Talking State of Decay: Year-One Survival Edition with Jeff Strain

State of Decay: Year-One Survival Edition is a bigger, better version of the best zombie apocalypse game on Xbox. We recently got the chance to talk with Undead Labs founder Jeff Strain about killing characters, finding humor in a horrific world, and why stabbing zombies is way better than kicking them.

Xbox Wire: When did you decide to make an HD version of State of Decay?

Jeff Strain:
There’s knowing you want to do it, and officially confirming that you are doing it. Right as we were coming into the finish line for the original State of Decay in June 2013, that’s when all the excitement about next-gen consoles and the Xbox One was going on. This was a game that really pushed the limits of what the Xbox 360 hardware was capable of, and we were salivating at the idea of moving on to more powerful hardware. So we wanted to do it, but we needed to legitimately prove that this is a game people would enjoy. You don’t go reinvest in a game that hasn’t done well.

Fortunately it did very well! It broke records on Xbox Live Arcade for the fastest-selling original IP of all time. And it’s gone on to sell well over 2 million units at this point. So that was something we were obviously very pleased and humbled by, and Microsoft was incredibly pleased about it as well. They had really stepped up with us and taken a chance. The mechanics in
State of Decay are… not safe. To sit down and say that you’re going to make a game with perma-death, that mixes the elements of role-playing games, third-person action, and simulation… it’s hard to look at that and say, “Well, that’s just like this game, but we’re making these changes.” It’s its own beast. So Microsoft really went out on a limb for us and said, “Let’s see if we can make something cool here,” and it sold well and everyone enjoyed it, and it was a successful game.

So we all got back together and said, “Hey, we’ve got this new console coming up, and this game is screaming out for the high-def treatment. So let’s do it!”

Xbox Wire: What are the differences between developing a game for the first time, and then getting to revisit it?

Jeff Strain:
Every game has production rails. With State of Decay, for example, the amount of animation that went into the game was five times what we initially anticipated, and so that meant we had less time on other parts. To come back and say, “Now we can really polish it, now we can make it what we wanted it to be,” that’s a rare opportunity for any development team. It’s incredibly satisfying to take something you love and make it better. You don’t often have those opportunities. So the real difference was being able to focus on polish – being able to focus on the quality of animation, the user experience, and the way it taught people how to play. We didn’t have to prove the mechanics; we got to take something that was great and make it better.

Xbox Wire: And it’s a lot more than just a visual upgrade, correct?

Jeff Strain:
There are lots of new vehicles in the game, lots of new weapons to play with, and new characters – including one that is probably the coolest character we’ve ever made, which is the exclusive for Xbox 360 owners who are upgrading to the Year-One Survival Edition. Beyond that, it’s one thing to put new things in the game; what we like to do is put in new things to do, to actually introduce new experiences.

We introduced a new mission type. And because the game is built around a simulation engine instead of everything being scripted, a new mission type introduces potentially hundreds of different gameplay experiences, because of the different ways it can play out and interact with other missions. There are mysterious supply drops coming in from an unknown source to you, and these drops contain some of the rarest and coolest items in the game… but they attract every zombie for half a mile, so it’s very dangerous to go after them, yet very rewarding. And you never know when they’re going to come in. You might be in the middle of another mission and have to decide whether you’re going to take it on or keep doing what you’re doing. Are you strong enough and rested enough to go after them? It adds a new strategy to the game, so we’re really excited about it.

Xbox Wire: Has the player community helped to shape the development of the game?

Jeff Strain: Oh yeah. It’s not a formal process; it’s an organic process. The pedigree and background of a lot of our developers is from online games. I go all the way back to the days of Starcraft and Diablo. A lot of us worked on the Guild Wars games and World of Warcraft. We’ve never built games where we just threw it over the fence and went, “That’s done, moving on the next thing!” We don’t know any other way to do it, other than have this online relationship with the community. And even though State of Decay was not a multiplayer game, that ability to interact directly with fans of the game – to learn what they want, what their pain points are, what their hopes are – informs not only what we’re doing with Year-One Survival Edition, but also our prospects for the long-term.

Xbox Wire: What’s your favorite addition to the game?

