Undead Labs Founder Jeff Strain on how State of Decay 2 builds on the original

Except for a fast-paced reveal trailer, very little is known about State of Decay 2. We know that its launch date will be announced at E3 2017 this June. We know that it will feature four-player co-op. And we know that its unique blend of permadeath, base management, and visceral, often desperate third-person combat will return in all its gory glory.

We recently caught up with Undead Labs' founder Jeff Strain to discuss State of Decay 2, MMOs, and how the studio intends to build on the original. You zombie survivalists don't want to miss this.

Jez Corden: First of all, thanks a ton for joining us and answering our questions. Like many of our readers, I'm a huge fan of State of Decay, making State of Decay 2 one of my most anticipated games. For those who might not be familiar with State of Decay 2, can you describe in your own words what gamers can expect?

Breaking those rules allowed us to create a unique game experience that really resonated with fans of the zombie.

Jeff Strain: Well, first of all, thanks for being a fan of State of Decay. Your enthusiasm for the game — along with over five million other players — is the entire reason we have the privilege of being able to create State of Decay 2.

The original State of Decay was a labor of love, and by any measure an incredibly risky game to make. We broke several Game Design 101 rules while creating it, including putting permadeath at the absolute center of the experience. Fortunately, breaking those rules allowed us to create a unique game experience that really resonated with fans of the zombie genre, and more importantly, anyone who'd ever fantasized about how they'd survive the apocalypse.

State of Decay 2 builds on the success of the original formula and improves on it based on what fans of the original have asked for: A bigger, more polished, deeper State of Decay experience that you can play with your friends.

I know you can't give too much away, but besides the addition of co-op, will State of Decay 2 retain the first game's most awesome features? Such as base building, scavenging, and so on? Can you give us a hint or two about how State of Decay 2 builds on the original?

When we started the development process for State of Decay 2, we got together in front of a giant whiteboard and made three lists: Kill, Double Down and Innovate.

We got together in front of a giant whiteboard and made three lists: Kill, Double Down and Innovate.

The Kill list was for features that just didn't work as well as we'd envisioned for "State of Decay" and that we intended to either cut from the sequel or completely rework. The most notable item in this list was offline progression — the system that would advance the simulation when you weren't playing to model the effect of time passing. Despite several passes at tweaking the system after release, players were pretty clear with us that they didn't like things happening that they didn't feel any control over, so we've scrapped it entirely for State of Decay 2.

The Double Down list was for features that worked well, and that we considered the heart of the experience. Base building, scavenging, community building, a comprehensive selection of weapons and combat tactics, muscle cars, a broad array of characters to rescue, befriend, or betray and, yes, permadeath, will all return in State of Decay 2, refined by everything we learned in the first game.

The Innovate list was for features that were designed to push the survival fantasy simulation forward into new territory. Cooperative multiplayer was at the top of this list, as well as a new dynamic narrative system that ties the way you interact with your fellow survivors more deeply into the simulation. Of course, substantially enhanced visuals are on this list as well. We'll be talking more about new features as we get closer to release this year.

You famously co-created "World of Warcraft," which thoroughly took the world by storm and defined an entire genre. I wonder if there were any lessons you learned from your time working on that game that has benefitted State of Decay as a franchise?

I did work on "World of Warcraft," but I think "co-created" is overstating my role a bit. I was one of hundreds who worked on that game.

We wanted to make a game that would allow players to tell their own stories.

That said, during my decade working on MMOs I became very aware that gamers would always be able to consume new content faster than we as developers could create it. When we started working on "State of Decay" we spent a lot of time thinking about how to make a game that did not rely on thousands of hand-coded scripts to generate content, both because that kind of content gets burned through quickly, but also because it limits the experiences players can have to only what the developers explicitly envisioned.

We wanted to make a game that would allow players to tell their own stories, rather than merely experience stories we were telling them. So we solved these issues by designing a true simulation engine and a simulation language we call "FateEngine" and "FateSpec."

