Interviews: Epicenter Studios - Rock of the Dead
Posted by Zach Kaplan
House of the Dead meets Rock Band meets Neil Patrick Harris. Thoughts and new screenshots revealed
Sometimes, a game comes along that makes you say "Why didn't I think of that?" – right after you marvel at how cool it is, of course. Rock of the Dead, the upcoming title from independent studio Epicenter, is just one such game. Imagine, if you will, an experience that combines the zombie-blasting mayhem of House of the Dead with the strategic framework of Guitar Hero, breathing new life into both formulas in a more fun-looking way than we've seen in years. Then, just for fun, top it off with the vocal talents of Neil Patrick Harris. No, you're not dreaming.
Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with Bryan Jury, Creative Director at Epicenter Studios, as well as get our hands on what he told us are some of the first screen shots of the game to surface since February. We talked extensively about the development of the game, what's different about the Wii version, why they chose to use horizontal measures and why it's so much fun to shoot zombies.
Nintendo Life: For those readers of ours who are unfamiliar with Rock of the Dead, please explain what this title's all about.
Bryan Jury: The quick way to break it down is that Rock of the Dead is a first person on-rails shooter where players get to use their existing guitar controllers to defeat all sorts of enemies taking place during a fun and campy sci-fi/horror story staring Neil Patrick Harris and Felicia Day, and at a budget price. Win-win!
NL: Going out on a limb, we'd guess that your main influence is Typing of the Dead. What were some of the team's other influences and why do they strike a chord with you?
BJ: Absolutely right with Typing of the Dead. I was pretty blown away by the pure fun factor of Typing of the Dead when it first came out. The concept of turning something mundane like typing into a core gameplay mechanic was pretty out there, but it totally worked. Of course we also looked at the other music-based games out there, old and new. Sure, Rock Band and Guitar Hero rule that stage these days, but PaRappa the Rapper and Rez often came up during design meetings. In fact, we had to have a “put a dollar in the jar” thing going on early in development anytime someone brought up Rez. All those games were absolutely great, but we didn’t want to just rehash something that had been done before. So while there were a lot of inspirations, we really wanted to try something a little new.
NL: Wii owners might know you from your past releases on the system, Real Heroes: Firefighter and the WiiWare title Critter Round-Up. There's quite a bit of difference between the games in your catalogue, and perhaps the most drastic, at least in tone, is the shift to Rock of the Dead. Why such a big shift? Or is there more in common between these than meets the eye?
BJ: We’ve got a pretty great mix of talent here at Epicenter, and though we got a couple newer developers right out of school, the majority of the studio is made up of people who spent years at larger developers making games that, well, got stale. I personally spent over five years at Activision, most of my time spent on the production side of the Call of Duty franchise. And while that was an absolutely amazing experience, how many more times do I have to shoot a Nazi? Of course it’s fun to shoot Nazis, but when we started Epicenter, we decided that we wanted to take what we knew and put a spin on it. Critter Round-Up took the classic gameplay of Qix and made something different. Real Heroes: Firefighter embraced the traditional FPS genre while replacing killing people with saving people to create a non-violent but still high-action game. And with Rock of the Dead, we’re again taking elements that are familiar to many gamers and reimagining them.
We often joke about wishing we’d work on a game where you just shot dudes in the face because that’s something we know how to do already. But nope, instead we make a game when we only have a part-time programmer on the staff (Critters), an experimental non-traditional enemy (Firefighter) and guitars as weapons (Rock).
But the real common ground between all our games is that they are fun. We might not be able to afford the fanciest graphics or the latest in physics systems, but all our games are in the service of giving the player a fun time, and isn’t that the reason why we play games?
NL: What's the deal with zombies anyway? Why are they so frightening and fun to kill?
BJ: That’s a great question, and I would be willing to bet most of your readers, like myself, find themselves fantasising a little too often about what they would do in a zombie invasion (the only right answer being to barricade yourself in a mall, of course). While I do think there are some legitimate societal concerns that give life to our interest in zombies, I think a lot of it also comes down to the fact that this is an enemy we actually have a chance to defeat. They are (often) slow and (often) not very smart. And what humans lack in numbers, we make up for in ingenuity. My biggest complaint about most zombie movies is that it’s usually a human that screws over the other humans, so clearly we’re the biggest threat to ourselves, right?
NL: There's been a good deal of innovation over the years from the traditional mould, from the crimson heads of REmake to the entranced villagers of Resident Evil 4. Do your walking corpses hearken to those we've known and loved since Night of the Living Dead, draw on recent innovation or innovate the formula in their own way, and why did you feel that it was important to go this route?
