Project Zomboid interview: on Steam early access, survival clothing and top modders
Article by Edward Lewis.
Project Zomboid is a 2D isometric zombie survival RPG set in the town of Muldraugh, Kentucky. Players have to fend off hordes of zombies, while seeking out robust shelter, crafting items for survival, scavenging for food and (importantly, given the horrible apocalypse) keeping your character in high spirits. The zombie apocalypse survival game is currently one of the highest rated games on Steam Greenlight, and fans take to the forums in their thousands to offer strategies for survival and promote new mods (some of which have made it in to the official build). So why is co-designer Andy Hodgetts still concerned about this Friday's Steam Early Access release?
"I don’t like to get excited by things because I don’t want disappointment," he says. "All you can do is the best you can possibly do and hope that it works out, but we have no expectations on this. We are working on a niche game for a niche set of people, but we think it’s pretty cool."
The early access build will be a different creature to The Indie Stone's early 2011 tech demo. Character designs and their animations have had a complete overhaul, new lighting effects have been implemented, the map has been given an extensive up-scaling, and game-changing features have been added, such as an agriculture system and an item crafting mechanic. "At the moment we’re tinkering the engine for optimisation reasons," says Andy. "It’s very important to us that the build is stable, and that it performs as well as possible. When you release on Steam, it opens it up to a potentially wide audience. We don’t want something horrible to happen."
Some elements have been stripped back, too. Earlier builds of the game contained a rudimentary story, with a set of NPCs the player could interact with, but the decision was made to remove their "crude" designs from the game in order to launch sooner rather than later. That meant that the story and tutorial had to be removed too, something that Andy worries could break the game for new players. "We are itching to put the story back in, but we can’t do it without NPCs,’ he says. "If the Steam release turns out to be a disaster, a lot of that will be levelled at not having that story. I think it sells our game. It’s a risk and a worry that it’s not in there."
Future plans also include sleeker animation sets that will refine existing mechanics. "With the action of sneaking in the game at the moment you can walk a bit slower, but we want the character to press their back against the wall, sneak around the corner, the sort of mechanics you don’t usually get in an isometric game."
Andy also wants clothing to become more important. In the current build, clothes are largely cosmetic, with a couple of exceptions - a thick jumper causes you to dehydrate in the hot weather, for example. In future, Andy wants your character’s clothing choices to have a larger impact on their survival chances. "You’ll be able to dress in appropriate clothing as you would in an actual zombie apocalypse, cover yourself to minimise the chance of being scratched or bitten - a leather jacket will have more protection than a t-shirt.’
Modders have played an increasingly important role in Project Zomboid's development. From day one, Andy and Indie Stone co-founder Chris Simpson wanted to put an emphasis on community involvement. "The farming that we’ve got in the game began as a mod," says Andy. "We also have a mental hardcore reloading mechanic in there as an option. That also started as a mod; it was popular and it got integrated."
The team have hired one particularly talented modder, Romain Dron, who works on code from his home in France. "The thing we’re most proud of isn’t something we’ve done; it’s the development of the community and the extent to which the modders have gone to improve things," says Andy, adding "It gives us immense pride that we’ve attracted these kinds of people to our game, and that outshines anything that we can contribute ourselves.
"We believe this is going to be marvellous when we finish, and the more time and the more people that come along for the ride, the better we’re going to make it."
Project Zomboid hits Steam Early Access on Friday and will cost £9.99 / $15.99. You can get hold of the alpha version right now through Desura. That old tech demo is available as a free download if you want to see the project's origins. Find out more on the Project Zomboid site.