Rude Q&A

A ‘Rude Q&A’ is a document you create in consultation with your PR team in the days leading up to a big news announcement to help prepare for the questions you hope you never get asked. These are the questions you dread, because they usually touch on sensitive subjects like release dates, pricing, competitors, platform support, or (shudder) preferences for fast or slow zombies. It’s good to be prepared for these questions so you don’t look like a complete jerk when they are asked, because even if you are not a jerk, fumbling around with the answer or (worse) trying to evade the question can sure make you look like one.

In keeping with PR tradition, we prepared a Rude Q&A for the big news today about our collaboration with Microsoft to create a new zombie-survival franchise for the Xbox 360 platform. This is a super secret document with every question we hope we don’t get asked, and we’re supposed to study it and be prepared to answer the questions if they are asked.

But our Rude Q&A has honest answers to honest questions. So to hell with secrecy; instead we’re just going to post it to our website and share it with you.


Did Microsoft purchase Undead Labs?

No, they just own our souls.

Kidding! Seriously, Undead Labs remains an independent studio, in full creative control of the games we make. That said, I wasn’t BSing when I said we are excited to work directly with Microsoft on this project. Over the past year we were approached by numerous publishers expressing an interest in partnering with Undead Labs. Not surprisingly, many of them were MMO industry publishers who were drawn to the team’s track record in that industry, and while they were excited to work with our team, most of them wanted us to work on yet another World of Warcraft clone.

Screw that. We’re here to do cool new things; not rehash things that literally hundreds of other companies have been trying to do for half a decade. The team at Microsoft Game Studios immediately understood where we wanted to go with this, and they’ve been enthusiastic proponents for the vision of a zombie-survival online world game from the very beginning. In short, they’re a true partner for us, and we think they’ll drive as hard as we will to get there.

Does this mean that your games will exclusively be Xbox 360? No chance for PS3?

Somehow we don’t think our publisher would be too excited about a PS3 title… That aside, the real issue for us is focus. Look, we love the Xbox 360 — right along with 50 million or so other gamers around the world — but the PS3 is undoubtedly great gaming kit too. This isn’t a religious issue for us; we simply want to focus our time, energy, and resources on doing one thing and doing it exceedingly well. Cross-platform development, particularly when you’re pushing technical boundaries as hard we intend to, is complicated and time consuming, and we’d rather focus on gameplay and polish. Focusing on a single platform — particularly one that has a thriving online community — allows us to stay focused on making a great game, rather than wading through the technical and business challenges of supporting multiple platforms.

What about PC? Can’t you just make it cross platform?

(Note from the future: It turned out that, for Class3 aka State of Decay, a port to the PC was actually very simple. Yay!)

I know that many people are somewhat baffled by our insistence that we don’t intend to release on PC as well as console. Why would we create an online world game and then not make it available to the millions of PC gamers out there currently playing online world games? The truth is that we love the PC as a gaming platform. We’d damn sure better, too, because most of us owe our careers and livelihoods to the PC gaming community. The PC platform has tons of excellent online games, and it continues to be a great platform for online innovation. That said, most of us have been working together on the PC platform for a long time — some of us for as long as 15 years — and we’re simply ready to take on a new challenge. In this case, that challenge is building a new class of online world games for console gamers.

“We just love console games, and we love online world games, and we are passionate about bringing the best elements of both of those genres together into something new and cool.”I think most of you would agree that so far, attempts to create online world games that feel equally at home on console and PC have not resulted in excellent game experiences for either community. Most developers view porting a game that was designed for the PC to console as a set of problems to solve. By focusing on console from the start, we get to instead view it as a set of opportunities to create new online game experiences based on the unique strengths that the console hardware and gamer culture can provide, such as shared-screen cooperative play, ubiquitous voice chat, and a game controller designed for sweet action.

We’re not trying to “Change the MMO industry forevar!!” or make that case that the console is a superior gaming platform for online worlds or any other kind of game. We just love console games, and we love online world games, and we are passionate about bringing the best elements of both of those genres together into something new and cool.

Why do you use “online world game” now instead of “MMO”?

We feel that “MMO” has become highly associated with a specific game design template, and we don’t want people to assume that’s the kind of game we are making.

“We are still creating the game we set out to create: an awesome zombie-survival online world game for console gamers.”If you think of an MMO as a game that allows thousands of gamers to play together in a persistent online world that evolves and reacts over time to player actions, then we’re still making that game. If you think of an MMO as an online fantasy RPG with elves and dragons and EPIC QUESTS involving gremlin ears and dudes standing around town with bobbing exclamation marks over their heads, then we’re not — and never have been — making that game.

Don’t get me wrong: I truly love fantasy RPGs, and many of us here at the Lab have been making them for a long time. The problem is that “MMO” no longer conveys a set of design tools or technologies that enable play in an online world; instead it conveys “a game like World of Warcraft.” I’m sure that’s great if you’re Blizzard, but if you’re trying to make a truly innovative MMO experience you wind up spending more time explaining what your game is not, rather than what it is.

