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Just Survive: Dead State Interview

No World To Save

It is with good reason that RPS has been paying close attention to the development of zombie RPG, Dead State. Created by Obsidian veterans, Brian Mitsoda and Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda, the survivalist role-player is bursting with potential. And now, as you might expect for such an ambitious indie project, it has a Kickstarter. And a trailer. We spoke to both developers (on their anniversary, no less), to get an absolutely enormous wealth of information about the game.

Before we begin, take a look at the new footage:

Watch on YouTube

RPS: Much has changed since we last spoke to you about the game. For instance, I didn’t exist back in 2010 and you were talking to Kieron Gillen, who is now one of the X-Men. One of the biggest stories in PC gaming this year has been the rise of Kickstarter – what drew you to that funding model?

Annie: I fell in love with Kickstarter pretty much the second I saw it, which was actually a while before it got popular (not to sound like a hipster about it or anything). I've always admired the role of the patron, but the plain fact is that regrettably, I don't have thousands of bucks lying around to commission fantastical works of art, Medici-style. However, giving in small portions towards a bigger project seemed like an idea that was very similar to the Thousand True Fans theory - basically, that all any concept needs to succeed is a thousand "true fans" willing to consistently invest in it - and actually expanded on that theory in a very practical fashion. With Kickstarter, not only are there direct opportunities for "true fans" to invest immediately, but casual fans are brought into a deeper sense of involvement, and the concept itself is allowed to prove itself worthy of investment.

Brian: Kickstarter has been something we had been considering since last September, but we wanted to make sure we had enough to show for our game before we asked for money. RPGs have a lot of systems and it’s not always obvious how some of those different parts come together, so it’s always better to show that than try to make everyone use their imaginations. Unfortunately, our plans were delayed a bit by the fact that we had so many people on the team with little room in their schedule to dedicate to a Kickstarter push – it’s taken us a good amount of the last two months to get the materials to the state we wanted and plan out the scripts and videos and transition the leads onto a full-time schedule. There’s been so much demand for Dead State (or perceived on our end anyhow) that it’s been pretty obvious that getting funding and bringing the full team and some new people on full-time to get the game out in a reasonable time frame just makes sense. Just the extra hours that our part-time contributors have put in over the last two months have made a world of difference in the build.

RPS: Was there any specific event that made you realise Kickstarter was the right way to go?

Brian: Well, from the start, we’ve had a lot of dedicated individuals helping out on the game, but mostly it’s been a part-time endeavor for a lot of the team. If people get busy at their main job or by life happens kind of situations, it’s understandable that they’re going to shave the time from the project that isn’t paying the bills. In game development, having a task go a week or two longer because someone isn’t available, well that can hold the whole team’s progress up. And if that happens a lot, it slows down development and takes the wind out of the project’s sails. We’ve had no problem holding on to our staff this whole time, but there’s been too much variability in everyone’s schedules, and it became kind of a nightmare from a production standpoint. Production length is irrelevant – it’s all about how many man-hours are being put into your project. The demand for making it a full-time team project led to a “let’s do Kickstarter now or never” kind of situation and a challenge to the team to meet a really big deadline and knock the Kickstarter build out. And we did it, and everyone handled their parts expertly. Just remember when you see the videos that we did all of that on a shoestring budget – just imagine what we’ll be able to do with an actual budget.

RPS: How much progress has been made and have any major features changed significantly since the game was first announced?

Brian: Keep in mind that we announced the project really early. A lot of that was to find contributors, get awareness about the project, get pages set up, and define the project internally. It was probably a bit too early, because we should have announced at the two-year out mark or so like other games (many RPGs can be in production for years before they announce) but it was necessary for us to find staff. As laid out, we’ve had some times where we didn’t have everything coming together as fast as we liked, but nothing about the core design has really changed. We’ve actually gone back and made adjustments based on some of the feedback we’ve gotten from our forums, but we’re still making (and have finished some of) the game we were discussing back with Kieron. Although we did have to get rid of the Kieron zombie model – I think Marvel owns his likeness now.

