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Developer Interview: ZombiU Producer Talks About Beginnings, Reactions and Survival Horror

Posted by Thomas Whitehead

"Some players are not into survival, and that’s totally fine"

In terms of high-profile third-party exclusives on Wii U launch day, ZombiU was comfortably the biggest show in town. While a number of multi-platform titles brought their HD shine to a Nintendo platform for the first time, those looking for a new experience that was hardcore in nature were in all likelihood drawn to Ubisoft's tale of a zombie apocalypse in London.

Its history is a curious one, with this title technically being a sequel to Ubisoft's first ever game, Zombi on the Amstrad CPC. That was released way back in 1986 and even included the permanent death mechanic found in the Wii U title, though the action took place in a shopping mall. Of course, any similarities end right there, but it's a piece of trivia that seems perfectly apt for the publisher's survival horror début on Nintendo's new system.

As a title that hogged so many headlines before launch and has caused such divided opinion since it hit stores, we were keen to learn more. To do so we've spoken to the game's Producer, Guillaume Brunier, the man responsible for bringing the project together.

The link we made to the original Zombi is, in reality, rather tenuous. Keen Nintendo followers will know that what became ZombiU actually started life as Killer Freaks from Outer Space, a quirky and fast-paced FPS that was shown as part of an early Wii U sizzle-reel at E3 2011 — the aliens had remarkable similarities to mutated Rabbids, and what seemed like one of the first confirmed games for the console was actually a tech demo; one which didn't suit the development team's goals. That said, it wasn't wasted work, as the foundations had been well and truly set for the launch title. "We kept the same engine throughout the whole development", Brunier explained. "One of the reasons for the change from fast aliens to slow zombies was in fact the GamePad."

That focus on the GamePad is perhaps one of the key reasons why debates about ZombiU's merits, between critics and supporters, can be so enthusiastic. This is a title that, perhaps with the exception of Nintendo Land, does the most to utilise the capabilities of Wii U's flagship controller. As Brunier explained to us, the development team's approach allowed the technology of the console to drive the game design, rather than push any square pegs through round holes.

It has always been a goal to deeply root the Wii U Gamepad within our game. It was a leap of faith. We knew it would be the key to make a game that would really fit the Wii U but had little idea how to make this become a concrete design. When we started prototyping features came rather naturally. The very first time we felt we got something right was our lock-picking gameplay. It brought unprecedented tension by diverting players from the main screen; it was so well suited for the survival genre.

The word "survival" came up a few times in our conversation, especially as it's the defining word of the experience that ZombiU offers. It brings to mind relentlessly difficult games such as Dark Souls, with permanent death raising the stakes and establishing a painfully risky endeavour to retrieve vital weapons and items from a deceased character's zombie. It's a comparison that Brunier's heard plenty of times: "many of us in the dev team are Dark Souls fans. So yes, it was inspirational for us". Though perhaps not as much as we think. "In the end I don’t think we’re so close as people tend to say it but still, this was clearly influential", he explained. "Other games that helped us in designing ZU? Definitely the old Resident Evil series."

Citing series such as Resident Evil and a title like Dark Souls should clarify, not that there was any doubt, the audience targeted by ZombiU. We were told that ZombiU was always going to be a launch title, and the aforementioned focus on the GamePad was another important part of the studio's brief. "We wanted to be the first to offer a core gaming experience with the Wii U Gamepad. You can call it experimental, you can call us crazy but that’s what we wanted to do." Perhaps the danger of this approach is that the core label, heavy promotion from Nintendo and intensive exposure of the game brought pressures on the final release. In fact, early reviews were distinctly mixed, with some high-profile examples that had few good words to say. That initial frustration for Brunier and his team did ease with the release of more reviews, even if initial scores and criticisms may sting.

We were really disappointed with the early US reviews. We are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the experience we created but we did not expect so harsh a feedback. However as more and more journalists and gamers played the game, these opinions proved to be a minority. So right now we’re rather pleased with the overall reception of the game.

A debate that often surfaces online between gamers who've experienced ZombiU, is whether those who are critical are misunderstanding the concept or, simply, not fans of the style of survival horror being offered by Ubisoft. It can be a slippery slope to tell someone that they're not enjoying a game because they're simply not fans of its genre, especially when valid issues are shouted down with the same line. Brunier seems to acknowledge that ZombiU being "recognized by many as the revival of the survival genre" has its pitfalls, especially as the word "core" can bring to mind FPS action, perhaps emphasised by some — though not necessarily all — trailer footage showing a character shooting plenty of zombies with guns. We put it to him that, perhaps, some felt burned by the style of play and the relentless permanent death difficulty, especially when so much of a gamer's diet may be made up of fast-paced shooters with regenerating health.

