The makers of Dead Nation and Super Stardust HD talk zombies, meta-games and 3D

Message from a Dead Nation

Finnish developer Housemarque has become a respected name in the downloadable game scene, thanks to the terrific Super Stardust HD.

The studio’s latest title, Dead Nation, a top-down zombie shooter in the vein of Smash TV, was one of the top-selling downloadable games on the US PlayStation Store in December 2010. And distinguishing it from the competition is a meta-game that allows users to track the progress of their nation against the rest of the globe.

Housemarque’s CEO Ilari Kuittinen tells Develop how Dead Nation was conceived, the advantage of implementing a meta-game and why Super Stardust HD is running at twice the original frame rate when played in 3D.

Why did you decide to go with a zombie apocalypse theme for this shoot-em-up?
We were thinking of our next game after finishing Super Stardust HD in summer 2007 and were thinking of a top-down shooter along the lines of Commando/Smash TV set in a jungle environment. Our senior producer at SCEE, Phil Gaskell, suggested that could we have zombies in it. As we had wanted to do a zombie game years ago, it was more than easy to agree to this idea and say YES!

For downloadable titles, is it necessary to have something that’s easy to communicate?
It always helps, if potential gamers have some sort of grasp of the setting and main idea of the game. I’d say that downloadable titles allow also exploration on different subject matters and putting a twist to an established genre, like we’ve aimed to do with Dead Nation.

The game seems to have taken longer than your previous efforts. Was this because of the scale of the project or were there simply unforeseen challenges?
The production took a bit more than two years and there are many contributing factors and lots of changes that happened over time. The game has a lot of content and the game levels are quite big, so the scale of the finished game is certainly massive compared to many downloadable games. The scope of the game also grew a lot during the development. A bit after the mid-point of the development, we started to add online co-op and were able to expand some of the mechanics, for example.

Another big factor is also that we haven’t had a big team to build the game. We had only four people to begin with and eventually the team grew to 12 by the time we finished the game. I want to underline this point as I think we achieved putting an incredible amount of stuff and features in the game that offers a huge amount of replayability.

Some of the fans have been asking why the game doesn’t have a feature X or Y in the game and the answer is simply that we have used the available resources to do what we currently have shipped with the game. The feature set can’t be as extensive as in some full priced retail games as we only have a fraction of the resources to develop the game compared to a big triple-A production. I think our budget for the whole production has been smaller than some games’ cutscene budgets. Luckily, we see the initial launch only as the beginning of the title as we can start adding more features and publish those as additional DLCs for the game.

Speaking of which, because of the seasonal associations with zombies, was the game originally planned to be out around Halloween? And if so, what caused it to slip?
We certainly would have liked to release the game earlier than we did and Halloween would have been one ideal time to do it. It just took a lot of time to test and iterate features like the online co-op, which wasn’t originally planned to be in the game.

An engaging part of Dead Nation is its meta-game aspect, players in each country cumulatively contribute to their local stats. Why was this important to have in the game?
The idea fits perfectly to the game world we are describing in our game. I think the inclusion of the meta-game really enhances the feeling that there are other people out there helping the world to get rid of this dreadful virus.

Do games with meta elements, like Dead Nation, MAG and Noby Noby Boy, encourage more investment from players?
According to the forums and discussions on our Dead Nation Facebook pages, I think it is adding a lot to the total experience for many players. I think it’s something relating to the idea and feeling that we are contributing to something bigger and that everyone can feel to be a part of it.

Super Stardust HD had two add-ons. Do you have similar plans for Dead Nation?
We certainly hope that we are able to continue to work on DLC. The decision is, of course, up to our great publisher, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. The game [was] the most downloaded game in the US PlayStation Store download list [in December], so I think there’s a fair chance that we are going to see more of Dead Nation in 2011.

Can we expect a PSP version of the game?
We don’t have any plans currently regarding the PSP.

Super Stardust HD was one of the first titles to be adapted for Sony’s new 3D technology. What was the process like to implement 3D and are your future PS3 titles likely to be produced in 3D also?
It all depends on the titles we are working on. Some are more suitable for 3D than the others and the difficulty comes from the fact that in order to produce the 3D effect, you basically have to draw twice as much to the screen every frame. If you are pushing the hardware to the max to accomplish certain things in the game, it may be very difficult to implement the 3D unless you are willing to do some sacrifices like lowering the resolution, graphical complexity or the frame rate. For some games this may not be possible to do without changing some of the fundamental things that made the game great in the first place.

For example, it took a lot of re-engineering and rework on the assets to do the 3D implementation for Super Stardust HD. We weren’t sure whether we could make it happen at all while at the same time retaining the silky smooth and responsive 60 fps gameplay when we started to work on the 3D version of the game. It wouldn’t have made sense to put it out as a 30 fps game as it would have lost one of the key things that made the game great. Actually, the 3D version of the Super Stardust HD isn’t just a 60 fps game, but a 120 fps game – 60 fps for both eyes!

In your view, what does 3D bring to the gaming experience that hasn’t been done before?
It’s early days for 3D gaming, but I think the first thing it is doing is to add the immersion and the feeling of really being there in the middle of the game world, so it’s enhancing the emotional responses to the game. We are starting to see some examples of games that are using 3D as part of the gameplay as well, so it’ll be exciting to see how this is developing further.

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