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SOE's Jimmy Whisenhunt on the paranoia and potential of H1Z1


What's more dangerous to your survival after the apocalypse: undead abominations or your fellow humans? OK, that's certainly not a new question in the zombie gaming genre, although it's not going to stop H1Z1 from asking it. In fact, there's a haze of extreme familiarity that's settled around this title, even though it's the first full MMO on this scale to tackle a zombie survival sandbox. Is it almost too familiar for its own good? Will that familiarity be an asset or a drawback? Is SOE merely trying to cash in on the DayZ craze without trying much new? Or are these assumptions blinding us to the grander plan?

To get a better feel for H1Z1, we got on the phone with Senior Designer Jimmy Whisenhunt. To start off, Whisenhunt gave us a quick summary of the game for those who aren't clued in to the whole. H1Z1 is a post-apocalyptic survival MMO that's more focused on physicality than stats. So instead of needing to level up, you'll find your initial challenges will be things like foraging for food, finding a shelter, building a campfire, and getting your hands on a weapon because everything wants to kill you. And when Whisenhunt says "everything," he means not just zombies but the environment, infection, weather, wildlife, and even other players.

Life after people

"H1Z1 is telling a survival story," Whisenhunt explained. And in the quest for survival, you'll need to make a lot of tough choices, including whether to trust or fear other players. SOE is unapologetically making a "hardcore" title with plenty of potential for player killing, looting, and property destruction, but the devs expect (or perhaps hope) that the mutal need to survive will bind players together instead of drive them apart. If one player gets sick from eating bad food, for example, he or she might come to rely on fellow players to help obtain medicine -- and one good turn deserves another.

Using a subset of the emergent AI that will be used in a far more robust way with EverQuest Next, SOE will unleash H1Z1's non-player characters (both living and undead) to figure out the best way to accomplish their own needs and find ways to frustrate the best-laid plans of mice and men. Zombies associate noise with food, so they'll be attracted to anything that makes a sound, whether it's a chatty player who speaks too loudly on voice chat or a deer bolting through the bush. Shut a door on a zombie's face, and that ghoul might shamble around to the back of the house to find another way inside.

While the game will mostly be concerned with players telling their own story with the sandbox tools, the team has created a sort of backstory to various places and the larger events of the past using environmental objects and art. One of the big influences of the look of the game came from the TV series Life After People that showed what civilization would look like when left untended.

Scrounging what they can find, players will either use discarded gear or fashion their own to stave off death for another day. Weapons from machetes to rifles can be used for defense (or player-killing offense), wood can be fashioned into barracades, and entire homes can be built from the ground-up. Of course, considering that player structures can be burned down or destroyed, one would be advised not to get too attached to one's abode. SOE is even mulling over some sort of "natural" way to get rid of player ghost towns and abandoned structures after some time has passed.

Development by committee

H1Z1's team is definitely embracing an open stance to its development process, showing off the project-in-progress while soliciting feedback from the community. I asked if the team is concerned that too much community "advice" might railroad more level-headed professional decisions; Whisenhunt told us that not only do the devs love to listen, but they're good at picking the useful parts of player ideas out while discarding what won't work.

Without stats, very little will be carried over from one player life into the next, other than perhaps the knowledge of how to create certain items. A couple of the interesting ideas that the team is contemplating are the abilities to either play as a zombie for a short while after death and having to find your now-zombified past self to get your gear back.

Much of the game's featureset will be toggleable from SOE's side. Whisenhunt mentioned several times how the team has control over adjusting and tweaking various elements and rules in the game and how throwing something in or taking something out is as easy as "flipping a switch." This flexibility will come in handy for the proposed player servers and any alternative rulesets. He mentioned that the team could, for example, reduce zombie HP but make them faster on a server or greatly reduce the damage that players do to each other. A little change can make a huge impact, which is why the team will be doing a lot of experiments with them come early access testing.

I asked if SOE is trodding on well-worn territory with the whole zombie angle. What H1Z1 offers that other titles don't, Whisenhunt explained, is a truly massive sense of scope, both for a constantly expanding landmass and the number of people who can fit on a server without requiring instances or loading screens. It'll be a big game world at launch that will only get bigger over time.

SOE is adamant that the monetization of H1Z1 keeps its hands off the "survival core" of the game, which means that primarily cosmetics will be up for sale. One possibility might be the option to purchase game modes, although as with most of what was talked about today, it's a "maybe we will, maybe we won't" proposition.

Oh, and if you thought that H1Z1 is an awkward name to mention over and over again, Whisenhunt admitted that many team members have taken to calling it (unofficially) "Hizzy" around the office. Somehow that nickname doesn't seem as hardcore as the game warrants, but when you have a zombie gnawing off your face, it will take a backseat to everything but survival instincts.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

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