Interview with Undead Labs’ Jeff Strain

Jeff Strain over at the brand, new Undead Labs game studio took time out of his busy plane-hopping, zombie-stomping schedule to answer a few questions on the studio’s newly announced zombie console MMO.  (My real name is Zach so don’t be confused, but also don’t go spreading it around in case nasty lawyerssess finds me.)  Read on after the break to hear everything from velociraptors, the “MMO” term, and a debatably good place to hole up against a horde of zombies.

Do you think the public is more aware of the threat caused by zombies or velociraptors?

Wow, hardball question, Zach. Sadly, I think the answer is that the public is more aware of the threat of velociraptors. Everyone knows that we are a short mosquito-in-amber lab accident away from recreating velociraptors and losing control of them, but most people still inexplicably believe that the Zombie Survival Guide is a work of fiction. I guess it’s understandable, because you can watch an excellent movie like Land of the Lost and leave the theater thinking, “Man, that could really happen!” whereas with mediocre, unrealistic movies like 28 Days Later you leave thinking, “Bioengineered viruses that don’t work exactly as planned. What a complete joke.”

Out of all the different takes on zombies from Romero’s infectious zombies to the voodoo created White Zombies, which specifically is your favorite zombie?

I’m not big on voodoo zombies or engineered zombies, because I think the infectious nature of modern zombies is a big part of what makes them fun. Certainly from a game design standpoint the threat of infection (or the opportunity to infect…) adds an entire layer of fun mechanics. In the world of infectious zombies, you still need to choose your religion: fast or slow? Perhaps it’s because I’ve not yet embraced “Rule #1: Cardio,” but fast zombies terrify me. Like many zombie fans, I arrogantly believe that my superior intelligence and strategic thinking would allow me to survive an onslaught of slow zombies, but the thought of running at full speed from a wall of zombies who are running after me makes me sweat. I love all zombie movies, but the one that scares me the most is still 28 Days Later. Having said that, the beauty of a zombie MMO is that the world has enough depth and scale to be able to incorporate many types of zombies with disparate behaviors.

What does the word “massively” in the term “MMO” mean to you, especially for a console MMO?

Massive world. Massive amounts of content. Massive number of players. Massive development costs. Massive risk. Seriously, I abhor the MMO abbreviation, because it has come to represent a very specific kind of game with a very specific kind of play. I’ve been saying for years that MMO is a technology, rather than a game design, and that we can use that technology to create new, exciting kinds of games, rather than iterating on the same core mechanics with each new cycle. The “massive” in MMO is what makes it fun, because it imparts a sense of epic scale to the world, and it provides the opportunity for interaction with your fellow humans (survivors, in our case) that create game experiences not imagined by the designers. Our goal is to retain those key elements of MMOs – massive persistent world and large player population dynamics – while moving on from some of the traditional trappings of the MMO.

“Consoles” and “MMO” can bring contradicting elements to mind. One of the biggest may be polish. As is often lamented, expect bugs in MMOs (with the excuse that MMOs are super complex). By comparison, console games are polished to a blinding shine. How can this hurdle be overcome in a world where we get quality, time, price – pick two?

I’m going to break a Big Rule of Interviews here and talk – briefly – about another company’s game. It’s simply not true that an MMO should be any less polished than a triple-A console game. You can say what you want about World of Warcraft, but there is no question it is one of the most highly polished games on any platform. Sure, it’s had bugs, but the developers have high standards and those bugs are addressed quickly. Complexity should never be an excuse, and more importantly, it should never change your expectations. But I’d also like to point out that polish is about more than eliminating bugs; it’s about the entire play experience feeling just right. You know that feeling you get when you sit down to play a new game and from the very start – the first splash screen, cinematic, login screen – and you can just tell that the developers loved on every detail and you start to feel all warm inside. That’s when gaming is at its best, and that’s what you should demand in every game you play. So, quality, time, price, pick two? This game won’t be out this year (or next), and it won’t be at the back of the store in the bargain bin when it does come out, so our focus is quality.

