ZombiU: balancing punishment and reward on Wii U

ZombiU: balancing punishment and reward on Wii U

Amid the hype and hubris of the Wii U’s launch run-up, very few could have expected the console’s stand-out title at E3 to be a hardcore survival-horror shooter. Pitched alongside Nintendo’s candy-coloured in-house offerings, ZombiU couldn’t have looked more out of place. Indeed, with its harsh permadeath mechanic and lumbering pace, it rails against the industry-wide trend toward inclusiveness and mass appeal. There are no checkpoints, no health bars, no casual modes. This is the apocalypse, and no one gets an easy ride.

It didn’t start like this. ZombiU evolved from Killer Freaks From Outer Space, the tech demo Ubisoft put together to explore the possibilities of Nintendo’s hardware in time for E3 2010. Back then, the Montpellier team knew it wanted to produce something dark, something mature, but wasn’t sure of the direction. “Straight after E3, we realised we needed to slow the pace,” explains producer Guillaume Brunier. “We wanted the player to have time to switch their eyes from the TV to the GamePad display, but with the very fast enemies in Killer Freaks, it wasn’t possible – it wasn’t enjoyable to play. But it worked very well with zombies: they’re slow, you have time to shoot them in the head, you have time to root through your inventory. The controller allowed us to add a twist to the zombie genre.” 

So here we are: London in 2012, the end of days. A zombie plague has erupted and almost everyone is dead or undead. Now survivors barricade themselves into safe houses throughout the city, venturing out only to grab supplies. In ZombiU, players go out on a series of missions, wandering the devastated streets of the capital. Wherever you go, the GamePad represents your ‘bug-out bag’, a backpack filled with useful items and weapons. Hit a button and the controller’s screen becomes a scanner displaying an augmented view of the game world, highlighting useful objects and enemies. Holding it up and moving it around surveys your current environment.

Very quickly, it becomes natural – a weird tactile extension of the game universe into your personal space. “That was intentional,” says Brunier. “Mr Miyamoto said in an interview last year that he was hoping developers would use the pad to manifest game objects in your hands. He used the example of Zelda and the minimap, and we drew inspiration from that. When we gave direction to the team, we told them to ensure the player doesn’t feel like they’re holding a controller; they must feel like they’re holding their backpack or their sniper rifle – all the stuff that usually exists on the main screen.”

Apparently, the implementation has been relatively easy. Nintendo’s development kit supplies everything developers need to get game elements displayed on the GamePad, so Ubisoft got a prototype running quickly. From there, it was all about balancing and pushing the interplay to its limits. “In terms of the scare mechanics, we know players can’t quite look at both screens simultaneously,” says story design director, Gabrielle Shrager. “We really use that. We use it almost to trick the player, to divert their attention so that when they shift from one screen to another we can really scare them!”

According to Brunier, it’s this element that first caught the team’s imagination. “With every machine, there’s a long period when you just sit down and say, ‘OK, what are we going to do with it?’” he says. “But the first feature we prototyped for the game that really made us understand the power of the console was the lock picking…”

Throughout the missions, there are hacking challenges that use the GamePad as an input device. With lock picking, you need to hold it up to a door and manipulate the tiny tools onscreen to break the sequence and gain entry. But all the while you’re focusing on that small screen, not the TV, nor the monster that’s lumbering up behind your character.  “I remember we had the first test version on our engineer Christophe’s screen – everyone was just gathered around watching [and] cowering! It was a turning point in the project: it made us understand the power of two screens.”

The game’s key mechanic, however, is death. If your character is bitten by a zombie, they become infected and it’s game over for them. You’ll then switch into the body of another survivor – but that new avatar has none of the weapons, items or skills picked up by their predecessor. You have to go out there, hunt down your previous character, kill them, and grab that backpack back. “Permadeath is such a strong mechanic,” says Shrager.  “It’s a throwback to the games we loved to play years ago. EverQuest, for example – it was so brutal, it made you afraid to turn corners without thinking ahead. I think it’s one of the strongest motivators in game design; it’s punishing, but it gives the player a chance to explore different tactics.”

Crucially, you don’t have to reattempt all the mission objectives from scratch. In the creepy level shown at E3, the player’s mission is to explore an abandoned nursery school and grab some medication. It’s a jumpy, tentative crawl through darkened classrooms, the walls lined with finger paintings and smeared with viscera. Zombies can jump out from anywhere, even closed lockers, but any items picked up by a character before dying then become accessible to the next survivor when their backpack is found. So you can leg it into the nursery, recover the loot and try to get the hell out. “The persistence is important,” concedes Shrager. “You don’t start the whole mission all over again – it’s more like a relay race. You’re passing the experience down from one survivor to the next. That helps balance the sense of frustration when you die.”

Importantly, too, it’s possible to prepare and sort your tactics between missions. Players are able to store weapons and other important items in the safe house ready for their next incarnation. There are also CCTV cameras around the city, which can be hacked into and then manipulated by the player. Shrager refers to this as a ‘weather map mechanic’ – helpfully, players can build up a picture of where the major zombie infestations are at any one time, thereby avoiding missions in those sectors. (The game employs a semi-open-world structure, so tasks can be attempted in any order.) Cameras can also be used to spot powerful weapons hidden away in darkened corners.

Alongside the singleplayer campaign is an asynchronous player vs player mode, which asks one participant to carry out capture the flag tasks while the other becomes the Zombie Master, spawning monsters in the most effective areas. “We were fascinated by this idea of bringing in people who like different sorts of games and letting them play together,” says Brunier. “It’s a concept that’s core to Nintendo’s strategy right now. It is quite a design challenge, though. When we first developed the mode, we had two days with the Zombie Master winning all the matches – people were pissed off. There was a lot of balancing to do. But if we nail it down, it will be a very innovative experience.”

There will be four or five maps available at launch, although it looks like only the one mode will be available. “We’d have loved to include two vs one, either with two on the Zombie Master or the survivor side,” says Brunier. “I guess we’ll have to put that on the feature list for ZombiU 2…”

Players can compete elsewhere, though: at the end of each character’s life, you get a score for the amount of time you survived and number of kills, which can be compared against the community. There are also hints that, as in Dark Souls (another grimly uncompromising title) players will be able to leave messages around the world.

And while Dark Souls is an interesting touchstone for this title, in many ways ZombiU harks back to the first two Resident Evil games. Player movement can be awkward, checking through inventories is tense, ammo is in short supply, and while zombies are slow, they’re easy to miss. There has been constant iteration – Brunier says the inventory system, which now requires just a few swipes on the GamePad display, once needed multiple button presses, turning tension to anger. But it’s still a relatively cumbersome procedure that harks back to the finicky controls of the original Resident Evil

“I don’t remember sitting in a room and saying we need to go back to the roots of survival horror,” says Brunier. “However, I do remember our very first meeting about the enemies – and we all agreed that the player needed to be frightened even when confronted by just one zombie. If you’re in a corridor and just one of them is ahead, you have to be terrified. You should be gripping your pad like a lifeline! It’s a bit hard, but we need to punish players in order to reward them…”