Undead Labs' Sanya Weathers

Sanya Weathers, Director of Community at Undead Labs, spoke with Ghettoblaster for the gaming feature in our last issue. As is often the case, the interview had to be edited down because of space restrictions. However, Sanya and I had such a great conversation covering so many interesting aspects of her interactions with the State of Decay community that I decided to post the bits that didn’t make it into the issue here. Check it out!

Undead Labs' Director of Community Sanya Weathers

Undead Labs’ Director of Community Sanya Weathers

Ghettoblaster: How big is the staff at Undead Labs?
Sanya Weathers: We’re around 30 people now. We’ve been growing. Since the game was a success, we started adding programmers so that it wasn’t a couple guys working their fingers to the bone. We just started a new QA person. Thank goodness. The QA was an army of two doing an incredible job. With the simulation you can’t just run tests because there are no two gameplays alike. You can’t play this game two times in a row and have the same experience. That’s part of the game. That doesn’t mean there aren’t bugs. I think DJ’s psychic. That’s our QA lead. It’s the only explanation. That and the players sending us logs. We had a guy last night comparing the code between the console version and the PC version. He actually figured out a way to get at the code and then run a comparison to find where the different lines were for the subroutines guiding a particular upgradeable facility. We have the best community online. I swear to god.
GB: What is the relationship between Undead Labs and the player base of State of Decay?
SW: I’m really proud of my guys. It’s the only message board online where if someone’s wrong they apologize. We call them our rocket fuel. They’re the reason we’re able to go farther and everything else. The community contributes ideas, and they give us their feedback. It all sounds so very normal, but we take it much more seriously than usual. There’s no taking it under advisement with us. It’s, ‘This is how they’re actually playing the game.’ Here’s the thing. Once we finish designing it and it goes into a player community’s hands, it’s not really ours anymore. We know how we meant people to play the game, but that doesn’t mean that’s how people are going to play the game. We pay attention to see how people are actually playing and try to move forward from there.
GB: Did working bugs out on the Xbox version help out the development of the PC version?
SW: Yes and no. In terms of the gameplay, the PC guys got the gameplay more or less as we intended it. We’ll never stop making improvements. Like I was saying earlier with testing, you can’t test this sort of game in any traditional sense. Our army of two did their absolute best, but we’re still finding things that need to be adjusted. No software is going to be perfect, and we’re not going to stop working on it until someone makes us stop working on it. Quitting’s not how we roll. The PC guys got the game as we had designed it, more or less. Of course PC introduced all kinds of other new problems. The nice thing about developing for consoles is that everybody has the same kind of hardware. With PC we’re still finding weird combinations of drivers and cards and hardware that we could not have possibly predicted. We don’t have a testing lab with billions of hardware combinations in it. We tried to hit the most popular ones and then have been refining ever since. Just yesterday morning I was saying, ‘Okay, guys. If you have the drivers from this date you need different ones. Our game will crash and die if you have this mid-November Nvidia driver. It doesn’t work with that. You need to roll back three days or go forward a month.’ I can’t remember at this point. There’s just so many combinations. So hardware was definitely a big challenge. Certain kinds of setups will run your CPU really, really hot. We did a patch before the holidays that mitigated the worst of that, but there are still some combinations of hardware that don’t like our game. We just don’t have the resources to test every combination, but we’re pegging away at it. Our players report it. They send us their DXDiags. You know, I’ve never actually said that out loud. You know what I mean. The DirectX diagnostic tool thingy. I love the PC. I’m a PC gamer myself, but at the same time with a console you just plug it in! It works, and it looks gorgeous. Drivers? What? Drivers have quickly become the bane of my existence.
GB: State of Decay was released fairly late in the life cycle of the 360. Are there any plans for a rerelease for the newest generation of consoles?
SW: No. No plans. The Xbox One and the Xbox 360 are not compatible platforms. There’s no real point of commonality for us to jump from, so it would be nontrivial in terms of time and effort. We think it’s better just to focus on the next game.
GB: I want to discuss that next game soon, but it seems almost like the studio was created just to make State of Decay.
SW: This is the game we were dreaming of when the studio was formed. Actually, the game we were dreaming of originally is something still codenamed Class4. Originally we wanted to make a smaller version, like a proof of concept. Then it turned into its own thing. It stopped being proof of concept and became a fun game all by itself. And being smaller in scale, it’s less risky. The original dream was the massive online world.
GB: So that’s what Class4 is going to be? An MMO?
SW: There’s no secret about it. That’s been the stated dream since 2009.
GB: How is that development going? Is there a projected release date at this point?
