GDC 2011: Jeff Strain lets us eat... err... pick his brains on Undead Labs' upcoming zombie MMO

The team at Undead Labs has big plans for the studio's first two projects currently under development: Class 3 and Class 4. So far, we know that Class 3 will be a non-MMO console zombie shoot-em-up game developed for Xbox Live, and Class 4 is intended to be the game that crosses into a massively online world. That's why we were glad to sit down with Jeff Strain, founder of Undead Labs, to hear more details on the studio's gory game goodness, which is surely lurking and primed to pounce on us and eat our brains -- or at least some of our gaming time.

Are you hungry for all the meaty details of this ambitious console horror game? Join us behind the break for more!

Massively: Can you tell us a bit more about your plans for these two games?

Jeff Strain, Undead Labs: The goal with Class 3 is to be a smaller, more contained, highly polished experience of what one can expect from our online world. What we're trying to do is make sure the game is fun -- and I know that sounds silly to say -- but a lot of times when people have stars in their eyes and are thinking about the greatest online worlds, they jump straight into, "Well, it's this enormous place with thousands of players in a virtual world." It's far too easy to lose sight of the fact that every minute, every second of the game needs to be fun. It's important to think about how to design a really great game around the core concept that also is its own world. In some ways, it's about walking before we run. We want to make sure we can deliver that polished, fun experience first -- then we'll build on that platform into a full world.

The other thing about looking at it this way is that it really means the development team can make progress early in terms of developing the game. We're already in there running around and hunting zombies.

So does Class 3 set up the lore for the storyline that players will eventually play in Class 4?

Class 3 and Class 4 are kind of like Richter-scale numbers for zombies. Class 1 is just a small low-level outbreak in a rural area that's easily contained. Class 2 is when a certain region in a country might be affected. Class 3 is more like, say, China drops off the grid for six months. Class 4 is a total societal collapse -- it's the global zombie outbreak. What we're trying to do with the name is give a nod to zombie literature like the Max Brooks books (World War Z). What we're trying to do is both pay homage and to give a better scale of each title.

Class 3 is designed to be a fun game in its own right. It's not a massively multiplayer game with six thousand hours' worth of playtime. What we hope to do with it is bring players into the game, and from there, let them have a voice in how we shape Class 4.

By creating this contained experience, we're really going to flesh out our goals for the game and identify those areas where we need input from the community in terms of how we're going to turn it into a full-scale online world. Part of what we hope to accomplish is to make sure that those channels are in place to that people can guide and direct us as we move on to Class 4.

So it's an evolution of the outbreaks, then?

Not so much with the way the story unfolds, no. Certainly Class 3 will be a prequel to the larger story that will be Class 4. But some of the things we're attempting to accomplish with the town building and outpost building and how communities decide the way they are going to resolve the zombie threat? We really want to make sure that the social mechanics are there for that. Too often it feels like social mechanics in a game are kind of added on as a sort of an afterthought. We're trying to build our game from the inside out, and we're very focused on letting players have a voice in how this will work.

So where are you now on Class 4 in terms of development?

Class 4 is being developed simultaneously with Class 3. You can think of Class 3 as the platform for Class 4. There's a big difference between saying that you're going to create an open-world survival zombie game and saying that you're creating an open-world survival zombie game that can then quickly turn around and evolve into an online world. In terms of the scalability of our content, how robust the player engagement technology is, and our production pipeline -- all of that has has to be engineered towards the greater demands of a full-scale online world. Ultimately, as we develop the game (Class 3) we're also developing Class 4.

Are the plans to release Class 4 much later?

Well, I wouldn't say much later. I'm not going to give a specific release date, but I will say this much: Part of the reason we're doing this is because we don't want to go four years without releasing anything. This is a very veteran team filled with people who have been in the industry for a long time, and a lot of us have worked on MMOs for a long time. As you can see with other MMOs, release windows are generally huge.

For us, it's a combination of wanting to have an early and open dialogue with our community and wanting to do what we love to do -- create games. We don't live to work toward a goal that is five years down the road. The thrill of working in this industry is to put awesome things into players' hands and let them enjoy them. So really, a lot of the overall strategy is about letting us do those two things without having to go silent for years and years and years.