Jeff Strain: I love the exclusive character, Gurubani, in terms of her background and her equipment. The way she plays is very different. She was a wild child in college, a native of India who moved to the U.S. After the collapse of civilization, she started fighting with an old military sword that her father handed down to her. She’s got a lot of style, a lot of flair. And that’s one of things we’ve really enjoyed about the game. The guiding principle for how we create characters in the game is that we want them to be real people. This is not a game where you’re playing a buffed-up action hero in Los Angeles, this is a game about real people living in the real world. In particular, it’s real people fighting the zombie apocalypse, and the vast diversity that comes along with that. The characters are very real. They’re people you would actually meet in the real world. It’s something we’re very proud of and enjoy about the game.

Xbox Wire: How do you create a cohesive narrative for a game that is so open-ended?

Jeff Strain: The Holy Grail for us is that we want to give players the tools to tell their own story, but we want to tell enough story so that there’s context to the world. There are missions that you take on where you have a clear objective, and you’re being guided. But along the way you meet characters; you get to learn their backgrounds. And when you’re doing things on your own, you understand the world, and you understand who the characters are, why they’re there, and what their motivations are. But you have the tools to tell your own story within the world… and that’s one of the hallmarks of the game, and something we’ve continued to focus on.

Xbox Wire: How big of a zombie film fan are you?

Jeff Strain: I am, hardcore. But even more so than the zombie genre specifically, I love post-apocalyptic survival stories. When we first released this game, people who hadn’t played it yet kind of go, “Oh, it’s another zombie game.” But what really makes this game special is that it’s a survival fantasy. It’s giving you the tools to make your own decisions and live in a post-apocalyptic world. To me, on a very personal level, that’s what I love. Whether it’s robots or mutants or aliens, stories where society collapses, and people from all different kids of backgrounds have to figure out how to work together to overcome and survive as a species… man, I love that stuff! And the zombie genre is a perfect incarnation of that. That’s the one that resonates the most.

Xbox Wire: There’s a really good balance in State of Decay, between the serious tone of the game and the humor present. How do you find that balance?

Jeff Strain:
It’s actually really hard to strike that balance, because we want the game’s consequences to be real. We want perma-death to be real; we want you to truly feel like you’re living in this simulated world where you have to survive. But if it’s just grim, horrific, and horrible all the time, it starts to become depressing. You don’t feel those moments of achievement, excitement, joy. And so we address it in two ways. One is that we really try to make the world beautiful. Nature is beautiful – the fall leaves, the water flowing, the way the sunlight comes though this window. And the zombies are horrible. And we try to juxtapose those things, so the world itself does not seem depressing. It’s a world of opportunity for you to start over.

And then there’s the humor element. What’s really interesting to us about
Year-One Survival Edition is that so much in the world – the billboards, the safety placards, the employee motivational posters – those things are all visible now. You can see what they say, and our artists injected so much humor and character into those, and for the first time you can walk up and read them. And one of the interesting things that came out was that it ended up being a little too much. So we had to dial a lot of it back to hit that balance, and it caused a lot of internal discussion about what tone we’re trying to set. And we decided that the humor should be there to lighten the mood, so it’s not always so serious… but we don’t want to make a slapstick game.

Xbox Wire: State of Decay handles characters much differently than most other games. Can you talk about that?

Jeff Strain: You have to change your mindset – the game tricks you. You start with Marcus, who you’re assuming to be the main protagonist of the game, and eventually… he dies. This is not a game where you have your protagonist, and the mission restarts if he dies; this is a game where consequences are real. Your decisions have impact. Even though one zombie is not a threat, if you’ve been out playing for a while and you get tired or aren’t managing your resources – everyone gets sloppy eventually – you die, and you lose your character. And then there’s this moment where it dawns on people what the game is doing. Your character is the community of characters that you build. That’s what you’re trying to get through to the end. People are going to die along the way, even people you think are awesome. That, for us, is a really fun aspect of the game.

Xbox Wire: One of the coolest new features we saw is that your character has a knife now as a default attack, instead of kicking. What prompted the change?

Jeff Strain:
That was a big one. In the original State of Decay, when your melee weapon broke, all you could do was kick, which makes you feel very impotent. You panic. The knife-fighting still makes it feel like your character has some agency; you’re not just suddenly a victim. And it looks cool, and feels cool, and still gives you the ability to have some tactical input into what you’re doing. That adds a lot to the experience of the game.

State of Decay: Year-One Survival Edition
makes its Xbox One debut later this year – and current State of Decay owners get a 33 percent discount when they upgrade from the Xbox 360 version. Bring out your dead!