BJ: In many ways our zombies are much more of the traditional variety. While the reason they have been brought back to life will be discovered through the story, I think it’s fair to say we were mostly inspired by the classic Romero zombie as well as the fast-as-heck 28 Days Later infected. Our zombies are there to do two things: swarm and attack the players, so we decided to keep them simple. You certainly won’t see a zombie stop and contemplate what fireworks are (that’s not too obscure, right?).
Each zombie’s motivation depends on what we need them to do. If we wanted to really harass the player, you’re going to see a dozen zombies running your way, and if we wanted a slower-paced, more strategic section, you’re going to see some shambling zombies stumbling their way towards you. Of course, we might be tossing in some smaller speedy guys, so you’ll have to choose your targets wisely.
One of my favourite lines in the game spoken by the player character (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) is his chastising some running zombies, telling them to “be a Romero zombie or no zombie at all!”
NL: What other enemies will players face in Rock of the Dead, and why did you choose to include them?
BJ: Players will face off with a pretty large variety of enemies including mutated insects and the hordes of undead. There may or may not be an ongoing alien invasion as well. Ok, there actually is an ongoing alien invasion, but you didn’t hear that spoiler from me.
And then we’ve got ten or so boss battles where players get to face off against generally enormous enemies; one of the earlier bosses we had nicknamed Trailersaurus Rex and there’s also a giant arthropod (I’ll wait while you look up what that is).
NL: Does Rock of the Dead utilise the instrument set-up in any musical or rhythmic way?
BJ: Absolutely. While we don’t consider Rock of the Dead to be a traditional music/rhythm game (it’s more of an act on/twitch game with musical elements), each level has multiple sections where you’ll be playing to the music in note-tracked sequences. These are often used for larger enemies and really help change the pace up. It’s also really fun to play some of these complex classical pieces on your guitar, especially on the harder difficulty levels. Makes me wish Rock Band or Guitar Hero would come out with a classical version. Actually, don’t tell them about that idea…
NL: How many levels will there be total?
BJ: There are a total of 28 levels through the campaign with another handful of bonus unlockable “survival-type” levels. It seems like it takes the average player about five to seven hours to play through the whole campaign, though there’s a ton of replayability. There’s dozens of art unlockables to find, you can upgrade your shield and blast super-powers and Thrasher difficulty is something that’ll be a fun challenge for most players. And then there’s all the tasty co-op play…
NL: Will players be able to utilise the drums as well as the guitar?
BJ: The Wii version is guitar (and Wii Remote) only. I understand that this is probably disappointing to Wii drum owners considering that the PS3 and 360 versions have drum support, but like everything else, there is a reason. Basically the Wii handles controllers in a way that’s incredibly different than the 360 and PS3, which are essentially simple USB devices that the consoles immediately recognise. Because of the way the Wii recognises controllers, anyone who makes a third-party controller has to write their own code to get the controllers to talk to the console, code which they then own the rights to. And since we’re not making new controllers for this game, it was something that was just out of our hands.
NL: Did you ever consider using the microphone as a controller for Rock of the Dead? Why in the end did you decide against it?
BJ: The real answer is that with our limited resources, we really wanted to make sure the guitar experience was going to be as great as it can be, which didn’t leave us any time for other instruments. Having said that, we often kidded about getting a very simplistic microphone feature, mostly just to piss off some parents. But if we’re lucky enough to get to do a sequel, it’s something that is at the top of the wish list, for sure.
NL: How many can play Rock of the Dead at once? Will there be online play available?
BJ: We’ve got a really fun two player competitive co-op mode for Rock of the Dead. This is couch co-op only, one reason being the whole limited resources thing. But the other reason is that this kind of game, to me, just isn’t as much fun playing with someone you’re not sitting next to. We feel that the local couch co-op option in gaming seems to be getting more and more rare, which is kind of sad since playing with a buddy sitting next to you is often the best way to play most co-op games.
I’m very happy with the way our co-op turned out. Even though both players are working together, they can also steal each other’s kills and points which is why we call it a competitive co-op. There’s just this sense of controlled chaos that I haven’t seen in too many other games that especially comes to life in co-op. Even after working on this game for the last year or so, I still have fun playing it.
NL: Games like House of the Dead are generally seen as solo or arcade-style experiences, whereas Rock Band fits in better at a party. Which type of experience are you going for with Rock of the Dead?