SW: There haven’t been any announcements at all. Discussions of the future of the franchise are ongoing. I’m hoping that we can have something to say relatively soon, but I’m not invited to those discussions. We have high hopes, and the success of State of Decay really gave us some options that we’re excited about. As soon as we have something we can say, we’ll be saying it. I always post the news to the community first, so it’ll be on Facebook and Twitter and our forums before it’s anywhere else. There’s not so much as a single line of code written for Class4 yet, but the dreams are all online. Nothing actually exists because it can’t. Part of the bargain for getting State of Decay built means that Microsoft actually owns the IP. But we wouldn’t make a game that we didn’t believe in 100%. If Undead Labs is making the game you know it’s something that we love and care about and are going to swim through rivers of blood to make awesome.
GB: I’m not sure if State of Decay would work as a multiplayer game. I think it thrives at being a single-player game.
SW: It is a great single-player game. We had originally wanted to have some sort of co-op mode, so you could play with a friend. You can actually see traces of the original concept when you play it. I think it would have made a brilliant co-op game, and I’m still sad that that didn’t happen. That was a decision we made back in July. We were like, ‘Okay. It’s a big hit! Let’s see what we can… Oh god.’ It would take nine months at the expense of every other update, every other patch, every other downloadable content. If we did nothing but focus on making a co-op multiplayer mode, then we could do it in nine months. That’s just not worth it. That offers no value to the people who actually bought the single-player game. We need to be supporting this game and patching it and fixing it and adding cool new stuff. It was a tough call because that was something that we really, really loved. Instead we’re focusing on making the next game multiplayer. In terms of true multiplayer, where someone doesn’t have to be your friend as opposed to co-op where you’re presumably playing with someone you like, there’s things you can do with design that mitigate it. There’s no need for a game to have spawn camping where you log in and boom you’re dead. That was my original experience in Ultima Online. I played it for a day. I kept getting ganked as I popped into the world. I could never get away. I was told if I had just ran straight into the woods from that point I would have been alright. How was I supposed to know that? I was a grass green newbie who had never played before. How was I supposed to know that if I took off in one particular direction I would have been alright? Instead, it was just frustrating. That was 1997! There’s no excuse for that bullshit now. Okay? There’s things you can do with design to mitigate that. People are going to be dicks if they want to be dicks. People are going to be awesome if they want to be awesome. There’s no changing humans, but there are things you can do with design to make a newbie live.
GB: I had similar experiences with Ultima Online but fortunately had a friend who was a veteran player help me out. That seems like ages ago.
SW: That’s because it was. We just dated ourselves badly.
GB: Is there more State of Decay DLC in the works?
SW: Oh yeah. DLC number two is hard apace. I was just talking to the designer this morning because we’re planning to be at PAX East in April demoing it (Learn more about Lifeline at undeadlabs.com -Kris). I was talking with him about what we might like to see in our space. All that good stuff. It’s definitely going to be a thing. We don’t have a release date set because we’re not developed enough. That’s the nice thing about digital distribution. You don’t have to nail yourself down to a date. You can wait and see how it goes. He’s playing some of the encounters he’s designed right now.
GB: Can you talk about what the content will be or how much new DLC is planned?
SW: I can’t talk about anything specifically yet because Jeffrey and Jeff both will set me on fire. Jeffrey’s the designer who’s leading the charge on it. Both of them will kill me because we haven’t announced anything at all other than it exists. There were people who loved Breakdown and thought it was what the game was missing all along, but there were people who wanted something new to do. I think those people are going to freaking love DLC two. We definitely look at what the community is crying for, and we try to give it to them. I think people are going to be thrilled.
GB: State of Decay started on Xbox and then released on PC. A benefit of porting to PC has to be that there will always be PC gamers.
SW: That is true. Our PC guys have been terrific. We’ve got a core group that are just tireless. We’ll try to reproduce a bug, and we can’t do it. I’ll go to the forums to figure out what everyone who is experiencing it has in common. Those guys brainstorm like nobody’s business. They help each other like nobody’s business. We don’t have officially supported mods at all. We don’t have the toolset. We definitely don’t have the team to support modifications, but we’ve got a great little mod community kicking butt and walking each other through solving problems. We just could not have a good PC game without our PC players. They’re just the best.
GB: Does that mean that you encourage modding without providing the tools or development kit to do it?
SW: Yeah. We’re delighted to see what they come up with. I made a little subsection of the forum for them to hang out and post their mods. I went in the other day to tell them that if they mod the characters to add these three traits they’re going to break the game. Don’t do it. That’s the kind of thing. We noticed that something was not right, and we dug into it a little bit. If you add one of these traits to a character the game will say that it isn’t a valid character and something has been corrupted, and it’ll swap in what it considers a non-corrupted character. It doesn’t recognize it as modified. People were trying to build these super awesome characters, and it wasn’t working. That’s the thing. The guys don’t get frustrated or angry. They’re so patient and so talented. There’s some really cool stuff going on in that corner of the internet.
