More Than Just Zombie Bashing – A Dead State Interview

I had the privilege of interviewing Brian Mitsoda, previously at developers such as Obsidian and Troika, who’s working on a new and very promising zombie survival game, named Dead State. We talked mostly about the specifics of the game, but also found time to delve into the subject of the zombie itself and how to effectively convey its horror.

Could you give us a brief introduction to what Dead State is, and what goals you’ve set for it? It seems like most new games must include zombies in some form. What seperates yours from the others?
Dead State is a survival-based RPG that also just happens to have zombies. The zombie apocalypse setting makes the survival aspect more accessible and plays up the horror angle a bit more, while enforcing mechanics like noise (which attracts the attention of the undead) and panic (which affects your allies’ ability to handle combat situations). Unlike a lot of zombie games, we’re not throwing in zombies because they’re popular, but because we want to make a game that accurately represents what people like about the zombie genre – the long-term survival aspect. While we have combat, we’re less about run-and-gun and more about avoiding the undead, managing stress in companions, and trying to build up a shelter for a prolonged defense against threats from zombies and other human survivors

You have previously worked with acclaimed developers Black Isle, Troika and Obsidian, creators of some of the biggest RPGs in gaming history. What has it been like to go from working with such major studios to founding your own? And what made you initially go indie?

We went indie to make an RPG that a lot of companies aren’t willing to make: an RPG about normal people in extraordinary circumstances. It’s a bit hard to get funding for any game, but for RPGs, trying to do something risky is almost impossible to sell to publishers. The drawback, of course, is that the funding isn’t going to be even a fraction of mainstream development, but there’s plenty of indie games coming out these days that don’t rely on graphics to sell the product, so people are used to expecting interesting gameplay as a tradeoff for high-budget visuals.

That said, our game looks pretty good and we have some talented artists contributing. We’ve definitely been able to do some characters and plots in the story that I’d never be able to do in a mainstream game, and that’s been a big motivating factor for indie development. We know for a fact at this point that the interest in the game is high, but we’re still hoping this is the first in a long line of unconventional RPGs and games from our studio.

Like many other RPGs, Dead State has several skills and stats available to the player, but will they be chosen by the player in a more traditional sense (i.e. earning a certain amount of ExP will let you get better at a skill of your liking, or are you going for a more unconventional system? Also, will there be any sort of classes that define which skills the player has, or will the player just be designated “survivor”?

Our system’s not dissimilar to Bloodlines, really. Instead of leveling up after a set amount of experience and redistributing points right then and there, the player can accumulate skill points by fulfilling objectives and spending them whenever they want. This puts control of when the player gets skill points into their hands – if they really need one to level up a skill, they can try to squeeze in one more objective (collect food, scout a location, complete an upgrade) to get that point immediately.

There aren’t any real classes, but the player won’t be able to max out every skill and stat. Someone who puts points into the survival skill (good for finding wild sources of food and faster travel in the world map) would be considered a great outdoorsman, while someone with high medical skill would be considered a doctor. Higher skill levels cost more points but the rewards are better, so it’s best to specialize in a few skills, but there’s nothing stopping a player from being average at everything.

Dead State takes place in a fictional town in Texas, but how large will the play area be in terms of in-game miles? And how far outside of the city may the player travel?

I haven’t actually measured the miles in the game, but it’s based on a significant chunk of central Texas. Travel is done from an area map to action areas where the player wanders around with their group looking for resources or fighting over them with other humans. So, it’s not actually like all of that area is built out, but there are a lot of areas to explore. One of the advantages of the real world is that so many buildings like fast food restaurants, supermarkets, strip malls and whatnot use exactly the same layout for each location, so we’re able to reuse a lot of art assets. Players start in the school in Splendid and may travel out from there to different towns, suburbs, main streets, and other types of buildings. As they travel the area map, more and more places will be located for them to explore.

At the beginning of the game, how will the player be inserted into it? Will there be a backstory for your character leading up to the zombie apocalypse, and if so, will it change from play-through to play-through?

We’re deliberately being vague about the beginning of the game, but it will make sense as to how you wind up in Splendid. The backstory (friends, family, etc.) for the player is revealed in what they say to other characters and what skills the player chooses in character creation. With a scenario like a zombie apocalypse, most people’s job experience becomes worthless anyhow, and it’s all about using what you know and rising to the challenges of the new world. A lot of things change per playthrough – from allies that you might find or when you find them, interactions with other groups, shortages of necessary supplies. I don’t think most players are going to have the same kind of experience – actually, I’m looking forward to seeing how players react to different decisions and allies in their shelter, especially if they choose to be more of the dictator type of leader.

