Anything That Needs Doing

I’ve always loved games.  I got my start playing Crystal Quest and Dark Castle on a Mac SE and never looked back.

I’d love to say that when I was 10, I wrote my first game in some ancient language that no one uses anymore, but the truth is that it didn’t even occur to me that I could make games until I was in high school.  Some other students and I had to petition the school to have a programming course. When the petition succeeded, we started learning “Turbo Pascal,” with which I made my first game.

Lewis It was a Bomberman clone, but since I was new at this, I didn’t have any idea how to process input.  My solution was simple: wait for someone to press a key, then perform that action and advance time by one frame.  This resulted in some interesting strategies; one player would place a bomb, and the other player would mash the keyboard as fast as they could, trying to advance time enough for the bomb to explode before the first player could move away.  In other words, I had created one of the most frantic turn-based games ever.  The game spread like wildfire. At one point the entire computer lab was filled with people playing this game.  The librarians in charge of the computer lab were less than impressed, and I was instructed to never distribute any of my programs ever again.

A short time later, I discovered a new local school that specialized in video game programming, or, as they called it at the time, “Real-Time Interactive Simulation”.  I applied and was accepted into the DigiPen Institute of Technology.  Diablo 2 came out about this time, and would vie with my classes for my attention over the next four years, but I managed to graduate.

I first met Jeff about 10 years ago, when he hired me for a programming position at ArenaNet.  At the time, I was fresh out of college and was willing to work on anything, so I started out sitting next to John Zipperer, fixing bugs in the sound code.  In the following years, I worked on everything from installers to CD-Keys to billing infrastructure to server administration.  At times, working on all of this critical-path code was terrifying, because no matter how much you test your code, you can never really be sure that there won’t be a bug that will break everything for everyone forever.  Luckily, that never happened to me, but it was an amazing learning experience.

When Jeff asked me if I wanted to work at Undead Labs, it was a no-brainer (did I mention I love puns?).  I was ready to work on something new and fresh, so I started a few weeks later, sitting next to John Zipperer, fixing bugs in the sound code.  Wait, what?  I thought this was supposed to be new!  Well, one of the neat things about a small studio is that you get to work on a wide variety of tasks.  Since then, I’ve worked on outposts, music, the world map, user interface, localization; pretty much anything that needed doing, and that’s what I love to do.  So whatever we are working on next, I’ll be there, getting my grubby programmer fingers into everything.

 

Check out Jeff’s introduction of Lewis, and then tell a Lewis joke on our forum by clicking the comment tape!

02.6.14
News, Studio, Team Zed

Lewis Fixed It

One day, everything blew up.

This was back in 2007 or so. I was at ArenaNet at the time, and we had just published an live update for our big MMO Guild Wars. Something had gone wrong, and nobody could login to the game. Our community forums were exploding with angry players, our customer service team was calling us frantically wanting to know what they should tell people, the server programmers were snapping at anyone who even walked into their field of view (“If I knew what the frakking problem was don’t you think I would have told you by now?!”), and everyone was tense and worried.

Well, except for this one guy. We’d hired this kid out of DigiPen about a few years earlier, and he’d turned out to be a damn fine programmer. So much so that we now had him working on core server code, which is basically the lifeblood of any MMO. The Big Scary Stuff. Lewis was kind of quiet, had a terrible sense of humor (in the sense that he had a strong sense of humor, but loved bad puns and daily joke calendar kinds of things), was super smart, and completely unflappable. While everyone else was batting away the swarming management types, Lewis was quietly coding amidst the chaos.

I remember thinking, “Damn, doesn’t he realize what’s going on here? We have several hundred thousand players who can’t login right now, and he’s just sitting there coding without a care in the world.”

And then, without turning around, he simply says, “Fixed it.”

It took a few minutes for it to sink in, but yeah, he’d found the issue, fixed it, and published a build. Everyone was logging in and happily playing.

So this is the kind of guy you want on your side, whether you’re programming the zombie apocalypse, or actually trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. Calm, cool, competent, and, when called upon, a real ass kicker. Of course, the bad jokes would get him killed on the second day, but my god, how awesome would he be on the first day?

Lewis is a great addition to Team Zed, and he’ll be helping drive a lot of the awesomeness to come. Welcome aboard, Lewis!

