Just a couple of years ago, the notion that a zombie survival game with crafting mechanics could at all feel like a refreshing change of pace would be laughable. It is interesting then that State of Decay 2, a sequel to the 2013 original which was released at the height of the zombie survival craze, can somehow feel like a breath of fresh air. It’s a clear sign of how far the industry has moved on from the genre and how that could allow developer Undead Labs the chance to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond this time around.
It isn’t alone in attempting to revive the once-popular genre, however. DayZ, the granddaddy of survival games, has emerged from its long slumber this year. It seems that there’s hope that the zombie survival genre might yet rise from the dead.
Throughout the development of the first State of Decay, and now its sequel, releasing May 22nd, Undead Labs has seen a number of trends hit it big in the industry, such as the meteoric rise of the battle royale genre (itself born from zombie survival games such as DayZ). A trend that the studio seems happy to avoid.
“I've been talking to a lot of journalists, and they’ll ask me about making a battle royale game, because literally everyone else is,” says design director Richard Foge. “It’s like there's this field of wheat, and somebody built this perfect, glorious combine and it went over that field, and somebody asked me ‘Would you also like to build a combine?’. But there's no wheat left! There's nothing left for us to harvest. I would much rather focus on what we're doing, and try to find something unique in this space to inspire people and excite them with some new thing, as opposed to trying to follow what these folks are doing, and seeing what scraps I can get after that.”
Fans will be pleased to learn that the developers are also steering clear of microtransactions and loot boxes – a potential bullet dodged, considering the recent consumer unrest about the practices.
“It didn’t make sense for our game” says Foge. “There’s going to be a one-time price for it, rather than a relationship with the game where people pay for things and don’t know what they’re going to get. That shouldn’t feel right. We didn’t want microtransactions or where you’re buying loot boxes with Zombucks or anything.” Foge is hesitant to be drawn into direct criticism of games that adopt these business models, however. “It works for some other folks,” he adds.
“There’s going to be a one-time price for it, rather than a relationship with the game where people pay for things and don’t know what they’re going to get."
The developer’s attitude of walking its own path has informed every stage of developing State of Decay 2. The game is a sequel in a very traditional way, choosing to build upon and refine on elements of the original, rather than re-inventing the wheel.
The game looks and feels like a polished, more advanced version of the first game. Crucially, much of the original’s technical shoddiness appears to be a thing of the past – although halfway through our interview Foge spots a player encountering a network problem that sends their car cartwheeling into space, much to his bemusement. “We're obviously going to be working on bug fixes and future improvements,” he hastens to add.
The team has taken on significant feedback from fans of the original game, particularly in the inclusion of co-op multiplayer, a much-requested feature from players.
Foge has a philosophical approach to the game’s multiplayer – crucially its lack of any PvP elements. “It's a game about building humanity back up, as opposed to tearing it down,” he explains. “The goal is to move forward, this horrible thing has happened to humanity and we're trying to overcome it.”
The multiplayer is a cooperative experience in the very literal sense. Unless a team is able to look after one another, things are about to get very, very bad very, very quickly.
“If two people are playing together but not actively cooperating, it can actually be way harder,” says Foge. “Unless you're actively watching each other's back, it can be a bit more difficult.”
This certainly rings true of our experiences trying to cooperate across a noisy press event. An attempt to clear out a zombie infested house quickly sees us overwhelmed and alone, leaving us to limp hopelessly back to base, while our unconcerned teammates race away in the other direction in an armoured jeep. It seems we would need a lot of help if we ever want to survive a zombie apocalypse.
The game’s focus on a community coming together doesn’t just inform its game mechanics, but also its business decisions.
Not only is State of Decay 2 one of the first Microsoft first-party games to be made available on release through Xbox Game Pass, but has also joined the increasingly popular trend of allowing cross-platform play, letting both PC and Xbox gamers play together.
“As a creator who wants as many people to experience the work that we've put together as possible, having a large pool of people is fantastic,” says Foge. “If folks are like ‘I love playing this game, I'd love to play it with other people, I don't necessarily have friends who are always playing’, having Game Pass and cross-play is a way that people can experience and fall in love with the game.”
This theme of community cohesion could be somewhat undercut by the two planned DLC packs, featuring a number of extra items and an additional game mode, a concern about splitting the player base which Foge readily admits. “That's certainly something that I've experienced personally in the past with other games,” he says. “As expansions come out the community becomes sub-divided into people who have the stuff and people who don't have the stuff, that's something that will be part of our ongoing discussions on how we want to deal with these things.”
Foge hopes that the game’s focus on working together will set the series apart from the bleakness of The Walking Dead franchise. “There's a hopelessness in that IP, that personally doesn't resonate with me very well,” says Foge. “It always seems to be driving towards the sad ending and the horrible things happening. I definitely want to flip that. We wanted the overall tone to be hopeful. We're driving towards something that's going to put humanity back on top, as opposed to feeling like everything we do is essentially worthless.”
With cross-play, Xbox Game Pass and a budget release of £24 for the base game, Undead Labs certainly seems to be hoping to build a large community to keep the game going long after its release, supported by the upcoming DLC packs. Time will tell if State of Decay 2 can survive against the battle royale horde.