It’s boom time for zombie survival MMO’s! As a genre it has grown and expanded over the last two years from the classic arcade action Zombie shooter, taken on the influence of the hit TV series ‘The Walking Dead’, and become a niche survivalist genre that has gone from cult to mainstream. DayZ now occupies the top spot, but it is a genre that has seen many developers try and take a solid percentage of the market that had changed because of one game.
In May 2012 DayZ Mod, designed by Dean Hall for the tactical shooter videogame Arma 2 and it’s 2010 expansion pack, was released to much acclaim. It was set in fictional post-Soviet state called Chernarus and it set out to break a number of established genre rules which had already been established by the previous generation of zombie games. It immediately changed the face of survival games, injecting horror and asking all sorts of new questions of the player. It was incredibly successful and laid the foundations for more expansive plans.
This new zombie survival sub genre broke away from the traditional story driven Zombie slashers such as Dead Rising or Dead Island. These earlier, although recent games, focused on the all out destruction of Zombie kind guiding the player to series of levels, scenes and chronological events. It was high impact, high octane Resident Evil style debauchery. It was samey.
On 15th October 2012 Infestation: Survivor Stories, then known as The War Z, was released on to Steam. Visually OP Productions had produce something that was enticing and very quickly they had hundreds of thousands of registered players, to the point that in July 2013 they achieved 1.3 million registered players. Each of these players will have paid at least £3.99 on Steam making the company a huge profit. But the game fell well short when it came to playability and they were heavily criticised for their costing model. Players could ‘pay to win’ by buying items that would make their characters more powerful in game. With this heavy criticism running alongside some issues they had with branding and the name ‘The war Z’ things did not quite go to plan for OP Productions.
What this did demonstrate was that there is a deep interest in zombie survival games and if a product, which was in many respects left wanting, could do so well then potentially other studios could cut themselves a piece of the zombie flesh pie.
7 Dayz to Die
One development company, called The Fun Pimps, was also working on a product that could slot into this new and exciting genre. They knew that within the industry Bohemia Interactive and Facepunch Studios, of Gary’s mod, were also working on zombie games. They wanted to publish their game first and to do this they drew inspiration from a very popular source and in doing so cut a few development corners. Their game was called 7 Days to Die and many of the features paralleled Minecraft. They opted for a blocky landscape that was easily manipulated, where players had to create shelters to protect themselves from zombies. It was about survival but survival with an unrealistic twist. They had seen from the lessons that Infestation had learnt that playability was more of an important factor, in an open world game, and they addressed some of this. But the world they created was criticised for its feel and look and people struggled to look beyond this.
7 Days to Die was a success even before it launched though. The Fun Pimps development company had set up their zombie survival game as a Kickstarter project and, well within the allotted time for securing the funding, the team had already doubled the amount of money that they needed to start developing the game. This kick start once again demonstrated people’s hunger for the zombie genre and without any doubt helped fuel the enthusiasm of other developer studios.
Critics were looking on and asking some serious questions about the survivalist genre. The question that was apparent was how real can you make it? What should the world be like? How should zombies react and what role should they have?
The build up to Christmas 2013 saw two impressive games unleashed into the zombie survival genre.
Rust came out on 11 December using the Unity engine. Facepunch Studios had taken the lessons that 7 Days to Die had fallen foul of and made a game that was instantly more playable. Their focus was more on the player interaction with their environment rather than the constant need to survive the oncoming hordes. Rust evolved alongside DayZ Standalone and in many ways was a clone of that product and they acknowledged and gave credit to Dean Hall and the Bohemian Interactive Studio for much of what went into the game.
DayZ also looked on and in turn gave credit to the Rust team as it worked with their growing community. Facepunch Studios set one price, which was cheaper than 7 Days to Die, at £14.99 and they did not include ‘pay to win’ features that had ultimately sunk Infestation: Survival Stories. On the 23rd May 2014 they had sold 1.6 million copies.
After much anticipation five days later DayZ Standalone was released. Based upon the DayZ Mod map, drawing in some of the graphics and most of the expertise that had gone into the success of that forerunner, this zombie survival game, you could argue, had a head start. The public lapped it up at a price of £19.99 and in the first instance DayZ Standalone would seem to have learnt from everything that had preceded it. It too like Rust was one price with no ‘pay to win’ features. Hundreds of thousands of copies sold and before Bohemia interactive realized they had a massive hit on their hands.
As if rabid wild creatures these two zombie games went forth and opened themselves to criticism and, in a sense, placed the future of their games in the hands of the public. This was early access Steam and these games were in alpha, they were still being developed, incomplete, and with warnings on entry. They would see how players tested and interactive in these post-apocalyptic world’s and then adjust the game accordingly. Their followers became fanatic.
Not all was as it seemed. These worlds were created wherein players would need to survive the zombie onslaught and the constant demand to scavenge for resources, but this main feature soon began to take a back seat. What was becoming more important for the players of Rust and DayZ Standalone was the player versus player action. Although these were zombie games the monsters themselves were no longer as important and it was obvious that the players were, not only writing their own stories in game, but they were also changing the rules.
Rust reacted first, perhaps out of frustration for the stalling evolution of zombie inclusion, and replaced the Undead with mutant animals. This step is seen by some as a giving up but they argued that it was more about Player vs Player and they encouraged people to forge clans, develop weapons and interact. The Rust landscape became a free-for-all where the strongest survived and many retreated to DayZ Standalone. Many of their original fans had after all signed up for a zombie game.
This was not what the creator of DayZ Standalone wanted for his game though. Dean Hall was still focused on creating a survival series rather than a ‘Death Match’ arena. His team persisted, shut up the communication channels like Willy Wonka and hired loads of Umpa Lumpas, as he made his chocolate. The magic kept coming. An edge that DayZ Standalone always had over the other games was that it looked realistic. The world was, and is, beautifully designed even if the engine, that has now been upgraded, struggled with the demands. In May 2014 Bohemia Interactive announced they had sold 2 million copies, made a fortune, bought a series of studios and promised much to come.
But the story does not end there. Rust and 7 Days to Die have both re-modelled their worlds. There is still a buoyant community in both, a side effect of Early Access on Steam and how it can develop loyalty. They still snap at Bohemia’s heels. Yet, there is a bigger monster looming.
Sony Online Entertainment have appeared and are trying to wrestle the zombie survival genre to the ground. At this stage it is difficult to have a complete picture of their clinically named H1Z1 but some things are apparent from the footage that has been released. The world they’re creating looks more like Rust than DayZ Standalone and therefore less realistic. Could this be a major failing?
Adam Clegg at SOE has said that it is a Player vs Zombie game and not a PvP. But it does seem that they have ignored some of the lessons that have already been learnt. For a start it is evident that realistic landscapes are preferred with Rust and 7 Days to Die pushing for more realism in their recent updates. They have already said that the game will be free on full release but there will be an in game purchasing system to buy cosmetic items only and not a ‘pay to win’ scenario. But where is this line drawn?
Another interesting development is the lack of release date. When they first came forward with H1Z1 it looked as if they would hurry it through but with less on the grapevine recently it does seem as if SOE have gone to ground and perhaps are realising the true magnitude of what they are trying to achieve. The zombie game graveyard is littered with animated corpses that were once hopeful developers and it appears that only DayZ Standalone well… stands alone looking on as the other’s fight it out. Will H1Z1 stand alongside DayZ or will it be thrown into the fight to thrash around with the other Zombies?