DAW2016 – Undead Labs

undeadlabs

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Developer Appreciation Week is here!  For the uninitiated the concept of Developer Appreciation week dates back to 2010 and was started by Couture Gaming the Blogger formerly known as Scarybooster.  The idea was simple, spend a week talking about all of the things you love about various game development companies and studios.  As a blogger we spend plenty of time pointing out what is wrong in the games we love, and talking about ways that they could be better.  That said it is important to understand that for most of us this critique comes from being a huge fan of the games and genres as a whole.  So during this week we point out the things that are going right and make a point of mentioning all the things we really appreciate out there.  If you too are a blogger please feel free to join in by posting your own Developer Appreciation Week ideas.

undeadlabs

I was first aware of the existence of Undead Labs back in November of 2009 when articles started filtering onto the various MMO news sites that this company had spun off of ArenaNet to create a zombie themed MMO.  Firstly I am a huge fan of all things Undead, and I started watching any news about this upstart company to try and glean bits of information about the upcoming game.  Few things make me happier than slashing my way through hordes of the walking dead, and I’m enough of a fan of the George Romero movies that I have a vial of dirt from the graveyard that the original Night of the Living Dead was filmed in.  With time it was announced that they had set their sights on creating a really solid single player experience instead of an MMO, which honestly was probably a really solid move given that by the time the game would have released…  the MMO market was looking a little shaky.  On June 5th of 2013 the resulting game, State of Decay was released exclusively on the Xbox Live Arcade, and I bought it the moment it was available for purchase.  If you were to craft a perfect Zombie game…  you’d have State of Decay.  I loved everything about it… minus one little detail.  The game felt like it was originally designed to have co-op support if not a fully fleshed out MMO experience.  However as excited as I was about the game I took to my blog and made a post talking about my day one impressions.

Shortly after making the post I had Annie Strain the wife of Undead Labs founder Jeff Strain interacting with me on twitter.  This really told me that this game studio was a little different than the big polished institutions I was used to interacting with.  Everything about Undead Labs seemed like a big family, rather than a business.  I had the fortune to interact with a handful of them at Pax South 2015, as they were ramping up to launch both their pokemon-esc mobile MMO Moonrise and the State of Decay: Year One Survivor Edition.  Just talking with them really brings home this feeling of them all being in this together.  The best part however is that they really do make amazing games, and over the years since State of Decay has launched I have purchased it for so many of my friends.  I even purchased the disc copy of YOSE for my boss, when I found out he had just purchased a Xbox One.  While he is not a big gamer, he was a huge fan of The Walking Dead… and as a result is now also a huge fan of State of Decay.  Once again… the only problem with the game is that it begs to be a multiplayer experience.  We’ve talked about this before on our podcast, but if we could explore that game world with friends it would truly be one of the best games released on any platform.

Another huge boon about Undead Labs is the insanely hard working Sanya Weathers.  If you have been around the MMO industry since the early days, there is a large chance you know that name.  I became aware of her during my time playing Dark Age of Camelot, and always appreciated the job she did trying to wrangle the crazies and help out the folks who really needed assistance.  Within the community management circles she is a bit “infamous” for her blogging days.  Regardless of how you might remember her, she is one of those forces that it wouldn’t matter what company she was working with… I would pay attention to them from that point on.  I am hugely thankful of my own interactions with her during the lead up to, and after Pax South 2015.  I would not have actually had the interview with Undead Labs were it not for her reaching out to me on twitter, and that sort of proactive nature is just awesome.  It was heartbreaking when the Studio announced that they would be cancelling Moonrise because I was right there with them pulling for it to be the next big breakout hit.

