What if I told you that Zombie Studios would be a key developer for the PlayStation 4 within its launch window?
Blacklight: Retribution was part of the opening salvo of free-to-play games on the PS4. The ambitious Daylight is the first Unreal Engine 4 game to come to PS4 and it looks as scary as it does stunning. 2014 could be a banner year for the Seattle-based developer who has actually never made a zombie game. It also happens to be the team’s 20th anniversary this year, says Cassie Dull, community manager for Zombie Studios. The team has been around the block in those 20 years developing numerous military shooters like America’s Army, Spec Ops, and dabbling in a little bit of horror with the SAW series.
But it isn’t just the games that make Zombie Studios so important to the PS4. The studio has been integral in porting Unreal Engine 3 to PS4 after having to update it for the newer technology, also fully embracing digital distribution. “As a company, digital download is something we are all about and we feel strongly that is the way of the future,” says Dull. The success of Blacklight, Daylight, and other indie digital download games should only help ease gamers into the digital future. Going full digital allows developers to support, maintain, and update their games easily for gamers.
I have been wiping the floor with the competition on Blacklight: Retribution. That’s why I feel it’s time I confess. I saw Blacklight: Retribution at PAX Prime 2013 and I blew it off. I wasn’t necessarily against free-to-play, after all, Tribes: Ascend handled it well. Zombie’s Blacklight demo was unfortunately overshadowed by Killzone Shadow Fall. I had zero interest in this game, even after giving it a quick glance while waiting for the Killzone line to die down. Besides, all I could really think about was how another FPS with mechs just overshadowed everything that weekend.
Fast forward to the PS4 launch and I felt that same giddy buzz back when the original PlayStation released back in 1995. Battlefield 4 has had its problems. Call of Duty: Ghosts is exactly what it was always set out to be, just another Call of Duty game. Killzone was more impressive as an overall package than I thought it would be. All of those games couldn’t hold my interest, yet, I have logged more hours into Blacklight than any other PS4 game. It keeps me coming back through the post-launch draught. How does this free-to-play indie first-person shooter manage to keep my interest amongst a bumper crop of AAA first-person shooters? Dull says it best, “The most important thing in a game is to ensure that the core mechanics (movement and gunplay) are solid and well executed.” That’s why Blacklight speaks to me. As I mentioned in my review, the gameplay mechanics are streamlined and the controls are spot-on making for a game that rewards player skill.
While free-to-play can be an intrusive thing, Zombie’s model works well because it doesn’t force the player to think about money. I don’t feel beholden to paying for weapons and gadgets to have a good time. Giving a player total customization of character loadouts and weapons is paramount to the Blacklight experience, and the best part is, the player doesn’t have to pay a dime to compete. “The balance of time and monetization are factors and we don’t want to bleed the players."
In the meantime, the studio is prioritizing getting feedback from players and prepping the full retail release of Blacklight: Retribution while also developing the upcoming Daylight.
So how do you go from developing a military free-to-play FPS to a rather ambitious, procedurally generated survival horror game on PS4? Jared Gerritzen, studio director at Zombie Studios, just needed to tap the right friend who just so happens to be a horror writer that’s into exploring abandoned and creepy places as a hobby. You might have heard of current host of the Nerdist News, Jessica Chobot. A conversation sparked an idea, and the next thing you know, Zombie and Chobot are collaborating on a survival horror game. “We partnered with Jessica Chobot, who is a writer in love with the horror genre, to give our environment a storyline and the design really took off from there.”
Zombie had no fear in blazing the trail of development with UE4 on PS4. “You don’t have the opportunity to learn from what other people have done before you. However, you do get to spend a lot of time exploring cool new features and tools long before anyone else has,” says Dull. The recent “Don’t Look Back” trailer not only shows off Daylight’s impressive graphics, but also gives a small taste of its psychological intensity. Daylight takes cues from previous survival horror games that emphasize survival over action and throws a wrench into the works by randomizing the levels in every playthrough. “We knew we had something special with Unreal Engine 4 and the ability to procedurally generate levels, so creating a horror game was a natural choice for us."
Survival horror is on a comeback thanks to recent PC hits like Amnesia, Slender, and Outlast, so hopefully Daylight can fill the survival horror void on consoles. All of those games feature a similar premise — the player is stuck in a darkened environment with only a light source as your weapon against the shadows of the unknown. Zombie’s intent was to limit player resources in order to create that same immersive atmosphere and environment that preys on players’ fears. In other words, the team wants the horror in Daylight to get in your head. “You wake up in an abandoned hospital as Sarah, with obvious connections to your surroundings, but it’s up to you to figure out what those connections are and get out safely.” The unpredictability of each playthrough will showcase the game’s strength, which is fear of what awaits you around every corner.
What’s in store for Zombie Studios after Blacklight and Daylight? The company is teaming up with SG North on a stylized third-person F2P shooter called Phantom Army. The announcement trailer shows footage that looks something like a cross between Counter-Strike and Team Fortress 2. Dull says Zombie has been hard at work on Phantom Army and more news is forthcoming later in the year — as well as other projects in the works that just aren’t ready to be talked about yet.
I’m looking forward to a full retail rollout of Blacklight: Retribution and to be scared out of my wits by Daylight. Zombie Studios is set to celebrate their 20th anniversary in a big way on the PlayStation 4. Whether it was by design or not, the studio is an important piece of the PS4’s young development.
“2014 is shaping up to be an exciting year for our studio,” says Dull.