The dead are about to start rising again – this time on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network with upcoming game Zombie Apocalypse. We got the opportunity to speak to Mark Cooke of Nihilistic, the people responsible for unleashing the latest wave of the undead onto the downloadable platforms, and asked about developing the game along with what it’s like working on downloadable titles.
Nihilistic have been established for some time but for those who don’t know, tell us about the company.
Nihilistic Software has been in business for over ten years. Our first project was a PC game called Vampire: The Masquerade made by a team of around 12 people. From there we worked on the infamous StarCraft: Ghost, Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects, Conan, and now Zombie Apocalypse. Although our first title was for the PC, ever since then our focus has been on console games for the latest hardware. Nihilistic currently employs 55 people.
What can players expect from Zombie Apocalypse?
Zombie Apocalypse is all about survival. Up to four players can play cooperatively offline or online, trying to stay alive by killing hordes of zombies. There are nine different zombies, a boss, eleven weapons, and seven arenas. If you want to get a high score and play well, the key is to keep zombies from grabbing you while utilizing your weapons and ammo well. If you’re playing with friends, coordinating with your teammates is a must to score well.
When it was first revealed, Zombie Apocalypse was hastily compared to Left4Dead because of its style and penchant for obliterating the undead. While it’s certainly a flattering comparison, do you think this has effected people’s perceptions and expectations of the game?
Both Zombie Apocalypse and Left4Dead share a lot of thematic similarities, it’s true. They both draw on a lot of the same classic zombie films for inspiration. I want to set the record straight though – Zombie Apocalypse began development in 2007, over a year before Left4Dead was released, so to anyone who claims “you guys ripped off Left4Dead” – no, we didn’t. That said, obviously we are zombie lovers here and enjoyed playing Left4Dead quite a bit.
The differences between the two games in the gameplay department are significant. Zombie Apocalypse plays very differently from Left4Dead – it’s a third person dual stick arena shooter, not an FPS. Also, it’s a smaller game which is reflected in its price point.
Has the comparison added extra pressure for the team or are you confident enough in doing your own thing?
Regardless of the existence of Left4Dead or any other zombie game our goal has always been to create an arcade game that is easy to pick up and play and difficult to master. And of course, to make a game that is loaded with plenty of zombie gore and destruction. That’s what we’ve been focused on and I think we’ve delivered on it with Zombie Apocalypse.
The PSN already has a similarly themed title with Burn Zombie Burn and Housemarque have just announced Dead Nation. What can players expect Zombie Apocalypse to offer above these other, similar titles?
Zombie Apocalypse features four player offline or online cooperative play. The most fun I have playing the game is with three other buddies in front of the same TV. If we’re playing seriously and going for a top leaderboard score we’ll work together as a coordinated team and if I want to be a jerk I’ll steal a weapon powerup from a buddy who needs it.
Another unique feature of Zombie Apocalypse is the environmental hazards. More than just exploding barrels and the typical clichés, we’ve got wood chippers, jet engines, car crushers, and garbage trucks, for example, that you can fling zombies into. Not only does it score you more points, zombie bits fly everywhere in a satisfying splash. Each of the seven arenas has two or more hazards for you to discover and utilize for your zombie killing needs.
The weapons and environmental hazard are clearly an integral part of the game and you clearly had a lot of fun coming up with some of them (like the Teddy bears stuffed with C4 and jet engine). How did you go about selecting what to include and was there anything that you cut out?
When thinking about weapons and locations for the game we focused mainly on classic zombie locales from the films of the 70s and 80s. With a basis in place we added some more outlandish ideas, like the Junkyard, where zombies come crawling out of piles of scrap metal. Blowing them right back into the garbage pile with your shotgun is encouraged.
In the course of any game development there are always more ideas than time to implement them. We cut at least two environments, including a slaughter house. We would have loved to have done that area too but simply ran out of time.
Nihilistic has a varied range of genres in its back catalogue. Was Zombie Apocalypse a conscientious effort to try something which was a bit more arcade orientated?
Yes, absolutely. We had been working on big games that require a lot of people for a long period of time and wanted to try something smaller, easier to pick up and play, and featured zombies which have a lot of fans among the staff here. Only a subset of the developers at Nihilistic worked on Zombie Apocalypse. Right from the beginning it was meant for the downloadable arcade services.
Does Zombie Apocalypse signal a change of direction for the company, or will disc based titles still form a large part of what you do?
No, we are still focused primarily on large games for cutting edge hardware platforms. Whether those are on disc or not is something that is rapidly changing. Full games are starting to be downloadable directly from PSN and XBLA and the industry is clearly heading in that direction long term. We developed Zombie Apocalypse as a fun side project in an effort to expand the business.
What were the key advantages that drew you into developing for the download services? Does the relatively short development cycle involved with XBLA/PSN titles mean that there’s less risk involved for you?
Certainly the budget is smaller for a downloadable game (though that is rapidly changing) and less money inherently means less risk. That said, the economy is still tough around the world and the games market is in a bit of a depression. As a small independent developer investing our own money in a downloadable title carries a lot of risk.
The key advantage to us was being able to develop a second project in parallel with our other work, leverage the technology platform we’ve built and maintained since the dawn of the company, and to work on a horror themed game that a lot of employees here are interested in.
How have you found developing in tandem for the PSN and XBLA? Has there been any particular challenges associated with this?
Zombie Apocalypse was built on the same home-grown Nihilistic engine that powered Conan, a PS3 and Xbox 360 cross platform title. All of the difficult technology work was already done except for the network code which was added for this game.
Which of these two services do you think has the right approach in terms of what they try to offer the user?
At this point both PSN and XBLA offer easy to use online stores and the ability to play games online. In the past XBLA was clearly the leader but PSN is catching up fast – some would say it has already caught up. The fact that it is free to use for users is nice.
Personally, I use both all the time and have good experiences with both services.
Price sensitivity is fast becoming an issue with the download services. Do you think there’s a particular way to approach this, or is it more that the maturity of the titles on offer has changed since their inception and brings a higher price tag with it?
The budgets for downloadable titles are increasing all the time. I firmly believe that the business will move to digital distribution as the primary form of game sales in the next 10-15 years. So definitely expect to see the average price of a downloadable game increase as larger and larger games start being distributed that way. What’s great about digital distribution is that is still allows smaller games to be released without all the cost and overhead of physical distribution. Lower costs equals lower financial risks and more chances for experimentation and creativity. In the end, the gamer wins by having a larger variety of games at many different price points.
With diversity being encouraged within the download services, does it make it even harder to come up with fresh and innovative ideas to keep players interested?
The ability to build smaller games and have a channel to release them into does challenge game developers to be more creative because it is easier to put games out there. This is a good thing though. It may be more difficult but I don’t think you’ll meet a developer who would prefer to make games that take no risks and are not innovative.
Although it’s probably too early to talk about any firm plans at this point in time, how do the downloadable services feature in Nihlistic’s future?
It’s definitely too early to talk about it. We’re going to wait and see how well Zombie Apocalypse does.
Personally, and this is just my opinion, if Zombie Apocalypse sells well I’d love to do a patch to add additional zombies, weapons, and missions.