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State of Decay 2: Talking with Undead Labs Founder Jeff Strain

Interviews By Steven Messner on June 17, 2016

State of Decay 2: Talking with Undead Labs Founder Jeff Strain

One of the more pleasant surprises coming out of Microsoft’s E3 conference was the reveal of State of Decay 2. For those who fondly remember those days of Xbox Live Arcade, before DayZ, H1Z1, and the dozens of others beat that zombified horse, State of Decay was one of the more unique takes on post-apocalyptic survival. And now Undead Labs is returning to take that great concept and do it right. I caught up with the founder of Undead Labs, Jeff Strain, to talk more about State of Decay 2.

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“I wouldn’t say State of Decay was an experimental game,” Strain says as we chat on the mezzanine of the Microsoft booth at E3. Behind him a massive screen replays the trailer that heralded the return of State of Decay to consoles and PC. “But it was ambitious in breaking out of the established norms of game design.”

He mentions one of State of Decay’s core philosophies, that death should be permanent, as something that was rarely seen in other games within that genre. “Game design 101 says to never enrage your players,” he laughs. “But if we were going to capture that survival fantasy, the permadeath had to be a part of that—it had to be a threat for the zombie apocalypse to feel real.”

It didn’t take long for State of Decay to quickly become a huge hit on Xbox Live Arcade and eventually on Steam Early Access, going on to sell over 5 million copies between the two platforms. Immediately following its success, Strain and the rest of Undead Labs began working on the sequel, and, unsurprisingly, it started out as an MMORPG.

I say unsurprisingly because Jeff Strain used to be the senior programmer on World of Warcraft, founded ArenaNet, and worked as the president of product development at NCsoft. Making an MMORPG seemed like a natural place to take State of Decay 2, until they got elbow deep into actually building it.

“One of the things we found was that the apocalypse is kind of counter to the notion of thousands of people running around in the world together,” he laughs. “But also when we listened to what our players were telling us, they weren’t asking to play with thousands of players, they were asking to just play with their friends. We had the opportunity to step back and really look at it and say, let’s give the people what they want.”

“It’s bigger, badder, more polished, better State of Decay experience that they can play with their friends.”

But while State of Decay 2 might not be an MMORPG, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t designed using the lessons that Strain learned over his decades helping shape the genre. He illustrates his point by talking about how many third-person action games rely on “tripwires” to pace out their action scenes, like opening a door that triggers a boss battle. In State of Decay, that kind of philosophy just doesn’t work, and instead it needs to rely on its expansive simulated world in order to challenge the player. “All of those years of building content that is systems-driven rather than hand curated infinitely consumable pieces of content was something we really had to bring to bear, and I think my MMO background really had a big part of that.”

But State of Decay 2 is adding an even bigger layer that the first one never had by introducing multiplayer to the equation. Now, players can freely drop in or out of each other’s game, and it’s going to likely have a big impact on how you interact in State of Decay 2’s sandbox. “It’s going to change some of the fundamental chemistry of the game,” Strain says. “We really believe that this is going to be a lot of fun, but I guess we’ll see right?"

The multiplayer will be drop in and drop out, meaning players are able to play in their world while others can jump in for as long as they want to help out. While details are scarce at this point, in an interview with Game Informer, Microsoft Studios general manager Shannon Loftis did reveal that the flare gun from the trailer wasn’t just for show. Players will actually be able to fire the gun to signal for help. The specifics of it remain a mystery, but part of me wonders if it’s a system somewhat similar to placing signs in Dark Souls in order to draw players to your world. “We’re putting other mechanics in the game so that you can notify your friends when you need help or when it might be fun to play with you,” Strain says. He was able to say that adding players to your game world would place them right next to you, implying that they appear rather instantly instead of nearby or something else.

Strain is also very clear that while online multiplayer was a core focus of State of Decay 2, it will be by no means mandatory. For those still wanting to play by themselves, State of Decay 2 won’t hinder or punish them in any way.

When it comes to playing with strangers, Strain was honest in admitting that the system isn’t fully worked out yet and that we’d have to wait for more concrete details. And while you might be thinking that the last thing video games need right now is another zombie survival game (no, seriously, stop making them) Strain is quick to drive home the point that State of Decay 2 is far from being anything like a DayZ or H1Z1 despite sharing a similar aesthetic. “The heart of [State of Decay 2] is people working together, and that doesn’t mean that you can’t do things that aren’t antagonistic, but the game is not about that. In fact, it does not have PVP at all.”

As much as State of Decay 2 is a product of Strain’s personal experience developing MMORPGs for around a decade, it’s also a product of all the lessons Undead Labs learned with State of Decay. For one, offline progression, where events happened even when you weren’t playing the game, won’t be appearing in the same manner as the first game if it even appears at all. “That was an area that players really didn’t like not having a feeling of agency over that,” Strain says. “We’ve really rethought the way that system works.”

While Strain was unable to talk about other major changes being made to the State of Decay formula, he did insist that State of Decay 2 was Undead Lab’s attempt to really dive into the heart of what he calls “survival fantasy.” He tells me that his goal is to turn State of Decay into the type of game where no matter what your dream plan would be for surviving the apocalypse, the game would provide some way of putting it to the test. He’s honest in admitting that State of Decay 2 won’t realize that dream in its entirety, but it’s going to be much closer than it was with the prequel.

Right now, Strain and his team at Undead Labs are soaking in the response to their announcement. “It’s the one time I’d go tell someone to read the comments on YouTube,” he laughs. But eventually the E3 buzz will die down and the team will return to fleshing out more of State of Decay 2. While many of the details surrounding the finer points will be slowly detailed in time, we’ll still need to wait a good long while because State of Decay 2 isn’t due out until some point in 2017.

Steven Messner / Steven is a Canadian freelance writer and EVE Online evangelist, spreading the good news of internet spaceships far and wide. In his spare time, he enjoys writing overly ambitious science fiction and retweeting pictures of goats. Speaking of retweeting, you should probably drop everything and go follow him on Twitter @StevenMessner