RPS: Do you plan to offer beta access or any sort of early playable content for pledgers?

Brian: I know this is one of those features that everyone thinks they want, but take it from someone who started out doing QA for RPGs – they aren’t really fun to play at an early stage. Perks don’t do anything, dialogue isn’t finished, quests don’t work, combat is missing cool animations, and balance is a gleam in the project lead’s eye. And then people get upset that the “game” that they paid for isn’t fun and just what the hell have the developers done with their money and there is much running to the internet to complain about how awful the unfinished game is, which is then collectively read as “the game sucks” and at least that’s been my experience.

Annie: It's fantastically difficult to judge how people will react to unfinished content (usually with white-hot rage), so it's a scary proposition. On the plus side, if you do get an understanding audience of folks who really do want to make the game as best they can, you can get some amazingly helpful data and feedback from them, so that's an enticing prospect as well.

Brian: We may reach out to interested backers on our forums to help test the beta if they know what they’re getting into, but I’ve found that general beta access is much better for open world, unscripted games where running around and making your own fun is the core of the game. For RPGs with a lot of story, character development, and intertwined systems, it really doesn’t work so much. I know people are going to write us and be upset about that and tell us we’re wrong, but it’s better now than fielding angry letters about how the game had no ending or a helicopter was just a big checker box or their male character was using female animations and it stirred up strange feelings in them.

RPS: Zombies have been up to loads since we last spoke. The Walking Dead is a TV show now, Project Zomboid is a thing that people play and Day Z is Jim’s favourite thing ever. How do Dead State’s zombies differ? Or is it Dead State’s living people who matter more?

Annie: Living people. In a heartbeat. There are points where I actually kind of forget that there are zombies in our game, that it's not just a tense survival situation against your fellow man.

Brian: We don’t even say the word “zombie” in our game. The writing is all about the humans, the major conflicts are all human, and the zombies really are just this background noise in the story and combat. Putting normal people under pressure and seeing the ways the player can manipulate or encourage them – that’s fun. Zombies aren’t really that fun to write – we’ve got some really sharp zombie moans in there, don’t get me wrong – but 95% of the game is about the humans.

Annie: Reading stuff Brian's written for characters who are dealing with being infected, or having a loved one be infected - that's the distilled essence of the zombie genre to me, that gnawing tension and that constant fear, and just figuring out how to deal with that day after day. I think that's really been brought across well in the game, even this early on, so I really honestly don't feel that people who are sick of standard zombie games will be sick of Dead State. It just feels too different from what's out there right now.

RPS: Do you feel as if ‘zombie fatigue’, the sense that there have been too many zombies in too many things, is misplaced? What do you reckon makes zombies more than enemies that are vulnerable to headshots?

Brian: I think zombies are overdone, and if we weren’t making an RPG and focusing more on the crisis/survival aspect, I would ask myself – “why are we making this?” I think that they get slapped into everything because, well, people keep buying games with zombies in them. I think what people like about them is the “reboot” the world aspect - that is, the zombie scenario taps into this innate desire in people to imagine the ways they would pull through societal collapse and remake the world in their image. Well, that or you can put a zombie in a wood chipper and not feel guilty about laughing.

Annie: It's really easy to hand-wave zombies as just monsters that move slowly and crave brains, but I think I'd point out to people who are sick of the idea - have you ever actually been around a dead person? Especially if it was someone you knew. There's a weight there, there's a pressure, all your memories about them hanging on you. Then imagine they're walking towards you, and it's clearly someone you remember, but somehow everything about them is gone, and you know they want to kill you. The worst part, somehow, is they don't want to do it because they're evil, or angry, or hungry. They feel nothing. And you're nothing to them.

RPS: I reckon gaming treatment of zombies is actually becoming more interesting though - do you think the time is right to study the themes and the metaphors as well as the innards?