BJ: A little bit of both really. There is a pretty lengthy story to play through with plenty of things to unlock, we put some real effort into the writing (we were lucky to get one of the lead writers of The Witcher, Anne Toole, to pen our script) and there’s a lot of great voice acting. But we also broke the levels apart into smaller, bite-sized chunks of gameplay so players can go through a fulfilling eight minutes or so section of the game then hand the controller over to someone else to continue playing. The second player can also drop in at any time.
And because the levels are broken up into smaller pieces, it encourages a lot of replayability. There are four different difficulty levels, each with their own stat tracking. One of the cool features is that each player can play on different difficulty levels, so no one should ever be left out because of their skill level.
NL: What were some moments during the development of Rock of the Dead where light bulbs went off, moments integral to the evolution from idea to game?
BJ: Like I mentioned before, even though guitar games and on-rails shooters had been made before, combing the two was a very experimental process in many, many ways. Our measure system, the small chunks of notes players play to defeat the enemies, was one that took us a long time to get right. We would post an ad in the local Craigslist for gamers to check out the game, and some of those early play test sessions were very painful to watch. And we would do this pretty much every week, getting the measure system better and better. Finally at the end, we would just put the guitar in the player’s hands without telling them anything, and within 15 seconds they were playing away, which was a great success. We actually had to pull the guitars out of some hands after we needed them to stop playing, which was kind of a nice problem to have.
One of the other moments that sticks out to me is when we were trying to decide what the music was going to be. Again, limited resources so we weren’t going to have a bunch of licensed songs (also, that wasn’t the game we wanted to make). So we sent our audio guy Bret away with the task of coming up with something cool. A week later he comes back, has us sit down and he pushes play on his computer, and out comes this really badass, rocked-out version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (you’ll know it if you look it up). And then we placed it in one of the graveyard levels, and it just worked. It was a great moment for us.
NL: Rock of the Dead features the talents of The Guild's Felicia Day and, excitingly, Neil Patrick Harris. Please elaborate on how Rock of the Dead utilises their unique charms and talents and why you chose them for the game. How did they respond to Rock of the Dead and being cast in it?
BJ: First of all, we’re just such huge fans of Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which is probably obvious from our voice actors. We feel like we got incredibly lucky with the two of them. They were our absolute first choices for the roles, but you just never know if they’d be interested in doing it. And both of them have such huge followings that we wondered if they’d even talk to us. They both told us that they get a ton of offers to do video games, most of which they turn down, but that they were both really intrigued by the game’s concept, and they were interested!
And they were absolutely awesome to work with in the studio. Both of them are true professionals, they nailed their lines perfectly. We had some cool actors in our Firefighter game, notably Buffy’s James Marsters being awesome to work with, and I was personally geeked out to work Jenette Goldstein (Vazquez from Aliens), but working with Neil and Felicia was certainly one of my career highlights.
NL: Some journalists have mentioned the horizontal orientation of the notes as a downside or, at least, a challenge in orientating oneself to Rock of the Dead. How do you respond to this? Has a vertical orientation been implemented, or would this be a change for the worse?
BJ: This is a totally understandable first reaction. After all, we’ve been trained over the last six years (and roughly 324 versions of Guitar Hero) that vertical is how these types of games are played. And we knew that we’d get some flak for going horizontal, but there are a bunch of reasons why we went in this direction.
We often get 12 or more enemies on-screen at any time, especially if we really want to swarm the player, and you just couldn’t fit that many horizontal measures on the screen without making your head explode. It’s funny too that this concerns some people considering that some of the earliest music-related games, namely PaRappa the Rapper, had horizontal measures. Oh, and don’t forget sheet music is actually horizontal too, the original music game!
Really what it comes down to is that we never intended to make a Guitar Hero or Rock Band knock-off. Yes, the horizontal measures look different and may throw players off a bit at first, but this is a new game and it’s a new kind of challenge. We’ve seen everyone from absolute hard core Guitar Hero players to people who had never played a guitar game before just get it after a couple of minutes of playing.
NL: You've recently sent over some screen shots of Rock of the Dead. What are some of the major differences between these shots and the images that people might have seen of the game before?
BJ: We’re actually really excited to get these new screenshots out there, as the last time we had Wii screenshots was back in February. Since that time we’ve been able to bring a lot of the environmental improvements from the PS3 and 360 versions back to the Wii, and we’ve adjusted the overall colour and texture palettes a bit to better take advantage of the Wii hardware. Finally and most obviously we’ve given the character models a nice sprucing up with a crisp cel-shade look. We really like how they pop out of the environments and give the Wii version a different feel than the PS3 and 360 versions. One other aspect we’ve improved is that the game runs at a really nice constant framerate, though I do suppose that’s tough to tell from screenshots, huh?
