World of Warcraft co-creator and MMO veteran Jeff Strain has unveiled his ambitious new project: a zombie-survival game for Xbox Live Arcade that will start out as an open-world action title, but then later evolve into a massively multiplayer online game.
Codenamed Class3, it's being developed by Strain's Undead Labs studio with Microsoft Game Studios handling publishing duties.
The game sees you play as one of the few humans left standing after a zombie outbreak decimates the planet. In true undead apocalypse tradition, you'll need to band together with other survivors in an attempt to stay alive.
However, unlike, say, Left 4 Dead or Dead Rising, the focus will not just be on dispatching wave after wave of brain-hungry mutants.
"This is not going to be a game about running through the streets shooting zombies in the head," studio founder Jeff Strain told Eurogamer.
"There's going to plenty of that, just because that's fun, but that's not enough for us. The key for us is to capture that zombie survival aspect of the world and really answer that question 'What would I do?'"
You'll choose where to make your stand, then design and maintain your settlement, raid stores for supplies and rescue other playable survivors.
Whereas the game will initially launch as a largely offline third person open-world action game, Undead Labs long term strategy is to nudge the IP towards MMO territory.
However, Strain – who was formerly lead programmer on World of Warcraft and founder of Guild Wars studio ArenaNet - told Eurogamer that he's keen to side-step the MMO tag.
"You'll notice we didn't use that word anywhere in the press release," he pointed out.
"The mission of the studio from the very beginning was to take the very best aspects of what we call 'online world games' - and of course that includes MMOs on the PC side of the fence - and really bring that home on console platforms in a way that was very much designed from the ground up, by console gamers for console gamers.
"If I say the word MMO you immediately think of World of Warcraft, and we're really looking at doing something very different from that. We wanted to distill it down to its very essence - we now call it an 'online world game'."
It's an unusual release strategy but Strain insists its the best way for Undead Labs to serve its audience.
"First and foremost we're going to focus on getting a tight, refined game experience that really captures the zombie survival experience," he explained.
"Then we'll use that as a platform – a design platform, a technology platform and most importantly a feedback platform from the people who are actually playing the game - to evolve it into a full online world game."
Strain was cagey on a release time frame, but confirmed the initial game would not be ready this year. Once stage one is complete, the shift to full online status will be even further down the road.
"One of the reasons we're doing this two step process is we want to get the game into your hands a lot more quickly than what we would otherwise have been able to do if we were taking on the full online world to begin with," said Strain.
"One of the things we get to do with Class3 is put all the plumbing in place to make sure we can rapidly scale from the open world game that is Class3 to the online world game that is Class4.
"Our expectation is that by building on the Class3 platform - in terms of the world, the gameplay and the technology - it will take about half the time to create a full online world than it would traditionally take starting from scratch."
We'll have more on the game in the coming week or so, but in the meantime take a look at the early concept art below and revisit our 2009 interview with Strain for more hints about what Undead Labs has in store.