Project Zomboid, darling of Reddit and attractor of impressive calamities, has its early alpha tech demo build in the hands of players, and the reaction has been very positive. We grabbed hold of one half of development team The Indie Stone, Andy "Binky" Hodgetts and Chris "Lemmy" Simpson, and demanded they tell us how it's all been, how it came about in the first place, and what will be happening next. I am obliged to mention that the other two members of the team are Nick "Nickenstein" Cowen and Marina "Mash" Siu-Chong, along with Will Porter writing and Zach Beever making the music. But I ignored them. Read on...
RPS: When did Project Zomboid first become an idea?
Binky: Oooh ages ago, years ago. Something we always wanted to make and talked about making but we were busy with working in the commercial scene and didn't really have any time.
Lemmy: It's been one of those ideas that has been percolating for years. Our dream game idea that we'd chat about all the time, but one that we didn't think we'd ever be able to make due to the sheer time it would take to realise.
RPS: So what changed?
Lemmy: Since Minecraft hit, we saw there was another way to develop a game that didn't require years of upfront funding and motivation without people playing the game, and suddenly the idea seemed possible. So when it came time to talk about our next project, we were all 'ZOMBIES!' It was called 'Zombies' back then. We're good at names.
Binky: Yeah, and then after Privates we figured, may as well give it a go now that we had some spare time - and it actually started to come together reasonably quickly. And it looked like it might actually be doable.
RPS: How much of what's been released was in that original idea?
Binky: A lot of it, like the soup and the fire came together fairly late on as we were thinking of ways to demonstrate the sorts of things that would be in the game, during an opening tutorial.
Lemmy: Thing is the game isn't so much an idea but a vision of a zombie game that we've discovered most big fans of zombie films have.
Binky: Basically, films were our biggest inspiration rather than other zombie games.
Lemmy: We can never claim it's an original idea for a game. But think that's why it resonates with people. Because anyone who's a zombie fan, ourselves included, have talked about this game with their zombie fan friends.
Binky: So while it can only really be done in an indie environment unless you're prepared to fund a huuuuge and risky development, it's also difficult to do as indie unless you announce early and try to get support a la the Minecraft model for the same reasons.
Lemmy: It's just never really been done before because of the aforementioned time and money commitments it would cost to make it under traditional development methods.
RPS: So how long do you think it will take to make?
Lemmy: Years I should think. There's so much we could add that really needs to be in the game for it to fit our and other people's vision of the game.
Binky: We hope to be updating the game for years. Expanding the depth of gameplay, size of world, and story events.
RPS: So with this style of development, by constantly receiving feedback, do you think you're better equipped to make this game that exists in everybody else's heads?
Binky: Definitely - the support of the community is a massive part of development. Since, as Lemmy said, this is a game that every zombie fan wants to make, everybody's got good ideas. It's our job to take their ideas, make sure they don't conflict, and combine them with our own ideas to shape a consistent, rich, and deep game.
Lemmy: We have a joke that we bought the design document for this game from Max Brooks. We read World War Z ages ago and pretty recently bought a copy of the Survival Guide, and it reads pretty much like a document of what should be in the game. The whole 'zombie apocalypse scenario' thing is something we've all discussed at some point, so really you find a lot of people's suggestions we pretty much instantly agree with, or have previously thought of. The idea comes fully formed in everyone's minds, because of the more actiony focus of modern zombie games. We always wished we could board up windows and push furniture against the doors. So has everyone else.
RPS: Of course.
Binky: It's like - little things, such as the pre-made character you start as in this tech-demo being a slightly balding man - we wanted to make a proper zombie apocalypse where you're not immune, you're not some hero, you're just some guy or girl who wakes up to find the dead have come back to life and are eating the neighbours.