I don’t know. We never hid ourselves. I remember our very first internal pitch was entitled “How long will you survive”. Ever since we stayed true to that statement and I think it’s quite present in the game. So I don’t think we took anyone by surprise. Just that some players are not into survival, and that’s totally fine.

Being very punitive is our key, to set the mind of the player in the survival mode. Since you have a lot to lose you are really, really careful; as you would be in a real-life zombie apocalypse. We understand we’re playing with a player's frustration, and we’re aware that we don’t reward that much (or at least not as other games do). But that’s what we wanted. That’s what survival horror games used to do. We think it’s core to the genre.

Of course, for those that need a diversion from the tension of the single-player campaign, there is a local multiplayer option. Brunier admitted that online play simply couldn't fit into the development schedule, but feels that local multiplayer has "always been a trademark of Nintendo games" — not necessarily what online-starved Nintendo gamers will want to hear in the long term. In any case, the battle between a survivor and the Zombie King is an interesting one, combining overhead strategy play on the GamePad with fast-paced FPS action on the ground. Produced separately by the Ubisoft Bucharest team — the main campaign came from the Montpellier studio — this was actually a mode demonstrated with the Killer Freaks demo at E3 2011; "it stayed fun when we changed to zombies, so we kept it in the scope."

Overall, Brunier is pleased with the initial sales — "among the best selling launch titles on Wii U" — and is particularly encouraged by gamer feedback on Miiverse. Nintendo's social networking platform has impressed the ZombiU team, and there are plans to integrate the online-enabled message sharing within the main campaign (messages can be painted on walls, and friends' deceased zombies also appear in-game to be hunted, killed and looted), albeit in a rudimentary way. "We’re watching it [Miiverse] all day long", Brunier told us. "We have yet to create our official account. Actually, we’ll reveal our name in the game soon, you’ll have to search for it written on a wall. Then we’ll be accepting everyone as friends!" In a world as dark and tense as that in ZombiU's post-apocalyptic London, hunting for a Miiverse account name may distract a few survivors.

We rounded off our discussion with a general chat about Wii U's longer term prospects, and the Ubisoft man echoed plenty of Nintendo fans: "I’m craving for Nintendo to announce Mario Kart, Zelda, Metroid or even better… FZero!". Surprisingly praise was reserved for 3DS, which has somewhat been pushed to the shadows by the new home console, with Brunier being "amazed" by its install base of over 20 million; perhaps reflecting the changing times in portable gaming's expectations. Much like with ZombiU, it seems that retro inspirations can work best. "I’m playing a lot of it [3DS] nowadays. Being a HUGE (this is an understatement) fan of Castle of Illusion for Megadrive/Genesis, I bought [Epic Mickey] Power of Illusion. I liked it that they took some of the original soundtrack. Sends me way back in time!"

With that we brought our chat to a close, with ZombiU likely to continue to divide Wii U early-adopters and, we imagine, those debating Wii U's launch games in years to come. Unlike so many of the multi-platform ports, however, this is a game built from the ground up for Nintendo's new system, and an early attempt to maximise the GamePad's capabilities. It also boosted the use of the words "cricket bat" on gaming websites around the world.

We'd like to thank Guillaume Brunier for his time.

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User Comments (42)

HawkeyeWii

#1

HawkeyeWii said:

I was super pumped for this game, but after I saw the reviews, I was soo bummed out! I really wish it could have live up to the potential. I have heard things like "Worst graphics of Wii U so far" and The "controls are terrible" I have watched multiple videos online and it looks extremely tedious to kill them with melee weapons and not to mention every time you swing you hear an orgasmic yell by your character.

daznsaz

#2

daznsaz said:

yea love the game well done ubisoft,ive got nothing but praise for zu.

Lan

#3

Lan said:

Please stop throwing around "HD" like it's so important! I hate seeing "HD" everywhere. Resolution is not that important!

