For XBLA's fastest-selling new IP, State of Decay is oddly easy to dismiss at a glance. A glance will tell you that it's a zombie masher with a photorealistic aesthetic, that runs on sturdy but hardly mind-blowing proprietary technology.
A glance won't, however, tell you anything about all the variables that help the game transcend its secondhand premise. It won't tell you about what to do when a friend gets caught in a zombie-infested barn, miles from home. It won't tell you about how to manage your community so that not everybody's exhausted, wounded or clinically depressed at once. It won't tell you how to put down a Feral on your lonesome.
For more on all that - and for more on the game's first title update, which appears to have caused more problems than it resolved - we spoke to the developer's Sanya Weathers and Jeff Strain. The interview that follows is an "unholy mashup" of their responses.
Looking at how people approach State of Decay, is there anything that surprises you - any particular weird and/or wonderful quirks of survivor behaviour?
What we hoped for, but didn't expect, was the emotional involvement people have with their survivor communities. The genuine attachment takes people by surprise, but instead of getting mad that their favourite character died, the players come back for more. That's been wonderful.
I wouldn't say it's weird, but it has been fascinating watching the players stand at the intersection of pragmatism and idealism. "This survivor is a psychopath, but he's a great shot. He could murder us in our beds one of these nights but in the meantime he makes everyone feel safe." Making hard decisions for the greater good, when there's no clear right or wrong answer, isn't something most of us have any real experience with.
One of the biggest surprises to us was the size of the survivor communities players have been able to build. During three months of round-the-clock QA testing on two continents, the largest community our QA testers were able to build and sustain was about 25 survivors. We used that number as a guideline to tune several design and technical systems.
That guideline did not survive impact with the law of large numbers - we've seen players building communities in the low and even mid 30s! We had to make adjustments to the game to account for the ingenuity and tenacity of our hardcore players.
The point being that if a thing can be done, players will find it and do it... and we want them to. There are a lot of systems in the game, and testing every possible combination is mathematically impossible. So our community is even now discovering new ways to use distraction devices, explosives, and the different kinds of survivors to trigger elaborate zombie killing strategies.
Are there plans to expand the building and strategy aspects of the game more with future updates - perhaps giving people the opportunity to set up shelters wherever they please, rather than in certain buildings?
Free-form building would be more than an update - very nearly an entire rewrite of the base building system as it exists in State of Decay! The underlying system depends on a set structure with available nodes. One never knows what will be possible in future games, of course, but I think in State of Decay, buildings-where-you-please won't happen.
That said, it's certainly possible to add strategy elements to the game. The game is built on a sophisticated simulation engine - we call it FateEngine - that is used to drive game events by modeling a giant conflict of Humans vs. Zombies. It's similar to an RTS AI, in that it is designed to respond to player actions and changing world conditions.