How State of Decay 3’s Newest Trailer Feeds into Undead Labs’ Game Development Evolution

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  • State of Decay 3 is a huge evolution for the open world zombie survival series and Undead Labs.
  • State of Decay 3 delivered a bold new look during Xbox Games Showcase.
  • Xbox Wire was given behind-the-scenes access to the studio, game, and new trailer with Studio Head and Head of Product Philip Holt, Creative Director Kevin Patzelt, and Studio Art Director Wayne Laybourn.

State of Decay is not your typical zombie or survival series – it’s driven by hope, not despair. Yes, there are zombies you must contend with, but there are strong themes that permeate throughout, tackling subjects like perseverance, community, and skillfully navigating challenges which helps the series stand out from the horde.

What’s also special about the franchise and its developer Undead Labs is that there’s a synergy here between the two, as the goals for what you are striving for in the game align very closely with the studio’s core principles – and they’re taking State of Decay to an all-new level in the third installment.

“It’s always been important to us that State of Decay is a kind of every person’s survival experience,” says Studio Head and Head of Product Philip Holt. “This is not a hero’s journey as a sort of literary structure. Instead, the world of State of Decay is the story of environmental transformation, which reveals the things that are already inherently worthy in our survivors. Things like ingenuity, resilience, adaptability, collectivism — those are the traits that lead to survival.”

After watching the new trailer for Undead Labs’ upcoming open world zombie survival game, State of Decay 3, revealed during Xbox Games Showcase 2024, fans of the series might already be picking up on a few of these franchise staples: working together to battle back a threat to your growing community of survivors, permadeath and remembering those who have fallen, and, naturally, opening a car door to hit a zombie while speeding down the road. But the more you watch it, the more you can see hints seeping through on what else Undead Labs has up their sleeves, revealing themes and goals the studio intends to reflect within their upcoming game and for themselves. This is going to be the biggest step the series has taken so far – an enormous new entry that builds on the foundations laid by the beloved originals.

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Part of that is refining what it means to be “Undead” Labs – you may have spotted a new logo at the start of the trailer, signifying an evolution for the studio. On the surface, it is an easy answer: Rise from the dead; a zombie. Unkillable. Easily fitting within the motif of what the studio has become known for. But when you look deeper you find that “Undead” means there is no end; no limit for what they can achieve, which feeds into their core philosophy: “We brave the darkness to find the power of our light.”

Acquired by Microsoft in 2018, Undead Labs has had quite the evolution over the years, from being an independent studio working with Xbox as a publishing partner for the first two State of Decay games, to becoming one of the Xbox Game Studios with full support and resources that were not at their disposal before. This access can catapult development to help them achieve their dream of creating the State of Decay they always wanted to make — the new trailer is a perfect proof of concept for that point.

“I don’t think we could achieve State of Decay 3’s vision if we weren’t part of Microsoft,” says Creative Director Kevin Patzelt. “I think if had we stayed independent, there’s just no way we could have had the time and the space and the support that we needed to be where we are today and to put out what we know we can make. It’s a different pressure. It’s not like that anymore. And I feel like as a team, at least in my career, I’ve never felt so supported to make what we know we want to make.”

Something that has always worked well for State of Decay is its open world, effectively allowing you to create any narrative for your party that you’d like to come up with. But, building on the originals, State of Decay 3 will feature a much larger, truly shared open world, allowing Undead Labs to bring emotional weight into that aspect of the game, with more context in how they want to be telling stories.

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“The first thing that I hope people pick up [from the trailer] is that there’s four player characters we’re highlighting — three of them start in different places in the world — so we’re implying this idea of a shared world experience, not just a ride-along, and that the boundaries in which you can go off independently are going to be much, much greater than they were in State of Decay 2,” explains Holt.

Undead Labs has been collaborating with Obsidian Entertainment on the shared world feature, enabling more flexible online co-op. The acclaimed Grounded released with Undead Labs’ shared save technology and State of Decay 3 will build on that to deliver a truly open co-op world owned by multiple players.

The trailer is a true reflection of what we’ll play, too: “It’s all in-game assets, all rendered from the game, and it’s a depiction of a typical scene that you would encounter in a four-player co-op session. We wanted to give you a representative feel of what the game would be like, but also tell a story,” says Holt.

Part of that emotion will come through in the game’s iconic permadeath feature, which is teased at the end of the trailer, as the camera focuses on a wall of remembrance that continues to grow and grow. It gives us an indicator that this group of survivors has seen significant loss over the years (and will continue to). It’s a series staple and one the team is looking to make more impactful than ever before for the new game.

“I think it’s important for not just the player to have that remembrance, but the characters in the world as well,” explains Patzelt. “So, our narrative systems are really going to be there to help support those biggest ones. Because there’s nothing bigger than losing a community member, especially if there’s someone that you invested a lot of time and energy into. I think we need to do a better job of showing that sacrifice is meaningful and how it might impact the community.”

