H1Z1 starts out simple. You have your fists. You’re in a world full of zombies. You have to find other survivors and stay alive.
There’s no automatic weapon hanging from a nearby tree. But you could find an ax, chop the tree down, and craft some crude arrows from it. But watch out: The zombies will come for you once they hear you chopping. And that’s the way Sony Online Entertainment wants its latest massively multiplayer online game to begin. The zombies aren’t terribly smart, but they’re relentless. And you have to team up with other humans (and avoid the people killers among them) in order to survive.
In a world full of post-apocalyptic zombie games, SOE hopes this beautiful and persistent 3D world, which looks like a small town region in the forests of Oregon, will be different. To announce the game, Sony held a marathon session on game-streaming site Twitch, and it started a direct conversation with gamers on Reddit. It will test just how community-minded gamers are. They can band together and survive in hand-crafted fortresses or die separately.
We had a chance to jump into H1Z1 at a recent press event and then talk about it with senior game designer Jimmy Whisenhunt.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Were you part of the Twitch reveal?
Jimmy Whisenhunt: Yeah, I was.
GamesBeat: I heard John Smedley talking at the Game Marketing Summit about that. We did an interview with him about — it was a first, where he had never gone straight to Twitch before.
Whisenhunt: Yeah, we went straight to — we hadn’t said anything, and then John’s like, “Hey guys, Twitch stream, let’s go!” It’s exciting. Players feel like they’re important to us, and they are. They get to spread the word on their own and tell us what they want from it.
GamesBeat: Did you get a sense of how wide a reach you got out of that, how many people you heard from?
Whisenhunt: It was mind-blowing. It was really surprising. I couldn’t use my phone for a good hour, because of Twitter notifications. I didn’t expect it. It was really cool. It spread like wildfire. We’re happy with the way it worked out. The chat was going so fast that we had to slow it down, and we still couldn’t keep up with it. We had to say we’d only respond to questions through Twitter, because the chat was just way too fast.
GamesBeat: The medium has to keep up with the size of the crowd.
Whisenhunt: Yeah. We stream on Twitch, we watch there, and we said, “OK, try tweeting to a hashtag so we can sort through things.”
GamesBeat: How long had you worked on it to that point?
Whisenhunt: It’s kind of hard to say. This team came together — I was on PlanetSide 2. Then this idea came up. It’s hard to say. We looked at a lot of different ideas. The team’s been growing for a while now.
GamesBeat: Was it a matter of months, or were you active for more than a year or so before you went to Twitch?
Whisenhunt: Really active development started — it’s been months as far as the full-on development. We’d been working on the idea for a while, though, just concepting everything out while the team was growing a little bit.
GamesBeat: Do you think that you would have as much player creation in this game as you’re trying to do with Landmark, or are you stopping short of that same — is it a game that’s being designed, as opposed to a player-created game?
Whisenhunt: It is a little different. We’re not using the voxel tech. Players will be able to affect the world and craft things, but within more boundaries in our game. They won’t be able to blow up terrain and stuff like you can in Landmark, but that’s imperative to our game. There needs to be a certain rule set there, so players can interact in a somewhat predictable way. It’s still going to be pretty unpredictable. But players can build houses. They’ll be able to take down a whole forest if they want to. They’ll be able to barricade up a house. That sort of thing.
GamesBeat: How did you decide how much resource to put in the game for players? How much stuff lying around?
Whisenhunt: It’s a constant tuning process. We want it to be scarce, but that depends on how the players react, how quickly they find things. We’ll dial it back or push it forward. We know that we want it to be scarce, as far as resources like trees and things. We have a lot of self-containing systems. Once again, wolves will kill deer and so on. We just push forward and dial back that number as we need to. It’s going to be a little rough to find some of these things, which is a big part of the driving force of each play session.
GamesBeat: What if I say I’m not going to play unless I can spawn in as a Call of Duty super-soldier?
Whisenhunt: This game’s probably not for you, then. You can get there eventually.
GamesBeat: This is a free-to-play title, right?
Whisenhunt: Yeah. Initially we’re going to Steam Early Access, though, and that will cost a bit.
GamesBeat: Have you figured out what people could buy, then? What’s appropriate versus what people would get mad about if you could buy your way forward?
Whisenhunt: We’ve had some heated debates over it. We went to the community and said, “What do you guys see that doesn’t affect the hardcore aspect of the game?” We have our own ideas there. We’re looking at things like cosmetics, or the possibility of a game mode that players would want on top of it. We’ve looked at anything that doesn’t affect your ability to survive. We don’t want to sell food or bullets, or even clothes. They might have cosmetics, but they’re not going to make you warmer if it’s cold. They’re not going to save you.
GamesBeat: You start with exactly what is in your hands?
