The setting is our world. The time is now, except everything’s completely gone to shit and it’s happened fast. You don’t know why or how any of this happened. The only thing you know is that dead people are up and walking and that, if you’re not careful, they will kill you too. Is the crisis worldwide or isolated? It’s hard to say. You’re cut off from the outside world and everything around you is in total chaos.
This is the starting point for our open world zombie survival game, code named ‘Class3’. If you’re a zombie fan, you’ve thought about this scenario before. There are three big elements. The first is the zombies themselves. You have to figure out how you’ll kill them, how to escape them, and how to avoid them in the future. The second is other people. They may want to help you. They may want to harm you. That’s where things start to get really interesting.
And then there’s that third element: the world around you. Maybe you’ve never thought of it in those terms before, but odds are the environment plays a key role every time you picture the zombie apocalypse. It’s not just a backdrop. It’s a place full of buildings to explore and loot, abandoned cars for making a quick escape, firearms to collect and use, food stockpiles to raid, hiding places to duck into, and propane tanks to turn into the world’s brightest and most short-lived zombie welcome signs. It’s a world of endless possibilities.
As always, our starting point is thinking about the essence of zombie survival. At its core, what does survival actually mean? Well, it’s not getting your guts ripped out by zombies, for sure, but there’s a lot more to it. In those first desperate moments, survival is a matter of action and stealth. Grabbing a chair or a crowbar or an axe and busting some zombie skulls or, if you happen to find one, breaking out a 9 mm and trying to headshot the zeds. But once you’ve escaped that immediate danger, you’ll have a whole new set of challenges. You’re going to need somewhere safe to sleep, and you’ll need to figure out how to get everything you need to survive: food, water, medicine, weapons, tools, and ammunition.
Deciding where, when and how to collect and protect these things is up to you. You’ll choose where to set up camp. Will you hide out in an abandoned house, seek shelter in a cabin in the woods, turn the county fairgrounds into a fortress, try to run a farm, set up in your favorite pub, or look for something else?
You’ll also need to decide whether to go it alone or team up with others. People complicate things, bringing in issues of morale and trust and teamwork. Still, as I’ve discussed before, there are a lot of advantages to having friends. Surviving as a lone wolf is hard and few will be up to the task.
There’s also how you approach day-to-day survival: Walking or driving, sneaking around or shootin’ up the joint. You’ll want to consider your actions carefully, though. Fuel and ammo are scarce resources, and nothing draws a crowd of zombies faster than making a lot of noise. If you’re going to battle a massive horde head on, you’d better have an escape route planned and either a well-disguised hideout for laying low or a fortified stronghold to make your stand.
So how do we ensure something so free-form makes sense to everyone? We think the key is having a world that is as intuitive, logical and consistent as possible. So, of course, we’re going to put things where you’d expect them. If I asked you to list the best places to acquire medicine, you’d probably say a hospital or a pharmacy. You’d probably guess that you can find food in a supermarket or guns and ammo in a police station. A lot of buildings are iconic, letting you know what’s inside as soon as you see one. (Okay, you may not know how many zombies or scavengers or shotgun-wielding maniacs are inside, but you’ll know the firehouse has some axes.)
At the same time, a sense of exploration and discovery is very important, so we’re putting a lot of work into letting you explore. We want to give you access to every single building that could have something you want. For a polished game with the kind of visual quality we want, this is a bold goal. It’s difficult from a technical and production standpoint, but it’s a challenge we’ve enjoyed taking on. So far, so good.
The aim of being intuitive doesn’t just apply to places where you find resources, but also to the sites you may claim and call home. Once you’ve chosen a location for your base, you’ll have choices to make about fortifications, facilities, and population. Want to build a guard tower in the northeast corner to have a better sniping spot when a zombie horde comes shambling down Main Street? You can do that. Would you rather focus on gardening and growing food, or do you think it’s more valuable to improve your medical facilities? It’s up to you.
Maybe you ring a church bell or scatter a group of birds to make a diversion for a raid. You swim across the river to get to your destination, creeping along a low garden wall and hiding yourself in the bushes on the outskirts. You reach a fence, lean back against it, and shimmy to the edge, where you peek out to check for zeds. All clear — now for the house. Are you going to go in through the front door or climb up to that second story balcony? Things get ugly after you’re inside, and you go sliding over a table, guns blazing before ducking behind the couch for cover. When you realize you can’t hold the position, you shoot out a window and dive through the shattering glass to make your escape.
We’ve been implementing a lot of those behaviors just recently, but we knew early on they would be a part of the game. That’s when we started thinking seriously about the specifics of the Class3 setting.
Immediately we had to tackle the question of diversity. In a survival situation, terrain types matter a lot. Rural areas have fewer people, which probably means fewer zombies (except when that occasional super-horde comes rolling through). They also have more space for growing and hunting for food. On the other hand, urban areas offer a lot more convenience. Especially in the beginning, there’d be a lot of resources and gear to loot to give yourself a head start. The really dense areas offer something else as well — lots of places to hide. But just talking about those two extremes is an oversimplification. There’s a whole range. A small town isn’t rural, but it isn’t remotely the same as a big city. There’s a lot of variety out there and different places are a better fit for different survival plans, so we talked about all the possibilities and knew we shouldn’t pick just one.
If you’ve been looking at the concept art we’ve posted, you already know a lot about the environment we’re building. Doug’s inspiration came not far from home, in the diverse climes of Eastern Washington: mountains, rivers, cities, one-stoplight towns, and farmland far as the eye can see. This region had all the variety we were seeking.
It also happens to be an area a lot of us know pretty well (here’s a picture of Shaun’s hometown), but there’s another reason we chose it — the essence of horror is familiarity. Horror is most striking when the alien, terrible, and profane collide with the familiar and the personal. That’s a big part of what makes a present day zombie story so compelling in the first place, and it’s why McMillanville looks the way it does. Maybe it was a little tattered and worn, even before the big outbreak, but it was still a place that evoked a core, idealized picture of human society…right up until all hell broke loose.
These last few months, we’ve been running around in the 16 square kilometers of varied terrain and architecture that form the Class3 world. It has forests, windy mountain roads, highways, rivers, farmland, fairgrounds, train tracks and tunnels, mid-sized McMillanville, the eastern edge of Dunniway City, and other little townships and clusters of civilization scattered around the area. The whole shebang. Of course, things will change here and there as we polish and tune the experience. Things will get moved, cut, remade, and replaced. That’s the reality of game development.
I will say this, though: So far, we love it. The world that Dave and James are building has been a fantastic playground for fighting zombies, climbing onto and over things, ducking into police stations in search of guns and ammo, driving around like a madman, plowing through zombie hordes, and leading scavengers on raids for supplies.
It’s our world. It’s now. It’s the perfect setting for the zombie apocalypse.