The Indie Ethos – An Interview with Project Zomboid's Developers
Indie gaming may not be for everyone, but an increasing number of gamers are discovering the creativity and variety developers can produce when the constraints of budgets, publishers and deadlines are removed. Mainstream games may offer the best graphics and polish, but are hampered by the fact they require an enormous amount of investment, making publishers extremely risk-averse when considering original ideas, and need large teams, diluting whatever originality even the most talented group can offer. It’s not all doom and gloom for gamers. As studios close when they fail to produce a franchise, and staff with new ideas are stymied by corporate policy, more and more talented developers are beginning to realise the freedom they can have when working alone or as a small team. I had the pleasure of talking to two such developers, known as Lemmy and Binky. Industry veterans, they are the (delicious) brains behind ‘Project Zomboid’ – a zombie survival game in which players must stay alive by crafting weapons, finding allies and improving their skills.
The pair have been working together for a decade, but only recently became independent. Unemployment came at a good time however, with both extremely frustrated with the dynamics of working in a studio and indie games reaching mainstream audiences thanks to the success of the likes of Braid and Minecraft. [Binky] “We talked quite early on about the possibilities of doing some sort of independent thing at some point. Took us a while to get around to it though. Thankfully, almost a decade later the financial crisis happened, the studio metaphorically exploded, and we figured now was the time to go for it.” The lack of opportunity available, despite the massive success of the gaming industry before the economy fell, or possibly because if it, led to many talented developers working in an unrewarding environment. [Lemmy] “We were obsessed with becoming designers at this company. Partly because we thought we’d do a great job. Partly because of the game designs we were working with at the time. Indie at the time didn’t seem like a financially viable option. As soon as it was, it’s no coincidence that I found myself outside the commercial industry quite quickly.”
The difficulties of working under so many limitations obviously takes a toll, and Lemmy and Binky are refreshingly candid about that experience. Their lack of creative freedom was clearly tough to handle, especially for a duo with a lot of ideas and a genuine drive to make them a reality. [Lemmy] “The only option we’d have had when working at a studio would be to ‘submit a design proposal’ with the game concept. In the larger studios I worked at this would be like throwing the design down a well, frankly. In the one me and Binky worked at together it wouldn’t have been a great idea, because somehow it would have ended up being the most terrible game ever made.” Being trapped in a studio under the remit of producers and publishers hasn’t just gotten to Zomboid’s developers either. [Binky] “It’s interesting how many Indie Studios you see popping up formed by ex-commercial games developers. It’s like it’s almost an inevitable conclusion to your career – screw this s**t, let’s make our own games. Friends of ours from the studio we were at have gone on to form Coatsink and Wildbunny to name just two. The nice thing about the indie scene is it’s the meeting point between those sorts of people, and the homegrown bedroom-coder sorts of people. It makes it dynamic (ugh, I think I’ve just said something a producer would say. Kill me now).”
The problem for developers who entered the games industry when Lemmy and Binky did, is that they grew up in a world of bedroom coders who could make a big hit alone thanks to the limitations of technology. Games have become far more complex, and what many saw game development to be was no longer the case. [Lemmy] “I had this vision of game development which was probably, at the time, quite accurate. A bunch of guys who love making games get together and make a game they want to make, then they sell it and make money. Studios like Sensible Software, for example, inspired me a lot.” This model all but disappeared with 3D, though the bedroom coders themselves did not. Indie games have, in a sense, grown from those who wanted to make their own game, rather than exist in a specific role on a larger team. [Binky] “Who wants to work on a tiny slice of something massive when you could work on a massive slice of something small? When I was little, I wanted to make games, not be a mesh-triangulation engineer.”
For those who did enter the industry, the shift to big-studio production was jarring, their creative passions had to be curtailed in order to satisfy the desires of publishers, producers and what the public was assumed to enjoy. This is antithesis to the bedroom coder, and what has become the indie, ethos, and created a barrier between players and developers. [Binky] “Obviously some publishers are brilliant and lovely, and that’s great. But it’s still an extra step between you and the people playing your game. These are the people who are supporting you, it makes sense to have an open dialogue with them rather than being stuck behind the impenetrable wall of a firstname.lastname@example.org e-mail address.” Studios and publishers are run with the primary intention of making a profit, and as development has increased in cost, that profit has become more difficult to achieve. It’s little wonder they look to proven commodities in order to make the money needed to finance games, but it can have a negative effect on the developers in their employ.