One of the folks that I met with during Pax South was Geoffrey Card the Lead Designer for State of Decay.  Since the convention I’ve followed his movement a little more closely and found that he does this amazing series of live streams.  What is awesome about these streams is that he tends to grab various folks from Undead Labs and streams over the pacific timezone lunchtime.  The thing that I find valuable about them is the way that the various folks end up breaking down the games as they are playing them, and deconstruct what elements are really well done and what elements could use improvement.  A lot of the games that I have seen him play are other zombie genre titles, and it feels like he is trying to grok everything that is going on in the title so that he can absorb it like a sponge and burn it down to the purist element to use for inspiration on State of Decay.  As someone who has always been a bit of an armchair designer myself, I find the process valuable and it also serves to give the watchers a bit of a glimpse into the inner workings of the game studio itself at times.  If you are into that sort of thing, I highly suggest you check the stream out sometime.

The best thing about the Developer Appreciation Week construct, is it gives me open season to write love letters to the various companies that I really respect and appreciate.  Undead Labs is one that I knew without a doubt that I would be touching on during this week, and I am really excited to see whatever the next thing is that they are working on.  Part of me is crossing my fingers hoping that we finally get either a co-op experience or a full fledged MMOized State of Decay.  Regardless I will be watching any news about this great studio with interest.

Year One Survivor Edition

State of Decay

State of Decay Sept 2013 Back in June of 2013 I was completely amped with the release of State of Decay on the Xbox Live Arcade.  While I am not traditionally a console gamer I spent a good deal of my time out in the loft playing this game at launch.  When it came out that September of the PC I was even more excited because it meant that I would be spending more time playing it.  Since then I have picked up the two expansions…  that I have woefully not spent much time playing.  This has been one of those titles that when it goes on sale I sent copies to friends, considering it is as close to the perfect zombie survival game as I have ever played.  The only flaw however is the fact that this game desperately wants to be multiplayer.  In fact when I told my friends last night what I was playing before the raid…  the immediate response was an excited question asking if they added in multiplayer.

State of Decay: Year One Survivor Edition 2015 While I did not take the best reference shots, because I was too busy playing the game…  I did dig up one of the screenshots I took playing the original steam release in the above section, and now directly above this paragraph is a screenshot from the Year One Survivor Edition… which is essentially an HD Remaster more than anything.  I definitely find screenshot two more appealing.  The first screenshot uses a lot of deep shadow to mask the extremely muddy textures, whereas the second shot is more willing to let you see things more naturally.  Another thing that I really dig is that the game has some nice Depth of Field going on in the YOSE edition.  You can see this in the second character on screen but even more so below in the shot of my character climbing the tower in town to scout for a view.  The world feels more “real” which makes it all the more creepy as you are wandering the wastes looking for resources.

Year One Survivor Edition

Awesome Depth of Field Effects The biggest thing I have noticed while playing is that the controls seem much more responsive.  I am playing the game using the exact same black wired xbox 360 controller I did the first time, but this time around everything feels more fluid.  If this were just shooting I would think potentially it was me, since between the times playing this game…  I played a lot of Destiny with a controller, which has greatly improved my aiming.  I am noticing it especially when I am driving a car however, that things feel more controllable and less all over the place.  Additionally the melee combat feels more responsive.  This is aided by the fact that our character has now learned how to use a knife, instead of simply kicking zombies when your melee weapon breaks.  Stupid as this sounds, it feels even more “walking dead” thanks to this little motion.  This works unbelievably well when your companion holds the zombie and you finish them off with the knife.  I did a lot of this in the lake area before moving into the town for example.

All Three Versions in One I did not make it terribly far last night, because I was playing for about an hour before and after my World of Warcraft raid, but I did manage to get far enough in to remember why I liked this game so much.  Since it had been so long since I had last played, I opted to just restart the original campaign, as it tends to be the best way to ease into the game.  Additionally while running around yesterday at lunch I picked up a Xbox One copy for my boss, so I am figuring he will want to discuss what is going on in the game.  He is not much of a gamer but picked up the  Xbox One because his grand kids also have one…  and is a huge Walking Dead fan so I figured State of Decay was just about the perfect game for him.  I am one of those people that can do something, but struggle to talk someone through it… unless I am doing it myself.  I figured the only way I could be of any help to him was to actually be playing the content myself.