DerpSandwich

#4

DerpSandwich said:

If there's any game that deserves a sequel, it's this one. It sounds like a lot of fun, but it's pretty obvious that they sort of had to rush it, so we ended up with a game that's sort of ugly and doesn't give you a lot of content for your money. But if they took the time to polish it out for a sequel, we could have a really excellent series on our hands. I mean, Ubisoft makes good games, and there's no reason their Nintendo exclusive can't be just as good as Far Cry or Assassin's Creed. Here's hoping.

scakko84

#5

scakko84 said:

Love the single player mode, love the local multi mode... BUT ... They need to address some gamebreaking bugs that can really ruin the experience. I've read of people that got stuck in a bug near the end of the game where dying caused a door to lock you in a dead end (Pretty much like the Metroid Other M door bug).

scakko84

#7

scakko84 said:

@Crysos161 The fact is that the local multi mode is very enjoyable for those like me coming from the COD Zombies. The problem it's all in the "Local" word. They should have implemented an online component for the "King of Zombies" mode.

P.S. I would kill for a similar mode implemented (local and online) in "Alien: Colonial Marines". Let's wait and see... Hopes die last.

sikthvash

#8

sikthvash said:

I too was worried when I saw the reviews - In particular, IGN's score and gameplay analysis had me question my first game purchase for the Wii U. All that faded away when I took it out of the box and played. I've played scary atmospheric games aplenty (including the likes of Amnesia on the PC) and I have to say that Zombii U is up there with the best. Sure there are a few niggling bits in the gameplay, but it's a survival horror - not a shooter, not a RPG, not a an epic sci-fi with a Hollywood budget. To be honest I think the graphics are great and that's coming from someone that has a beast PC to play Farcry 3 on. Melee combat is not that bad at all and the grunts and yells from your character are certainly not enough to be painful for the ear. I think Ubisoft have come up with an epic game in this day where repetitive COD-esque games have become the staple diet of hardcore gamers. To all those wanting full on shooting please look elsewhere. Ask yourselves this: do you want scares? do you want atmosphere? want the game closest to ever living in a zombie apocalypse without all the unnecessary level grinding and stupid fetch quests (yes I'm looking at you Dead Island)? Look no further.... give it a go....

SCAR392

#9

SCAR392 said:

@HawkeyeWii
I think you will like it if you like zombie games, especially RE. I wasn't too thrilled about the lack of ways to survive at first, but they steadily make the game easier and more playable. You literally just have to use as many items as you can if a zombie group gets to you that's out of control at all costs, but if the situation is under control, you need to conserve supplies and be 'cheap'. I think most people would rather play and beat the game, rather than dying because you didn't want to use anything but the starting melee weapon.

Furealz

#10

Furealz said:

Sure, it's fine and dandy...but where's the Demo they promised? The reviews left me on the fence. I mean this game went from 30-90% really?

krunchykhaos

#11

krunchykhaos said:

@Lan having bad visuals for no reason is bad. There is a standard and now HD is a standard. Its not a measure of how good a game is but how lazy developers are.

castlezelda

#12

castlezelda said:

@HawkeyeWii Reviews aren't everything, its not everyone point of view on that type of game, just rent it, give it a go, I read the review but i didn't care, i rented it from gamefly and i love Zombiu. I think Zombiu is better than any RE. just try the game out i bet u'll like it, if u like zombie type of games.

tre

#13

tre said:

I have never been a fan of these type of game but I really enjoyed ZombiU! Most of the time I was too afraid to move my character in fear of something jumping out, or the floor giving away, etc.

Miiverse feedback in more than enough proof that reviews like from Ign were wrong. This is not CoD, this is a survivor horror and is slow paced on purpose.

The game is not graphic heavy because its meant to be dull and hard to see, adding to the intense.

Melee attacking is important only when near 4 or more zombies. I use that cricket bat maybe 40% of the time and that's only because I was saving up ammo for later. If you get a bit of distance from the zombies, killing 3-4 of them with headshots become easy to handle. Also finding ammo becomes easier the more camera you turn on around London.

Oh yeah, about your character screams every time you swing the cricket bat is not totally true. Your character will only scream when your health is not 100%. Keeping it in the green!

If you are thinking about getting this game and love being scared, stop thinking and buy it!!!

HawkeyeWii

#14

HawkeyeWii said:

@SCAR392
Thanks, yeah, see I love starting right out for the first time (blind) in survival horrors, which only happens once. You just feel lost and hopeless, I love that feeling. You have to grow accustomed to your environment and enemies. Thanks I will most likely pick this up somewhere down the line.

FiveDigitLP

#16

FiveDigitLP said:

@HawkeyeWii
Have you read NL's review of ZombiU? They gave it a lot of praise...and anyone who enjoyed the game is probably going to say things along the same lines of what they said.

I honestly don't understand any issues with the graphics or the controls. The graphics are NOT any worse than the 360 or PS3 (I own both), and in fact I think some of the lighting effects (glare, blur, water droplets, etc) are some of the nicest I've seen.

