Surviving Project Zomboid: “It’s fair to say that Project Zomboid has lived and died and lived again largely thanks to its community.”

On the cover of the January issue you may remember we featured Star Citizen, Cloud Imperium Games’ massively ambitious space adventure, which as of the end of April has managed to amass $453 million in crowdfunding (an increase of more than $50 million since we wrote about it). I mention it because Star Citizen and Project Zomboid have much in common. Both have been in continuous development for more than a decade – predominantly in the UK, neither would exist without early access funding, and they have, by and large, succeeded on their own terms, without having to rely too heavily on the norms and structures of the mainstream games industry. Project Zomboid even more so; it has no publisher, sends out no press releases (unless they’ve all ended up in my spam folder) and requires no recruitment agencies – preferring instead to focus its attention and recruit largely from the game’s community.

There are some differences between the two games of course, one is aiming to create a sci-fi universe on an unprecedented breadth of scale and fidelity. The other is an isometric zombie survival sandbox that’s as brutal and bleak as it is irreverent. Project Zomboid also receives rather more positive feedback from the gaming community at large.

“That much is true” nods Chris Simpson, one of the founding members of The Indie Stone and the original programmer of Project Zomboid. “I would argue that for the team size we’ve delivered a bit more.” Not many spaceships though. “No. We’ve thought about it, but it’s hard to fit them in with the lore.”

TALKING DEAD

Work on Project Zomboid started in 2010, in the wake of the inaugural Call of Duty zombie mode and at around the time when the original DayZ mod became an online phenomenon. There was also the first season of The Walking Dead, which must’ve been an influence?

“Actually we very much modelled Zomboid on George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead” says Simpson, “but it was around the time of The Walking Dead that we started, so, yeah, that probably had more of an impact than we probably thought at the time.”

“Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide was also a big inspiration” adds co-founder and artist Marina Siu-Chong. “A lot of other games have a specific way that a zombie apocalypse goes, like in Left 4 Dead you shoot your way out. How we approached it is that whatever you wanted to do to try to survive is what you could do, right?”

“Yeah, it’s like a more realistic survival advice-type angle, where it’s actual problems a real human would face should a zombie apocalypse start. That’s the interesting element that we had from the start.”

Simpson relays a story about the night the seed for Project Zomboid was sown, when after drinking at a friend’s house, discussion turned to what they would do if one of them fell down the stairs and woke up with an insatiable desire to chow down on their brains. “We were going through all the scenarios and we came to the conclusion that we would die no matter what. That was the genesis.” Simpson admits it was not the most original idea,“anyone who’s ever been into zombies has had that discussion, but it wasn’t something [in games] that had been done to satisfaction.”

ZOMBIE CROSSING

While it was of course Minecraft that popularised the modern survival game and undoubtedly influenced Project Zomboid to a degree, what characterises The Indie Stone’s game is its bleakness. When you start the game, there is no “new” game option, presumably because new infers hope. Every game, solo or multiplayer, is only new because there is no way to survive. The game is explicit in its opening lines after you’ve set up a character (mechanic, security guard, burger flipper) in that what follows is a chronicle of their last days and hours. ‘These are the end times,’ it says. ‘There was no hope of survival. This is how you died.’ “Yes, that pretty much sets the tone,” chuckles Siu-Chong. “That’s exactly what the game is about.”

“But we do have a cute, furry orange raccoon to counteract the bleakness,” adds Simpson, referring to Spiffo, The Indie Stone’s mascot.

Star of debut game PAWS, Spiffo is essentially Zomboid’s take on Fallout’s Vault Boy and is indicative of the humour that infuses and informs Project Zomboid and how the studio interacts with the community. Once you imbibe the sentiment that Spiffo represents, you almost get the game itself. It’s why rather than seeking out hordes of zombies which they can never hope to outnumber, players take pride in the little things that the game allows, such as collecting and displaying garden gnomes, or being creative in how a character might eliminate or avoid a threat. After all, these are the only pursuits that would keep any citizen of a zombie apocalypse alive or sane. As unlikely as it might seem, there is a distinct Animal Crossing vibe to Project Zomboid, though its baked-in pandemic is one players should seek to embrace rather than escape from.