Whisenhunt: You start out with your fists. You can go box some zombies if you want to. You also get an axe and a torch right now. We’re playing with the idea of removing the torch, because we find that players just set everyone on fire. You maybe shouldn’t be able to do that the second you get into the game. But it’s a limited set. It’s the tools you need to see, and the tools you need to start your crafting and defend yourself a bit.
GamesBeat: What are some players thinking as far as how much time it should take to build some of these things? Like a barricade or a weapon. Some people would get a kick out of that, I think, and some people might get bored.
Whisenhunt: There will be different tiered systems. If you get really good with a bow and arrow, it’s going to be relatively easy to craft that as opposed to a house. Maybe you’ll want to steal someone’s house, if you don’t feel like doing that work. You craft that bow, wait for a guy to peek out the window to see what the noise was, and then break down the front door and take his house.
But there will be multiple tiered systems. I don’t expect us to put a massive house in-game within the first couple days. People are going to take some times to build these larger things and affect the world in that way. But there will be plenty to do in between. We want to make sure that each time you log on, you progress your character in some way. You do feel better because you got that bow and arrow, or maybe you tried to make friends with a guy, he tried to kill you, and he had a bunch of stuff you needed. There will be a lot of ways around it.
GamesBeat: When players are getting together, what are you noticing? Are they forming clans or groups?
Whisenhunt: We’re not sure just yet. We’re going to Early Access here in the next three or five weeks, something like that. Beyond that, within the internal dev team, it’s funny, because this is the first actual game that we’ve had that was so hardcore like this. We have art directors banding together. I can hear them yelling across the office. So yeah, people are usually finding friends pretty quick. We already have villains in the office that people yell at after playtests.
GamesBeat: You can play around with the size of the groups, then? Will we have 25-person clans or 100-person clans, or not even very structured clans?
Whisenhunt: We have support from PlanetSide 2, which is exciting. PlanetSide 2, you could do squads all the way up to maybe six people, platoons up to 50, and then outfits — really, those numbers are arbitrary. We can tune those very easily. We’ll go into Early Access without putting any of that in a box and see how players band without the binding system of guilds and clans and all that. If they need it, we’ll turn that on for them.
GamesBeat: Can you gift things to other players? Like, say, give something to everyone in your group?
Whisenhunt: As far as the things you purchase? Yeah, we want to be able to do that for players, absolutely.
GamesBeat: How sophisticated are you expecting it to get? If someone’s been playing for a year, will they build a city or something like that?
Whisenhunt: It’s a possibility. They could just go nuts and have this massive town. They’ll have to be really dedicated, because it’s a shifting world. Not only in the way of, it’s raining, there’s fire, someone catches things on fire, zombies try to tear it down — if they manage to do that, that’s awesome. I hope someone does it, because then they become the target of the whole server. Let’s take them down now.
GamesBeat: At any given time, are there 10 zombies for every human, or something like that?
Whisenhunt: It’s hard to say what the numbers are. They’re going to be dying a lot. Zombies will die and they’ll pop up in different places. But as a player, you’re going to need friends. Sometimes you’ll run into 10 or 20, and you don’t want to do that alone. Unless you have an automatic weapon, which is going to be incredibly hard to come by — even in that case, I don’t think you can kill them all fast enough. You’re going to need friends.
GamesBeat: It sounds like it’s going to be fun when there’s large groups, or lots of things to do. At the outset, does it seem like it’s the pioneers that are going to have fun, as opposed to — you can’t just walk into a vibrant zombie world, I guess.
Whisenhunt: Yeah, groups, large groups — in beta we’ll figure out what players are going to do. One thing we’re very much into is consequence. If you do have friends, that’ll help you out. But if you get that group up to 20 people, you guys make a lot of noise and you all need a lot of food. I have a feeling some people might manipulate other people into backstabbing and taking each other’s food. It might trim the group size a little bit. But that’ll be fun.
GamesBeat: The zombies are drawn to all that noise, then?
Whisenhunt: Yeah, very much so. The larger a group you have, you have to chop down more trees, hunt more animals, make more noise to do that. The zombies will notice and come to you guys. You need to be careful.
GamesBeat: What would make this really successful from your point of view?
Whisenhunt: Scale. One of the biggest things for us is, we love this game. We are really excited for it. Seeing what we can do with our engine — most of us worked on PlanetSide 2. We’ve seen what we’ve been able to do with it. Knowing the features that we can turn on to be able to handle the number of players, to handle this massive combat — we’ve been seeing how many zombies we can put in the game. It’s unparalleled. It’s going to be awesome.
GamesBeat: Are you going to try to tell a story here, too?
Whisenhunt: It’s going to be a more passive story. As you run around, you’ll kind of see how things happened. You see a wrecked car sitting there, right? Maybe the wrecked car went off a bridge. Why did the car go off the bridge? You go down the road a bit more, maybe you see there was a camp there and they were trying to escape. We’ll tell stories through the way the world is built.