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Desert Island Games: Zombie Studios' Mark Long

Desert Island Games: Zombie Studios' Mark Long

February 5, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis

February 5, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis
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For this week’s Desert Island Games, a column that looks at the top five games of some of our favorite industry personalities, we speak to Mark Long, co-CEO of Seattle-based developer Zombie Studios.

Long founded the studio with co-CEO and COO Joanna Alexander in 1994, and has since gone on to act as designer and producer on more than 24 of the company’s titles. Early on, Zombie produced games like Zork Nemesis and shooter ZPC, for which KMFDM cover artist Aidan Hughes worked on art design. The company has since had success with Spec Ops, Shadow Ops, Rainbow Six: Covert Ops and America’s Army amongst many others.

Zombie also quickly became known for its work with serious games, working with defense contractors, the Department of Defense and university laboratories on titles like Future Soldier Trainer and Future Force Company Commander.

Currently, the studio is working on Rogue Warrior for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC for Bethesda Softworks - a tactical FPS based on the best-selling book series by Richard Marcinko. Long commented at the time of the title’s announcement that it was the “the game we’ve been waiting to make for years”. Rogue Warrior is currently slated for a fall release.

We spoke to Long recently, and asked him about his desert island, all-time, top five most memorable games – in no particular order, of course.

Counter-Strike (Valve Software, 2000): "The winner and still reigning champion of online FPS gameplay. When it first came out, there was this clan of Amazon guys that had had leased a loft space near me and pimped it out for gaming. They had high gaming rigs, Aeron chairs, a stocked fridge, etc. They introduced me properly to CS and I was hooked. I don't play nearly as much as I used to, but still play it in between other titles.

If you're stuck on an island, you want to play online where the servers are full of players. CS: Source has over 200,000 players at any given time. CS servers are not for the faint of heart. It's hardcore in there. You have to put the man pants on if you're going to play. It doesn't bother me though.

The interesting about CS - if you played CS from the beginning and still play - is that your gameplay has become transcendent. It's no longer tactical. It's more like chess. You can see everyone's moves before they make them. Some of the maps like Dust have been played continuously for 8 years. So, you get beyond even the point where you know every inch of the map, you also know where everyone is going to be before they get there. The game plays out as a serious of logical choices that you can calculate several moves ahead of."

Tetris (Alexey Pajitnov, 1987): "Speaking about transcendent, Tetris is so transcendent an alien could have designed it. Yeah, if aliens were going to take over they wouldn't use pods. They'd sell you a Game Boy and give away Tetris with it. Get everyone hooked and then flip the switch and take over your brain. I first encountered Tetris on the Game Boy in 1990. I used to play it obsessively on the plane whenever I traveled. We actually produced two games with the inventors of Tetris in Moscow and Alexey Pajitnov once explained to me the seven addictive principles of Tetris. I was, unfortunately, extremely drunk at the time; I don't remember any of it.

Game Boy Tetris is the perfect island game. Reflective display. Long battery life. Handheld, under the coconut tree with action that lasts like Extra chewing gum. I preferred the little played Tetris 3D version for the Virtual Boy, though. You had to move the blocks in four directions. It was the best Virtual Boy game made, I think.

I think Tetris's longstanding appeal is its two primary game mechanics: visual time pressure and a sense of unfinished action. The decision loop is short enough that with these two mechanics you get into a kind of "flow" state, where you are task saturated but at a minimal threshold. That's a fancy way of saying that Tetris is a relaxing game to play."

Halo: Combat Evolved (Bungie Software, 2001): "Do I get a girl on the island to play co-op with? In a frayed bikini like in a New Yorker cartoon? Then we need a game to play co-op. And it has to be Halo. Not Halo 2 - what the hell happened there? It has to be the first Halo.

Just being factitious: Halo 2 was great. I think everyone just wanted more after the delayed ship date. Expectations went through the roof for that title.

I think you could argue that except for GoldenEye on the N64, FPSs up until Halo just didn't translate to the console. The brilliance of Halo was how they made an FPS work with a controller. There's a very sophisticated and subtle "sticky cursor" in Halo that solved the FPS over-steering problem that, in my mind, ruined the other console FPSs.

Is there anything better in the world than playing Halo co-op? No there is not; you don't even need to think about that question. The co-op campaign was well thought out. You could tell that the designers had made a decision not to compromise co-op in any way. The co-op campaign is equal to the single player campaign. I can tell you from experience: that is a very hard thing to pull off.

Plus, it's got space opera secret sauce - Halo is referencing all the Ringworld sci-fi, so it resonates nicely. I play at home with a projection TV and 5.1 surround sound, like god intended us to play video games. I'll need that set up for the island, by the way. Drinking beer and playing Halo co-op with my half-naked island chick: this is known as the shiznit."

Sim City (Maxis, 1989): "If you've got all the time in the world, you better have a good RTS - I have a lot of favorites, but I really love Sim City. I used to play Sim City on my Mac SE. I think it was the first game I bought for my Mac!

The Sims bored me. I just tortured the characters by putting them in a hedge maze with no bathroom and no exit until they passed out in their own urine. But there's something uniquely appealing about Sim City over all other RTSs. There's no combat for one thing. And it's not just about making a huge city, you have to keep your Sims happy of they move out. I love pandering to my constituency to increase my approval rating. Maybe I'm a tree-hugging dork from Seattle, but I like to build these mass transit only cities still.

There's years of fun in Sim City; I think it's the sandbox slash dollhouse aspects of the game. I'd like to see the franchise revitalized."

ZPC (Zombie, 1996): "My favorite Zombie game. I load it on every new Mac I upgrade to - I use a Mac at home to see if it will run and end up playing again. ZPC is a cult FPS we designed and developed in 1996 with the Bungie Marathon engine.

You play Arman, the "War Messiah", returned to earth end a global genocide campaign. Aidan Hughes, best known in the US for all the KMFDM album covers and t-shirts, literally drew the entire game. And the soundtrack was by Roland and Paul Barker from Ministry. It's a completely over-the-top, nihilistic game.

Adian used to pitch it as Jesus versus the Nazis. Before ZPC released, GT Interactive ran a print ad campaign that had Jesus, Hitler and Stalin in it - this would never happen today! And, of course, we got some email complaints. But one day we came in to work to find a long voicemail message from some nutcase in the general mailbox that was just epic. So we sampled and edited it and created a level in the game around it called the Propaganda Stadium. It's still hilarious when you get to the level and you hear this guy shouting about the "angry Jesus" game.

I think it's not just Aidan's work but the whole spew that makes the game stand out. This game could never be made now; the outsider art, the industrial music, the nihilistic storyline. I think [Rockstar Games president] Sam Houser said it best when he described this style of design to me as "media terrorism". Not terrorism in the post 9/11 sense, but as a mash-up - mixing interactive art in an aggressive and original way.

If Marilyn Manson ever designed a game, it would be ZPC. Hey, that's not a bad idea..."


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