Lemmy: Yeah the 'every man' thing was important to us. We want people to play as the businessman or the milkman, not always as the cop or commando. Since we started looking for a name for the game, we came across other cool games with pretty much the same concept. Rogue Survivor, Dead State... so yeah, we're clearly not original but that's cool because I think all the games fit a different niche. RS for the roguelike fans, Dead State for the turn based fans, and us for our... I don't know... smothering fans?
RPS: How did you go about figuring out how dark to pitch it?
Binky: Well, one of the things that shaped it was that we, er... paid "homage" to the way The Sims works with it's Moodlets and we were thinking, what sorts of moods would your character be feeling in a zombie apocalypse? And, really, it would be a pretty depressing state of affairs. The game had to be dark. Moments of comedy, maybe, when you forget temporarily what's going on, but mostly it would be horrible.
Lemmy: I personally trace it back to the opening of 28 Weeks Later - where Robert Carlyle abandons his wife to the hordes, and the viewer is encouraged to think of him as a despicable monster. When all he really was a coward, and in a moment of life and death, his cowardice or perhaps pragmatism won over his love for his wife.
Binky: There's a bit in "The Last Man on Earth" when Vincent Price is sat on a sofa with the neighbours pounding on the door and he starts laughing... and his laughter turns slowly to crying as his despair overwhelms him. That's a big inspiration for the game.
Lemmy: We want people to make difficult choices, and feel pangs of guilt for when they choose these options. Permadeath, saving only on quit, is key to this. If they've survived for a month in-game, and have a lot invested in the character and story, then if their wife is about to be chewed by zombies, they are a lot more likely to face that same dilemma.
RPS: You've had a pretty crappy time of it lately. Has the reaction to the release made up for any of that?
Binky: It's been amazing, yeah. In many ways the run of luck we had almost ceased to be annoying and just became funny - I think the bomb was the icing on the cake. But we didn't anticipate the reaction being *so* positive. We had mentally prepared ourselves for polarised opinion.
Lemmy: Absolutely! We've been blown away because, quite frankly, with all we were promising for the full game, and given our run of luck, we were fully expecting some kind of backlash at how little was in the first version over all the promises we've made for the full game. I guess we were too close to it, but we totally didn't expect even remotely this much of a positive reaction to it. So yeah, it's been totally worth it, and then some. We've got goosebumps because it all feels real now. Seeing people make YouTube videos of it (50+ and counting) makes us realise we hit the 'YouTube story' thing that was so important to us.
Binky: Also that "share your stories" thread on our forum is amazing - exactly what we were hoping to see happen much further on in development - but it's happened already. It's mind-blowing. Also, huge props to Zach Beever who's made us the most wonderful music we could have hoped for. It's incredible.
Lemmy: And The Will Porter, for his amazing writing that made those scenes work so well.
RPS: So what is a priority to add next?
Binky: Character customisation will be a big thing to add. That's when the RPG elements really start to take off - create your own everyman/woman.
Lemmy: And NPCs. It's when you have unscripted NPCs knocking about, following you, arguing with you, doing their own thing, that's when the real emergent fun begins.
Binky: In many ways, NPCs are more important to the feel of the zombie apocalypse than the zombies are.
Lemmy: Crazy things happening you just gotta tell people about, or make a video of, where some AI character went nuts and then it all went crazy.
RPS: What's the first thing you'll add that will drive a rift down the middle of the PZ community, with swathes swearing to hunt you down?
Lemmy: There will obviously be the usual balancing and nerfing rage, but we have to expect that. For example, the nail spiked baseball bat. I've got this gnawing feeling we're going to have to lower the damage that does for balance, but then people seem to really like it how it is. What to do!
Binky: Hmmm... we thought the pillow might have been it.
Lemmy: I guess the two big camps in zombies are 'fast vs. slow', and we already lost all the fast guys, so we're a united front now!
Binky: I guess that's the point. We going for something that is consistent with proper zombie lore. So providing we don't stray from that, hopefully there won't be too many polarising decisions. And we won't stray from that because we hate it when other things do.
RPS: Thanks for your time.