SOE Live 2014: H1Z1 is a full-fledged survival experience

With an event like Zombie Prom, it was hard not to notice a certain undead theme at this year's SOE Live. That's all courtesy of the studio's upcoming apocalyptic survival game H1Z1. And thanks to plenty of panels, interviews, and the keynote, we learned even more about the game: The new sandbox is so much more than a zombie shooter; it's a full fledged survival experience. There were even opportunities for fans to nab some hands-on playtime.

We had the chance to mix and mingle with Producer Steve George, Senior Game Designer Jimmy Whisenhunt, Art Director Bill Yeatts, Technical Director Tom Schenck, and Game Designer Adam Clegg to discuss where H1Z1 came from, where it is going, and how far it has gotten. Delve into the new air drops, the heat and temperature systems, and so much more. We've also embedded the full keynote panel for you.

Where did it come from?

With most of SOE's titles having a decidedly fantasy flavor, where exactly did the idea for this new title come from? H1Z1 was actually born from a research and development group that was exploring new ways to use the studio's Forgelight engine. Whisenhunt even shared that he thought he was fired when he was "called to Smed's office and shoved into a room with no windows while we were doing some prototyping and R&D stuff."

After the genre of survival game was settled on (which everyone was very excited to put his own spin on), the team fleshed out other particulars. Next the team focused on the type of development model; instead of remaining behind closed doors for years, the team opted for getting the community involved quickly. Whisenhunt stated, "We'd rather treat it like an indie project and collaborate with the community."

How far has it come?

The devs say the game could technically allow a large influx of players in right now and folks would have fun. However, the team is aiming to make H1Z1 an experience that players come back to over and over again, not just dive in once then move on. George noted, "We're SONY Online, so we have a certain level of quality we like to achieve before putting a game out. And the fact is it doesn't go out until we are happy with it." He also said there is a checklist in the office that they check every day, and when they get through that list, then the game will be ready to release to the public. That point, while not here quite yet, is definitely getting closer.

While the game is not quite ready for the eagerly anticipated early access, folks could hop in and check it out right at the convention. In fact, there was a timed event to see how many could survive for 15 minutes. Hint: Not too many did! Still, there was plenty of PvP, player vs. zombie, player vs. wolf, and even player vs. tree action to be had. And there's more that folks have to look forward to.

One of the coolest reveals was the new air drops system. In a nutshell, an aircraft goes by and drops a package (that coincidentally has a high rate for rares). Players will hear and see this from a long way away -- will they go for it and risk life and limb at the hand of others? This feature introduces a new dynamic and is a way to drive player interaction, be it conflict or even collaboration.

The tech panel also presented a demo of using a hand-made spear to catch fish. As would be expected in a survival game, players will have to eat while they are online to keep themselves alive, and fishing is a way to do that beyond just berries.

Other highlighted systems include heat and temperature. H1Z1 supports heat mapping, and zombies are attracted to heat. That means not only your body heat but things like the campfires you build will serve as a bright beacon calling to zombies. The upcoming temperature system will force players to take the weather into account; if it gets colder, they'll need to dress more warmly or freeze. In that same vein, if it rains, it will put your fire out.

Player housing of a sort is currently in the game. Players can acquire and fortify a base of operations in one of three ways: take over an empty structure, build one, or take a place from someone else. Currently large structures can't be designed and built by players (that's a possibility in the future), but each individual apartment in an apartment building can be claimed and inhabited by players. The decay system for this housing was also recently implemented; players can loot a place to a degree only until the decay reaches certain point. Buildings as a whole cannot be destroyed, however. It could possibly happen, but the team members emphasized that they'd need to ensure that landmarks are safe from player demolition crews, especially since visual landmarks are how folks navigate in game, not maps.

What about lore in the game? The focus is on the personal story that players walk away with from your play session with, stories like the one that Whisenhunt shared, in which a dev he killed during a stream got back at him in an epic way. He said,

"He went and crafted a landmine (which I should preface this that he is one of our crafting designers on the project). We didn't know there was a landmine in game, and so he then placed a landmine in the middle of all of us... and KABOOM!"

It was so loud and such a surprise to the others that Clegg even thought something happened outside the studio!