The other possible contradiction for many of the old school is the higher degree of communication required to sustain MMO populations, which some fear may be lacking in the keyboard-lite console market. Obviously Undead Labs does not believe this to be an issue for a console MMO. Why not?

We obviously don’t think the lack of a keyboard is an issue? You’re kidding, right? This is a huge issue, and probably the most significant risk to the design of the game. Keyboards don’t mix with consoles, and we’re not going to pretend that they do, or try to convince you that they do. Fortunately, voice communication is well entrenched in the console market, which can provide a partial solution, but I’m not convinced that it can fully replace the organic (and anonymous) nature of communication by keyboard. So yeah, we have some hard thinking and design work ahead of us to solve this issue. Marketing guys like to use the word “opportunity” instead of “issue,” and while that normally demands an eye roll, in this case there’s some truth to it. Designing around a console controller rather than a mouse and keyboard will force (or free) us to completely rethink the fundamental design of an MMO for console, rather than trying to shoehorn the PC MMO experience onto console hardware. We have to build a game that is true to the nature of the platform, and that’s going to be half the fun.

Back in the day when ArenaNet released the first Guild Wars it distanced itself from the term “MMO” because it (and believably, you) felt that the mechanics of the game set it apart from the DIKU-like Everquest or World of Warcraft MMOs that nearly defined the term. Have times changed enough that you could make a mold-breaking “MMO” and still call it an “MMO” without gamers being resistant to the term, especially in an arena where console gamers are currently receiving shaky MMO ports?

I’d love to avoid the word “MMO,” simply because it immediately suggests a specific kind of game, more suited to solitary confinement in the basement than hanging out with your friends in the living room. I can wish all I want that “MMO” meant “a game with massive numbers of players online” rather than “a game just like EQ or WoW,” but wishing doesn’t make it reality. I think its more likely that we can expand the definition of “MMO” to include more diverse styles of play than we can coin a new game genre or fall back to explaining how our game plays in multiple paragraphs. We use “MMO” to describe this game because we want people to know that it is a true server-hosted world supporting millions of online players, but we will have to work hard to make it clear that everything else that you associate with “MMO” is under the microscope.

Assuming Undead Labs’ MMO is some time away from release, what are some of your hopes for how MMO gaming will change in the coming years? What are some fears?

My first hope is that we move beyond the MMO monoculture we have in the West right now. WoW is a great game that deserves its success, but I’m ready to see different games have some time in the sun. (Shameless plug: Go Guild Wars 2!). There is vast potential for the MMO genre, but I worry that some publishers are licking their wounds after investing millions in MMOs and having them not live up to expectations. I don’t want these publishers to give up on MMOs! I’m certainly not going to say that they all deserved to be successful, but I am hopeful that within the next few years we will see some worthy games emerge that can create an MMO market that is more favorable to innovation.

My fear is that publishers spend more money, more time, and more effort chasing after the current king-of-the-hill MMO. Gamers are eventually going to “age out” of playing the current generation of MMOs, and if the next generation of MMOs are built largely around the same play experience (albeit with “more of everything”), then I worry gamers will opt to pass in favor of different play experiences in genres that are pushing boundaries a bit more.

What is it about sunny Seattle that draws some great development studios?

When it’s cold, wet, and nasty outside, what are you going to do? Stay inside and play games. And if you have to make a living somehow, you might as well do it making games. You know, I say this only halfway tongue-in-cheek. During the summer, the sun is up from 4:30a to after 8:00p, the temperature is usually in the low-80s, and everyone spends as much time outside as possible, because summer in Seattle lasts for about two months. During winter (which is most of the year here), the sun is up around 8:00a and down before 4:30p, the weather is damp and chilly, and the sky is a uniform gray. Nobody wants to go outside, and game development studios have a warm cozy glow. In short, Serious Stuff Gets Done during the ten months of winter. You either love it or hate it. Fortunately for zombie fans (and PC shooter fans, and fantasy MMO fans, and Xbox fans, and console shooter fans), we love it.