Brian: I think there’s going to be a lot of shifting over to the survival aspect as people get bored of the same old shoot/burn/rototill a whole mess of zombies gameplay. You’ve seen that with the Day Z mod, Project Zomboid, and a couple of other games. There’s definitely a lot of room to explore those themes with different types of gameplay, just as there’s a lot of different approaches that zombie movies/fiction take. It’s definitely hitting a certain spot for a lot of gamers. I think that there’s going to be some burnout, and rightfully so (I am burnt out on generic “kill zombies” games) but if you’re designing a game around an aspect that hasn’t been explored, I think you’ll get even the “not another zombie game” crowd to give your game a look. But we are making a game rather than a treatise on zombies and the human psyche, so things like the RPG systems, characters and dialogue, and combat balance all have much higher priorities than trying to redefine the zombie metaphor.

There will be some subtle prodding and examination of the zombie phenomenon, but the player is really going to have to dig deep to get some of that – I really don’t want to throw themes in people’s faces and yell, “isn’t this shit deep and tragic and the human condition, and yeah?!” Spoilers, but in our game, we’re not trying to hook people by slowly revealing this mystery of what caused the zombie apocalypse – it happened, nobody knows why, now deal with it.

RPS: When the game starts, how long has passed since the infections began?

Brian: I’ve seen some people describe our game as post-apocalyptic – that would be false, as our game is actually apocalyptic. The game starts about two weeks after society started to lose its footing. Since you’re in a small town that’s practically in the middle of nowhere, it’s not like you’re in the thick of it. And you can’t log in to your Yahoo homepage or call a friend and find out what’s going on – communication is gone and you have no idea what’s going on out there.

RPS: You referred to dealing with the zombie problem as “fighting a war on an ideal” in a previous interview. Is survival the only real goal then, or are there solutions to the problem?

Annie: Survival is the primary goal - but it's the sort of BUT AT WHAT COST question that's hiding behind that. What kind of leader are you going to be?

Brian: There are a lot of short and long term solutions or goals for the player to pursue. They’re not all nice – maybe your allies get shafted, maybe you go the extra mile for people at the expense of your popularity, maybe you just keep going in the shelter until the end. As for the zombies, they just keep on going – there is no getting rid of them.

RPS: In the game food is the main resource necessary to survival, as I understand it. Is food a generic item then, or are there different kinds to find? Is cooking actually part of the game?

Brian: There are lots of kinds of food and they all have “nutritional” values that make some more worthwhile than others. There are even some foods that can hurt morale if you’re reduced to eating them (hint: if you’re in the cafeteria, don’t order the “apocalypse chicken”). Cooking is part of the game in that you can assign someone with a high enough skill to cook for the shelter as a daily job, giving you a small morale bonus. That’s helpful, if you can spare the warm body to do it – that’s one less person not fixing the fence or scavenging for food.

RPS: Further to the last question, is there any sort of crafting in the game?

Brian: In the sense of taking a rag and a bottle and combining them with gasoline to create a Molotov cocktail – no. But if you have sufficient level of skill, certain shelter upgrades, and the parts/fuel to do so, you can craft or upgrade items/weapons/armor. Everything you build or craft takes time, which usually means assigning an ally or two to a project and having them work on it, which again means taking them off food production, repair, or morale boosts to shift to producing items that help out the scavenging party.

Annie: In the early stages of discussing the skills, I was absolutely emphatic about the Science skill being in the game, and it took the most work to make it fit our goal, which is that every single skill is useful outside of the Shelter as well as inside it. I know Brian was really iffy on including the Science skill, because it's is really pretty useless in most games that feature it. I had a lot of reasons for wanting to include Science - really solid game-designer-ey reasons, like "this is the best to craft with" and "there really aren't ways to incorporate certain types of items otherwise." But I will admit that underneath all that - and I really try to avoid this kind of insistence because it's not practical but I couldn't help it in this one case - my core reason for wanting the Science skill was my repeated insistence that "you cannot tell me that if the dead rose, Mister Wizard [] would NOT f**k up some zombies." Not professional. I will admit this! But it is also still totally true.