We are still creating the game we set out to create: an awesome zombie-survival online world game for console gamers. But rather than describing it as an MMO — and having to explain all the ways that it’s not really like the typical boilerplate MMO — we now describe it simply as an online world game, which says just what we want to say, and no more.

What’s the difference between Class3 and Class4?

‘Class3’ is the codename for the ambitious zombie-survival open world game currently under development at Undead Labs for release as an Xbox LIVE Arcade title. ‘Class4’ is the codename for the subsequent zombie-survival online world game that we will develop by building on the Class3 platform. In other words, Class3 runs on your Xbox 360 and supports 1-2 players via Xbox LIVE or on the same screen, while Class4 will provide a much larger server-hosted world for thousands of simultaneous players.

(Note from the future: As of mid-2012, we have to say that Class3 will not have co-op mode at launch. The explanation is part of the Q&A here.)

Why are you developing an Xbox LIVE Arcade game first?

We want to make games that are fun. That sounds like an obvious statement, but you’d be surprised at how often that isn’t the primary goal in today’s game industry. Instead, you might hear, “Look how much money Zynga is making! We want to make a Facebook game!!” or “Have you seen Apple stock? We want to make an iPhone game!”

Those are fine goals, but it’s not enough to define a platform or technology and jump into development. You have to know how to make a fun game if you’re going to be successful, and we want to make damn sure we make a fun zombie-survival game before we get too far down the path toward a full online world game.

A big part of determining whether a game is fun is asking gamers to play it and listening to what they like and don’t like. As a full online world game, Class4 is a massive undertaking, so we want to get the core gameplay mechanics in place and deliver a tight, fun game experience with Class3 and let our player community guide our efforts as we move forward into the full online world experience.

Plus, we’ll get to put a great game into your hands far sooner than if we’d focused on developing Class4 from the beginning…

When will Class3 be released?

Dammit, didn’t I just say, “far sooner”? And wasn’t that enough? 😉

It’s always nice to say “when it’s ready,” but that phrase has been getting thrown around a lot these days — often for purposes other than expressing a true commitment to quality — and basically means “no comment.” I’ll instead say that we have an ambitious schedule and a disciplined development process, and we’re serious about getting Class3 into your hands quickly. That said, we can’t commit to date at this point.

Do I need an Xbox LIVE membership to play Class3?

(Note from the future: No.)

The publishing details aren’t finalized, and I’ll defer to Microsoft to deliver the official word, but I think it’s a safe bet to say that yes, you’ll need an Xbox LIVE membership to play the game, and you’ll probably need an Xbox LIVE Gold membership to host or join other players over the Xbox LIVE network.

How much will Class3 cost?

It’s just far too early to tell. Class3 is undoubtedly among the most ambitious Xbox LIVE Arcade titles ever undertaken, but it’s still an Xbox LIVE Arcade game, so that should give you sense of the bounds.

How long will it take to finish Class4 after Class3 is released?

(Note from the future: We cannot begin building Class4 until we – both our publisher and our studio – see how things go and get a sense for what the future holds. A massive online world requires many things, among them commitment, a long term contractual relationship, a good guess as to where technology is going, and more. Class4 is still a dream, but for now, it’s only a dream.)

One of our goals with Class3 is to create the core gameplay and world interaction mechanics that will form the foundation of the Class4 experience. This will allow us to focus on the online world components of Class4, including content scope and scale, server and client technology, and player community features. Since we will already have a solid game foundation and a fully developed game world, Class4 development should be very efficient compared to an online world game being built from the ground up. We anticipate that using Class3 as a foundation will cut our development time in half.

Will Class4 be a subscription game?

This is of course a lengthy discussion that we’ll need to undertake with our publisher, so I don’t have a definitive answer, but I can give you some insight into the way we currently think about this.

The current dominant business models for online world games — subscriptions and micro-transactions — each solve a set of problems at the cost of creating new ones.

I’ve previously expressed that while the subscription model is not exactly loved by the gaming community, it does have the benefit of being a simple, clear, and above-the-table contract between gamers and the publisher. Each month, the game either earns your business or it doesn’t. The developers have a singular goal: ensure that the game is fun enough to keep people playing. I like the clarity and purity of that model, and I like that it keeps designers doing what designers should be doing: creating fun. On the other hand, subscriptions are yet another monthly bill to pay, which ranks right up there with rent and car payments as an effective joy kill.

Existing micro-transaction models make it easy to get into a game and let you pay as you go, but I’ve also seen them cause game designers to spend their time focusing on things other than making a fun game, such as channeling players through in-game stores or creating escalating pricing structures for in-game items. I also dislike the slippery slope of what is defined as something you purchase versus something that is a core element of the game experience. We see the phrase “free-to-play” kicked around a lot these days, and some of these games are good games, but we all know that nothing is truly free to play; they are simply blurring the line between playing and paying.

Both models have their strengths, but I’m hopeful that we can also find a way to avoid some of the weaknesses. I’ve challenged our designers to think through the concerns I’ve raised with these business models and be ready to work with me on some new ideas. We may not be able to satisfy everyone on this issue, but perhaps we can get close.