Eurogamer: The MMO genre is always changing, even in the games themselves. What's exciting to you about the industry today?
Jeff Strain: The real new frontier for MMOs - and this is something you'll hear from almost any MMO developer - is true impact on the world, a truly dynamic world. Everybody has their own spin on how that's going to work, but if you're going to move beyond level grinding and if you're going to move beyond the grafted-on mechanics to keep players coming back based on some kind of need to see a number go up - to really keep them coming back because they're excited about what they're going to do next and they're having a good time. The only way we're really going to accomplish that is by building worlds that truly and honestly dynamically adapt to what the players are doing. You have to feel like you matter. You have to feel like you're making a difference. That's where we absolutely have to go. And certainly with this game that is rule number one and absolutely central to the design.
Eurogamer: Are you moving beyond level grinding?
Jeff Strain: I'm not going into details about the game right now. Philosophically, levels do serve a purpose. They give you a visual and mathematical indication of your progress through the game. As a goal in and of itself - if you find yourself building a game where all of the mechanics and all of the reward structures are designed around increasing your level - that is ultimately shallow, and a bad way to design.
Eurogamer: Are you making scary zombies or comedy zombies?
Jeff Strain: There's an inherent humour in zombies. Some games get this right and I see some skew off towards more horror or Gothic-creepy. For an MMO in particular that's not the direction I want to go. It is a fine line; it is a fine line between horror and slapstick. Zombies are not slapstick, and if you make them slapstick then people are going to lose connection with the world, lose their sense of purpose - it has to be a credible and meaningful threat.
But - and we were talking earlier about this guilt-free meat-puppet - there is a guilty pleasure, a guilty humour, in the way you interact with the zombies. If I find myself spending a little bit of extra time to construct a trap for the zombies that are going to be invading my town that night, so that not only do they fall under but the pit catches on fire and then there's a truck that falls on top of them - then that's funny, right? I can see myself as a player, even though it doesn't really buy me anything, I can see myself going for the style points there.
Eurogamer: Can I be a zombie in your game, Jeff Strain?
Jeff Strain: Ah! Again not talking about specific mechanics but I will tell you that as a player I would sure love the opportunity to play as a zombie from time to time. I wouldn't be at all surprised if we included that in the game.
Eurogamer: And will you then be accused of influencing children to go outside and eat people?
Jeff Strain: Oh! That's a whole big ball of wax that we'll tackle when we have to. Look, it is going to be an M-rated game, we're not going to sanitise it and make it something for your eight-year-old. There's always issues when you do that. But boy, this is a zombie game, you know? You don't go to see a zombie movie and expect it to be rated G and the same thing could be said for this. We have to be true to the genre.
Eurogamer: Are you going to be class-based?
Jeff Strain: That's a level of detail I'm not going to talk about at this point.
Eurogamer: There must be PVP in your game! How does it work?
Jeff Strain: Ha ha. Without going into specifics, I'm not sure there will be, other than if there are times when players can be zombies - there may be some PVP there. The fundamental conflict in this world is humans versus zombies, and I don't see us violating that in any way.
Eurogamer: "Times when players can be zombies"! That sounds like Left 4 Dead, where players take turns as different types of Infected and they play against the Survivors. Are you doing that - am I on the right track?
Jeff Strain: You're thinking about it the right way.
Eurogamer: And when you mentioned rebuilding towns and rebuilding society, were you explaining the craft and trade side to the game?
Jeff Strain: Absolutely. Rebuilding towns and holding them against the zombie menace will be an essential part of both the economic backbone of the game and the character progression portion of the game.
Eurogamer: I assume guilds will feature, one way or another. Will they be able to control whole towns or cities?
Jeff Strain: Yeah that's a level of detail I'm not prepared to talk about.
Eurogamer: How long has Undead Labs been working on this game?
Jeff Strain: Ha ha. Unofficially or officially?
Jeff Strain: I personally have been working on the core concept and core design spine and all this since shortly after I left NCsoft.
Eurogamer: How does it compare to Guild Wars - were you dreaming of that a long time before you left Blizzard to found ArenaNet?
Jeff Strain: A large part of the reason I left NCsoft was because I needed to return to my developer roots. Certainly the notion of a console-only MMO, and the notion of some genre other than fantasy (leaning towards the zombie genre because that's something I'm personally fascinated about) had been kicking around my head at the prototype stage for a long time.
Eurogamer: What sort of development cycle are you looking at for your zombie MMO?
Jeff Strain: MMOs take a long time and they take a lot of resources. Just to manage everybody's expectations: this isn't something you're going to see next Christmas or the Christmas after. Beyond that though it starts to get a little fuzzy, and I won't be any more specific than that.
Eurogamer: And, er, who's bankrolling the game?
Jeff Strain: That's not announced at this time.