Rather than using a scripting language to describe what happens when a player takes a specific action or reaches a certain point (usually called a "tripwire"), we instead create a data model for the world and feed it to the simulation engine to determine what happens, which makes the world feel more responsive to your decisions and actions.

There are tons of zombie games on the market, yet people don't seem to ever get tired of them. What is it about zombies that makes them so popular? Is that something you guys have thought about?

The zombie genre has indeed retained its popularity and has clearly become one of the ubiquitous game genres alongside fantasy, science fiction, and military-themed games. I do think zombies hold a unique place as unapologetic meat puppets — you can mow them down all day and not feel a moment's guilt — but I think the real power of the genre comes from its apocalyptic-survival aspect.

I know when I see a great zombie movie I don't drive home thinking about how cool it would be to kill zombies. I instead spend that time working on my personal survival plan, updating it with anything I saw in the movie that I may not have considered before, and working through my list of necessary supplies for short- and long-term survival. That's what State of Decay is all about — letting you live out your own survival fantasy.

**Many people had expected State of Decay 2 to be an "MMO" or more of a connected game like "ARK: Survival Evolved," "Day-Z," or even "Sea of Thieves," why did you guys opt for four-player co-op instead of something that might bring in more players? And is something more "MMO-ish" something you guys would like to tackle in the future for "State of Decay"? "Nation of Decay" has a pretty cool ring to it ... **

I'm not sure trying to do what "Day-Z" or other games have done would bring in more players. State of Decay was played by millions, and in the years since its release we've spent a great deal of time talking with and listening to its fans. They've been clear about what they want to see in a sequel, and it's not to be a hardcore PvP game or a traditional MMO. Players who loved State of Decay have told us they want a bigger, bolder, better State of Decay they can play with their friends, and that's exactly what we're making.

That said, we do envision State of Decay continuing to evolve, and our goal with each iteration is to get closer to creating the ultimate survival fantasy — that is, giving you everything you need to put your own personal survival plan into effect in a believable, responsive, and emotionally powerful post-apocalyptic world. How that incorporates new mechanics or multiplayer technologies remains to be seen.

State of Decay was one of the fastest selling XBLA games on the Xbox 360. If you could go back in time and start development over from scratch, what are the main things about State of Decay you would change or improve?

Ha, I see what you're doing! We'd probably build around a different engine technology that was better suited to a large, open-world game. We'd take more time to make the PC version of the game feel like a native PC game. We'd use the time we invested in the offline progression system to enhance other systems that players had more fun with. And we'd have spent more time making the way the game stats impacted the simulation more clear. There are, of course, tons of other things we wish we could have done (cough multiplayer cough) but hey, that's what kickass sequels are for, right?

When building State of Decay, what other franchises out there do you guys look to for inspiration or influence? Past or present, games or movies?

Usually, we don't talk about competitors' products. But, you know, "Red Dead Redemption" was evocative and cool. "Grand Theft Auto" has a thing or two to say about sandbox gaming. "Last Night on Earth" is a silly-fun board game that gets close to that "survival fantasy" vibe. "Zombieland" shows that the zombie genre is more about people surviving the apocalypse together than zombies, and "Day of the Dead," "Night of the Living Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead" will forever be the true guideposts for all of us.

We've been asked not to dig for information about State of Decay 2 ... but is there one teeny, tiny little feature you could announce for us today?

Haha. No.

Finally, will we get to see "State of Decay 2" fully revealed and in action at E3 2017?

E3 2017 will be a great show for State of Decay fans.

State of Decay 2 forms part of Microsoft's upcoming lineup for both the Xbox One and "Project Scorpio," joining games like Cuphead, Crackdown 3, Sea of Thieves, and the recently-launched Halo Wars 2.

Undead Labs has been dropping concept artwork for the game, offering potential glimpses at shifting day cycles, farming systems, and of course, dilapidated zombie-infested ruins.

Stay tuned to Windows Central for all the latest on State of Decay 2 and other Microsoft Studios titles, as we get ever-closer to E3 2017. In the meantime, I highly recommend that you check out the original State of Decay, which is available on Xbox One and PC.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!