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Emerging from a  State of Decay : Undead Labs' lessons from XBLA

Emerging from a State of Decay: Undead Labs' lessons from XBLA Exclusive

January 21, 2014 | By Kris Ligman

A Blizzard veteran and one of the three key people behind NCSoft's ArenaNet, Undead Labs founder Jeff Strain knows a thing or two about how people play games online.

Following the success of Undead Labs' debut title, State of Decay, on Xbox Live Arcade, the studio is now gearing up for its second game. We spoke with Jeff Strain about breathing new life into XBLA -- and how games continue to drive platforms.

Gamasutra: When State of Decay launched on XBLA last June, it met pretty much immediately with a great deal of success, critically as well as commercially. What drove the decision to launch on Xbox Live, rather than on Steam?

Jeff Strain: One of the uncracked nuts in the industry, when I look across where everything is, is that persistent online worlds have always been and largely continue to be the realm of the PC.

The foundation and history of our team is in the MMO world -- more broadly in the online gaming world. I was at Blizzard for five years, from 1995 to 2000, heavily involved in the genesis of BattleNet and the transition of all our games to being very focused on online. And of course many of the people here were principal developers at ArenaNet, did all the Guild Wars games. So that's kind of in our DNA.

And the long-range plans for Undead Labs is to move back into that PC space. But by focusing on the console side initially, it allowed us to think about things like long-range designs and player interactions that weren't based on the standard PC MMO template, which we've all become very familiar with over the past decade. Instead, it really challenged us to think about ways that we could create games that had that kind of communal play experience but that weren't rooted in something that was exclusively PC-centric. So I think that was a big part of it: [asking ourselves] where do we want to go in the next ten years and how do we achieve that goal of building something new and fresh which still captures all the power of online worlds.

And also, just to be honest, I've been making PC games for just about 15 years. I love PC games, I think everyone here loves PC games, but I also definitely wanted to broaden the skillset of the studio. This was my very first console game, personally. There was definitely an element of scratching an itch there. [laughs] And it was a whole lot of fun.

Were you concerned about the state of the market on XBLA?

JS: Well, we had the install base, there was no question. Just numerically, we knew how many Xbox 360s were out there, we knew how many Live accounts there were. The question was whether the channel itself [Xbox Live Arcade] was still capable of gaining attention.

When we started development, Xbox Live -- and the Arcade section in particular -- was still a very strong channel. That was the heyday of Castle Crashers and Super Meatboy. We definitely saw that popularity fall off throughout our development. But we all very much believed that the issue was the content that was coming into it.

Historically, you know, it's not the channel that drives games. It's the content and the games that drive channels. Steam emerged as a huge platform because that's where you could go to get Half-Life 2. BattleNet became a platform because that's where you could go to play Diablo and Starcraft. It's always been the case that players care about the games more than they care about any individual platform.

So our strong hope was that, by redefining what an Xbox Live title could be -- pushing the boundaries of size, scope, complexity and sophistication -- people would come back to the platform. And we were very gratified to find that that was exactly what happened.

You later launched on Steam, and as of October you reported a combined 1 million copies sold across both platforms. Do you feel launching on Xbox Live helped the later launch on Steam?

JS: No question about it. State of Decay was indeed the big fish in a small pond when it was on XBLA.

Steam is obviously a much larger platform than Xbox's Arcade category, and that was particularly so at that moment in time, but by going out onto XBLA with something that really redefined the channel itself, and was exciting because of it, that helped generate a lot of awareness and word of mouth.

What do sales look like presently for Xbox Live Arcade?

JS: I can say that we are well beyond 1 million downloads at this point. I expect we'll be releasing a new milestone in the relatively near future.

In light of Undead Labs' plans to settle into the PC space, do you anticipate ever returning to Xbox's online marketplace with the new console gen?

JS: We're big believers in the digital distribution channel. Steam has obviously been very successful in that space, and digital distribution was certainly the hallmark of what Xbox Live Arcade was -- although historically there have been very specific constraints from Microsoft on what an Arcade title could be, in terms of the footprint on the player's hard drive, the resources that could be allocated to it, even things like Achievements and Gamerscore. These were intentional, explicit constraints.

I'm not privy to any of Microsoft's internal plans for the future of digital distribution, I only know what's been said publicly. But I think it's clear to everybody that moving forward into the Xbox One generation that distinction [between Arcade and other downloadable titles] is going to fade away.

For us, when we look at the future of our games both on PC and on console, it's not just about digital distribution but the ability to have games that have a live service model behind them. Games that are a continual experience rather than a throw-it-over-the-wall product. Whether you want to call that our MMO heritage, or just the kinds of games that people are playing and where the industry is going, this is what's exciting to us.

So when we're looking at our next round and what we're doing in terms of development, we see the PC and the Xbox One as very peered platforms -- different playerbases and different content expectations -- but for the first time we can and want to be delivering strongly a shared, consistent experience across both platforms.

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