[New indie Doublebear is made up of Black Isle and Troika veterans, and Gamasutra talks to them about their in-development PC open-world zombie game -- and why their use of undead is "rotting bait" for RPG geeks.]
The new indie game studio Doublebear is made up primarily of designer/writer Brian Mitsoda of Black Isle and Troika (Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines) fame, and Annie Carlson, best known for her writing on Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir.
They recently announced a game that's been given the temporary name of ZRPG, a roleplaying game set in the immediate aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. It's a PC RPG, featuring turn-based gameplay and 3rd person perspective, and using Iron Tower Studio’s Age of Decadence game engine.
Talking with Brian, we found out what he considers the interesting concepts in such an event, how he intends to approach it in a sprawling, open world setting, and why it's easier to shoot Beebo the Apple-Miser in the face rather than do a quest for him:
Being a newly formed studio, can you explain a little about yourselves and what sort of things you're intending to do?
Our primary goal is to finish games and continue to maintain the resources to finish more games, while remaining profitable. We would like to continue doing this as an independent company that funds our own properties and retains ownership of our IPs, to the end that over time our back catalogue continues to generate money for the studio until most of the team leaves and I begin work on the videogame equivalent of Chinese Democracy. There are many tales that start out this way, I know, but ours is more exciting because we’re working on a zombie RPG.
Being made up of veterans of the game development business, yet being a newly formed, entirely independent studio, must create an interesting juxtaposition. How do you think your experience is helping in these early days?
I really don’t consider myself a name, but apparently a lot of people do because as soon as we announced the studio and game, we got coverage everywhere and way more of a response than we thought we would. So, obviously, working on a “cult classic” and at several mainstream game companies obviously helped our exposure/recognition quite a bit, and that really does give us an advantage as an indie developer. I mean, I’m doing this interview right now without having shown off screen one yet – that’s probably the best way to show the audience how the magic trick is done, maybe?
Having worked on several projects from day one design and worked on RPGs for so many years has given us a good idea of what not to do when designing one and how to structure the project for our team’s size and budget. That experience alone probably saves a lot of time and money that a small team can’t afford to lose.
Obviously, being a new studio, raising awareness and interest in your products and names is key; how have you gone about making sure you're known? Are you trusting purely in the fact that people will be interested by the novelty and appealing nature of your game
Aside from the website and forum, we’ve done a lot of interviews and will continue to do a lot of press and interaction with all interested parties throughout development. From the links we’ve collected, I’d say the word has been spread, and we will continue to release information in Pac-dot sized chunks as we progress.
As you point out, there is a bit of a novelty factor with our game containing zombies, but we’re doing anything but using those lovable undead bastards as a novelty, because the undead in our game are not lovable. You could say that the zombie aspect of our game is a bit of rotting bait to attract gamers who would not usually be interested in RPGs or indie games, because our game really isn’t centered on the zombies but on the conflict they create when mankind’s worst instincts for self-preservation kick in.
Our game is about unexpected crisis, the impact on the survivors, and the harsh decisions that must be made to continue existing in this bleak new world. The humans (and their personalities) are a bigger threat than the zombies. I think I’ve stated this before, but I expect people to come for the zombies and stay for the characters.
While you, Brian, are best known for your writing, you're taking on the much larger role of creative director and lead designer. How are you finding the shift in focus? Is it a welcome change?
It’s not much of a shift in focus. Writing for RPGs requires a bit of system work for dialogue and event scripting, and also an understanding of how the writing works with the other systems. In a bigger project, you get pigeonholed as the “guy who handles that part” and over time it makes it harder to transition to another role.
I’m really glad that people appreciate my work as a writer, but I’d like to be better known as a designer and I’m hoping that people find the writing and design compelling, because I don’t really play or make games for the story, but because I like to play games. The systems for our game came first, and we just happened to marry them to what I think is a great setting for both intriguing gameplay and compelling character and story possibilities. If anything really shifts my focus, it’s the business side of it all.
Both of you have worked in the larger development studios, and have now moved to a much smaller, independent operation. Are there any unexpected challenges? Is the more intimate working environment allowing for a noticeable increase in focus on the game?
