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ArenaNet's Strain Launches Undead Labs, Reveals Zombie MMO
ArenaNet's Strain Launches Undead Labs, Reveals Zombie MMO
November 23, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

November 23, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC

ArenaNet co-founder Jeff Strain, who left NCsoft in August of this year, has revealed his new project: Seattle-based game development studio Undead Labs.

Strain, a key figure in the development of Guild Wars, will continue to focus on MMOs -- this time on consoles, promising to "pioneer a new development model that will create a new breed of MMO built from the ground up for console gamers."

The sole focus of Undead Labs, according to the announcement, will be a massively-multiplayer zombie MMO -- or "MMOZ," as Strain calls it -- focused on action-humor elements.

"Every time I see a good zombie movie with friends, we spend days debating our strategies for surviving the zombie apocalypse," Strain says.

"The police station or the supermarket? Garden rake or staple gun? Bach or The White Stripes? Im a game developer, so Id probably be useless for anything other than ghoul bait, but Im excited to have the opportunity to build an MMOZ that lets us put those strategies to the test and find out for sure."

Strain began his career on Diablo and StarCraft at Blizzard, where he created the latter title's campaign editor. He was also part of the initial World of Warcraft team as team lead and lead programmer.

He and fellow Blizzard leads Mike O'Brien and Patrick Wyatt founded ArenaNet in April 2000; aside from heading Guild Wars, he was also president of product development NCSoft's company's Western operations.

He says the founding of Undead Labs represents a return to his roots as a developer after "a year wearing button-down shirts and dark socks."

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Alan dykes
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this is a great idea i am surprised that no one has done this till now

Kevin Kissell
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A man with an good idea, should be fun to watch to progress.

Kevin Reese
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Whoa this whole zombie genre revival phase is still going strong. And I guess it doesn't look like it will 'die' anytime soon, yuk yuk.

Dave Smith
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game makers love zombies because you dont have to worry about AI.

personally, the only thing more played out than zombies are vampires.

Daniel Piers
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Zombie people. Zombie dogs. Zombie horses. Zombie giraffes. Zombie orca whales.

Use your imagination. ;)

Alan dykes
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have you not seen the fans that have come together to fight together in left 4 dead i think a MMO would be great

Carlo Delallana
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@ Alan - I'm sure plenty of folks have thought about this idea but I think this is the right pedigree of developers to actually pull this one off. I have high hopes!

@ Robert & Dave - I think you guys are missing the point. The appeal of this genre doesn't solely lie on the shambling shoulders of its protagonists, there's something to be said about the changes that occur to people/societies put under this kind of strain.

Just put yourselves in the shoes of a zombie apocalypse (or any other apocalypse) survivor. Without the rule of law and it was every man for themselves what would you do? You would need to establish meaningful relationships with others just to survive and survival is moment to moment rather than some long thought out plan. It will be very interesting to attempt to create a game system that allows for this kind of play in an MMO setting.

Its not just about the epic gear now, its about finding the right people to surround yourself with on order to survive. All the while other survivor groups will begin to form and with limited resources it is sure to put a strain on relations. This is the experience that I hope game attempts to replicate, creating meaningful relationships between players under severely stressful situations.

Josh Green
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In defense of zombies, Left 4 Dead's zombies are varied in type and have pretty sophisticated AI.

Now if you wanted to criticize emo vampires in awful (but high grossing) teen flicks, I'm all for it. ;)

Carlo Delallana
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Good point Joshua, AI is not just relegated to a single entity. The zombie experience in L4D is very dynamic because on top of having basic AI for each enemy type there is also the "director" that dynamically controls the swarming/spawning of enemies which creates a really intense 'tension & release' loop.

Ken Nakai
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Yeah, but as an mmo? Remember that instead of a closed space with a single mission, you're talking about an open world with areas that need to be safe and those that need to support random encounters. Otherwise, you're looking at a Guild Wars model with a lobby and instanced mission environments. It could work but then again...why not just play L4D? And what keeps Valve from adding some RPG elements to L4D (3?) which covers most of the bases already?

Don't get me wrong. There's a lot of potential (imagine a last stand with a "raid" of 20 people against hundreds of zombies?) but I really don't think I want to play a console port. Anything that requires a shooter interface is just not that smooth on a console. It's like driving a tank. And auto-aim is a crutch.

I'm sure it'll do well though. :)

Chris OKeefe
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This kind of game will either be phenomenal, or incredibly boring/reptitive.

Really, really hoping for the former, because I've definitely had ideas for MMO games(or STALKER-ish games) based on the whole zombie apocalypse survival thing. So long as there is a lot you can do, and the world itself is pretty dynamic, then I could see this really working well.

Scattered 'communities' holed up in safe zones like a hospital or military base or whatever, could hire out players to retrieve commodities and resources needed for survival. Like going up to a water tower to retrieve a few jugs of water to trade for ammunition at the military base. The very act of traveling from one place to another could be incredibly intense, exciting, and scary.

