I’d like to dig a little deeper into the topic of the game design for ZombiU. One element is that a player who succumbs to the zombie plague ends up turning into a zombie themselves. This is a unusual feature and one that we have never seen before.
When it was decided to do a zombie-themed game, we decided that we wanted the player to experience the same emotions they’d feel when they watch those classic zombie movies. You have a cast of characters who are being dispatched one by one, leading to a point where you’re faced with that terrible choice of killing your zombified friend or being killed by them, and feeling the inner conflict that comes with that choice.
So you set out to find a theme that was as true to the genre as possible?
Yes, but in a sense you think to yourself as a player – “I don’t want to be attacked”. But as this is a zombie story, you also think to yourself “I’m up next!” and you subconsciously want to be attacked. We felt the need to infuse the game with the kind of mysterious feeling that you can only get from this kind of fictional medium.
When a player-character is killed during a game, that character is taken away from the player and then prowls around London in a new form where it begins to hunt for new victims.
That must be such a weird feeling! (Laughs) So what does the actual player do when this happens?
When a player has had their character killed, they’ll want to try again and so naturally we can’t just let it end there for them. The answer to this was quite obvious: we designed it so the player would come back into the world as another survivor.
Do you mean that they become a completely different person?
That’s right. They can appear as any kind of character, of any gender, age or race.
One thing we wanted to turn on its head was that implicit rule of the game world that when you are killed and respawn, you have to redo the scene from just before you were killed.
Wow. That’s a lot more than simply playing as a different character…
Right. The backpack that the player-character was carrying when they were killed is left with that newly-zombified character. When the player comes back as a new survivor , they begin with nothing, so they have to start by going back to pick up that backpack in order to survive.
I see. So you mean that they now have to fight their former player-character who is now a zombie?
Exactly. In the world of ZombiU, the chances of a player making it to the end of the story with a single survivor are pretty much zero.
I see. In which case, you must have had to use a lot of ingenuity when it came to finding a way to let the story unfold, right? Because what you’ve done wouldn’t be possible if you had a linear storyline with a single hero who has many different experiences along the way, leading to them reaching their objective in the end.
In that sense ZombiU is a whole new form of storytelling, one that you won’t see in any existing games. The player-character in this game cannot be a hero in the traditional sense of the word, so the storyline needs to be carried by the environments themselves. Since the character the player controls changes constantly as they play, they have to experience the end of the world in ZombiU visually instead.
In a sense, you’ve created a whole objective world that’s removed from the first person perspective, a world in which different events occur one after another. And it’s through the player’s experience of these events that they gain an understanding of the story as a whole. Right?
That’s right. Something which was extremely important to the storytelling in this game was persistent level design.
What exactly is ‘persistent level design’?
When you enter the game as a new character, you benefit from doors already having been unlocked by the previous player-character, while mission items they’ve discovered are already available at your starting point in the safe house. Any zombies already killed don’t just respawn and when you reach the place where the previous player character was killed, the story continues from where it left off. So you could say that it’s a kind of relay race.
Your answer makes it all sound so simple and natural, but I’m sure a lot of extreme toil and effort went into making things the way they are.
Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but coming up with the concept was actually quite easy. (Laughs) However, during the latter stage of the project there were an extraordinary amount of “What if?” situations. We would suddenly think “What happens in such and such a case? Then we’d have to do this…” Dealing with all of this was extremely complex work because when people have to make on-the-spot decisions, it can lead to all kinds of previously unimagined outcomes. (Laughs)
It really was very hard work, but the play-testing and prototyping helped us a lot.
Meanwhile, you had Yves issuing the order that this absolutely had to be a launch title. How did you manage to achieve this when faced with the three competing elements: the development deadline, the challenge of doing something new and the attainment of a standard high enough to produce something good?
Simply not much sleep.
(Laughs) That’s something that’s the same all over the world.
One other thing is that whenever we presented a little bit of the game and got feedback from users and the media, the members of the team would find it extremely motivating. In that context, E3 gave us a huge boost. It was definitely the response from users that was the key to motivating the whole team, allowing us to press on with our work, make good decisions and sometimes even cut features if necessary.
Getting motivation from the response of your customers is certainly one factor involved in creating a good game, isn’t it?
It’s so true. And another thing is that the launch date for us is the key factor for success, so the team made a concerted effort, keeping that date in mind. In the end we were able to finish without having to cut any major features. At first we expected that maybe some cuts would be inevitable, but thanks to the capabilities of the Wii U hardware we actually ended up with very few cuts.
But if you had asked us six months ago if we thought we would have been able to get all of this done, we would have said no!
I have to say though, you really managed to pack in some great content given the timing and limited development period. It also looks like you got a really positive response at all the events where you showed ZombiU.
A prime example of this is the demo we showed at E3. We employed the classic device of the ‘boo’ moment where a zombie jumps out of a closet to frighten the player. When we implemented this and showed it to people on the development team, they weren’t scared at all because it was just a zombie jumping out at you, so we started to lose confidence in it. However, we went and kept working on it, putting our hearts into it and completed the demo.
And what was the result at E3?
Everyone was talking about how players were almost dropping the Wii U GamePad at that moment in the game.
We were really amazed, but also really happy. When you spend a long time developing in a team, you begin to become a little uncertain about what it is you’re doing and you have a lot of worries and fears. But when we got home from E3 and told the team how that was the moment that had such an impact, they nearly fell off their chairs! (Laughs) That really changed the atmosphere in the team and gave us the confidence to continue working on moments like that. That’s one of the best experiences I’ve had throughout the development of ZombiU, and one that I will never forget.
When you do something like this and create a ‘magic moment’, it can really inspire people about the game. Even after the presentation at E3, that magic moment is something that will stay with people, both customers and development staff alike.