Unexpected, not really, I made sure I knew what I was getting into. Any time you make a game, it’s going to be a huge challenge filled with unforeseen problems where you draw the shitty card of LIFE that says “Laptop Malfunction – Lose a Week’s Work” but you accept that not every day is going to be spent doing expertly-conducted interviews and flattering journalists. And part of being a startup is accepting that you may not make much until your project comes out, if at all.
However, the size of the team does make creating and implementing content a lot easier. You spend less time dealing with logistics and more time making the game. The fact that we are not making a… ugh... “AAA” game, means that when we write a dialogue, it can go right in and be functional without having to wait for high-poly models, cameras, VO, and animation to see just how it’s going to play in the final game. We’re not trying to innovate with our tech, and as a tradeoff, it lets us do some remarkable things with our setting and characters.
Your first announced game, a zombie RPG, is using the Age of Decadence engine made by Iron Tower Studio. While obviously this will allow you to spend more time on developing content for the game, do you think using someone else's engine will limit you?
Iron Tower’s tools let us build the game a lot quicker, but Iron Tower’s assistance in building the game speeds things up significantly. We had several discussions with ITS about their engine and their game and then designed our game to play to the strengths of what their tools do – of course, this doesn’t mean we’re making Age of Decadence with zombies, but that we are using bits like the character creation tool and dialogue editor to help generate assets quicker.
The Age of Decadence team has been transitioning onto our project as they finish their tasks on AoD. We’re partnering with them for our game, and so far, this has been working out great. We’ve also had no shortage of volunteers and contributors, and thanks to all those who offered to help or are assisting us.
To be precise, we’re actually not using the same exact engine as Age of Decadence. The graphics and lighting capabilities have been significantly bumped up for our game. I think as we release screenshots, people will immediately see the difference. We’re still a small team and we’re not going to compete with Unreal visuals or anything, but I think the quality will be “good enough” for most everybody but the filthiest of graphic whores.
There has been a slew of zombie games recently, from the wild success of Left 4 Dead, to even something as inconsequential as the Nazi Zombie mode in the most recent Call of Duty game. How do you think the resurgence of zombies in gaming will help or hinder you?
I think the fact that there is a large potential audience for zombie games is great. Now, if we were doing a game that was aimed at the same market as something like Left 4 Dead or Call of Duty, we’d be sunk before we even set sail. One of the reasons I think the initial reaction was so positive for our game was due to the fact that we are not doing yet another zombie action game, but focusing more on what made zombies popular in the first place – the horror/apocalyptic aspect of them.
I think the popularity of zombies and the genre applied to RPGs (which are less common in the market anyhow) will definitely help us, but more than genre, it comes down to the quality of the actual title. There have been some very good games with zombies in them recently - I think that’s one of the keys to their popularity.
The recent treatment of zombies has erred on the side of comedy rather than serious horror, with even something like Left 4 Dead having hysterical laughter as a staple of most matches. Is this a path you'll tread, even if it's just in the direction of black, 'gallows' humor, rather than poking fun at the shambling undead?
I don't believe you can do horror properly without lightening the mood, even having some humorous moments once in awhile, because it makes the lows hurt even harder. If you're laughing with your friend one minute and then all of the sudden his head gets blown off, it's way more shocking than had you been warning him to be quiet. I can't write without adding humor somewhere, but when it comes to the end of the world setting our game deals with, the zombies are most definitely not going to be the source of the humor. When there are comedic moments, it will be a nervous laughter.
While shooting zombies is all well and fun, the concept of focusing on the survival, long term aspect of such a catastrophe seems to elicit far more response with the gaming public, or at least certainly with the PC crowd. Is this happy coincidence on your part, or did you look around for a concept that you felt hadn't been explored yet, then work from there?
I’m going to admit something here – cities are hard. When you do an RPG, there’s an expectation that you’re going to have this world full of people just standing around outside waiting for someone in full-plate who would be dying to help them find their hat. Soon, you realize that all of these sons and daughters of generic NPC models need to have something to say or a quest to give and before you know it, you’re doing NPC schedules and frivolous shops and houses full of people that don’t add anything to the narrative whatsoever.