Making Progress

StateOfDecay 2015-04-28 22-56-06-48 Like I said earlier I did not make a ton of progress, but after having played this multiple times I feel like maybe my play is a bit more focused than it was the first time.  As a result I have already rescued one group of survivors, cleaned out the veterinary clinic, built an outpost, built a sleeping area, built a workshop… and am working on building trust with a second group of survivors.  Not too shabby for about two hours of play if I do say so myself.  The whole “knowing what you are doing” aspect definitely speeds things up, as well as having a basic understanding of the lay of the land.  The first time I played this game I was having to constantly check the map, whereas this time around I can navigate at least somewhat based on landmarks.  I remember on my first play I overshot the church by a huge margin, crashed my car… had to get a new one… and finally made it back to the church at night.  This time I went straight there, knowing there was no real sense in exploring until I had done the introductory stuff at the church.

This is still a really great game, and like I said at the start of all of this… the only weakness is it would be so much more enjoyable were I exploring with my friends.  The bane of my existence is just how fast melee weapons break.  I feel like this is a game about me searching for my next weapon, more than anything else.  I rarely use guns, and prefer to take on the zombies in close range… in part  because it doesn’t summon more zombies to the gun shots.  Additionally I really do not want to summon a zombie horde down upon me.  That said I did at one point clear out a couple of hordes with a random car, which was extremely gratifying.  The other strange thing I have noticed is that I no longer fear the zombies.  The first time I played this game I was scared to death of interaction with them.  Every time I would search a location I would take the time to carefully board it up before proceeding.  Now I just deal with the zombies as they come… so in a way it feels like the transition someone would have to make in this world.  I understand it better, and therefore I am less concerned by it.  Still having a blast after all of the time I have played the game in the past, which is quite the compliment to the developers.

#StateOfDecay #YOSE #UndeadLabs

Developer Appreciation Week 2015 – Part 3

Over the last several days I have been rattling off a series of studios and game teams that I appreciate.  Today will mark my final day of this process, but I am hoping that it has inspired some of you out there to make your own posts about the developers you appreciate.  The person I really appreciate is Scarybooster for getting this thing started back in I believe 2010?  Scary has a way of coming up with these great ideas, like he is the person who decided the Alliance of Awesome needed to happen as well.  Unfortunately he no longer updates his blogs, and has deleted more of them in the past than I can count.  So if you know Scary tell him he needs to stop doing that shit and keep coming up with interesting and awesome ideas.

Blizzard – Heroes of the Storm Team

HeroesOfTheStorm_x64 2014-12-02 22-35-45-233 I talked about League of Legends yesterday, and there is no denying it’s market domination in the MOBA arena.  The problem is League is far more complicated of a game than I care to play.  I get frustrated trying to figure out what I should build when, and then Blizzard comes along and creates an MOBA for someone like me.  This game does what Blizzard does best, boil a genre down to its most basic essence and polish it until it shines.  This is precisely how I feel about HoTS and its impact on the MOBA genre.  Through a series of quick this or that choices you can build out your character and get right back into the action without constantly being afraid that you built the wrong thing.  While friends have pointed out that this greatly limits what you can do with any given champion…  I am fine with this and in fact welcome it.  As much as I enjoy a “Tanky Darius” I would rather just have some clear messaging on what the intent of every champion was, and Heroes of the Storm gives this to me.  On top of this the map design is awesome, and each one feels equally enjoyable with its own specific mechanics.  I think the entire world is tired of playing Summoner’s Rift.