Jeff

“Did you hear about the kidnapping at school?”
“No! What happened?”
“He woke up.”

(Actual joke Lewis told me yesterday.)

Check out Lewis’s own article here: http://undeadlabs.com/2014/02/studio/anything-that-needs-doing/

01.30.14
News, Studio, Team Zed

Something Like That

If you’re reading this article, odds are you’re a State of Decay fan looking for news about your favorite new game.

You’d like to hear all about what’s coming in the months ahead — the sequels, the movies, the Rotting Meat™ Christmas toys (“Biologically Degradable! Easy to Wash Out! Not Safe for Eating!”), and the studio’s contract with the CDC (Center for Disease Control) to “flesh out” their guidelines for surviving a full-scale zombie apocalypse. All that stuff.

Yeah, this article isn’t going to be that much fun, sorry. The studio is contractually obligated not to talk about … anything interesting right now. So you’ll just have to read between the lines instead.

(cue blurry “back in time” effect with sound effects)

This simple game also had a profound impact on my life, though I was not to know it for a number of years.In 1972 a heretofore unknown company named Atari released Pong, the world’s first massively successful videogame. The launch of this digital tennis simulator spawned a multi-billion dollar industry and fundamentally changed the way people play games, incidentally helping to kick off the Silicon Valley technological revolution that has altered our lives so dramatically with the introduction of … smart phones and social networking. This simple game also had a profound impact on my life, though I was not to know it for a number of years.

In 1972 I was seven years old. Unfortunately, I lived in a small town so benighted that Pong didn’t land there until a couple of years later. Prior to that my friends and I used to bang rocks together, or something … it’s hard to remember back that far. Ahem. Anyway, when when Pong did arrive I distinctly remember playing it for the first time with my younger brother, Alex, in the Walgreens drugstore arcade.

I discovered that the Pong machine would reset when zapped with static electricity.Quite by chance, my brother and I discovered that the Pong machine would reset when zapped with static electricity, conveniently starting a new game without requiring a quarter. By scraping our feet on the carpet we could build up an electric charge, then tap the metal plate fronting the coin slot to “discharge” a free play. Since I was a wee pup at the time and had no ready (that is, legal) source of income this newfound knowledge was a boon. And as you might imagine, my brother and I played the game … a lot. In due course we both became obsessed with arcade games in general.

At age 10 I was (finally) able to my land my first job as a paperboy. Not everyone knows, but residential newspaper delivery is a contract position, and so not subject to minimum wage laws. You can bet that any contract between a multinational media corporation and a 10-year old kid is probably pretty likely to favor the one whose shareholders get to stay up past 9 o’clock at night, so it’s no surprise that I averaged only 82 cents an hour. But while that doesn’t seem so much, those were the halcyon days of the nineteen-seventies when the dollar was worth more than a gallon of gas, arcade games cost a quarter (I know, can you believe it?!?), and evil quarter-sucking videogames had not yet been invented (Dragon’s Lair didn’t hit until ’83), so with practice I could play for hours on a single quarter. Almost nightly I played in the arcades with my friends until there were just a few minutes left to race home on our bicycles and avoid curfew.

I eventually began a career developing multiplayer games. And more to the point, I will be exercising those skills again at Undead Labs.By this point you’re probably wondering what the point of this personal story might be. And as an aside, why is it posted here instead of on my infrequently updated personal blog? Well, unbeknownst to me at the time, my career track was set by my formative experiences with Pong and those many arcade games, as I eventually began a career developing multiplayer games. And more to the point, I will be exercising those skills again at Undead Labs.

My self-aggrandizing personal blog notwithstanding, I’ve always been uncomfortable in the spotlight of publicity — I just like making games. But Sanya said I have to talk about my professional background too. *sigh*

PatpicI’ve spent my career making multiplayer games. I did a nine-year stint at Blizzard as a lead programmer, game designer, producer and vice president, and was one of the leads on Warcraft I & II, Diablo I & II and StarCraft. I co-founded ArenaNet with a couple of buddies (Jeff Strain was one of ‘em) and co-lead the development of Guild Wars, where I wrote most of the server backend. ArenaNet was acquired by NCsoft, so I ended up adding an additional year there at CTO of NCsoft West, where I helped publish (but not develop) Aion as well as relocate the headquarters to Seattle. And following that, I helped co-found En Masse Entertainment, a Seattle-based game publisher, to launch TERA; my contribution there was to oversee the design and development of the game publishing platform.