The controls are just a matter of preference, I guess. They may be kind of difficult at times...but I think that just fits in with the setting of the game and how you'd feel in that sort of scenario.

Concerning the screams, well, I can see why someone would say they sound that way, but I honestly just think it sounds like someone in extreme anguish. I'm not sure if it's actually when you're low on health, or more of when you're being overwhelmed. It seems that the longer you're in battle with zombies, the louder and more excruciating your character sounds. He/she sounds like they're literally fighting for their life. Once you defeat all of the enemies near you and the music returns to normal, then your character usually starts to return to "normal." And even if health plays a role, I usually try to keep it full. If you let your guard down and say, "Oh, I'll refill my health later," you'll likely die. Believe me!

tre

#17

tre said:

@HawkeyeWii

Most of the time at 100%. If low health, I used guns for quick kills so I would stay alive until I could eat a snack.

I use to grab every item I could find but quickly changed that once my safehouse locker got full. Soon, I was only carrying guns, ammo, foods, and using London cameras to store up like a squirrel for winter.

Savino

#18

Savino said:

People always asks for hardcore games on a nintendo plataform...now they're complaining that it is too hardcore?!
People these days!!

tre

#19

tre said:

@FiveDigitLP

The controls were a bit getting use to but you are in the safehouse in the beginning. It is used like a tutorial in the beginning.

I hit R instead of ZR about 3 times. This happened about 25% into the game. Then it happened again near the end of game.

Trying to push a zombie off you (press ZR) but instead doing a 180 degree turn (press R) is scary.

FiveDigitLP

#21

FiveDigitLP said:

@Savino
No, the masses didn't want anything truly HARDcore...they just wanted "hardcore." Stuff with "mature" themes like blowing people up, women dancing around a pole, or lots of four letter words.

FiveDigitLP

#22

FiveDigitLP said:

@tre
Yeah, I've done that a few times, but I haven't had a huge problem with it. I've seen plenty of people trying to play it, though, who've forgotten to hold down ZL when trying to swing the cricket bat and then they just end up as zombie food.

@Lan
Man, I love AOE! I need to pull out my copy of AOE2 and play it! Which reminds me...we should totally get a RTS on the Wii U! I think using the stylus could work quite nicely and would be similar to a mouse.

JettiBlue

#23

JettiBlue said:

@savino: yes exactly what I was thinking! After all the moaning about lack of "hardcore" on Wii it is just too ironic that the same people now hate on ZombiU. All those comparisons to CoD or Halo type of games are ridiculous. Totally something else and not comparable... and who cannot recognise that doesn't deserve to have an opinion about ZombiU anymore!

kyuubikid213

#25

kyuubikid213 said:

I'm still buying ZombiU. It was the game that made me officially want a Wii U. The only reason why I don't have it is because none of my friends would know what it was. I decided to pick up Assassin's Creed III instead. Not a mistake. ZombiU is next in my sights and personally, I think it could be one of the "hidden gems" on the system in the future. Right now, people are hating on it, but it still seems like a solid idea that would make for an excellent game. I'm looking forward to my Christmas Paychecks.

Pikachupwnage

#26

Pikachupwnage said:

@HawkeyeWii Its got a 76% on gamerankings no bad at all. Its even better when you remove the reviews like gamespot that are poorly written negative bashing essentially. I have no problems with negative reviews so long as the criticism is valid but he mentioned very few real flaws. He doesn't mention the bugs the game has yet claims the Gamepad hurts immersion(most Reviews say the opposite about the Gamepad) and whines about the cricket bat combat and acts like your forced to fight every zombie. Yet your not supposed to fight every zombie. There's a thing called running and also a shoving move. He even claims it should be an action game! Almost Everything I have heard from reasonable people is contrary to that review.

I never liked gamespot reviews. It always seems like they are so negative with Nintendo games.

Pikachupwnage

#27

Pikachupwnage said:

You know what would be cool?

An open world sequel.

Just imagine how awesome applying the mechanics if this game to an open world would be if done right.

AhabSpampurse

#28

AhabSpampurse said:

When I read IGN's review I cancelled my pre-order.. then I thought screw them, I've been excited for the game for a long timr, I'll make up my own mind. And I'm glad I did. Out of Mario, Nintendo Land and ZombiU, I've easily played this the most, the atmosphere and sense of dread it creates is phenomenal. Yeah, its not perfect. Its got its bugs and not everyone will be a fan, but I bloody love it.

dananlau

#29

dananlau said:

I've brought this game ready for Christmas and I can't wait to get stuck into it!

