Project Zomboid was first released as a tech demo in April 2011, before releasing on Steam in November 2013. It had something of a rocky ride in those early years, with the game being leaked and, an infamous story at the time, the theft of two laptops containing a bunch of code which hadn't been backed up: Developers The Indie Stone would, rather winningly, go on to give an industry talk titled 'How (Not) To Make a Game'.
It now looks like Indie Stone will need to write another presentation: How to turn your passion project into a viral hit ten-and-a-half years after release. While everyone else was scoffing turkey and leftovers, Project Zomboid's player numbers have been going through the roof. The cause is a major update that pretty much overhauls the game from the ground-up.
It can't be over-emphasised how much Build 41 improved Project Zomboid. Among many other things it introduced a new animation and movement system, vastly improved multiplayer functionality, a new city, a new combat system, a bunch of new systems for things like injuries and foraging, and too many other things to list. It almost feels like the developer could have just stuck a 2 on the end and sold this as the sequel.
The rise in players coincides with the build's release: in November 2021 it averaged around 7,000 daily players, a highly respectable figure for an indie game anyway, but from early December the player numbers start to go through the roof. Zomboid had never broken five figures before but on December 9 the test branch of this new update was released and it smashed through.
We've broken into 5 digits for the first time ever :o#ProjectZomboid #PZ pic.twitter.com/CtzZiaCVvXDecember 9, 2021
The full update was released on December 20: Project Zomboid at the time of writing has just under 48,000 people playing, and three days ago hit its all-time record of 65,505 players.
I asked Chris Simpson, coder and MD at The Indie Stone, about this wild turn of events. Is it all about build 41?
"We knew we had something special brewing with build 41," writes Simpson. "The response from our community in the long beta was overwhelmingly positive about the improvement to the game over previous builds, and the knowledge of what multiplayer would add to it made us confident that if we could stick the landing and deliver non-broken multiplayer that we'd get a bigger spike of interest to what we're used to.
"We were hoping for a big spike of interest of course, but hoping and expecting are two completely different things, and the ridiculous magnitude of it was impossible to anticipate. The game competing in the top ten during the winter sale seems like science fiction frankly."
Jacob Ridley, senior hardware editor: Last year I spent quite some time watching my good friend play Project Zomboid over Discord. It wasn't because I didn't want to play, so much as that Build 41, which was at the time only half finished in beta, was already so good that we didn't want to disable it to play online. We could've played Steam Remote Play, but we found going solo scratched the itch for the time being. That and we were quite lazy. Cut to today and we're both playing Zomboid together and it's better than ever. It's not just its newfound multiplayer simplicity, the combat has improved tenfold, and that helps better expose the immense depth Zomboid has to offer.
Project Zomboid has always had some degree of popularity among streamers, with its multiplayer survival mechanics being an especially good fit for roleplaying fun.
"Players love to get together on RP servers and act as characters in the zombie apocalypse, live out their own Walking Dead," says Simpson. "We've seen a massive spike in interest in watching this kind of stuff on Twitch, with GTA RP being a huge thing where people love to watch their favourite streamers playing characters in serverwide stories etc. My wife's been heavily involved in that scene for quite a while and it was obvious with all the survival and crafting that our game is a perfect platform for that kind of fun, so its something we've tried to lean into.
"I think the biggest thing with Build 41 having more appeal over B40, apart from obviously a much more solid multiplayer, is the character customization, animation and combat overhaul makes a huge difference to how good the game looks and feels to play. It makes the game a bit more approachable and visually appealing for players who tended to have avoided us in favour of more immersive FPS experiences."
At the time of writing, 31,000 people are watching Project Zomboid streams on Twitch: Not bad for a game that's still in early access. One of the things that comes across clearly when you read over The Indie Stone's blogs and forum posts is that this is a studio and a collective with a passion project. You just don't spend this much time on a game unless there's a lot of love there.
Nevertheless, I do find it odd that the 'early access' label remains. I asked Simpson about the passion the team has for the game: Will Project Zomboid ever reach the Platonic ideal of a zombie multiplayer survival sim, will it ever be finished?
"Well we won't quit until we consider it 'done', and we love the game dearly, but it's been a decade," writes Simpson. "There's obviously a burning desire to work on something new that any game dev gets after probably a year or two: We've been supressing that for far far longer! That's why we're sticking with Early Access until we consider it 'done', it doesn't need to be perfect but it needs to be something we'd look back on without thinking 'we never did get to do X though'. There's a very clear list of what those things would be that we'd regret not getting to. Once it goes 1.0 I think a good amount of us will be done, and be itching to try something new after spending a good chunk of our life dedicated to Zomboid."
Even then Simpson adds that 1.0 "wouldn't be the end" of support for the game and, as the studio has always done, avoids putting any firm deadline on it. "We're tortoises, not hares, and we've always made sure we win the race when our builds come out," writes Simpson. "So basically it'll be done when the features we have on our internal checklist are in, solid, and when all the most archaic and janky elements of our game have been replaced. And in the meantime we'll keep adding stuff to fill out the other elements of the game."
It can't be emphasised enough how remarkable Project Zomboid's sudden explosion in popularity is. This is an 11 year-old indie game which has received constant support and updates over that time, and has suddenly found a much wider audience: It's both testament to the dedication of its developers, but also the community that's supported and enabled the studio over this long stretch. And, undeniably, a vindication—this is clearly a game with something special.
Project Zomboid is currently available on Steam, should you wish to join the horde.