The original State of Decay game was considered by many as being a surprise hit when the game first launched on XBox 360 and PC. And with the first game selling more than 250,000 copies in its first 48 hours of release on Xbox Live Arcade, before going on to then sell more than 700,000 copies in its first month of release in June 2013 (therefore making it the second-fastest-selling XBLA game of all time), it was only a matter of time before Microsoft would take the necessary steps to acquire it as an official first party franchise. Now, over three years later, and at a time when XBox One owners are clamoring for AAA first party exclusives, the level of scrutiny facing Undead Labs’ forthcoming Spring 2018 sequel is reaching almost unprecedented levelss – namely because there are so few first party titles lined up for the XBox’s foreseeable future, and also because the game has to convince prospective One X owners that the new iterative console is going to live up to its 4K namesake.
I spoke with Jeff Strain (Founder of Undead Labs) to determine as to what sort of pressures he is facing as the Studio Head who has to deliver upon Microsoft’s First Party 4K-enabled promise, and to also gain further insight as to what the nature of his studio’s relationship is with Microsoft. Enjoy!
The first State of Decay game was in Steam Early Access for a very long time. How come the gestation period between the second game and the first game has been so short?
Usually, what you try to do with a sequel is to stand on your own shoulders. If you have created a game that people like to play, and you want to make a sequel, you kind of start using the existing game as a foundation, both technically and from a design standpoint, and then just build on top of that. We didn’t have that opportunity with State of Decay because we needed to switch engines. The first game used CryEngine, which was fine for an XBox Live Arcade title, but was not going to scale up to the full AAA title that State of Decay 2 is going to be. We needed a more robust and a more mature engine, so we pivoted to Unreal Engine 4, and that involved us having to start very close to ground zero in terms of the technical infrastructure for the game.
And what teething problems did that present for you as a studio head and for the development team?
One of the things that you always hope to be able to do is rapid prototyping early in the development process, where you don’t necessarily have to be waiting for programmers to develop systems in order for the designers to be exercising those systems and figuring out the ways they should work, because nobody gets a game right the first time. Designers don’t just sit down and design this on paper and then it’s just perfect the first time. Any good game is the process of a lot of iterations. And when you’re starting on an engine from the ground up, it takes a long time before you can get to a point where you can be iterating because you’re waiting for systems to come online.
Was any of the first game ported across to Unreal Engine 4, in terms of assets and stuff, from CryEngine?
The simulation technology was something that we built in-house, that sits on top of CryEngine. And a lot of that has come over. Some of it had to be rewritten or refactored. But the fundamental principles and fundamental algorithms that drove the first game all were able to come over.
State of Decay 2 is ultimately bigger, better, and badder. It’s basically everything that the original State of Decay was but factored to the power of 10. But for those that haven’t played State of Decay 1, how would you go about selling State of Decay 2 as a concept? And why should people upgrade?
There are lots of great zombie games, but what’s unique about State of Decay is that it really captures that survival fantasy aspect of it. It’s not about putting you in a situation where you have to shoot your way into survival. It’s about putting tools into your hands to make decisions about how you want to survive. And that is that fusion between the simulation, the base building, and the character RPG progression system. So we took a good swing at that with State of Decay. We had a very first incarnation of it where we could see that that formula worked and gave people that feeling of letting in the apocalypse and being able to make their own decisions. But we want to take it much further. And the way we take it further is by making that simulation a lot more sophisticated… by making the character systems, the RPG systems underlying the character progression a lot deeper, and more tightly marrying those two systems together so that they feed into each other, so that the character trait system is a lot more well-developed in State of Decay 2 and the simulation is aware of it and will create events and create things that happen in the world based on the unique traits of your characters. So it’ll be a more believable and richer experience.
So is State of Decay a first-party Microsoft title now?
Yeah, it is. We are an independent studio. But in terms of the development process, it is a first-party title.
Now that the game is a first-party title and Microsoft’s reputation rests upon it to an extent, how much pressure are you under to deliver – not only on the original State of Decay promise and to appease the original fans, but to also to live up to Microsoft’s quality control standards?
It’s a good, mutual partnership because they have full confidence in us to make a great State of Decay game. We did it the first time. We know the fans. We know what they’re looking for. We have the vision. We’re the vision holders for the game. Building that experience is something we know how to do and they trust us to do it.