Will the game feature a mission/quest system that the players can undertake or are the players completely on their own in that matter? Will there be major fixed story events that the player must respond to?

There are multiple ways of finding objectives – finding and exploring a building, dealing with threats to the shelter, scavenging large quantities of supplies, meeting new allies, etc. Allies are helpful for guiding players to new places, but they aren’t necessarily like traditional quest givers. You may want to help them out in a reasonable amount of time to keep their morale from dropping, but you won’t get skill points from merely doing a quest, as any ally can die at any time. Story events aren’t necessarily going to happen at the same time or at all for every player, as they are based on personal conflicts, ally death, shortages of supplies, and interactions with other groups. There’s a lot of ways each player’s story can branch, even right from the beginning.

During combat, the players will only be able to issue commands to the NPCs, not take direct control. But how much control can the players assert on the survivors in the Shelter?

In the shelter, the player can assign their allies to jobs, such as crafting new items or guard duty or even just cleaning up the place. Each job has different results – construction of new rooms for the shelter, morale boosts, food production, etc. The player can also assign wounded allies to the infirmary (if the shelter has one) to heal up faster. In addition, the player can strike up conversations with allies while walking around the shelter. Almost every day the player might have requests from allies, or be pulled into an argument, or may just have to deal with someone who is sick or depressed. Micro-managing your personnel and assets is a big deal in the game.

You’ve written the story for the game yourself, so can you elaborate a bit further on how much an influence it will have on the game? And will there be a definitive way for the player to “win” the game?

It’s not a traditional story, really, and both Annie [VanderMeer Mitsoda] and I created the base concept. A lot of it is creating characters and writing a lot of dialogue to react to their feelings about the player, the morale in the shelter, conflicts with other allies, and reactions to what’s going on in the world.

The player sets off new chains of events. There are areas and people in the world that are going to cause drama within the story, but by no means do we have a strict or linear narrative – though we do have a definite end of the game (and many ways of ending the game early if you fail or piss off too many people). Again, it’s part of the non-traditional storytelling experiments that we wanted to do and could only do in an indie RPG.

Many games that involve the horror genre use sound and visuals to channel the emotions they wish to instill in the player. What considerations did you make on the audio and the visuals to create that special zombie survival atmosphere?

Well, our sound and music aren’t quite finished yet, but the goals have been there for a long time. We have a noise mechanic, so actions in the world need to make appropriate levels of noise and zombies and other NPCs will have basic sounds such as screams, groans, etc. We will have atmospheric music used to elevate the tension in important dialogues or beats for combat or zombie appearances. Sound is a big part of horror, so when a zombie appears, we’re going to make sure you get startled with well-timed audio. Unfortunately, due to the amount of dialogue in the game and the game’s budget, there’s no way we could afford full VO – but we will have original music and lots of vicious sounds to make combat that much more brutal. Just watching a zombie eat someone in the game is pretty graphic right now, but we’ll keep tweaking the tearing noises until you’re truly repulsed.

You’ve previously stated that Dead State was inspired by your own experiences during Hurricane Andrew, but had you been considering a similar concept for a game before that experience? Or did it not occur to you until after that experience? And just how did zombies become involved in that?

Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, so for me at that time, the idea of making videogames for a living was a foreign concept. Still, it’s one of those events you carry with you for the rest of your life and that experience bleeds into the design of a game based on crisis and societal breakdown. The zombies in Dead State are a force of nature – they happened, modern convenience and social support is gone, and the world has coped with the disaster poorly. After the hurricane, Miami was unrecognizable and was in bad shape for weeks and even months after it hit. Roads were blocked, power was out everywhere, food was not being restocked immediately, whole neighborhoods were displaced, and there was widespread looting.

The difference between the world of Dead State and a natural disaster is that the National Guard isn’t coming to help secure the city, no one’s clearing roads and fixing downed power lines, and the zombies aren’t going away. They’re everywhere – it’s a hurricane that sweeps over the entire planet and everyone is too busy trying to deal with it in their backyard to worry about it anywhere else. When you have no idea when or if help is coming – what do you do to survive?

And finally, any news on when the game will be released?

As always, it’s done when it’s done.

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  2. GT Walsh

    I love how the game takes place in the town of Splendid.

  3. Project Zomboid

    They should share some information about the release date. “not before 2012” or something like that. I really don’t like this Blizzard kind communication.

    • Jonas Jurgens

      Yeah, it would be nice to get at least some indication of how far in the process they are. I mean, I presume they have set some kind of deadline for themselves (or at least dates when certain features and the likes should be ready) so they should be able to assess how far they’ve come. On the other hand, I understand that they don’t want to have any official deadline for people to look forward to. That way, you don’t have to postpone your game! Although, saying “not before 2012” would solve that problem.