This profit-driven approach leaves the passionate creators without an opportunity to do what they intended – make the game they wanted to play as gamers. [Lemmy] ”A friend of ours once got his post-nuclear apocalypse design he submitted at a large well known publisher studio turned down because ‘post-apocalypse games don’t tend to sell well’. This was a couple of years before Fallout 3 was released. Even if your idea does go through, there’s this extra level of authority and bureaucracy that’s not even in the same time zone as you a lot of the time. And this authority is rarely looking at some clear artistic vision of a game, even if their marketing department and PR spokesman would suggest they were. Their legal departments will pick over everything, their marketing departments will want to convey this or that image, or are desperate to reach this demographic, or capitalise on the popularity of a recent blockbuster. You may have all the most creative people in the world in the studio itself, but there isn’t a direct link between them and the gamers, everything goes through the machine.”
Indie development offers no such limitations. For Lemmy and Binky it offers more than just a chance to make the games they want the way they dreamed of as kids, but also to discuss their work with players directly. Project Zomboid is currently in an early development state, with production based on gamers donating to the project in order to fund its creation. Once the alpha is ready it will be released and the game updated regularly from there – the same system used by Notch for Minecraft. Anyone with an interest can donate a mere £5/$8 and will have ‘free updates for life’. It may seem risky, but indie games develop a community who can contact the developers directly and with communication and transparency comes a lot of good will and generosity. [Lemmy] “The obvious drawbacks, from our recent and very public experience, is that sometimes you just don’t have the money to continue doing it full-time. But as we discovered, the gamers are generally tripping over themselves to support the indie game industry. Probably because they want something a bit different and left-field to Codplops 54 and Guitars of War sometimes.”
[Lemmy] “I think it’s an incredible system, and it’s like one of those ideas that seem so obvious in hindsight. The beauty is it has appeal for both the developer, and the customer. I paid for the Minecraft alpha, and the striking thing I discovered was how excited I would get at the prospect of an upcoming update that would add one or two things to the game. The thought that you have a game you enjoy now, and over say, the coming year, that game is just going to improve and improve, and Notch could just add one single new block type in and provide his customers with hours of new entertainment. As well as this, obviously it’s of massive help to the developer. Not only because it allows them to live during development of the game, but it keeps them at the grindstone when they are accountable for people buying their game and getting impatient about delayed releases. Best of all, though, it makes game concepts that simply would never be deemed safe or manageable… safe and manageable. As long as the game can be structured so that it can be released early and developed from there, the sky is the limit to the ultimate ambition you can hold onto for it.”
Both are extremely enthusiastic about being able to incorporate player advice and criticism into development. [Binky]”We have our own ideas on where things should go, obviously, but we’re really keen to incorporate as much feedback as physically possible. This is what Indie games are all about. You’re not just buying a game for your money, you’re helping develop it.” It’s a refreshing way to produce a game, and really gives players a feeling of being part of the process, which in many ways they are. They are the investors, the testers and the customers. It makes perfect sense to include player’s interests, to some degree at least. The model has its risks of course, and it was used primarily because Lemmy and Binky found themselves out of money to fund what was a secret project, intended to be announced when it was playable. It relies almost completely on the good will of players, and without a very appealing concept and a lot of luck, could lead to a wasted effort. Whether it is a sustainable model for funding development is debatable.
[Binky] “It’s worth a shot at least. It’s certainly funded the next month or so, so far, and given that we’ve only released a few screenshots we’d like to think that the number of donations / sales will rise in the future. What we can also say, is that we had our minds completely blown by the level of support we received. As well as donations for the game, we had people offering server space, site design, all sorts. It would make us weep if we weren’t really manly, and that.” It seems that gamers are more than willing to support a project that resonates with them, though Binky is a little more philosophical about it. [Binky] “Maybe people are more willing to donate to a developer when they have a mental image of the poor sods sat in raggedy clothes hunched round an open fire. Is it a pity thing? Or is it simply about the game? Or are gamers just incredibly supportive of Indie games generally? I don’t know, you’d have to make a poll.”
While the game did appeal to many, some were quick to write it off thanks to the sheer number of zombie-influenced games released recently. It’s an understandable criticism, and Zomboid’s creators don’t disagree, rather they want to offer the experience they feel has been lacking from mainstream zombie games. [Lemmy] “We have, of course, received a fair few comments along the lines of ‘oh zombies again ffs’, and they’re right really. This isn’t, at all, an original idea for a game. It’s not even a hard idea to come up with, and we’re sure thousands of gamers and developers alike have wanted to make this game. It’s simply that despite all the time the zombie rush has been on, no one has ever actually made this kind of game in a way that’s really satisfied us. Probably because, with traditional development processes, it would be madness to undertake all of that.”