On the other hand, Microsoft as the owners of the XBox platform, have very high standards for visual fidelity, for polish, and for overall quality. And they push us hard on that, and they should push us hard on that. And that’s something that has wound up being a good, mutual partnership. They bring the resources and the mandate that we take that to the next level in terms of the visual fidelity and the polish of the game. And we’re bringing the expertise and knowledge on how to make a compelling experience that players engage with and stay engaged with over time. It’s not a one-off title that’s used to characterize what console games were like years ago where you enjoyed your 30 hours and then you were done with it. So it’s really bringing together our mutual strengths to make an experience that fans are going to love.
When the first game came out, would you have described Undead Labs as an indie developer?
No, not indie, but independent. And those are very different.
Even when the game was in alpha status?
We were a new company but not indie. Indie means that there’s a certain development mentality, a certain funding mentality, and that was never our goal. We were ambitious from the beginning. We started small because any good business starts small and grows organically. But it was never our intention to make indie games. Therefore, we were never really an indie developer.
Are you owned by Microsoft now? Or are you still an independent studio?
No, we’re fully independent. It’s just a partnership around a great IP.
But they own the IP?
Okay. I know you’ve stated that the studio was founded upon very ambitious plans. How has the development studio grown from whatever it was beforehand to where State of Decay 2 is now being regarded as a AAA project? What sort of pressure has that put upon you in terms of the studio’s corporate culture as a whole? But then, when you’ve been practically assimilated by Microsoft – at least your IP has, what sort of pressure has that put on the entire Undead Labs studio, including its working practices, its ability in delivering a product, and the pressures associated with ensuring that it’s game is 4K enabled?
Any successful company grows with the kind of stress that is on the studio. And growth has to be managed. Your culture changes as you go from 10 people to 20 people to 40 people to 80 people. And nobody is going to say that’s a bad thing. You want your company to do well. You want your company to grow. State of Decay was a successful game. Microsoft is behind State of Decay 2 in a big way. So of course our company has grown. And there is no way to look at that other than, “Hey, great… Now we can take on even more ambitious things and make State of Decay 2 even better because we have the resources to do that.” It does take careful management, but that’s just part and parcel with any company.
I will say that your statement “assimilated by Microsoft”… from the very beginning, that was the partnership that we went into, absolutely. Publishers can take a strong IP and go push it to the four corners of the earth. And that’s just not something that any development studio can do unless they’re several hundred people. We want to be able to have the creative control over the project… Still feel like it’s our heart and soul, which it is, but are perfectly happy for Microsoft to be the one responsible for finding all of the opportunities to make it go as far and fast as they can with it. So there’s certainly no assimilation or ill will at all. We work fabulously together and will continue working together on this IP for as long as fans are loving it.
I assume the first game had five million fans…
That’s a rough estimate. It started life as an XBox Live Arcade title.
Is that concurrent users?
No, this is individual customers who’ve played the game in its various incarnations since it was released. Somewhere around five million.
Is there a campaign?
Yeah, absolutely. It was always our intention to make the first game multiplayer, but we had to save that for State of Decay 2.
Could CryEngine do State of Decay 2, or did you have to go to Unreal Engine 4 for technical reasons?
CryEngine was made for first-person shooters. We abused it heavily to make State of Decay. But we had pushed it as far as we could. We weren’t going to be able to abuse it anymore for State of Decay 2.
What sort of success are you expecting for State of Decay 2?
Any time you make a sequel, you’re hoping to reach even more fans. What gets us out of bed in the morning, and what feeds us as developers, is watching people play and love our game. And we got a lot of that with State of Decay. With State of Decay 2, we hope we can reach an even wider audience.
I’ll ask this from a Left 4 Dead perspective… I know it’s a different game, but just hear me out. Some fans were burnt by Left 4 Dead 2 coming out soon after Left 4 Dead 1. To make the analogy, State of Decay 2 is coming out quite soon after State of Decay 1, from my perspective…
State of Decay came out in 2013, and State of Decay 2 will be coming out in spring of 2018. I don’t think anybody is going to accuse us of being too fast.
Maybe… I might just be out of the loop. What are your intentions to support State of Decay 2 with regards to DLC etc.?
That’s not something we’re talking about today. Future plans are something we’ll be talking about a lot more as we come to the release.
Would you be looking to enhance the story maybe by co-opting further modules or anything like that?
We’re not talking about future plans today. It’s all about the release.
Does Undead Labs have any future plans apart from State of Decay 2? Or is your entire focus based on State of Decay 2?
Right now we are the State of Decay 2 company and we’ll be for the foreseeable future.
So you have no future plans to deviate from the State of Decay franchise at the moment?
Today, we’re all about State of Decay 2.
Okay, thank you.