Back in November of last year, Undead Labs announced their formation and the production of something a lot of folks are probably hungering for (pun intended). A zombie-apocalypse themed MMO is in development at the newly founded studio, exclusively for consoles. My friend Adam and I were sitting around chatting about the potential such a title carries. Thanks to a resurgence of popularity in for the undead, there have been a slew of movies, games and other media all about zombies in recent years. Possibly more so than Edward Cullen and his sparkly vampire cousins, zombies are mainstreaming pretty hard these days.
The cable station AMC recently green-lit a series based on the monthly comic “The Walking Dead”, Zombieland stormed theatres made a truckload of money in theatres at the end of 2009, and Valve’s insanely popular Left 4 Dead games are still among the company’s most-played titles week to week. And unless people tire of the ravenous dead in the next few years (is such a thing really possible?) Undead Labs’ MMO could wind up being a megahit. But aside from the obvious tens of thousands of brain-eating shamblers, there are several things we think a zombie MMO should have in order to give us that warm, gooey, undead slaughtering feel:
#6 More than Guns
One of the most satisfying things in gaming is a good zombie kill. But as witnessed in games like Left 4 Dead, or in movies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, there are better ways to deal with the undead than with bullets. Undead Labs will hopefully be thinking the same thing and give us plenty of options to choose from when it comes to the eradication of zombies. Pool cues, sledgehammers, and katana blades are all a good start. But what could prove extremely fruitful would be if Undead Labs allows us to take control of different types of vehicles and do a little reckless driving around whatever locales they create.
Perhaps I’m remembering it a little too fondly and bordering on the creepy here, but in Auto Assault one of the most satisfying ways to kill roaming creatures was death-by-crushing. Throw in the ability to modify vehicles and other weapons by mixing and matching and I think gamers would rejoice. Look at Capcom’s Dead Rising 2 and its chainsaw motorcycle and you’ll get the idea.
#5 Not Just Killing
Obviously a zombie-themed MMO will be largely about the survival and therefore destruction of the undead, but if the game’s going to leave a lasting impression on the genre it had better have more to it than just combat. MMO gamers clamor for depth in their games, and there are several ways that can be achieved in a zombie game without breaking from the mood and tone of the setting. Let us scavenge, let us craft, let us form governments and build societies. Let us build homes and forts to keep out the drooling and stumbling dead. Make the game as much about the aftermath of the apocalypse as it is about the survival. Give us places to explore, and more importantly a story to uncover… which brings me to number three.
#4 Make Us Care
If you haven’t read it yet, one of the best things about Robert Kirkman’s monthly comic The Walking Dead is that it’s not so much about killing zombies as it is about the people that are trying to survive in the series. It’s about the relationships between the survivors. There are panels in that comic which have made me cry, and while I doubt a zombie MMO is going to make me well up and shed some tears, I’d still like to be plenty informed about the world and the why-fors. Even in Valve’s Left 4 Dead, where the story is light the characters are illustrated well enough to make us pick favorites. In a zombie MMO the story and the lore are going to be integral in driving players forward. Whether the game is level or skill-based in terms of progression, what is going to keep most players coming back is their tie to the world. Give us a reason to care for our survival, in other words.
#3 Keep It Small
This is one that I’m betting might get a lot of disagreement. But a zombie MMO won’t really work if there are several thousand players running around the environment. The whole sense of fear will be lost if that’s the case. The best, though probably controversial method for achieving this would be to use a good amount of instancing and layers. I’m not saying the world needs to be too fragmented, but rather there should be a limit to the amount of players that can be in each section of the game-world. Similar to how Champions Online handles player-density. Only in certain encounters or specific areas of the world should there be a lot of players in one space. Towns, safe-havens, and perhaps particularly heavily zombie-infested areas should be the only areas that are densely populated by the living.
#2 Interactive Environment
Along the same line of thought as having plenty of ways to drop the undead, a truly engaging zombie MMO will need to have a fairly interactive environment: doors that can be shut and broken into, objects that can be picked up and maneuvered for the sake of barricading, and windows that can be shot out. As with Left 4 Dead, cars that have alarms are always a plus and a great way to use player-error to drive suspense. Give us a lot of buildings to delve into, with lights to shoot out, and walks to put holes in (even if they’re only temporary). A zombie game is all about atmosphere.
#1 Let Us Be Undead!
This might not be everyone’s top priority, but what better death “penalty” than creating an experience where upon death-by-zombie the player is turned into a zombie him or herself and set upon other players in a specific PvPZ (Player versus Player-Zombie) area. Of course not everyone would want to take part in this, so being a zombie would be optional, and if you choose not to participate in some other form of penalty is given in its place. Perhaps rather than as a form of death penalty, playing a zombie could be a lot like LotRO’s Monster Play, where players can choose a different class of zombie and take it to the survivors in a set area of the game world. Really, as long as I get to bite some people somehow in zombie-form, I’ll be content.