It's been six months since I last played Project Zomboid. I remember a game full of potential, but still a work in progress. It promised an open world zombie survival sim in which you could go anywhere and do anything, but in practice you mostly boarded up windows and rummaged around in houses for food. Then, if you're me, you set the kitchen on fire and burned to death. I also remember that developers Indie Stone were cursed, suffering several frozen payments , a burglary and even a bomb scare as they desperately tried to get the game off the ground. Which begs the question, has anything horrible happened to them lately?
"I don't want to say "No it's been great" because as soon as I say that something will go wrong." developer Paul Ring jokes. "We're always worried about things happening, because it does seem to happen quite often to us." In spite of everything, Project Zomboid continues to grow, and now the team are working hard towards an alpha release on Steam.
Paul is part of an expanded development team at Indie Stone. He started out making mods, including the popular Mega Map Mod , before being asked to join the development team as a scripter, where he then helped break his own mod with an update to NPCs. "It took my about four months to make this mod and now I've got to go back through it and add stuff to every single room of every single building in the whole map." He laughs.
Balancing constant updates with a mod support is not an easy job, especially during last year's whirlwind of development. "Obviously at that time we had what's known as the O2O test builds, where we were releasing a new test build every couple of days, and it got to the point where it just became a buggy mess." So the decision was made to stand back, develop a stable client and then introduce a handful of new features over time.
Then there's the other big reason that Indie Stone want to get their stable in the next few months: there's a target to hit. "We just want to flesh out what's already there, get rid of the bugs that are still present," explains Paul "Then once we get the story mode and the NPCs back in then we're ready for Steam." Project Zomboid was one of the first games accepted via Greenlight, and they're aiming to launch as an 'early access' game before Christmas. "But that's only if things go to plan and nothing bad happens obviously," says Paul, realising he's just tempted fate again. "Then when we get onto Steam it's content, content, content."
Those who've been following Zomboid since the start will be familiar with the approach. The modular way in which the game has been developed means there always seems to be a new feature on the horizon. Even during the current bug-squashing phase, dozens of new features have been added. The highlight is that the game has now shifted over to a full-size sandbox map instead of the tiny demo build. There's also a new far gloomier and more intimidating lighting system and a huge litany of new items and foodstuffs, plus farming and camping systems.
I figured I'd try my hand at the farming, since it offered the prospect of a sustainable food source, the dream of any bedraggled survivor. It took me a while to find a trowel, and then a while longer to find a watering can. I planted a patch of carrots and dutifully watered them every morning for day after day after day. Then one morning a wayward zombie appeared and, in this game of plants vs. zombies, the plants lost. Things only got worse when I tried to avenge my vegetables. I attracted the attention of a larger pack of zombies, and I ended up dead again, my salad unavenged.
Paul also tells me that a hunting system is on the horizon, and driveable vehicles will arrive some time after that. Far from rummaging in cupboards for dried up noodles it feels as though, like the Indie Stone, victims of Zomboid's apocalypse are rebuilding in the face of disaster. Last month the devs even added split screen co-op, finally letting me burn someone else's house down while trying to cook soup. That's definitely progress.
As the conversation turns to the Project's early crowdfunding efforts, and I have to ask him the inevitable question: After all the heartache the Zomboid team went through, do they wish they'd waited a year and joined the Kickstarter boom? "To be honest, ask any of the team, I don't think anybody would take back the way we have gone to do it differently to go through Kickstarter instead." In fact they've already turned down the change. "Even though the game was on sale already, people we were getting people saying "Why don't you go on Kickstarter?" We don't want to be moneygrabbers, we don't need to to, we have the game in alpha as it is now for the funds that make the game."
You may have noticed that at no point in this article have the words 'release date' appeared. In fact Indie Stone aren't thinking about that at all. They describe it as "An open development plan with no set end goal." As Paul puts it: "We don't have any set plan in mind of when we will stop developing the game, if at all."