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Bringing this larger co-op ethos to life, Undead Labs has also tapped into expertise from Gears of War developer The Coalition to help harness the power of Unreal Engine 5 (which is what you see running in the trailer) and have been working with co-development partners at Blind Squirrel Entertainment and Wushu Studios, who bring additional expertise to the team. It ties into another of the game’s core philosophies: You’re stronger when working together.

This also feeds into the higher degree of fidelity the team is aiming for, as can be seen in the trailer. In particular, the next-gen tech being used will allow for much more reactive combat, and dismemberment of zombies will be much more visceral, with enemies reacting more realistically to hits they’re taking.

“We’re heavily emphasizing engaging co-op combat, taking a close look at our level design and approach to how we’re building the world to ensure that players can have a blast smashing and shooting zombies together out in the open world,” details Patzelt. “To support that effort, combat needs to be downright fun. We’re looking at deepening our combat systems, our designs for enemy behaviors, and our animation fidelity to level up the moment-to-moment experience across the board.

While the trailer showcases a much more evolved, darker, and much more dangerous world for players to survive in, the element of fun (and entertainment) still needs to find a place to live in this world full of the undead. Now with State of Decay 3, the overall quality is going to be turned up several notches to help it stand out even more from its predecessors.

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“We are pushing the visual quality and fidelity, but also the depth and thought we are putting into the designs,” explains Studio Art Director Wayne Laybourn. “Our players think a lot about the situations and scenarios they might find themselves in so it’s crucial what we make is believable and grounded while remaining entertaining and delivering on the fantasy and heart of the State of Decay zombie apocalypse. So, when [the zombie] gets hit by the car, it’s still as entertaining as ever but it also feels brutal and visceral with just the right amount of lumpy blood dancing through the air.”

The feeling of ever-present danger really starts to come through in the trailer when the group comes together, rallying around a survivor who has radioed for help. As zombies begin to swarm around them, an enemy with exposed, molten lungs known as a Screamer appears and is blown apart by a survivor – before he himself is consumed by the massive horde of undead. When hope seems nearly lost, a heavily modified car we’re introduced to earlier in the trailer comes barreling through to save the day, albeit temporarily.

“One of the things that we talk about a lot in the franchise is that ‘state of decay’ is the thing that happens when you run out of gas. Or when you run out of ammo. When things go badly is when you must improvise,” explains Holt. “And so, we tried to pick something that felt like one of those moments. Somebody is in trouble. They call their friends. We need help and everybody converges on that [location] to protect that person — and then somebody dies.” It’s a true reflection of the kind of situation State of Decay 3 will put you in frequently – filling the story of your specific game with meaningful tales.

As the trailer also indicates, it’s clear some time has passed since the last game. Zombies appear more decayed, with darkened and shriveled skin sucked close to their bones, and the advancement of the infestation is much more progressed, extending its brain-like pink tendrils across buildings and bridges. Every element of this world looks much more grandiose when powered by Unreal Engine 5.

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“We are putting tons of work into making sure what we put on the screen looks like it’s ours (ownable) and belongs in our world. Everything tells a story from the scratches and bite marks on the wooden stock of a gun to the way your beloved vehicle has been assembled,” explains Laybourn. “We think carefully about the mood and tone of any given time of day right down to the tape used to hold your shoe together. The quality of games (in general) is so high, it’s really about what you’re saying and how. State Of Decay has always struck a tone that people love. It’s got heart and soul, a great blend of horror and beauty, levity, and depth… these ingredients need to come through regardless of the fidelity of the assets.”“

Speaking of ingredients, you can also expect to see survivors that have become quite adept at… well… not getting eaten, by surviving several years into the apocalypse. This, in turn, has evolved into a resourceful era where clothing, supplies, and weapons have been modified to accommodate their needs — expect weapons to have mismatched barrels with heavily modified magazines, or clothing reinforced with armor plates. They’ve “leveled up” in this maker culture to be more eclectic because the world of State of Decay 3 has been “picked over” by now, and finding components to modify their existing weapons will be much more likely than looting a wholly formed one that’s ready to go.

This also means that players will be able to customize their play experience to a greater depth than they have in the past. Undead Labs believes that investing time to craft “your” crossbow vs finding a few generic crossbow types is going to be a lot more fun and will help reinforce State of Decay 3’s unique setting.

This type of feature feeds back into the principles of the studio: ingenuity, adaptability, and collectivism that were all on display in the newest trailer. “We chose to present something that felt very cinematic in its presentation to tell a bit of a story, to be a tone and a mood and signal an intention about where we’re taking the franchise. And I think the trailer succeeds on that,” says Holt.

For now, the team is hard at work on the game, and will have more to share at a later date around co-op, customization, and other fun features that they can’t quite get into detail just yet (but they sound very cool). As it stands, State of Decay 3is primed to be the tip of Undead Labs’ creative spear, serving as the vehicle for their continued evolution — and we can’t wait to see more.