Where would you hole up if the zombiepocalypse hit Seattle?

Thanks, Zach. I’ve been waiting for this question! I’ve put a lot of thought into this. The Undead Labs studio is in Pioneer Square, which is the old historic district of Seattle. We’re about a mile away from the the industrial area known as SODO, which is home to a few big box retailers, including Costco and Home Depot. I’d make for Costco. The building is easy to secure because the designers had to control entry and exit to minimize shoplifting (one set of entry doors and a loading dock). It has more food prepackaged food than you could eat in several lifetimes. It also has some survival basics, including camping stoves, sleeping bags, air mattresses, coats, boots, etc. And it’s just a few blocks away from Home Depot, which has a good selection of building materials to help secure windows and doors, as well as metal pipes, garden equipment, heavy tools, and other zombie-dispatching goodies. In short, I’d survive, and of course all the KTR readers would be welcome to join me, but the other suckers would be torn to pieces or added to the ranks of the undead.

Thank you for your time, and good luck!

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about zombies, consoles, and MMOs, Zach. I’ve done a lot of talking here, so now it’s time to go silent and, you know, actually deliver something. Keep in touch. ;)

15 thoughts on “Interview with Undead Labs’ Jeff Strain”

  1. you’re awesome, thanks for this. *is a gw/Jeff Strain fanboy*

    it looks like you held down enter a bit much near the end though :p

  2. What I haven’t seen asked yet is how they’ll handle infection. In pretty much every zombie movie the slightest scratch or drop of blood means you’re done. You might have a few hours or a few seconds, but you’re going to be a zombie.

    It’s such an absolute binary situation in zombie mythology that I’m surprised it hasn’t been asked or addressed yet.

    On the one hand, you could play a character for weeks or months and have it all destroyed in an instant, like the people who play MMOs with perma-death (you character dies and you delete it and start over), but I don’t think most players would find that type of gameplay very fun unless the amount of effort to build up a character was much lower than traditional games. And then you still have the problem of people becoming attached to their creations and the anguish of losing them.

    On the other hand, some sort of solution to infection would seem like a cop-out, a dumbing down of the genre.

  3. Jeff Strain really knows how to handle an interview and turns out you’re pretty good at conducting one too Rav. Kudos. =)

    I love the response to “MMO” especially.

  4. Jeff: “you can watch an excellent movie like Land of the Lost and leave the theater thinking, “Man, that could really happen!” whereas with mediocre, unrealistic movies like 28 Days Later you leave thinking, “Bioengineered viruses that don’t work exactly as planned. What a complete joke.””

    I am an absolute sucker for game programmers who are clever with language. I believe someone who transcends the stereotype of good with numbers = bad with words is always going to make interesting stuff.

    I’m also amused to see a guy who made WoW complain that mmodom is all trying to make WoW nowadays. If you didn’t want everyone to do that Jeff you should have done a worse job on WoW!

    I expect this to be a highly enjoyable game with a lot of hidden depth.

    By the way your icebreaker question was a masterful piece of interviewing, Ravious.

  5. Ravious, your interviews with the big names are second to none. I really enjoy reading them. Every idiot out there seems to ask the same questions over and over, my personal most hated, ‘Will Guild Wars 2 be subscription?’. You however, ask interesting but not overly presumptuous or nosey questions. The devs always seem to like you too. It’s great how Mr. Strain thanks you for your question about where he would hole up in a zombie invastion. I love games that have love put into them, and these sorts of questions display the passion that some developers have for their creations. In the long run, it helps me pick games I want to invest my time and love into as well.

    A massive fan of your work,
    jocogi.

    1. Thanks! I appreciate all the thanks. I enjoy bringing them all to you. I do have a… boon in that KTR readers are, IMHO, intelligent enough to research unanswered questions on their own. IOW, KTR readers don’t rely on me for ALL their information, and I can ask more interesting questions (that might require more effort on the reader’s part).

  6. I met Jeff and his family a while back and wish him and his new venture the absolute best. May great things happen to such good people.

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