RPS: You’ve talked about ‘crisis events’, such as running out of antibiotics. Are these things that emerge out of the simulation or do they occur randomly?

Brian: They occur when certain criteria are met, so in a sense, yes, they are something that is going to happen through gameplay choices. Running low on antibiotics or food will trigger that particular crisis event, which will give you the chance to make a decision that people will buy you some time or a heap of scorn, depending on how you sell it or how much political clout you have with your sub-leads. There are quite a few crisis event triggers and most of them mean making a major decision that will affect the shelter for a time or particular allies at the shelter. They are one of my favorite parts of the game and I think they’re one of the systems that makes Dead State unique. You can see a bit of one in our Kickstarter video for a basic idea of how they work.

RPS: Roughly, how much time is spent exploring compared to dealing with issues back at the shelter? Or will that vary depending on play style?

Brian: It depends on how many allies you have. I think the more you find, the harder the game gets and the more time you have to dedicate to breaking them in and satisfying them. You will probably have to go out and scavenge most days. And, naturally, we’ll make sure some trouble finds you if things are getting routine. We always, always want to make sure that you’re juggling a few problems all at once.

RPS: The other human groups, such as a survivalist militia, presumably have their own shelters. Is it possible to drive them out and move into their home, abandoning the school?

Brian: It’s not possible to take over their places because you’re probably going to compromise the security of the place trying to take it over (to be quite honest, it would be a scripting nightmare to have to rig multiple areas with the complexity of the shelter). But, you can try taking them on in combat if you really want – there are other, better ways to deal with other groups. The risks are great for going in guns blazing, but the rewards are worth it. However, not risking multiple allies’ lives and playing it smarter could lead to less immediate loot but less of a morale H-bomb to have to clean up after. Keep in mind, most of the groups in the game are still around because they’re organized/tough enough to have made it this far. Going up against another scavenging party and going up against a survivor base is the difference between a fist fight and a gun battle.

Annie: Most of all, we've tried to make the school an attractive place to hold on to - it's defensible, adaptable, and equipped with certain amenities that make it the most practical place to settle in. So in our mind it was less a question of "CAN you take an enemy's base" and more "why bother with land? We just want their stuff!"

RPS: Dead State takes place in a specific place rather than an unnamed everytown – will there be any randomisation in people or places, or are locations and characters all individually designed?

Brian: There's a bit of randomization - when certain allies appear, allies getting sick, when you hear about certain locations, and a few other ones. It’s by no means like generating a new area in Civilization, but it’s a bit more random than your typical story-based RPG. We would like to further your options after we release and offer up an update that allows you to tweak even more rules when you start a new game, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of the release version. I would definitely like to randomize the game as much as possible in post-release support, maybe even going so far as adding in some events/characters that aren’t guaranteed to always show up.

RPS: Being the ‘political’ leader of the shelter could be one of the game’s more interesting aspects. Will policies, such as food allowances or ways of dealing with the bitten or unruly, be physically put into action by toggling options or adjusting sliders, or is each case dealt with as it arises?

Brian: Each case is dealt with in the crisis event. You and any sub-leaders at your shelter will gather to discuss the options. You are ultimately responsible for deciding the course of action – say, if there’s a food shortage, do you refuse to cut rations, cut rations and take a morale hit, or do you get rid of some personnel – however, the sub-leaders can make a difference if they take the same stance as you or are loyal/bought off by you. When sub-leaders are mostly on your side, they will help convince people that you’re making the right call, which can result in a morale bonus or reduced penalty. Even if your decision isn’t popular, it’s okay – if it’s going to lead to less trouble down the line (like starvation) always pick the option you think is going to be right for you and try to win over the sub-leads and other allies for the next crisis event.

RPS: How does character creation work? Are the player’s strengths and weaknesses based on his life before zombies?