Do you feel like you've hit a good balance, then, between Class 3 and Class 4 development?

I certainly hope so. We're using Xbox Live as the channel for this first game. In terms of release time-frames, there's a different expectation for how long it takes to deliver a game on that platform and channel versus a full-scale retail game. Certainly in terms of our development time-frame for Class 3, it's much more consistent with what you'd expect an Xbox Live game to be. As such, we'll probably have something out sooner than people may think.

You mentioned in February that you weren't wanting to use the MMO terminology -- that this was an "online world game." Do you find fans are very open to moving away from the terminology?

When you say "fans," it's all relative. If you say fans of Halo or Left 4 Dead, they have no association with it, whereas if you talk to fans of MMOs, then yes, the term MMO is going to resonate for them.

We're really targeting console platform players thanks to our partnership with Microsoft and developing for the Xbox 360 platform -- that is very different than your normal approach to MMOs. We envision a game that, in terms of pacing and progression, plays and feels very different than what you would normally think of when you think of an MMO. What we're trying to say is "Do not think of this -- because we don't -- as taking a PC MMO and trying to port that onto a console." What we're instead trying to do is to take the things that make MMOs really awesome like vast open worlds, social dynamics, the fun of being able to hook up with your friends and play together -- and roll it into one.

One of the reasons we're trying to move away from using "MMOs" is because there's a certain set of expectations in regards to that word, as we all know. Many of us been making MMOs for a very long time and know it all too well. For us it's about making something different and giving console players some of those great aspects I just mentioned. We're sharing the love. It's about giving them something they can call their own too. We're not trying to change the world and say that MMOs should be only be on consoles or anything like that. We're saying, "We've learned a lot. We've had a really good time making these kinds of games. Now we think we can use that to make some really great console games that incorporate some of the things we've learned."

That's why we're trying to distance ourselves from that term a little bit. It's very much tied into a certain set of expectations, whereas the term "full online world" really says more of what we want it to say. We want our game to be judged on its own merits: Is it fun, or is it not? Is it something we want to play or not? We don't want it to be about whether we've accurately lived up to an expectation of precisely what a massively multiplayer online world should be. We even toyed around with calling it ZOMG for "zombie online massive game" just to be funny, but ultimately we decided that it was much more important to focus on the game rather than the terminology.

Are you starting to narrow down your business model for Class 4?

There are no answers as yet. Looking at all the potential models, there are a pile of things we like and a pile of things we don't like. More importantly, there is a set of existing challenges for our developers to work through. Microtransactions are great because they don't put anything in the way of people getting into the game and having fun. I love that. There are people out there who may not be able to afford a monthly fee, or more often than not, are philosophically opposed to it.

I have seen and continue to see teams that aren't tasked with "go make this game as fun as you can make it," which is the correct thing for them to be doing. Instead, they're told "figure out how to monetize this game."

It used to be with a subscription model that money was the domain of the business guys. It came down to balance -- what are we paying for servers, what are we paying for bandwidth, what are we paying our support team? Add all that up and figure out a subscription fee that covers those costs and returns a certain amount of profit for the business. Developers were told to go make a game that is so much fun that people will want to come back. Microtransactions undermined that a little bit, which is the downside to them. Subscription fees are very up-front, very clearly defined as here's what you'll pay every month, and we'll either earn your business or we won't.

Ultimately, we have a long way to go before we lock [our model] down. We are doing a great deal of thinking about how we can get the best of both worlds. Is there a business model that we can identify that will remove the designers from having to worry about monetizing the game while still supporting the game? With Microsoft as our publishing partner, we also have to look at things like whether a player has a Gold Xbox Live account, how that subscription will fit in, etc. Ultimately, there are simply no answers yet. Thankfully for Class 3 this isn't an issue! However, this goes back to what I was talking about earlier: Getting Class 3 out there, seeing how people play the game, and getting feedback from our player community will ultimately help guide us to make that decision.

Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with us, Jeff!