One Year Later: Talking State of Decay with Jeff Strain from Undead Labs

Undead Labs’ “State of Decay” turns one year old today. When it launched last year, the massive, open-world zombie survival game sold over 700,000 copies in its first month on Xbox Live, making it one of the fastest-selling titles to ever hit the platform. Since then, Undead Labs has beefed up the game considerably, with the “Breakdown” sandbox mode last November, and the “Lifeline” campaign expansion at the end of last month. “State of Decay” shows no signs of slowing down, and it’s been hailed by players and critics alike as one of the most daring, unique, and engrossing survival adventures of its generation. 

To celebrate the big anniversary in the wake of the release of “Lifeline,” we recently sat down with Undead Labs founder Jeff Strain to discuss “State of Decay’s” bright past – and its even brighter future.

Xbox Wire: So, obviously, it’s been one year since “State of Decay” debuted on Xbox 360. Any general-high-level thoughts, off the top of your head? How are you feeling, from a development standpoint?

Jeff Strain:
It’s been a scary but thrilling ride.

We didn’t know what to expect when we released “State of Decay” a year ago. We loved it, and we knew it could be the start of something big. We also knew that it relied on key mechanics that violated the “Rules of Game Design,” such as permadeath and playing with multiple avatars. We were committed to making a true survival simulation, and that required us to rethink some of the standard templates for third-person action games and RPGs. We were enormously gratified (and also relieved) to find that millions of players also wanted a true simulation and were excited about “State of Decay” — both the game as it exists today, and also the possibilities of where we could take it with future games.

Xbox Wire: How are players responding to the new Lifeline DLC so far? What’s your next move, content-wise? What is in store for players in 2014?

Based on our forums, Twitter, and reviews so far, it looks like players are truly loving Lifeline.

Our first DLC, “State of Decay: Breakdown,” took the simulation engine of the original game and extended it to provide a more systems-driven, and less narrative-focused, game experience. This is a fun way to play the game — and certainly offers a great deal of replay — but many “State of Decay” players hoped we’d return to a stronger narrative theme with Lifeline. Interesting, believable characters — such as Marcus Campbell, Ed Jones, Major Alicia Hawkes, and of course Lifeline’s most lovable guy you hate, Sasquatch — give the survival mechanics of the game meaning and context. It’s fun to compete with your friends for a high score, but sometimes you want to immerse yourself in another world with people you care about (living or dead). Lifeline returns to that strong narrative theme. In the future, we’ll maintain a balance between the simulation-driven mechanics and the characters and stories working within those mechanics.

As for the rest of 2014, all I can tell you is that there are big things afoot for “State of Decay,” and that the entire “State of Decay”
 team is working to take the game’s unique blend of RPG, third-person action, and survival strategy to the next level.

Xbox Wire: When you’re thinking about how to design the world and the zombie encounters, what are the important things that you consider? This is a very different kind of experience compared to, say, something like “Dead Rising,” “DayZ” or the “zombie modes” in other games such as “Call of Duty” and “Red Dead Redemption.”

Jeff: The most important thing we have to keep in mind when designing “State of Decay” is that there are no ‘zombie encounters’ — the game is a true simulation.

We don’t simply spawn predesigned groups of zombies. Instead, we model an overall threat value; blend that with density modifiers based on terrain types (an urban city block has a higher potential zombie density than a rural farm); consider current and historic noise generation, the number of nearby zombie infestations, and disturbances such as vehicle engines or gunshots; then determine how and where zombies are generated. It’s not something designers script. There are no tripwires or action triggers. This actually makes the game devilishly difficult to demo, because we have no idea what’s going to happen, or even when or where something will happen.

Xbox Wire: It might be apt to describe “State of Decay” as a sort of “single-player MMO,” which is interesting, because your pedigree includes “World of Warcraft” and “Guild Wars.” It’s a pretty different approach to game design — or, at least, it’s one that you’ve pulled off in a way that is not very common. What are some of the unique challenges you’ve had to deal with — particularly since the initial game launched?

Jeff: I wouldn’t call it a single-player MMO. In a game without other players, traditional MMO mechanics would be pretty dull indeed. You probably see similarities in the open-world, free-form nature of the game, and I’d agree on those points. However, there are two fundamental components to “State of Decay” that make it very different, if not antithetical, to a traditional MMO design.

First, outside the narrative structure, the simulation requires you to create your own quests. Rather than going out into the world to kill zombies for experience points (ick), zombies are actually a bad thing you usually want to avoid. Instead, you go out into the world to fulfill objectives you’ve set for yourself through your own decisions. You may need to find another survivor with specific medical or engineering knowledge to help run a new facility you’ve constructed in your base. Or you may need building materials or medical supplies to upgrade your infirmary. Or you may need to build up your ammunition reserves to trade with other NPC survivors for food. Our goal is for you to implement your own survival strategy, and ultimately your quests will be driven by that strategy.

Second, being a true survival simulation, the world of “State of Decay” has real entropy. When people die, they’re dead. When vehicles explode, they become useless forever. When you scavenge the resources from a house, or take all the guns from the local police station, those buildings stay empty. There are no respawns or loot drops in “State of Decay”…as you use up resources, the world around you becomes less and less hospitable.

Xbox Wire: What are some of your key inspirations for “State of Decay?” If you want a REALLY good zombie epic, what do you turn to? I’m guessing that “The Walking Dead” and the various Romero films are gonna be high on your list, but I’m looking for what you’d suggest in addition to those.

Jeff: The ‘Day by Day Armageddon’ series by J. L. Bourne are a realistic depiction of the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, and the choices you face in order to survive not just for the next week, but for the next 50 years.

I also love the movie “Zombieland,” because it really brings home that survival is not simply about food, weapons, and shelter, but also the human relationships that form the foundation of society. Our ultimate goal with “State of Decay” is to create a simulation not merely of day-to-day survival, but also of the challenge of rebuilding human society.

Xbox Wire: I know you probably can’t answer this, but is an Xbox One version potentially inbound this year? Sequel? Super-crazy full-MMO redux? Real-life “State of Decay”-sponsored zombie plague?

Jeff: We announced a long term, multi-title partnership with Microsoft Studios to continue our collaboration on “State of Decay,” a game that has sold more than 1.5M copies since its release. That’s all I can say right now, but… what would you do? 😉