NL: What are some of the things of which your team is the most proud in creating Rock of the Dead?
BJ: Two things come to mind immediately. The first is just being able to create something new that becomes a really fun game. We started with a simple concept of using the existing guitar controllers in ways that hadn’t been done before, and through a lot of trial and error and successes and failures, came up with a game that everyone here is very proud of. There are a lot of games out there where you shoot some dudes in the face, but we wanted to create something different and take some chances, and I think we succeeded in making a game that is pure fun.
The other thing I’m very proud of is just making it this far. It’s no surprise to anyone following the gaming industry that times are tough, with lots of studios closing on a weekly basis. And being a small, independent studio, we just don’t have the resources to either make mistakes or always provide a comfort level for everyone here; that’s just the nature of the business, now more so than ever. And while there were some ups and downs, the team never let it affect them. They focused on making as great a game as we could make, and I’m really proud of the team for putting that kind of trust and faith in the project. And I think the game shows that trust and faith when you play it.
NL: While other systems will see a release of Rock of the Dead this October, the Wii version has been delayed until next year. Can you elaborate on the reasons for this delay?
BJ: First of all, I have to say that there is always a reason for things happening the way they happen. I’ve seen on a number of sites where very passionate game fans are saying that we screwed over the Wii, or something along those lines. And I feel for them, I really do. While I can’t go into a ton of details, which are rather boring by the way, just know that the Wii version was never abandoned or cancelled or put on the back burner. In fact, the Wii version is going to have improvements over the 360 and PS3 versions since we’re getting some extra time to finish it off, and we’ll be able to take player feedback from the released versions.
I do expect the Wii version to be released in the first month or two of 2011, so Wii owners won’t have to wait too much longer. Trust me, we want it out there as soon as possible too!
NL: Are there any plans for a release outside of North America?
BJ: We’re concentrating on a North American release first, Oct 19th for the 360 and PS3 versions, then within the first month or two of 2011 for the Wii version. But we do expect all versions to be available worldwide shortly. We’re actually working on the worldwide versions now, so it’s just a matter of time.
NL: Will there be any significant differences between the Wii version of Rock of the Dead and its other incarnations?
BJ: Although all versions share some music, the Wii version has an entirely original soundtrack including many songs that aren’t in the other versions. In many ways, the Wii version is the truest version to the team’s original vision for the game, and while it is virtually the same game as the PS3 and 360 versions, we feel that it fits just as well, if not better, on the Wii platform.
NL: Why no Rob Zombie music on the Wii version?
BJ: A couple of reasons for this. We’ve actually got different publishers for the different versions of the game (as well as separate teams developing each version). And while we were very vocally lobbying to get the Rob Zombie stuff into the games, our publishers were actually the ones paying the licensing fees, and my guess is that they didn’t entirely believe that Wii owners were going to appreciate Rob’s involvement to make that cost worthwhile. Whether that turns out to be true or not I guess we’ll see.
But the other truth is that when we started this project, we never thought we’d be able to get someone like Rob Zombie involved in the game. The Wii version really does represent the closest version to the team’s original vision.
What it comes down to is that while I think the Rob Zombie stuff is really cool and works well in the game, it certainly isn’t essential to making for a fun gaming experience. Heck, I’d be willing to bet that for every person psyched that Rob’s music is in the game, there’s another person who doesn’t like Rob Zombie’s music wishing it weren’t in there. Nature of the beast, you know?
NL: What's the price for the Wii game?
BJ: I don’t think there’s an official or final price for the Wii game, but considering the 360 and PS3 versions are $40, I would expect somewhere closer to $30 for the Wii version.
NL: Is there anything you'd like to tell our readers in closing?
BJ: If you don’t mind, I’m going to go into sell mode for a minute. The 360 and PS3 versions of Rock of the Dead are going to be released on October 19th, and they’ll retail at $40. They are compatible with all the equipment you already have, which is most likely collecting a bit of dust now. We’re very happy to give players another game to play with the controllers they’ve already invested so much money and space to. OK, enough of that.
But finally I just wanted to thank all your readers, and all the fans of video games out there that have shown interest in our game. We really appreciate the passion, positive and negative, that you bring to this hobby of ours. We feel incredibly lucky to be doing what we’re doing, and we’re doing it because we’re just as passionate as you are. We don’t like how safe the gaming industry has become, because even though I’ll be buying and playing plenty of sequels this holiday, only following that path most likely leads to stagnation and creatively boring games. We took a chance with making Rock of the Dead something a little different, and we really look forward to seeing gamers have fun with it.
Nintendo Life would like to thank the very generous Bryan Jury for his time.