So, to make my team’s life easier, I chose a setting in which all those generic NPCs were dead and the cities were empty. You can still enter stores and houses, but now instead of having to fetch Beebo the Apple-Miser’s favorite apple-picking pants from the tailor, you can just walk into his house, shoot him in his rotting head, and take his stuff. The population of quirky rapscallions suffers a bit, but it saves some dialogue trees.
Aside from allowing us ample time to invest in writing the survivors and focusing on their complex personalities, we also picked the zombie genre because it’s modern day (underserved by most RPGs), we’re fans of the genre, and there has never been a single-player zombie RPG. Additionally, Hurricane Andrew (which hit Miami in 1992) is a major disaster that affected me personally, and I wanted to use some of the frustrations and observations of that experience to enhance the believability of our game’s crisis and characters.
One of the staples of the zombie genre, at least in the initial days of the event, is the confusion and disarray the survivors find themselves in. Obviously this would lend itself well to an open world setting. Is that the direction you intend to go in?
We’re an open world game, yes. That was another draw of the setting. When you don’t have any access to communication or information, you wouldn’t know what to expect outside your immediate area. People have no idea if there are safe areas out there or if there’s help on the way, which leads to rumors and misinformation.
Coupled with the need for supplies, it sparks curiosity and encourages the player to explore the surrounding area looking for facts, food, and friends. We also like the setting because you might grow to like some of these survivors, but true to the zombie genre, anyone can die or be infected at any time. Every time you leave the safety of your shelter, a few bad calls could leave your most trusted ally dead. I think it’s an expectation for the genre and the non-linear aspect – no one is safe.
You've stated that the zombie RPG will focus more on the human aspect of a zombie apocalypse. Do you think that the recent dearth of post-apocalyptic games are ignoring this very important concept? How much do you think it defines and shapes the genre, rather than just being an interesting idea?
In a sense, our game is a lot different than post-apocalyptic games in that ours is set as the apocalypse is happening, rather than in a world that is rebuilding itself out of the ashes. We’d be wasting the setting if we didn’t emphasize the connection to the real world and weren’t focusing on normal people struggling (or failing) to adapt to the changes.
I think the appeal of the genre and the game comes from speculating on what you would do in that situation. The game needs to be fun, as far as mechanics go, but the characters and the events need to feel as close to a realistic simulation as possible. If we didn’t address the societal breakdown and survivor mentality aspects, we’d just be doing a generic RPG with zombie apocalypse decorations.
'Survival' is an intriguing concept in games, and always seems to be neutered at one stage or another, as a sacrifice to make the game fun and compelling, most famously in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., where they removed the need to eat and sleep. How are you treading that line? Do you find that the harder you make it to survive, the more tense and engaging the game becomes?
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. didn’t have eating and sleeping because it wasn’t a priority for the gameplay. We’ll be revealing our systems gradually, but suffice it to say, we analyzed the expectations for a survival game and created compelling and addictive mechanics to keep people constantly exploring the world. Thankfully, people that have seen the design have remarked, “oh, that makes sense – why hasn’t anyone done this before?” rather than “you, um, got a real nice title font.”
For the survival aspect – managing supplies and people – we erred on the side of fun, meaning you don’t have to individually click on people to feed them or worry about them coming down with malaria because they walked through a swamp. I’d say the tension comes from dreading what happens when supplies do get low and personalities start to clash or making a decision about an infected ally or how to deal with another group of survivors who know where you are and that you have nice things.
I know it’s PR wankery nowadays to say this, but the game really will feel different for each player depending on who they meet, how they deal with other groups, how well they manage their supplies, and the decisions they make as a leader. We have a system in place to keep things interesting, so I don’t think players will have time to get complacent or bored by repetition, kind of like a real crisis. Ultimately, as you and your group struggle to hold onto some shred of society in the post-zombie world, you never know what’s going to happen, and true to the zombie genre, it’s that sense of dread that we will be fostering in the player.