And so it is that here at Undead Labs, I am happy to be working with a great team of people I admire and respect.Incidentally, one thing that always burns me about interviews and articles about game development is that their authors have a tendency to glorify one or another individual. Apart from a very few indie titles and brilliant solo efforts like Another World, games are developed by teams. So while I contributed enormously to all of those games and projects, you should know that they each required the dedicated efforts of a team of people, many of them essential to the development process.

And so it is that here at Undead Labs, I am happy to be working with a great team of people I admire and respect. As it happens, more than half of them are folks I have worked with for many years on Guild Wars, so I know them quite well!

I guess maybe I’ll be working on something like that.So as per my instructions to introduce myself and provide some background, what else can I say? I can’t talk anything about what I’m working on here at Undead Labs … yet. … But … I specialize in developing really big multiplayer games. So I guess maybe I’ll be working on something like that, at least as soon as I get one of the cool lab coats everyone around here has.

***

Want to learn more about Pat? Check out Jeff’s introduction post.

Welcome Pat to the team by clicking the comment button!

01.30.14
News, Studio, Team Zed

‘Bout Damn Time

“Did you write the code that spits out an empty page at the end of every print job?”

It was June 1996, and I was on a pay phone in the cafeteria at Hewlett-Packard interviewing for a job at Blizzard Entertainment. The guy on the other end of the line was Patrick Wyatt, their VP of R&D.

It wasn’t going well.

“Uh, no, I don’t think so. It probably…”

“Well, I think you probably did it because it makes HP a ton of money on paper sales. What do you know about device independent bitmaps? Are you familiar with CreateDIBSection()? What is the make and model of the video card in your gaming PC? What are the pros and cons of object oriented programming?”

Object oriented programming was still a pretty new concept at the time, and I had just finished a few training courses in it at HP, so I talked about that and my sweet new video card (a Diamond Stealth3D 2000 OMG 3D!) to try to cover for the fact that I had absolutely no clue what a DIB section was, much less how to create one.

Somehow, I got the job; and while getting to work on some of the definitive online games of that era was great, working alongside Patrick Wyatt on them was even better.

Patrick was a programmer and designer on Blizzard’s early console titles such as Rock & Roll Racing and The Lost Vikings. Great games, but ultimately mere warmups for his next efforts: Warcraft, Warcraft II, and StarCraft, for which he was the principal programmer and producer. As VP of R&D for Blizzard, Pat also made major contributions to Diablo and Blizzard’s Battle.net gaming network.

Patrick left Blizzard in 2000 to co-found ArenaNet, where, in addition to his business, design, and production roles, he developed the core server and network platform technology for the hit MMO Guild Wars.

So yeah, the guy has some serious game development chops.

Prior to starting Undead Labs, I worked alongside Pat for almost 14 years. He’s been a tremendous mentor, colleague, and friend during that time, and we’ve made some damn fine games together. It’s true that he once called me at 5:00 AM because he hit the wrong speed-dial button when he was trying to get the surf report, but I forgave him when he took me to Carl’s Junior for a Western Bacon Cheeseburger while my wife was in labor with our first child.

Jeff and Pat living the healthy California lifestyle.

Jeff and Pat living the healthy California lifestyle, circa 1996

Today, I’m very happy to announce that Patrick has joined Undead Labs, and will be working shoulder-to-shoulder with Team Zed as we dive into the development of… well, what’s next, and beyond.

Patrick has written some thoughts on joining the Lab, which you can read here.

Welcome to the Lab, amigo. ‘Bout damn time.

Jeff

PS: Patrick still insists I’m responsible for the extra blank page at the end of every print job. Of course, he’s also always insisted that every person has an NSA agent assigned to spy on them from birth, and it turns out he was right about that, so…

01.10.14
News, Studio

The Road Ahead

Hola fellow survivors,

I wanted to let you know we’ve signed a multi-year, multi-title agreement to extend our development relationship with Microsoft Studios. We’ll be able to share details later this year, but as with State of Decay, we think it’s best if we just keep our heads down and build some prototypes before we talk too much. For now, suffice it to say there are big things going on with State of Decay.

If this were a press release, we’d have a carefully vetted quote from Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft Studios, expressing Microsoft’s excitement as well. But pictures speak louder than words, and we think Phil spoke pretty loudly during the keynote at E3 last year:

941805_10151923384671633_1743200524_n

Thanks to Phil and everyone on our hard working team at Microsoft Studios for believing in State of Decay!

And most of all, thanks to all of you for your ongoing support, encouragement, and enthusiasm for State of Decay. We know how far we’d have gotten if it hadn’t been for your spreading the word, and it definitely wouldn’t be here. You made this happen.

It’s been a long haul from the original vision to this point, and the road ahead of us will take years to travel. We hope you’re up for the trip, because we can’t do it without you.

10.17.13
News, Studio, Team Zed

The Lab Is Hiring

Please read the entire Jobs page, and its links, before diving for your resumè and your email. I don’t want to get all mushy or anything, but joining the Lab means becoming part of something incredible, a real team in every sense of the word. We’re in this for the long haul, together, and when it comes to new colleagues, we’re looking for both talent and temperament.

You can get a great sense of us, our sense of humor, and how we roll by carefully reading the descriptions. None of these are entry level positions.

Here are the four openings:

Animator. There are ten things we’re looking for. How many of them describe you?

Producer. “Undead Labs is built around a culture of pragmatism and strong production values, which allows us to build a smaller, elite team of veteran developers and take advantage of the high-caliber art and technology resources available around the world. But operating that way requires skilled and knowledgeable producers, and that’s where you come in.”

Programmer. A lot of programmer job descriptions say the company is looking for the best. We’re looking for people who can be the best at things no one’s ever done before.

Designer. High confidence, low ego, positive attitude, proven design skills, and a hardcore State of Decay player? Call us.

All right. Ready? Here we go: http://undeadlabs.com/jobs/

I wish all of you who apply the best of luck. Being here is a dream come true.

 

10.14.13
News, Studio

Happy Birthday, Dear Laaaaaaab, Happy Birthday To You

Four years ago today, Jeff officially signed all the papers and Undead Labs was born.

He was the only employee and there was no game, just an idea. But there were Plans for much more, and today you’re playing the first of those plans to come to fruition.

As always, we thank you for growing with us! Please join the celebration thread by clicking the green comment tape. There are four hats and four Breakdown codes to be randomly won.

Superfan Celebration Contest

Are you a fan of Undead Labs and State of Decay?

If you’re reading this within a few minutes of it being posted, you probably are. You’ve read our design articles, you’ve followed us on Twitter and Facebook, you’ve lurked in our forums. Your comments and enthusiasm have gotten us almost to release, and soon, the game will be in your hands. We couldn’t have made it this far without you.

Some of you are a little bit…more. Around the Lab, we call you “superfans.” You don’t just read the articles, you share them. You don’t just lurk in the forums, you welcome newcomers. You ask thoughtful questions, and you spread the answers far and wide. You’ve jumped into our contests, written posts, emailed reporters, made videos, and turned this into the best game community in the world. You’ve inspired us to do our best every single day. So we want to celebrate you, by inviting you to celebrate with us on State of Decay’s release day.

(EDIT: Congratulations to our winners!)

We can’t fly all of you out to Seattle in order to say thank you, but we’ve wrangled the budget to fly three of you out to the Lab on release day.

We’ll choose one superfan based on their total participation and contribution to the community over the course of development. (It’s more than just post count, you know?) And we’re going to ask you to choose two of your own in the State of Decay Superfan Contest.

Here’s how to enter:

Before 11:59 PM (23:59) PDT on Monday, May 27, 2013, you must make a post in the forum with two parts.

Part One: In one paragraph, tell us why you are a superfan.

Part Two: In one paragraph, nominate another member of the community, either by forum handle or Facebook name, and tell us why he or she is a superfan.

The contest winners will be the two people most nominated by the community.

Here are the prizes:

Grand Prize (3 total): One round-trip plane ticket to Seattle from the nearest major airport to your home, one night in a Seattle hotel room, and one admittance to our private launch celebration. The date is not yet determined. Winners will be contacted with the possible options.

Honorable Mentions (20): Preview codes.

This breaks our hearts, but for legal reasons, we cannot award a grand prize to anyone who doesn’t live in the USA. Believe me, we tried. Winners who cannot collect a grand prize will definitely get hooked up with a code.

