This article originally appeared in PC Gamer UK issue 231. Yesterday, a burglary at The Indie Stone HQ lost the team two vital laptops that have delayed the latest patch, but Project Zomboid has endured many dramas before then, here's the story so far...
Project Zomboid is a great game born from a passion for zombie fiction, piracy, panic and corporate generosity. Of all the drama indie devs face, little comes close to the police breaking into your flat because a car is about to explode.
Chris Simpson is one sixth of The Indie Stone, the team behind the free-roaming isometric zombie shooter that's about narrative, not headcounts. He explains his game: “We've tried to turn the genre towards the survival aspect and away from the focus on combat. It's not just about seeing how many zombies you can kill. It's holding up in a house, going on raiding missions, trying to trade with NPCs and making friends. It's dealing with trust issues between people. This is the ultimate plan, seeing as it's currently a Minecraft-style alpha tech demo.” His partner in crime, Andy Hodgetts, elaborates: “Basically if you've ever read World War Z or the The Zombie Survival Guide or I Am Legend you've read the blueprint of the game.”
Things didn't go smoothly for the fledgling developer. The team were forced into releasing a 'pre-alpha tech demo' state to avoid eviction from their Hartlepool homes. “We thought we could scrape up enough cash for rent by borrowing money from our parents and announcing the game early,” Andy says. “We had a couple of screenshots, a bit of text, and some bullet-pointed plans. “We were taking shifts through the night to try and get the tech demo ready. We'd be doing it together for a bit, then I'd grab a few hours sleep, then Chris would carry on. We'd gone to bed at six in the morning. A few hours later we were rudely awoken by a policeman looming over our beds. He said, 'You've got to get out man!' We were like, 'What the hell?'”
An uncannily familiar sight for the apocalypse enthusiasts followed. “The thing is we were basically the last people to be evacuated from the building, so when we walked out it was like the opening scene from 28 Days Later. There was like nobody around and police vans and police tape everywhere and it was like, 'Oh my God, what the hell's going on?'”
A car bomb had been left outside the developer's flat. It eventually exploded, killing a 58-year old man. But the team resisted any free publicity and, although mainstream media journalists pestered the team for the name of their game, they refused to give any details. “We felt it would be a bit tacky to try and capitalise,” says Chris.
Such tactics weren't required anyway – the PC gaming community came to The Indie Stone's rescue, purchasing pre-orders in droves, and Andy is still grateful: “We woke up that day scared about rent, but we went to bed with two months of development time in the bag, along with our rent and living costs sorted.”
Will Porter, The Indie Stone's writer and PR-type figure, and former PC Zone editor, offers his theory on the community's passion so early in development: “We're making it for the traditional PC gamer. A lot of people see their first screenshot and say, 'Bloody hell that looks just like X-Com'. They assume it's going to be turn based because of our old school visuals and those sorts of sensibilities. I think that's what a PC audience really likes.”
They were making money from the pre-alpha tech build of Project Zomboid. Enough to cause new problems. Chris is honest about the team's early naivety: “We know how to make games, but we are not born businessmen. We didn't pay close attention to terms and conditions in PayPal or Google Checkout.”
The Indie Stone were selling preorders for a game that didn't exist yet, and PayPal and Google Checkout didn't like that. “Notch had the same problem,” admits Chris. If a lot of people buy the game then we get hit by a bus, PayPal would be liable for the refunds. God bless 'em, a lot of people came to our defence and called out the companies for being evil, but I guess they were only protecting their own interests.”
The team needed a quick fix. One came just in time. To avoid legal issues, The Indie Stone bundled their early Project Zomboid build with what Andy describes as “the world's worst games.” We thought, OK, we'll sell products that do exist and the PZ licence will just be a freebie!” Chris wrote a Rock Paper Scissors console application and sold it for £15.
It was a messy situation. I asked Andy whether the Minecraft model (where initial pre-orders fund early development) is a necessity for today's indie developers: “The reason we're doing indie stuff is that we don't like the separation between studio and players,” he says. “It's an impenetrable wall. When we first decided to do an indie we wanted to have absolute communication. We said we'd have a Twitter account, a forum and an IRC chat; anything we could do to make people feel part of the game they were funding.”
And it's worked. Although the game is still far from final release, there are already fan fiction sites, a dedicated wiki and YouTube tutorials on how to play the soundtrack on piano. A cult following has begun.
But some people still aren't happy about the funding part. Pirate copies of Project Zomboid ended up online. The team were using a cloud service to host their patching process and getting charged every time a player received an update or installed the game. Pirates were not only stealing Project Zomboid, they were driving The Indie Stone into bankruptcy.
Then, in July this year, a troup of digital distribution knights in shinning armour appeared. The team received offers of support from Steam, indie and mod download portal Desura and the digital distribution service FilePlanet. “In the case of Steam, we're getting all their perks apart from being on the store, and it's all via redeem code,” says Chris. “We get to use their servers, we get to update and we get to be in their library.
“As far as I can see they're not getting a penny from this. Perhaps it's in preparation for when we do get on Steam, but they're doing us a huge favour.” Desura and FilePlanet also made similar offers to help the team, solidifying their base infrastructure for future updates.
Visit projectzomboid.com/blog for more on Project Zomboid. There's a lot of love for The Indie Stone, but we still recommend you bring an axe or chainsaw. And possibly a shotgun.