The last time Jeff Strain founded a new company and made a new game the world ended up with ArenaNet and Guild Wars. But even before then Strain was a name to be reckoned with, having been a lead programmer on World of Warcraft and instrumental in StarCraft's and Diablo's development at Blizzard. He's what can be described as MMO royalty, and he has ripped off his NCsoft suit to reveal his spandex developer costume once more and flown off to found Undead Labs. Better still, he's decided to make a console MMO about zombies. Zombies.
And so far that's all we know, or all we knew until we pounced on Strain and forced him to tell us more.
Eurogamer: Jeff Strain, you are a very successful man. Why? [Wow. "Hardball." -Ed]
Jeff Strain: I've been very fortunate. Whatever my own skills and qualifications are, I've been very fortunate to be surrounded by incredibly talented people. There's a lot of industry royalty out there - luminaries - who have great ideas and strong vision but these projects are too large to be the product of any one person's skill or talent. First and foremost that has to be said. But, you know, your ability to attract high-quality people is absolutely pivotal to how successful you can be.
I really do think it's a willingness to do things differently. Some companies make a success of taking existing formulas and polishing them to a bright sheen and that's a great model. That hasn't been the path that I've taken. I've always believed in innovation and been willing to live that and stand by it. And hopefully this new endeavour that I'm about to launch is just another example of that.
Eurogamer: Are Blizzard one of those that "polish to a bright sheen"?
Jeff Strain: Well, I certainly think they are a great example of a company who makes their business doing that, yeah.
Eurogamer: You mentioned surrounding yourself with a strong team. Who have you dragged along to Undead Labs? Why should we trust that you will make something special? You must know some big names.
Jeff Strain: Ha ha. Well I can't mention any names at this point but you can expect to see announcements about that following shortly.
What's going to make Undead Labs special? That's very easy for me to answer, because what makes it special for me is the focus on making a zombie MMO. There are lots of zombies fans out there. I think it transcends your run-of-the-mill fantasy interest. People are passionate about zombies - and this is, to tell you the truth, the reason why I'm even talking about it at this point, about what kind of game I'm going to make, because normally when you start a studio you're very tight-lipped about that. The reason I'm talking about it is because I want zombie fans. I want the best developers in the industry that love zombies to want to work here and be part of this, because it is exciting, it is innovative and it's going to be something special and new. That, more than anything else, is what's going to make Undead Labs a special place to work: that focus and that culture.
Eurogamer: Are zombie fans the right audience for an MMO - don't they simply want to run around blowing limbs off?
Jeff Strain: If you think about MMO in terms of a traditional template, which is largely defined by its genesis and existence on the PC side of the wall, then I think that's a very legitimate concern. But when you say "making a console MMO", to take that template and just port it over is exactly the wrong thing to do for exactly the reason you point out. It's not so much a function of zombie fans as it is console gamers. Console gamers have expectations about how they can play the game. If I'm playing any kind of zombie game on a console, I don't care what the genre, I certainly expect to be able to pick up a golf club and start swinging it, there's no question about it. That has to be there. I'm not going to deny the essential nature of console games in the zombie genre.
But what you can wrap around it that really makes it compelling as an MMO universe is more this notion of post-societal collapse: the whole world is now your playground and your mission is inherently to work with other surviving humans to rebuild society, to retake your home town and hold it from the zombies and try to recapture what was good about the world. That's something that you don't normally get in your classic zombie corridor shooter, even though those can be fun - that social element is missing.
Eurogamer: Why are zombies more popular than elves?
Jeff Strain: Ha. I wouldn't say I believe zombies are more popular than elves. Zombies have a larger penetration in society but there's no question that fantasy has been an enduring and very powerful genre. My concern about making a fantasy game at this point is that it's been done; it's been done a hundred times. We've told those stories, we've explored those universes, we've spun variations off of core Tolkien canon so many times. What's happening is that the more we try to come up with new fantasy universes, the more we're having to be esoteric about how they work and what the mechanics are. The great thing about the zombie universe for an MMO is that it's largely unexplored territory.
The reason zombies are so powerful and transcend fantasy is because right now they are the modern, societal guilt-free meat-puppet. We've been through the Nazi phase, we've been through the communist phase, we've been through the terrorist phase. Those were all at various times in history fair game in the gaming culture. Right now zombies are fulfilling that need for us. That no-rules, no-guilt mentality is something that people really resonate with.