I read the IGN review and a few other sites reviews which were disappointing to start off with - but I've been playing games far too long to not go with my gut! Sure enough, the reviews became more and more positive (32 out of 56 metacritic reviews are above 80%, only 9 out of 56 below 70%).

Bring it on!

Ichiban

#30

Ichiban said:

@HawkeyeWii
This game is pretty much an old Resident Evil title in first person. I was lucky if my health was ever close to 100%, no regen nonsense here. You will die....alot!

3Daniel

#31

3Daniel said:

this game needs a demo. i love it. i read ign's review and actually debated a day or 2 to get the wii u because this was the first game i wanted. finally i just took the jump and got my wiiu deluxe downloaded the game and i love it. it won't be for everybody due to its shortcomings but neither was resident evil. hopefully ubisoft won't turn its back on this potential franchise.

mozie

#32

mozie said:

The fact that both IGN & Gamespot gave RE6 higher scores than this completely invalidates them, was a bit iffy about their reviews prior to the release of this and haven't gone back to either since. Anyone who thinks RE6 is a better game than this is an idiot, plain & simple

BJQ1972

#34

BJQ1972 said:

I can't remember the last time I played a game where I had to think constantly about where to go, whether I had enough bullets, rations etc. Even walking down an empty corridor for the first time, and every beep on the motion sensor leaves me in a state of panic. Run around shooting zombies and being blasé and you will die, often.

Hyrule

#35

Hyrule said:

Picture yourself in an apocalyptic London, and your faced with your first zombie lunging head on towards you. You have a cricket bat and a flare. You swing the bat and it cracks the side of the zombies' head open. Yet it still lunges for you. You swing again, the zombie staggers back, twists it's putrid head towards you and lunges for you again. It takes three more hits to knock it to the ground, where you finish it with a final blow to the back of the head.

I picture a sweaty, bloodied, stressed out person, hence the anguished screaming of a person under duress, during melee combat.
It only adds to the already excellent atmosphere the game provides and I for one think it is a fantastic part of the game.

KAHN

#36

KAHN said:

most people would rather play zombies on black ops two, and that's fine with me because call-of-duty sucks. zombiU tried for a realistic apocalypse survival experience, so whether it's good or not, it has my credit because i can't name any other apocalyptic survival game.

HugoSmits

#37

HugoSmits said:

@HawkeyeWii: hitting with melee is very tedious, but that makes the game great!
You can take out one zombie, but if they are with a group (3 or more) you not going to win it!

If you like RE you must know the feeling of '3 bullets in my handgun left, 5 zombies to shoot'. The tedious melee attack creates the same feeling!

Araknie

#38

Araknie said:

I liked the game, i had to abandon it because i died 10 times in one and a half hours, but that's my fault. I am not capable of going on.
That's Call of Duty Zombies if you think FPS, but if you review Zombi U like an FPS you are stupid.

AmishThunder

#39

AmishThunder said:

In the end, this and NSMBU are the most fun I've had playing video games in a long time. That's what has really sold me on the Wii U, I feel like video games are fun again.

WanderingPB

#40

WanderingPB said:

The number of people who like ZombiU outnumber the ones who don't and yet people keep on questioning whether this game is worth buying...

It's a great survival horror game. It's difficult, scary and being on your nerves all the time can get u frustrated… but i love it!!!

Comparing survival horror vs action horror is as different as comparing batman and the dark knight…

So to make a long story short do ur own reasearch and try the game out and see if u like it then u'll know which reviews are full of sh*t…this is a good game and i cant wait for the sequel

iPlayNintendo

#41

iPlayNintendo said:

Ugh this game's testers must have told the developers how incredibly annoying and repetitive the cricket bat is right? This game was 2012's biggest disappointment for me mainly because I thought it would be one of my favorite of the year. My favorite thing is definitely the difficulty, and the multiplayer is interesting. If they improve upon this one and make a sequel, I'm game!

LittleIrves

#42

LittleIrves said:

Out of curiosity, I went and finally read IGN's review. Didn't realize it was Greg Miller. Huh. Also interesting that in his "Play These Instead" sidebar he lists Borderlands 2, Dead Island... these same to be trying for something totally different than ZombiU's survival horror vibe.

The last thing I did was start reading the comments. Now there's some true survival horror for you.... yikes. Someone mentioned the problem of eventual Wii U sequels all sounding like U2 albums, and the conversation on Bono & Edge went on for pages. Then just Nintendo vs. Sony vs. Msoft flaming. BLECH. Never again, IGN.

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