Obviously they are passionate about the project, and when mentioning their influences it’s clear they are huge fans of zombie movies. This love for their subject material is shared by a huge amount of gamers, so it’s little wonder they’ve received support for the project. [Binky] ”Pretty much everything with a zombie / infected / mutated thing in it has inspired us in some way whether it’s in an “ooh, that’s cool” way like, for example, the zombies freezing and later thawing out in World War Z, or in a “let’s not do that” way like… well… running zombies.” [Lemmy] “This is our ultimate homage to all of zombie lore. Except Diary and Survival of the Dead. We’re explicitly banning any game-play features or references relating to either of these films. Well we would, just out of principal, if Diary of the Dead didn’t have a hospital in it, as they are kind of important. There’s just something inherently cool about [zombies] and there are a large portion of people who, despite being well aware they are being over saturated still can’t resist the zombies.”
What makes Zomboid different to more commercial offerings is that its creators find themselves in the unique position of being able to include any and all the ideas they want. Retro gaming has grown in popularity as the medium gets older and Zomboid has a real retro appeal to its graphics. It looks a bit like a cross between The Sims and X-Com, which is no bad thing, particularly when it allows the game to include elements that would be too complex in a modern title. [Lemmy] “Only an indie game with a total disregard for demographics, or impressing with flashy 3D, and no worries sharing a graphic style with a 15 year old game, and most crucially, one that can continue developing the game potentially for a decade, can really strive for that full picture.” It’s this ethos that has allowed indie games to grow in popularity, a desire to create a great experience brimming with content, ideas and fun, rather than a simple game that just looks great. Certainly, Lemmy and Binky have no desire to work within the limitations of a studio again anytime soon. [Binky] “If Project Zomboid goes well, I can’t envisage any reason why I would take a job working for somebody else again. That’s the sort of thing I’d do if everything goes wrong.”
All signs are good. Support for Project Zomboid from online communities has been tremendous, particularly considering that the game is yet to be released in any playable form. The unexpected level of interest even managed to overload the server where Lemmy’s blog is stored. [Binky] “We didn’t anticipate having the server explode due to traffic, for a start. That wasn’t good – we were both sat up all night desperately trying to sort things out and create workarounds. We finally got a few hours kip at about lunchtime and I think we both may have gone a little insane at one point. But generally, the vibe has been warm and fuzzy and lovely. People really seem to care, it’s amazing – and it really motivates us to deliver the best game we possibly can for them. We won’t let them down – we can’t – we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves.” Despite being jaded by their time in the commercial games industry, the pair seem genuinely in awe of the positivity their game has garnered. [Lemmy] “It’s been: heart in mouth amazing, butterflies in tummy, “this makes the first ten years worthwhile”. That’s all there is to say about it really.”
There have been a few criticisms of both the game and the financial model however. Many fans are turned off by the lack of multiplayer. The success of Minecraft was partly down to its brilliant community spirit, which spilled over into the game’s multiplayer mode. Many individuals have set up dedicated servers just to play with friends, and with some Minecraft influence on Zomboid, it seems natural to assume that multiplayer is a possibility. Binky has addressed this on his blog, but it remains uncertain whether we will see multiplayer, and in some ways, many of the random elements (particularly interaction with NPCs) may not work when other players are involved. [Binky] “It’s definitely something to look into once all the structure, gameplay mechanisms, and a decent amount of the art is in place since we couldn’t have multiplayer without those same things in place anyway.” The other criticism is that Lemmy and Binky have simply jumped on the Minecraft bandwagon, but Lemmy dismisses this, saying [Lemmy] “One person commenting on our game said something that really stuck with me: ‘That’s good. Not for the zombie game, but the more developers adapt this kind of payment for development the easier you can use it yourself without being called a Minecraft copycat.’ which I think is bang on right. People are way too quick to cry ‘bandwagon’.” It’s hard to disagree, and clearly these are not developers just in it for the money.
Lemmy and Binky are buoyed by the massive support they’ve received and with indie gaming growing in strength, they may finally be able to do what they dreamed of – create the game they want without any compromise, and without spending most of their money on advertising. [Binky] “We’re hoping that the community that builds around our game will do most of our marketing for us. The internet has gone so nuts with all its social networking that buzz can spread in all manner of unpredictable directions.” It worked for Minecraft, which won PC Gamer’s coveted game of the year award in 2010, and the indie games appearing on PSN, XBLA, WiiWare and Steam have shown that they can compete in terms of quality with mainstream titles. It looks like indie gaming is here to stay, and by tapping into many gamers desire for something new and unique, developers like the pair behind ‘Project Zomboid’ should continue to innovate and give players something they have never, and likely will never, experience in a blockbuster game. In all their years being frustrated, they never lost their drive or creativity, and haven’t forgotten the importance of player input on their games. [Binky] “It’s essential – the player character is unlikely to move without some sort of key-press or mouse-click.” They don’t seem to have lost their sense of humour either.
The Project Zomboid community forum can be found here.
You can read/contact Binky and Lemmy, and donate to Project Zomboid’s development (£5/$8 will give you access once it’s ready for release and all future updates) at their blogs: