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.