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

"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.