appreciated.

      At this point, I’m fairly sure just getting the Complete pack off steam is cheaper than getting AMoC and Argos Naval Yard (the final expansion, which adds new techs, weapons and ship components) together.

    • Vinraith says:

      @Dominic

      Where’s that “progressive mode” option, it sounds fantastic. Is it one of the scenarios or what?

    • Dominic White says:

      @Vinraith – Yeah, it’s one of the scenarios, although it doesn’t really play like any of the others. Pretty much a whole game-mode in itself.

  23. Vinraith says:

    Are you thinking of Outpost?

    As to SotS, Murder of Crows does seem to have added a fair bit to the SP experience. If you catch a good sale (watch Gamersgate, which is connected to the publishers, Paradox, and frequently discounts the complete pack) it might be worth your while to give the game with all three expansions another go.

  24. Animystif says:

    Paradox Interactive. Pretty much a guaranteed win. I’ve been wanting this kind of game so bad too, stalker has been the closest to a 3d survival game I’ve yet to see.

  25. Lintman says:

    Looking up Outpost, it does sound like what I was thinking of, but it’s certainly not an A name. So I have no idea what the hell I was thinking of. Hoooray for early-onset senility!

    The progressive mode does sound pretty interesting, and more social techs and diplomacy would help to. I’ll have to keep an eye out for a deal on it.

  26. Carra says:

    Don’t mention the Z-Word is a reference to Shaun of the dead…


    Ed: There any zombies out there?
    Shaun: Don't say that!
    Ed: What?
    Shaun: That.
    Ed: What?
    Shaun: That. The 'Z' word. Don't say it.
    Ed: Why not?
    Shaun: Because it's ridiculous!
    Ed: ...Are there any out there, though?
    Shaun: Lemme check... Nope. Maybe it's not as bad as all that. Oh, there they are.

  27. Chris R says:

    Man… I’ve been waiting for a game mode such as this. I love the idea of having to go out into a town/city/area and scavange for supplies. It’s a shame this isn’t multiplayer though… My ideal zombie game would be a first person shooter game mixed with the scavanging and defending bits from this game. A blend of L4D and Zombie Fort sounds amazing to me. Someone please make it so!

  28. Robroy says:

    This game is total crap. The engine is worthless piece of sh**t. Its ugly as hell yet it runs like Crysis on 486dx.

  29. air says:

    Iairlike this post.

  30. seo says:

    This game is total crap. The engine is worthless piece of sh**t. Its ugly as hell yet it runs like Crysis on 486dx.