SOE/Daybreak – Landmark Team

EverQuestNextLandmark64 2014-02-14 06-10-23-64 Every time I talk about the company formerly known as Sony Online Entertainment, I do so with a little bit of heartbreak.  Daybreak is not the same company, but I feel like the people that are still there are trying their damnedest to make this situation work.  There is a lot of negative press that I could be talking about on my blog, about the poor decisions of the company managing Daybreak but for the most part I have tried not to.  I feel like there is plenty of negativity out there already on this subject, and that the people who are still there need our support now more than ever.  With that said this post goes out to everyone who has ever been a part of the Landmark game.  While I am not playing it right now, I still think it is an extremely cool concept and I keep meaning on jumping right back in.  Landmark is essentially the ultimate building game in every possible way, and the amount of stuff that the community has been able to create because of the excellent toolset developed by this team is phenomenal.  This game blew me away, and I am still constantly amazed by the sort of things I am seeing built.  So bravo to the folks who are no longer with the team, and bravo to the folks still there fighting to keep the ship going forward.

Undead Labs – All of the Them

StateOfDecay 2013-09-28 21-17-40-13 For most of these I have singled out an entire team to talk about, but this time I am breaking that trend and instead talking about an entire studio.  I love Undead Labs.  I love their spirit, and I love their dedication…  and quite honestly I love the way they interact with the public.  I remember when State of Decay was about to release on the XBox 360 I was completely pumped for it.  I went home that night played the game for several hours and then wrote a pretty gushy blog post the very next day.  Within moments of posting the blog I had it being retweeted by Annie Strain the wife of Undead Labs Founder Jeff Strain, who then proceeded to engage with me in a back and forth about my blog post and the game in general.  That sort of genuine interaction is just so damned refreshing, and it seems to extend to every single team member.  I was lucky enough to get to hang out and talk to several of them during Pax South, and they all had this infectious joy over the games they had created and were creating.  While I still desperately want a multiplayer version of State of Decay, I have faith that sooner or later the team will give me something akin to that experience.  In the meantime they just seem like a really damned cool studio, and I look forward to watching as their latest game Moonrise progresses to launch.  Additionally I feel like I am probably buying yet another copy of State of Decay as the special Year One edition should be landing shortly.

Motiga – Gigantic Team

GiganticScreenshot-TheMargrave This is another tale of me just really liking a game studio.  I went to Pax South knowing next to nothing about this game other than the fact that it existed, had a cartoony art style and used a teal and orange color scheme it all of its marketing.  I walked away from Pax South being both a fan of the game and of the team behind it.  I was lucky enough to participate in several plays of the game, and got some time to talk to several members of the development and community staff.  They all seem just as amped about this game as the players did, and it was awesome to be coached by the folks who built the game…  or have them marvel when I apparently found a bug that nobody had actually found yet.  The game is just really damned fun, and that seems to be the focus on making sure the various champion interactions are enjoyable.  I have no clue what the timeframe for this games launch is but I look forward to it anxiously.  Playing it with two other members of the AggroChat crew against a minor YouTube celebrity, and defeating him…  was pretty much the highlight of my Pax South experience.  So keep up the awesome work and I look forward to playing this game with my friends when it releases.

Every Single Game Developer

While I have singled out a handful of individuals for specific games that I really love playing…  I feel like for this final day of my #DAW2015 love fest…  I want to change things up a bit.  Basically this goes out to every single game developer out there, regardless of what you are working on or for what company.  You guys are living the dream of so many of us who did not  choose to chase it.  While there are absolutely days I’m thankful I am not in that industry, especially as another studio decimates its staff to realign for this or that reason, there are other days where I pine over the path not taken.  You folks are my rockstars, and even if you are making a game that no one will ever play…  you are being awesome.  Games bring me so much joy, and there is a cast of often nameless and faceless people who struggled through crunch time to get that product into my hands.  As I talk about the games I talk about, I try my best to always be aware of the folks behind the scenes that made it happen.  So to all the game developers out there…  keep making awesome stuff and I will keep playing it.  Thank you all.