Brian: Character creation is completely up to the player. We’ll explain what each skill and stat is good for and give them their starting points and an idea of what kind of perks they might get in each skill path. We don’t have any backgrounds at the moment, and we may not. We look at the setting as a kind of “new life” for the allies and player character. Their old skills, for the most part, mean nothing in the new world. It’s adapt or die, and you’ll see a bit of that reflected in the narrative.

Annie: Also, where do you draw the line where real-world professions start to get tweaked into character classes? "Doctor" and "Police Officer" would be kind of the win, wouldn't they? But what about Security Guards and Dentists, or the use of Microbiologists and Farmers? (Game Developer would probably be the worst class in that scenario. We'd be zombie food in minutes). That said, we're looking for a kind of bare-bones motif in character creation - looks, stats, skills, etc. We're using a "scavenged object" motif in the UI design of the whole game, how we first conceptualized character creation is that you’re filling out a driver's license - a bare-bones, data-driven kind of character. We did this because we wanted the personality of the character to be something that the player discovered throughout the course of playing the game, especially when it came to elements of the player's backstory.

RPS: Are allies still AI controlled during combat as originally planned? What are the difficulties in making them believable, including their relationships with one another and bravery?

Brian: Allies are still AI-based. The systems that control them are by no means final and polished at this stage in development (one of the things the Kickstarter will allow us to do is to expand our programming department) but the basics of ally AI are based on assigned behavior archetypes that modify basic responses. For example, the “medic” will always try to heal injured allies as a rule, but if they have the “partner” AI, they will always look out for their friend as a priority. Human enemies also have these behaviors – for example, a “coward” is always going to try to keep their distance when wounded, while an “ambush” AI is always going to try and get an attack of opportunity on the player’s party.
Additionally, there are group commands that can alter the ally behavior assuming they aren’t panicking or berserk. Rally points can be set (great for getting them to meet at the exit), guard behavior can be assigned (great for watching an entry point), or enemy priority can be set. You’re not completely dependent on the AI to cooperate – there’s a lot you can do to modify basic behaviors. Ultimately, we want people to remember that they are commanding normal people with their own quirks, not a trained squad or generic grunts.

RPS: If they are as vulnerable as it seems, how numerous will they be? Can making them easily replaceable mean that they matter less as individuals, whereas making them irreplaceable could make the game too hard?

Brian: Allies aren’t easily replaced – there are a set number of them in the game. However, allies don’t immediately die when they reach zero HP, but go into a knocked out state. If the player or their medic can get to them before they die, they can revive them and bandage them up enough to hopefully get them back to the shelter. It’s best to swap out allies often as we have statuses that don’t go away immediately. Efficient management of allies in and out of combat is a big part of the game. We don’t want the game to be too hard, and we may have an “easy” mode if it becomes difficult for most players to keep allies alive, but we do want it to be possible to get into a situation where the player isn’t going to survive to the end, just like in X-Com or Civilization. We’ve talked about possibly adding dogs as allies (which would be easier to write), but as it stands, they are going to have to be a stretch goal, since they’re a bit out of scope (Do you like dogs? Do you think it would be totally badass to sic a dog on a zombie? If so, think about possibly contributing more to Dead State.)

RPS: Finally, what’s been the biggest challenge during development and have there been any real surprises when implementing features?

Brian: The biggest challenge to development early on would have been trying to coordinate a team that isn’t completely at a central location, but we’ve gotten much better at that what with the internet making any computer a virtual office. On a technical level, I’m kind of amazed at what we’ve been able to do with our visuals given our budget and size of our team. Our lead artist and animator have worked with the lead programmer to make Dead State not only look great but run smoothly too. I think people are going to be really impressed when they get a look at what we’ve made with very little, and I hope it really excites them to see the possibilities of what a fully-funded Dead State can be.

Brian and Annie: We answered all of these on our wedding anniversary? Hardcore designer couple, no?

RPS: Cripes! Thank you for your time.

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