“Er, if you say so,” says Simpson.

SLOW AND STEADY

More than its unique tone and the depth to its apocalyptic sandbox of features, what stands out about Project Zomboid is the story of its development. It’s a game that remains one of the longest to have remained in early access on Steam, yet it joined Early Access comparatively late, in November 2013. The very first release was in 2011, before the term early access had become widespread. Amusingly, the first playable release was referred to as Minecraft-style in terms of its availability, which was via the now-defunct Desura rather than Steam. Indeed, the creator of Minecraft was an early fan of Zomboid, and promoted the game in Minecraft’s iconic splash texts.

“It said ‘Try Project Zomboid’ and it actually brought quite a few people to the game,” says Siu-Chong.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of people who helped us get Zomboid’s name out and I don’t think we’d be where we are if we didn’t get that sort of attention,” adds Simpson.

This was of course before the rise of Kickstarter, a bandwagon that The Indie Stone was a little too early to jump aboard, with Zomboid already being available. “Not only that, but I believe for a good period of time you needed a US bank account to do Kickstarter,” recalls Simpson. “I don’t think it was really on the table for us anyway. We were never making big money, but it seemed like it at the time and it was enough to keep our small studio ticking along.”

Instead, the team turned to Greenlight on Steam, the precursor to Early Access: “I guess we had very lucky timing,” says Siu-Chong. “Basically every time Steam issued something new, we were able to be a part of it. We were able to get by without having to think that we have to get a publisher for us to be able to fund things. We were able to remain independent.”

“I think a big thing with us is our ‘slow and steady wins the race’, ‘be the tortoise, not the hare’ philosophy,” says Simpson. “We were in the first batch of greenlit games on Steam, but we didn’t go on Steam through Greenlight until early access was a thing. And then we took a year and a half of trying to get the game ready to go on Steam because we wanted to make a good impression rather than just jump in as soon as we could.”

GRAVE ROBBERS

It was just after The Indie Stone had begun discussions to get Project Zomboid on Steam that the team faced something of a setback, one that could have ended work on the game and closed the studio.

It was October 2011 and Simpson had just moved into a new apartment in Newcastle with Indie Stone’s other co-founder Andy Hodgetts. “It was a nice big secure apartment,” says Simpson. “It was like ‘right, we’re moving out of our dingy little flat. We’re in this nice secure building now’ and ironically we get burgled before the internet’s connected.” The thieves stole a number of laptops, which had the development builds and on-site backups, but because the team had no reliable internet (having to use mobile data dongles), weeks of work was lost. That wasn’t the worst of it. Simpson and the team quickly shared their frustrations online and the response was far from reassuring.

“We got quite a lot of venom from some of the community,” recalls Siu-Chong. “A lot of people were very supportive, but a lot were very angry. That caused the setback more than anything else.”

“It was like a dark fog for months that was very hard to come out the other side of,” says Simpson. “We lost more time to demoralisation than we did actually having lost work. We lost like a month of work. It wouldn’t have taken long to get back there, but it was just the fog of feeling like your chance has been missed and it’s all doomed and everyone hates us. It wasn’t pleasant. It felt very unfair at the time, but we can understand why people who had paid money were frustrated.”

The theft was the third bad thing to happen in 2011, after Google freezing payments earlier in the year, then the team finding that pirates had hacked the game so that it updated from the legitimate version, potentially crippling the studio since it was charged money for every download. “The piracy stuff seems completely trivial now,” says Simpson. “I think we made a mountain out of a molehill in retrospect on that, considering what was to come. But, yeah, that was the darkest time, indeed.”

RISING DEAD

If 2011 was the worst of times for The Indie Stone team, 2021 was definitely the best. December saw the release of Build 41, which had been a huge undertaking for the team and it’s co-development partners, bringing in new animations, a character overhaul, reworked multiplayer, new combat system, a new city and much else besides. Simpson said it had been years in production, with much of the spent years polishing features and updates that were a big deal to the Zomboid community. If not a sequel in many respects, it was at least a remastering. The studio even broke the habit of lifetime by issuing a release for the update and hitting it.

