Jeff Strain's State of Decay is getting a sequel. He tells Chris Schulz how his "risky" video game got out of control.
When Jeff Strain released State of Decay in 2013, he thought he'd be lucky if a handful of people played his zombie apocalypse survival game.
Despite several key differences, it was one of many zombie games already swamping the market.
"We didn't know if 20 people agreed with us, or 200 people agreed with us, or 2000," says the founder of StudioLabs and creator of the Xbox 360 game.
So how many people ended up playing it? "Five million," he proudly declares. "We were absolutely shocked. Within 24 hours, the game went live and we crossed 800,000 copies."
For a developer who had spent four years quietly toiling away on his dream game, the moment was "surreal ... your feet don't touch the ground. It's an amazing feeling."
Next week, Strain delivers the game's sequel, and today, unveiling the game to select media in a basement Sydney bar, he seems surprised he's got to this point.
In an interview with TimeOut, Strain explains his surprise comes from the fact that State of Decay, and its sequel, don't follow basic video game rules.
Despite being set in sprawling open worlds decimated by a zombie apocalypse, killing the undead comes secondary to more mundane matters, liking making sure your team of survivors has a decent shelter and is getting enough food and rest.
"It's not a 'spend 10 hours and have an adrenaline junkie kind of experience and move on' kind of game," explains Strain. "It's an investment. The more people play it, the more they're invested, and the more layers they peel back on the depth of the simulation. It's very deep."
Secondly, and even more problematic is that thanks to those angry zombies, players can die very easily. "You just don't do that. It's game design 101," he says, citing data that says players who lose their favourite characters leave the game.
But Strain knows he's found something people want - a pure survival experience. Killing off their favourite characters is what makes it real.
"What we're trying to capture is that real essence of surviving the apocalypse, and not in a 'make it to sunrise in the shopping mall' kind of way," he says.
"We know that to make a game that truly captures the feel of a survival fantasy, and that gives you that sense of threat and risk-taking, it has to happen."
State of Decay 2 includes many new developments, improvements and add-ons, but they've come with their own set of problems.
Strain explains the five-year development like this: "Normally when you make a sequel, you get to stand on your own shoulders and start where you left off. In terms of where we wanted to take this game - long-term support, DLC, overall visual fidelity - the engine we had wasn't going to cut it. We had to rebuild all that core infrastructure. So that was a lot of work."
He believes it's been worth it. "It gives us the ability to grow the game over time, with new game modes, new experiences in a much more sustainable way. This is our passion, this game is our baby, We want to give it that support, to grow it, nurture it, long-term."
The sequel's biggest improvement is the addition of multiplayer options. Now, players can team up with real players and take on survival missions together.
Strain says it's something he's been dreaming about since State of Decay's early days.
"It was hard to release the original game without multiplayer. I've been liking multiplayer games my whole career. We knew that was going to be the beating heart of the experience."
Strain believes that heart has been the key to State of Decay's success. Yes, there are zombie thrills and brain splattering spills, but they're not the game's focus.
"There are lots of great zombie games, we were certainly not the first," he says. "But we believe we were the first to give you the tools to put your own survival plan into effect."
That means State of Decay 2 gets better the more you play it. "What you're doing is building a thriving community full of people who are happy to be alive, not just living through this miserable apocalypse," he says.
Strain says making the game has taken its toll, and he admits spending unhealthy amounts of time thinking about an apocalypse. But that, he believes, is what makes it so popular.
"If we're still building State of Decay games 10 years from now, our goal is to deepen that fantasy with each successive iteration, give you more tools, a more realistic simulation, more of an ability to drop you in an apocalypse and say, 'Okay, you think you're smarter than everyone else? Let's see'."
Who: Jeff Strain from Undead Labs
What: Zombie survival sequel State of Decay 2
Where and when: Released on Xbox One on May 22