Day One

The First Day

paxline It was pretty early on in the day when I had my first realization that I had no clue what I was getting myself in for.  I got up yesterday morning at 5:30, showered, blogged, ate the free complimentary hot breakfast (sausage and eggs) and started roaming towards the convention center around 8 am.  When I got there I noticed there was absolutely nothing for parking, and the garage across the street from the convention center had a massive line of cars backed up in both directions.  After not find any real alternatives I got in that line and waited, hoping the “Open” side on the side of the garage would not change.  I was quite literally in that line for an hour before I finally got in and parked on the roof of the parking lot.

I have to say I have never been quite so happy to be parking on a rain drenched roof in my life.  I made my way into the convention hall where I entered a line of people…  quite honestly not really knowing why I was lining up.  It turns out I was doing mostly okay since this was the line for the opening of the expo hall at 10 am, the area that I had planned on spending most of my day.  I mingled with folks standing in line waiting on things to happen.   They had us line up five across and the entire length of the hall.  When I got there I was towards the front of line three, so people had been there in theory since at least 7 am.  By the time the halls actually opened up there were I believe eight of these lines all waiting to stream into the convention hall like an invading army.  Most were in search of the illusive swag…  me I was mostly trying to get my bearings and figure out where my media appointments would be.

Go Gigantic

gigantic_scrimroom Gigantic is one of those titles that I have known about for some time.  The art style and character designs appealed to me, but when I had a friend describe it as a “MOBA” my brain closed down shop.  Right now I am engaged in both League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm for various reasons…  and I just did not feel like I had enough room for “yet another moba” in my life.  Gigantic however is only a moba in character and skill designs, but the rest of the game play borrow elements from many genres the biggest is that of the first person shooter.  A match feels like a fast paced objective based deathmatch.  The gameplay starts with two teams of champions defending their teams “Guardian” which are these insanely huge monsters at either end of the arena.  The goal of the game is to score three wounds on the opposing teams Guardian.  You can either do this by dealing damage directly, or sending summoned creatures in to fight for you.  The challenge is that when you are summoning a creature you can be interrupted by taking damage from the other team.

Where the game play gets interesting is when “The Clash” happens, which is an end game condition that keeps matches from going too long.  When this happens the game arena shrinks in size as your guardian moves up to actually start fighting directly with the enemy guardian.  At this same time it funnels the players into much tighter quarters.  There are a lot of nuance to the mechanics, and since I have only gotten to play a single match it is hard for me to guess at much of it.  My background is that of an MMO tank… and having played mostly that…  I have to say picking up The Margrave the “tanky”champion felt right at home.  He has a kit with a big ground slam, frontal cleave attack, channeled defensive, and a charge that  can be used to hit other players or simply cover ground.  I actually landed the first kill of the match because the controls felt so natural.  The biggest highlight of my trip through Gigantic land is that I got to meet and hang out with Lonrem, better known for his community role with Anook.  Apparently he has been in the Gigantic community for some time, and when they made a call for experienced players to help act as “coaches” for the convention he jumped.

Decay and Moonrise

Undead-Labs_1Color_KO_onDark After hanging out with the Gigantic folks it was time for me to go to the floor and talk to Undead Labs the first of my press appointments for the show.  I have to give huge credit to Sanya Weathers for being so awesome in setting this up.  I’ve long been a fan of the stuff Undead Labs is doing and I was a day one buyer of State of Decay on XBLA and then later re-bought the game when it came out on steam.  Since then each time it has gone on sale I have picked up copies for various people to keep spreading the game.  I describe it to my friends as “Fallout with zombies and base building”, and I was pleased to find out that the folks at Undead Labs are completely happy with that description.  What is coming out in April is what they were showing off at the show, the Year One Survival edition.  Since it is targeting the PC and XBox One they have gone back and re-mastered the entire game so that it looks glorious at 1080p.  Additionally as Breakdown and Lifeline were released a number of improvements were made to the gameplay in each expansion.  All of those quality of life changes have been applied to the entire game as a whole and you can also play all of the characters from Breakdown and Lifeline in the original game as well.  For folks who own the previous release of the game there is going to be a special veteran only character with a sword and a suppressed rifle.  I asked the million dollar question of what the future plans were for the franchise and if it would include multiplayer.  As expected they could not commit to anything concrete, but did say that multiplayer was their original goal and still something they very much want to happen.  They said that when they did it, they wanted to build a game from the ground up with multiplayer, not try and tack it on as an afterthought… and that much I definitely agree with.

combat_10 Also while in Undead Labs land I got to get my hands on Moonrise their new mobile targeted pet battle rpg.  The idea behind the game is that every so often a condition happens that cause the animals of the planet to get infected with a sickness and become “Lunari”.  You play the role as a Warden, a public servant of sorts that does battle with the enraged Lunari, curing them and turning them back into the peaceful Solari.  If you have ever played the game Jade Coccoon, it feels very similiar… and in talking to Richard Foge it seems like the team had not actually played that game until after folks like me started comparing Moonrise to it.  The game is highly influenced by Pokemon, but the game plays out in a much more realtime fashion.  Not only do you have to have the right combos at the ready..  you have to be able to play them in rapid succession without your opponent somehow throwing a monkey wrench in your plans.  When we got around to playing PVP I happened to have one of those monkey wrenches and I kept throwing it often.  The game plans on being free to play with its monetization focusing on speeding up actions.  However they did not want to build a game where the player spent all of their time waiting on something to free up to be able to continue.  The goal was to create a game where there was always something to do, and from the sounds of it keep the player from going into maintenance mode.  I definitely look forward to seeing the game launch which is started at “sometime 2015” on consoles, iOS, Android and supporting both phone and tablet form factors.

Uncanny Valley

elitedangerous The last media appointment of the day was with the folks at Frontier to show off Elite Dangerous.  I cannot explain how phenomenally bad I am at star ship flight simulator type games.  I can do relatively well when I am constrained by gravity…  but when you throw in that element of being able to fly upside down in the mix I get completely lost.  To make matters even more difficult, they opted to show me the game using the Occulus Rift, hardware I had as of yet not been able to play with.  To say it was disorienting is a bit of an understatement.  That said after sitting in this virtual cockpit for a bit I noticed myself doing things instinctively like looking up through the top of the canopy to follow smoke trails or looking down at the dashboard indicators.  The only thing that I found really disturbing was the render hands that took actions similar to mine but not quite mine.  When you fire your weapons, the hand in game would fire your weapons… when you raised the shield the hand in game would raise the shield.  The problem is the rest of the time the hand largely sat there lifeless.  It was a really cool experience and I quizzed them about their future plans.  They said they would not be happy until you could do everything you would want to do in the setting including planetary exploration.  That however will take a long time, and they are prepping the 1.1 patch to becoming soon and adding new content.

The first day was a whole for me was almost as disorienting as playing Elite Dangerous with the Occulus Rift.  I am not entirely certain what I was expecting, but the reality turned out to be all the more strange.  I wish I could catch and bottle some of the enthusiasm of some of the other participants.  The whole place has this “summer camp for dorks” feel to it that is magical, and please don’t misunderstand…  I am absolutely a dork, just a deeply jaded one at this point.  Maybe it is because I have friends on the other side of the looking glass, that makes me able to see that there really isn’t magic at work… just a lot of clever programming and determination.  I also am not in a rabid search for free stuff mode, that it seems most of the conventioneers are so there is that.  I think if I were going to do this again I would try and schedule my entire day with nothing but press appointments.  That is what I found interesting, talking face to face with the folks behind the games.  I guess after writing about games for so long my interests have become far more nuanced.  At this point its time to hit publish and get ready to go do day two where I am hopefully met by Ashgar and Rae.