“We’re not the most reliable at giving dates,” says Simpson, who like many developers deploys the age-old ‘ready when it’s ready’ mantra where possible. “That basically eliminates all crunch and it’s a fun, fantastic way to work. Our community generally has gotten used to it. It does cause a few frustrations, but I think they get better quality updates. All in all the policy has a really good impact on what we do. But this was the one instance where we said we’ve got to give some kind of ETA because we’re yanking peoples’ chains if we don’t.”

The update didn’t disappoint. From a concurrent userbase of around 7,000, the number rose to a record of 65,000. Things seem to have settled down to around 15,000 (not far off 2021’s game du jour Valheim), but which is three or four times the average player count Zomboid had for most of last year.

THERE AND BACK AGAIN

It’s fair to say that Project Zomboid has lived and died and lived again largely thanks to its community. Over the years the studio has endured a difficult relationship, but it’s one that’s delivered in terms of word-of-mouth in the early days, to the importance of mods and influencer content today.

“Will (Porter – Indie Stone’s resident writer) has a term, that it was forged in the fires of Mount Doom,” smiles Simpson. “We went through such a dark time early on with all of the various misfortunes and bollocks-ups that it both brought us a lot closer to the community and gave us a massive crash course in how to be very good at dealing with the community. It’s very obvious to us what the right way to do things is, and that’s come from the early days. We’ve got the most lovely community and it’s, you know, a nice symbiotic relationship.”

“We’ve gotten comments from people saying that our community is one of the least toxic ones they’ve been a part of, which is saying something,” adds Siu-Chong. “In the beginning, we didn’t know anything about how to deal with things. I guess one of the biggest things we’ve learned is that people like to know, because if people don’t know, they think the worst, right? People really appreciate transparency. I think people also appreciate that there’s not like a PR spokesperson, like in between you and the dev team, so like when you
talk to us on Twitter or something, you’re actually talking to one of us, not someone we hired just to manage Twitter.”

It’s a way of working that has its disadvantages, says Simpson, who admits he’s messed up countless times in communicating to fans.

The team can sometimes come across as short or defensive, but that’s outweighed by fostering a personal connection with the community that has been a huge benefit to the game.

“‘Be lovely’ is our number one rule on all of our channels. We don’t allow people to be nasty and that’s the kind of image we try to propagate within the communities and the people in them have tended to start promoting that themselves. I think that’s our biggest strength to how we’ve grown, to have a community that we can communicate with and try to keep positive.”

LEAVING EARLY ACCESS

Starting off as a team of four, The Indie Stone now numbers 16 people, with a further eight working through codev studios. With such a small team (comparative to Star Citizen’s) working on the same project for so long, how do they stay motivated?

“We leave it in early access,” says Simpson. “Because if it was v1.0, it would be so tempting to start thinking about new ideas, because obviously, you’re going to get fatigued and you’re going to get frustrated, and you’re gonna have these little ideas for other games you could be working on that you just can’t afford to. Marina has got a particular game she’s wanted to make for years, but you just can’t allow yourself to think about them too much, otherwise it’s too tempting to play about. While we’re in early access we’re held to account, so it just sticks us. Don’t get us wrong, we still have a lot of passion for the game. But obviously that’s a long time for fatigue not to set in.”

We’ve often wondered whether a game or studio can somehow be institutionalised by being in early access, that there’s perhaps a fear of leaving it as it changes the perception of the state of the game, and perhaps the dynamic between a developer and a community it has come to rely on for open feedback and support.

“I think we get infinitely more crap for being in early access than we would leaving it,” says Simpson, who feels that to leave it now would be to renege on features and a level of polish that hasn’t yet been delivered. “We don’t rest on the early access-ness. It’s not a crutch. Zomboid is our magnum opus, in the sense that we’re never gonna make something as big as this again. So we just want it to be something that can stand the test of time, and that people remember fondly.”

The Indie Stone team say that it will be a couple of years until Project Zomboid is considered complete, or ready to hit that 1.0 that players are so eager to see the game get to. Will that be another similarity the game shares with Star Citizen, or another aspect that divides them?

The race is on. Slow and steady, obviously.

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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