Last week it was announced that Undead Labs, creators of the cult hit zombie sandbox RPG State of Decay, had signed a multi-year and multi-title deal with Microsoft Studios. When Jeff Strain, former lead at Blizzard and Cofounder of ArenaNet announced the formation of Undead Labs back in 2009, it was with the sole purpose of creating the best zombie-based games on the market. Since 2009, the zombie genre has been ever-present in games, movies, television, and even comics. While some folks claim they’re sick of the walking dead, there certainly seems to be no sign of zombies’ decay (pun!) anytime soon. I caught up with Jeff this week to chat about the Microsoft Studios deal, their plans for PC gaming, the studios' general philosophy, attitude and thoughts about the industry as a whole.
First, Jeff let me know that he didn’t want the Microsoft Studios deal to be framed as some sort of Xbox Exclusivity going forward. State of Decay recently released on Steam, and chances are future products will as well, or at least for the PC too. Undead Labs isn’t a console developer, and they’re not locking themselves into the console platform. Whatever comes next from the team will very likely be designed from the ground up as a multi-platform title.
On that line of thought, I asked Jeff why it’s been taking so long for MMOs to make the move to consoles. And to Jeff’s mind, it comes down to two key blockers.
Number one is the tech itself. Until this current generation (Xbox One and PS4), the RAM simply wasn’t there for fully functional online worlds. The tech on a console is always behind what’s on a PC to keep cost of building the consoles down. But this gen? Well 8GB of ram and powerful GPUs and CPUs mean MMOs that are in the current PC cycle can exist on consoles really easily as long as reason number two is met. Reason number two is of course the business model. Truth be told, this is something that’s still being figured out though it seems SOE and Sony have figured the best way to go about things is F2P, but even games like Elder Scrolls Online will see a subscription fee on the new consoles. Jeff believes that with the drastic growth of online gaming for consoles the last generation presented, it’s clear that both Microsoft and Sony, and even Nintendo to an extent are ready to take the leap of faith.
I then asked Jeff then why he thinks these console companies are getting more involved now, and what he said echoed a lot of sentiments we gamers have towards the MMO world. It’s not about the acronym “MMO” itself, as Jeff thinks more and more people will stray from that term to avoid connotations of “Warcraft Clone”. Instead, they look towards the original quest, dungeon, MMO formula not as a design template but as a design guide… a building block or tool that developers should be using to improve upon what’s come before. Every mega-popular game will get its share of clones, but that’s not how it should be. Undead Labs hopes to change the way we all think of MMOs, by making something truly unique in the space. It won’t just be an “Online State of Decay”.
To sum up Jeff’s thoughts on the matter: “Persistent worlds were the template of the past. Now it’s just an enabler for new and unique designs. We can do so much more than what’s been done so far.”
He also wanted to clear up some confusion on how UL’s first game is a completely unique game, not a “paired down version of what they want their MMO to be like.” Jeff said, “We don’t want to take on any project that will take us five years to release. Those games end up being dated by the time they come out. So whatever the online world we make ends up being, it won’t be too long in the pot. And it’s not at all anything we started making back in 2009.”
“Our game won’t be your traditional MMO,” said Strain. “We likely won’t refer to it too often as an MMO, and there won’t be quests to kill ten zombies or anything like that. What people thought an MMO was in the early 2000s is not what everyone’s looking for. They want something new and different. Taking the same old experience and just replicating it isn’t what we’re about, as you can tell from playing State of Decay."
"This year, we can talk in a lot more detail about what’s next for Undead Labs. We’re getting our heads down and noses to the grindstone, and getting it ready to show off sooner than you might think.”
Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.