State of Decay: a life-or-permadeath fight for survival in a world of zombies

State of Decay is a game with zombies. It's not a game about zombies. That's an important distinction to make, because, as Undead Labs' Jeff Strain – an industry veteran who co-founded ArenaNet and was lead programmer on a little-known MMO called World of Warcraft – points out, the very best zombie fiction is focused on the choices and compromises we make in such dire circumstances.

“We've been watching zombie movies and post-apocalyptic movies for ages,” he says. “From Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead and its remake to Zombieland, it struck me that what made them all compelling was that [they were] about the decisions people had to take, the relationships they forged, and the sacrifices they had to make to survive.”

You'll experience all of that as you explore State of Decay's large open world. While it's a game with a distinct beginning and endgame, its focus is on unscripted events, its systems naturally producing emergent narratives. You'll befriend AI survivors who fight alongside you as allies, while essentially doubling as extra lives. There's safety in numbers, of course, but would you be better spreading your resources less thinly over a smaller, close-knit group?

“When we looked at the zombie games out there, it's all about taking it to [them] with an unlimited arsenal, but we didn't really feel that anything else out there really captured that essence of the trauma of survival.” To which end, Strain and company, a team with substantial experience and pedigree in the MMO genre, created a simulation. “We set up the world and environments and we give you the tools to make your own choices and try to survive in that world.”

Those choices come thick and fast. It may be a simple case of abandoning a trip for supplies as a horde of zombies approaches your position, or deciding whether to fortify your current home or secure a new stronghold for the other survivors you've picked up. At times, it's a more stark case of life and death: do you double back to help someone battling a horde of walkers, or leave them to their fate so as not to risk your current high-level character? It's not an easy decision, because death here is permanent, but you'll often have little more than a few seconds to make that call.

Strain admits permadeath was a risky design choice, and that the player response to losing their first character would likely determine whether State of Decay would succeed or fail. “Do you scream and ragequit, or do you feel it was realistic and it not arbitrary, and do you understand the reason was because [you] got cocky and that the game is teaching [you] to be judicious and cautious, and that it's not a game where you run around spraying bullets but where you learn to put [your] survival instincts to the test?”

After a fortnight, Undead realised that people were definitely getting it. “The majority of the first two weeks of YouTube videos were all about how people coped with losing their first character, how they dealt with that emotional loss and moved on and reset their thinking. That was incredibly fun for us.”

For precisely the same reasons, the game had been a tough sell to publishers, hence the partnership with Microsoft that saw the game debut on Xbox Live Arcade in June. Not that Strain blames others for passing on it. “It was a risky proposition, we were well out of our comfort zone, I understood why publishers [turned it down]. I mean, look at State of Decay: there's permadeath, no save slots, very unstructured open world mechanics that frankly can get a little overwhelming to casual gamers. But the flipside is that if you get it right, and tap into that gamer desire for something cool and different, then you can do really well and fortunately we did that.”

Strain is evidently thrilled that Undead is now able to build on the core game and promises a number of improvements for the PC release. The alpha version on Steam will only support a control pad, but the devs are working on mouse and keyboard support and a user interface that will “feel like organic PC gaming experiences”. The PC version will support higher resolutions, have a better frame rate, with more sophisticated shaders and an improved lighting model. “It'll look better, there's just no question.”

Still, those who've played the console version shouldn't expect any dramatic changes beyond the obvious cosmetic improvements. “We want that game experience to be what we released on Xbox,” says Strain. “The real question is what will the future look like. And we've planned a lot of additional content, and the benefit from the PC side is our ability to more rapidly iterate.”

So, any hints on what form that additional content will take? “What we've been working on is the Sandbox mode which is now officially titled State of Decay: Breakdown. It's a pure simulation, rather than a definitive story, and the content is structured just to see how long you can survive, with leaderboards and achievements that measure your progress and allow you to compare with friends.”

Strain teases the possibility of being able to recreate “canonical zombie survival scenarios”, like the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead, not that these setups will feature any kind of scripted encounters, because, as he points out, “it's the simulation that gives it the ability to shock, excite and delight people.”

“Like the YouTube videos of the guy who's been playing the same character for 16 hours, he's all buffed out, driving a pizza delivery car, just wading into the hordes with impunity and all of a sudden he gets jumped and ripped apart. And in 10 seconds that character is gone, because he got cocky.”

In other words, while State of Decay is a game about making compromises, don't expect it to make any for you. “We've been trained by other games to get as much loot as we can, level up as much as we can, max out our stats and abilities, and become a complete full-on zombie-slaying badass. And State of Decay is specifically designed and built for that not to be a winning strategy. It takes a community of people working together, where you leverage everybody's strengths and learn to work with others,” says Strain.

“Just like a real zombie apocalypse.”