Where is it going?

Because of the emphasis on collaboration, the direction that the game heads from here depends heavily on the community -- but not totally! Obviously the devs can't listen to and implement every single thing players clamor for; as Whisenhunt quipped, "They don't listen to everything I say!" But what better way to come out with a product that consumers actually want than coupling player opinion (feedback) with the player data collected in game (what they are actually spending their time doing)? This combination will give devs informed answers because no one wants to invest a lot of time into systems that just have to be ripped out a year later because no one enjoys them. Whisenhunt emphasized, "In the survival genre, it's very very important to get the basics right."

Early access will be the means by which a large group of players can provide feedback; the devs need lots of players to test lots of things. When early access does arrive, players will have plenty to do and experience, but they need to understand that the game will definitely not be a finished product they are giving a spin ahead of their peers. Instead, early access is just meant to get players involved. Devs have described it as a vertical slice of the game that provides players a starting point. The direction then depends on the feedback as the team molds the development to how players want it, including such things as what kind of rules they want on a given server. Players who participate in early access need to be prepared for things to not work -- and for character wipes.

Beyond getting players involved, the team has a vision for the sandbox that ultimately entails a very hands-off approach. "We want the game to live and breathe without our direct intervention," said Whisenhunt. This philosophy is illustrated even in how new recipes will be introduced to the game: The devs have stated that they'll let players know there are new ones, but they won't share what they are. Players will have to experiment by putting stuff in the crafting window and discover that for themselves.

Another key aspect of development is that the game be hardcore but still accessible to players. In other words, the game should be challenging but not difficult; choices and skill should determine success, not ability to decipher the systems. Whisenhunt explained it succinctly, "If you make a wrong decision, you are punished." And high risk should also equal high reward. Players should be dealing constantly with the feeling that their actions will have definite consequences, wrestling with "should I or shouldn't I?" Do you fight the wolves and make noise that might draw zombies closer, or do you avoid confrontations with wildlife? Do you befriend those humans over there, or do you attack them and pillage their supplies? (Note that such actions have far-reaching consequences, as player accountability is ingrained in the game; player names will be account-wide, so no matter which type of server you select or how many times you die and have to reroll, you will be known as you). These are the constant situations that players will have to face, and their answers will very much affect their gameplay session. Tied to this is the sandbox nature ensuring that each play session will be different.

And a final note on where H1Z1 is going: to the PlayStation 4!

The list goes on

There's so much more to H1Z1 than even all this. Here are some additional tidbits about the game:

  • Players can make traps.

  • Zombies don't ever despawn, so you can make a trap with one of them (like lure one into a jail cell, then lure a person in).

  • Players don't spawn on top of each other when starting but won't be terribly far apart; friends will need to use geographical clues to find one another.

  • NPCs are restricted to wildlife and zombies; all the people you see are other players.

  • The team is looking into guild mechanics but wants to keep it simple; they're looking at bringing squad and outfit mechanics from PlanetSide 2 into the game.

  • Players will also see vehicles, both motorized and not.

  • The team is still finding the sweet spot for both the player and the undead populations; the game can actually support thousands of players and "more zombies than is fun to have."

  • Navigation is still under discussion, be it a crafted compass or whatnot.

  • The world is ever-expanding. Players can expect a bigger landmass eventually than the initial 64 square kilometers at launch.

  • Yes, female avatars are coming (and then female zombies).

  • More zombie models are planned, as are different types of zombies that will behave differently and have other skill sets. All will still be trying to eat your face!

  • So much variety is available in server rulesets. Examples: No guns, everyone vs. zombies PvE, no wildlife but 4x player population, etc.

  • No mod kids! All servers will be officially hosted -- that means more security and more stable servers.

  • Players can add personal touches through Player Studio.

  • Devs are discussing game modes like shorter play sessions.

  • What do people want? The team promises to poll all players, not just the vocal minority.

What happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas, at least where SOE Live is concerned! Massively sent intrepid reporter MJ Guthrie to this year's SOE Live, from which she'll be transmitting all the best fan news on EverQuest Next, Landmark, H1Z1, and the other MMOs on SOE's roster.