The fine print is here, if you’re curious.

That’s it, you guys. The comment thread attached to this post is the official contest thread. Go to it!

State of State of Decay

We started with a simple idea: simulate the zombie apocalypse. We sketched out our plan for State of Decay in big, bold strokes. We would focus on survival. We’d have meaningful choices. We’d have fast, sweet action. We’d provide the tools to develop unique survival strategies. Above all else, we would have the apocalypse simulator we all dreamed of every time the credits rolled on a great zombie flick.

“Simulator.” That’s a deceptively simple word. The world of State of Decay had to feel real, and as players, we needed to feel we had choices. Not just options, but the choices available to us here in the real world. That meant abandoning the usual game designer tools of scripts and triggers, and instead simulating behaviors and responses. Noise, echos, light, motion, resource depletion, morale, energy — all of those things needed to be modeled, and the inhabitants of the world designed to react and respond to them naturally. It was a daunting challenge, but one we thought was essential to creating a true survival experience.

No focus groups or game-market analysts were involved.No focus groups or game-market analysts were involved. That rarely works, and even when it does, as passionate gamers, we often wish it hadn’t. Great games, like works of art, well designed gadgets, or even a great recipe, come from people who are passionate about not only what they do, but also what they make.

We frequently pushed up against the boundaries of traditional design wisdom. What if death was really…death?Instead, we focused on creating the survival sandbox game we all wanted to play, and that never led us astray. Along the way, we frequently pushed up against the boundaries of traditional game design wisdom. What if death was really…death? Suddenly the zombie threat becomes meaningful. Then you want stealth, distraction, sneaky tactics, and home base fortifications. Fortifications? That implies guard towers, barricades, perimeter defense, and land mines. Land mines? They don’t have those at the sporting goods store, and besides, that store would be looted bare within days of the outbreak, so we’d have learn how to build our own. Looting? Well, looting (or more politely, “scavenging”) is an inevitable part of the apocalypse. But it has to be realistic. A looted store needs to stay looted, and food, ammo, and building materials need to be found in locations that make logical sense.

Back to land mines. Having land mines implies you need to make them, since the apocalypse puts a dent in manufacturing. What would making land mines require? Well, a machine shop, and expertise. Needing good old fashioned know-how brings us to a system of skills and abilities. Being good at something feels good, and being able to save the lives of your friends is good for morale. Ah right, morale. Wouldn’t mental health be an enormous issue, after the apocalypse?

People need a goal, something beyond just surviving another day.One thing that’s good for morale is keeping busy. People would feel better if they could accomplish missions, if there were stories to be told and other survivors to rescue and a goal to shoot for, something beyond just surviving another day. So we brought in the best story teller we knew and got to work.

All the tiny elements filled out the original broad strokes until we had a clear picture of what State of Decay could be. We’re making a game, but we’ve also balanced that with reality. The real world isn’t a shooter, where you just kill everything that moves with effectively unlimited ammo. When a real disaster strikes, you worry about food, health, exhaustion, and morale. In reality, an apocalypse would mean no more factories making weapons and vehicles, and we’d all have to live by the old song: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” And out here, you don’t take stupid chances every other minute because more than anything else, you want to live to fight another day.

We just think that fun doesn’t have to be meaningless.That’s what we’ve built. Oh, we’ve had to make some tough choices along the way to stay within a reasonable development timeframe (believe me, we could add “just one more thing” forever if we let ourselves), and we also had to keep in mind that this is supposed to be a fun game, rather than a strict simulation of reality. We just think that fun doesn’t have to be meaningless or without consequence, and if anything, being deeply engaged is the most fun you can have.

Over the next two months, we’re going to explore the two main pillars holding up State of Decay in articles, images, and videos on this website. Richard Foge is going to take you into the world of the tactical game. Fighting, with weapons or without. With an assault rifle, or up close and personal with a hatchet. How vehicles can be your salvation in the apocalypse, and how they can quickly turn into a metal coffin. Stealth. Reaction time. Distraction and evasion. It’s all important to a game that isn’t just about running and gunning the undead, but instead requires you to think like a survivor. After that, James Phinney is going to dive into strategy and simulation. Base fortification and customization, along with outposts. Resource gathering and stockpiles. Survivor management, and the role morale plays in survival. Planning ahead, and long-term thinking.