And the 'zombie' thing can be as varied as they like. I kind of hope they don't get quite as cartoony as L4D, and keep it more in the gritty horror side of things. I liked what L4D2 did with some of the 'semi-special' zombies, like zombies in riot gear, that sort of thing.

Anyway, I'm skeptical it will turn out quite how I'd like it, and that may be the problem. There's a lot of people who like zombie stuff, but it seems like there's so many different ways to do 'zombie apocalypse' and everyone has a different idea of how it should be done. You just have to look at a few of the different movies and games to see how widely varied the subject can be.

I kind of hope it is more like 28 Days Later than L4D, myself.

Bo Banducci
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The fact that he wants it to focus on humorous elements is interesting. For people who are hoping it's going to be like 28 days later, I think this nixes that possibility, at least in atmosphere if not in game play. As far as implementing a focus on humor, Stubbs the Zombie was able to do that pretty well, though mostly through cut scenes, which aren't funny after the first or second time. I can't think of an MMO that has humor as its focus, but maybe they'll try to leverage the wise-cracking tendency of MMO players to some great effect. I just don't know how an aspect of the game, like weapons or quests, will stay funny after multiple play-throughs.

Andre Gagne
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I'm pretty sure I saw a zombie/post apocalypse MMO being marketed at the GDC a few years back... or maybe it was E3?

I'm also wondering, does this mean it will essentially rip some of EVE online's basic premises and put a ghoul mask on it?

Devin Becker
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Cracks me up with the constant references to Left 4 Dead considering there are no zombies in that series. Its pretty specifically infected living people (a la 28 Days Later). It pains me to see how much damage 28 days later did to the zombie genre without even being a zombie movie (ok so the Dawn of the Dead remake actually gets the blame for that.). We really should start referring to this genre by a new name, like Pandemic horror or something.

All that being said, please god no running zombies in this MMOZ. Zombie fans have been clamoring for a good zombie mmo for a long time but no one has really stepped up to the plate of this caliber, hope it works!

Sion Williams
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When people talk about MMO's I find it very difficult not to just re-texture WoW in my head and set the scene based on the persons idea. In this case I can picture Mount Hyjal and the opening of Ulduar in WoW. I'm think Mount Hyjal because in this raid instance you fight your way to a checkpoint and you have to defend it whilst hordes of npc's attack, and in the opening to Ulduar your groups each take control of a vehicle (which each have their own abilities) and you have to ram your way into the fortress.

As it happens these where two of my favourite parts of WoW and I could see both working well in this zombie environment. With a good creative backing and a lot of fresh idea's I think this could be a fantastically succesful games.

brandon brown
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Wow this is an absolutly amazing idea, seriously the people critizing this need to get an imagination.

First off let me say, its not just zombies players will be fighting but most likely other players, in a world of chaos its not likely that the players are going to see eye to eye. Furthermore, this has the potential to combine the likes of left 4 dead, and fallout 3 and even dead rising if you want to go that far.

The only real question is will players perma death, or will they become zombies? sooooooo many awsome possibilities :)

Alan Youngblood
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The whole good idea thing is yet to be determined. It's a strong premise, certainly one that would garner enough venture capital to propel the project past launch. But who are we kidding? The premise isn't that unique. I can say most game developers have already had this idea. I have, Kojima-san has, certainly the folks at Capcom have since they are the creators of survival horror.

Here's the test: execution. Will it get made right and be worth playing? I'm not saying it won't, I'm simply saying it's way to early to tell based on little info.

I for one would like to see a game like that where all but a very few players start as regular humans. The few of course are zombies. When you get bit or otherwise infected you become one of them. There is no way to get your human character back, but you can enjoy playing as a zombie. Obviously at some point things must be reset. What may be more popular but completely unnecessary is a WoW clone with zombies. GW was a pretty cool game, so I think Strain has potential to make this one good, but I feel way too many MMOs are clones of WoW. We need more MMOs like EVE that dare to be different, and do it right.

Simon Fraser
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Could be good, but considering the fact that it's an MMO, you just never know how fun it'll turn out.

The fact that it's an MMO designed specifically for consoles should be interesting.

Chris OKeefe
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mzo mzo wrote: "Cracks me up with the constant references to Left 4 Dead considering there are no zombies in that series. Its pretty specifically infected living people (a la 28 Days Later). It pains me to see how much damage 28 days later did to the zombie genre without even being a zombie movie (ok so the Dawn of the Dead remake actually gets the blame for that.). We really should start referring to this genre by a new name, like Pandemic horror or something."

Any insistance that the term 'zombie' only applies to the animated dead is purely in your own head. Take a look out there, wiki, dictionaries, they all say the same thing. 'Zombie' usually refers to the animated dead or mindless human beings.

Never did get why certain kinds of zombie movie fans insist on such a narrow definition, often acting strangely smug and superior. The 'zombies' in Left 4 Dead and in 28 Days Later were, by definition, zombies. Maybe not your favourite kind, but that is what they are.