Almost exactly a year ago a zombie game I work on, Project Zomboid, had a setback. A burglary, a code loss and a PR meltdown that cost the game's development dearly - and would cover the team in a blanket of depression that it would take months to recover from.
We got back on track, but amidst the storm it was little emails of encouragement from our players, peers and a few of our idols that helped the most. One came from Valve. It was an email sent from the desktop of Left 4 Dead's Chet Faliszek. It started with the line 'I have a little story to share with you' and now, with his permission and participation, I'm going to share it with you too.
It was 1992 - in days long before Old Man Murray, and even the proliferation of the internet itself. Chet had returned to his native Cleveland after a spell in New Orleans, and was working alongside future collaborator Erik Wolpaw. Their jobs were in data processing programming, and it was dull work. What kept them sane was leading a double-life.
At night they, and their friends John and Pat, were game developers. Their magnum opus was to be Zombie World, a dial-up BBS game: a hilarious ANSI textual descent into the darkest recesses of their minds. Imagine a game that looked like Zork, infused with an early stab at multiplayer as well as Chet and Erik's trademark wit.
"It was endless gobs of jokes - which I guess actually ended up prepping us for what we'd do later."
"It didn't make a lot of sense," sighs Faliszek, when we meet up in a crowded Starbucks to rake over the coals of The Great Zombie World Robbery. "You went down to Hell and fought zombies. But then, it wasn't really Hell. It was a place where everyone who'd ever died was there in zombie form." Not exactly zombie canon then? "Well, I don't know why everyone in the afterlife would be a zombie. But… shut up! That's how it worked!"
"We'd just make up tons of weird content," he continues. "All the famous people who'd ever died had funny descriptions, along with all these strange weapons. It was all text, so if you shot someone with a 'wooden phaser', we'd write it so that you'd hit with 'three splinters' to inflict four points of damage."
"There was a Hall of the Dead Presidents, so you could go and fight all the dead presidents. Even then we loved the idea of, say, giving you a boombox. If you found a CD you could put it in and play it; but if you played the CD taken from the dead person that was by them it would be different. You could put together all these combinations: we'd love to wonder what would happen next. You almost didn't want to get rid of any gear, in case that gear would do something weird somewhere else."
"It was endless gobs of jokes like that - which I guess actually ended up prepping us for what we'd do later. In the writing for Left 4 Dead there's a bunch of stuff that only plays in weird circumstances, with only certain people around and for a certain percentage of times. That definitely is still carried through."
Zombie World and its endless encyclopaedia of strange weaponry, like the fabled Prehensile Water Buffalo Tongue, was in development for a year and a half. Every day the foursome of programmer-writers would slave away at their real jobs from nine to five, and then move on to Hell-based frolics in the evening.
"We'd rented this crappy little office up in Cleveland Heights. It was the diviest of dive places. At the time we thought it was kinda safe," explains Faliszek. "It was totally filled out with people, and we were the weirdest people there. We thought that if something bad was going to happen, we'd be the ones that'd do it - not someone else!"
"I'd go home from work, ride my bike over to the office, get some beer from the local store, and start working on the game until eleven at night. We'd be unproductive, but that would be okay because we worked another job full-time. Erik also had his 3DO and we were playing Road Rash - we'd play that forever and we'd have the longest Street Fighter battles. Pat was a big metalhead and he'd often dictate the music. Once everyone in the building had left it'd just be this death metal..."
"I'd go home from work, ride my bike over to the office, get some beer from the local store, and start working on the game until eleven at night."
While catastrophe brewed off-stage, an in-game story developed that would see Brandon Lee ask the player to descend into Hell to fight against the zombie version of his father Bruce. The real world, clearly, would soon knock this storyline off-kilter. "Yeah, Brandon Lee's death kind of took the wind out of our sails," says Faliszek. "For a nonsensical story to begin with, that's barely holding onto any sense, its grip had been totally lost. We couldn't have a zombie sending you down into Hell. We were at a confusing stage."
Everything went genuinely wrong when Thanksgiving 1993 came around. The team were away and Erik, a natural early riser, came in first at the tail-end of the weekend. He discovered that the office had been ransacked.
"All the computers had been stolen," sighs Chet. "Everything was gone. Hardware, back-ups, hard-drives… everything. We'd been working on it for a year and a half. It was a lot of work. It was painful. Devastating. There was no starting again after that."
In fact, the only thing that wasn't taken was a Crazy Climber arcade cabinet. Erik had taken his 3DO home with him, so Road Rash was safe, but it was little consolation. Grown men wept. It was the end of Zombie World: the team were broken and would never go on to recode it. That said, its story wasn't quite over.
An entire 18 months played themselves out while the pain from the burglary and the sudden curtailment of Brandon Lee's adventures lingered. The police had done nothing. Suspicion started to rise, however, around a potential culprit: the guy from the office across the corridor. A man who, fatefully, was "kinda weaselly lookin'" by Chet's estimation.
He, like the team, was a coder who wrote data processing programs in FoxPro. "He was bad at it too. Just to point it out..." underlines Faliszek. "The guy was NOT a good programmer. He'd show us stuff, and Erik would drive him crazy because he'd start correcting him - it was so badly thought out. Every so often he'd be working late, so he'd come to our office and drink beer."
It was one of the team's friends, a valiant hero called John, who did the detective work and set up the sting. "There was some weird hard-drive that was on one of our systems," explains Faliszek. "He called the weaselly guy out of the blue with a fake name and said: 'Hey. I heard you sold hardware. Do you have this really strange drive?'"
The weasel, of course, had that exact same strange drive. John had been supplied with all the parts numbers and security codes for the missing components, and so the police were called back into action. The boys in blue lurked in the shadows, and made the arrest at the hard drive hand-over. Due to his prior offences, the thief ended up serving two years in jail. Any trace of the game code, however, was long-gone.
"Everything was gone. Hardware, back-ups, hard-drives… everything. We'd been working on it for a year and a half. It was a lot of work. It was painful."
"This guy totally befriended us and took our stuff," mutters Faliszek, with a degree of finality. "He knew exactly what he was taking, and he knew how hard we worked. You've got to be in a bad place in your life, to do that to people that you're friendly with."
Zombie World threatened to rise again when the internet started to roll and Chet wrote a brief demo of the zombie fighting aspect of the game in Java. Sadly, it would never go beyond Erik playing it - but it did result in Chet owning the internet domains of ZombieWorld and UndeadInternational. The biggest thrill this would give the pair was to see their listing of Undead International in the local phone book - beyond that there was never a threat of reanimation for this particular long-dead corpse.
Over the years that followed Chet and Erik would create the iconic gaming site Old Man Murray, and beyond that frolic the green pastures of Valve. It was here that, finally, the iconic zombie game they'd always threatened to create came about.
"When we saw Left 4 Dead for the first time, when Mike Booth [of Turtle Rock studios] was showing it to us, we were just so excited about it," recalls Faliszek. "The next day Gabe was sitting down to lunch with us, as he often sits down and talks with random people to see what's going on. We were just in love, and could not stop talking about it. So he sent an email, and he said: 'Go and work on that, if you want.'"
You already know what happened next.