Thanks.Yesterday we delivered a massive Content Complete milestone to Microsoft, which means the focus from here is polish, bug fixing, tuning, and balancing. The end of the road is in sight. We’re incredibly excited to get State of Decay into your hands. Thanks for being with us so far.

It Starts With A Lot Of Swearing

I’m pretty sure I’m dreaming. Or, given the ichor and rotting flesh everywhere, I’m probably having a nightmare, but either way I can’t possibly be awake.

How did I get here? How did I wind up with potentially the best community job ever?

Well, it started with a lot of swearing.

Technically, it started with a passion for Golden Age science fiction and fantasy, but I digress. Anyway, at the turn of the century I had a rant site, where I raged about an MMORPG that I loved more than anything. (This is why I never get upset with the screaming guy on a forum. I know exactly where he’s coming from.) From there I moved to writing about games, and from there I moved into community management. I didn’t know what I was doing, but in 2001, neither did anyone else. I figured I’d just treat people the way I as a gamer/sentient adult would like to be treated, and so far it’s worked out pretty well.

All of the great developers are players at heart, and after years of gaming, experienced players have a solid grasp of what makes a good game.I have been managing game communities ever since. There are a lot of ways to do my job, but the way I do it assumes that when it comes to bringing a virtual world to life, players and developers all in this together. It works because there really isn’t much of a difference. All of the great developers are players at heart, and after years of gaming, experienced players have a solid grasp of what makes a good game.

Players and developers working together create something bigger than just a game, and the interaction between them raises a mere product into the realm of art — or magic. It’s why I’m still here doing this job over a decade later. There’s no better buzz to be had.

The development team is building a world, but the players have to live in it.What makes the magic happen is communication. Everyone needs to know what’s going on with each other. Everyone has to be treated with respect, as equals with a vested interest in the success of the project. The team is building a world, but the players have to live in it.

So I’ve always seen my job as the conduit. I’m your representative inside the company, and I’m the company’s ambassador to you. I solve problems, I argue advocate, I bear bad news when I must, and I cheer. I support fansites, wrangle guilds, keep the information flowing, and ensure your voice is heard.

What I’m not is a marketing person. I’m not here to sell you anything. I’m here to make sure you’re never sorry you bought it, and to connect you with thousands of likeminded people.

I’m not alone in holding this non-marketing view of community, but I am decidedly in the minority. That’s why I’m pretty sure I’m dreaming. I have not often gotten to work with a team that shares my philosophy on community building. Undead Labs does to such an extent that I keep looking around my home office for the surveillance camera. I can’t find one, and pinching myself is only resulting in bruises. Ergo, this is really happening.

Many of you reading this have been following Class3 (and drooling over Class4) for much longer than I have, so I’m going to need your help getting up to speed on what has got you excited. The team is highly aware of what you’ve said so far, but there are some mean deadlines looming and everyone’s got to get their nose and every other appendage to the grindstone. No rest for the rotting!

I got to see a kickass demo of Class3, and it gave me the heebie jeebies for three days.Also, because there are no secrets on the internet, I better get this out of the way now: I’m afraid of zombies. They freak me the hell out. If the world we’re building was real, I would be in the fetal position. The first chance I got, I’d fortify some kind of tower, chop down the ladder, and not move until one of you brainiacs built up a compound big enough that I could just stay inside and garden all day. Or assemble explosives. Whatever. Just as long as I didn’t have to look at some shambling, lurching monstrosity liable to rip off its own leg in order to kick my ass.

As such, I haven’t seen any zombie movies. (This is especially awkward on a personal level, because I live with the world’s biggest zombie aficionado, and there are literally thousands of horror movies and splatteriffic games lining the walls of the basement.) I got to see a kickass demo of Class3, and it gave me the heebie jeebies for three days. There’s this thing, with a landmine, and a truck, and the air was just FILLED with zombie parts, and…I think I need to lie down now.

What I mean is that with every game I’ve ever worked on, the community has taught me what really counts. I’m coming to you with no preconceived notions on zombies, or sandbox gaming for that matter, and I am psyched to find out where you want to go.

—Sanya

[Read my introduction post for more about why we think Sanya is awesome. —Jeff]