GB: Is that interaction with your players a benefit of being and indie studio?
SW: Absolutely! I don’t have to consult a legal team. Half the time I don’t even talk about it with my boss. I just get excited and do things like, ‘You know what would be fun? A haiku contest!’ All of my players participate in the activities I come up with. I’m just not constrained. I’m just not tied down by having to jump through 300 hoops before I can do something fun for somebody. I had a really shitty day right before Christmas, and I went to Facebook and offered a free copy of the game to other people having a crappy day. Oh my god! Some people had really, really horrible days! ‘I’m going to miss Christmas because I just got deployed to Afghanistan.’ Or ‘I just got run over by a car.’ ‘I broke my ankle.’ ‘I lost my job.’ ‘I haven’t had a job in 36 weeks, and my unemployment is running out.’ I realized I needed to buck up and stop whining about my little problems. The launch of our DLC was a little frustrating. Our launch date was Black Friday. There was no promo budget. There was no ad budget. No one even knew the thing existed except for our players who spread the word. I was hoping it would sell a lot more than it did, but no one knew about it. You had to know it was there in order to get it. If it weren’t for word-of-mouth I might be eating cat food right now. I was feeling a little frustrated. Every time I came up with a plan something would go wrong. Talk about first world problems. It made me so happy to know that if I couldn’t solve their problems, at least I could give free games to everybody. I didn’t have to ask permission. I didn’t need to call a lawyer. That’s the great thing about startups. We have a cool idea, and we just jump on it. That goes for everything we do. We just do cool stuff. It’s the founding principle of the company. Do cool shit with other grownups. We featured prominently in a bunch of year-end reviews with some fun quotes. I need to post that to our site for everybody’s reading enjoyment.
GB: There’s a nice zombified picture of you up there too.
SW: Yeah. When you join the company our art director Doug takes a photo of you and zombifies it. So all of us have zombie faces, but not everybody posts. I took a cell phone snap and mailed it in. If I had known that it was going to by my icon for all of eternity, I might have taken a better picture.
GB: With Steam being the point-of-purchase on the PC do you expect the player population to shoot up?
SW: We did get a good rush over Christmas before some fucking loser attacked the Steam service. Okay. I’m a gamer. What am I going to do to show I’m angry being a gamer? I’m going to attack the best platform for gamers to come along since ever. Morons. So we were ticking along nicely. I haven’t got the numbers. There’s a crash error that isn’t our fault. You have to have the latest and greatest Steam client in order to play it, so if you hadn’t updated your Steam client in a while it looked like our launcher was crashing. Of course if you have a pirated copy of the game and didn’t fully uninstall it before you installed the legitimate copy, you’re legitimate copy will crash. So we had a rush of issues like that right around Christmas. So I think the Steam sale did some good. Once people know about it, you can’t beat Steam for accessibility. And our Steam forum is pretty great. People who aren’t used to the internet think it’s horrible. ‘Oh my god! They’re so angry!’ This is one of the happiest Steam forums ever. You need to judge it in context here, people. Our Steam guys are very good about helping each other and reading my stinky threads.
GB: Even before the DLC, State of Decay has a lot going on in terms of gameplay. So many elements of this game could have been games on their own.
SW: Before we launched we were doing demos at PAX. The way we set up is that the actual devs do the demos. There isn’t any marketing person at our company. I’m the closest facsimile thereof. There’s a guy who helped us at Microsoft with the original launch. There wasn’t any budget for the DLC, but with the original launch he was sweet as sugar. We almost didn’t have a trailer to sell the game. The thing that everybody has, we didn’t have that. We didn’t have the bandwidth, and there wasn’t any budget. The nice marketing guy at Microsoft, I don’t know if he bullied somebody or called in a favor or what. We found a guy internally who had experience pulling footage, and he found a guy at Microsoft who could stitch it all together and make a trailer. He did it, and he didn’t have to. He went way out of his way. Such a sweetheart. But we don’t have any marketing people running our booths. So our booths at these shows are the developers. The kind of demo you get depends on the developer you get. If you’re getting a demo from one of the programmers he’s going to show you a lot of the intricate little bits of AI underlying everything. If you get an artist he’s going to draw your attention to the way the light and shadow and other elements interact to improve stealth and climbing and how terrain works to your advantage. It’s really funny to see the differences in presentations. The only presentation that’s the same across the board is what I’m doing. I’m entertaining everybody waiting in the god awful line by trying to explain what the game’s about. Most people get in our line because the line for Halo looked too long. I find that odd. That’s not how I do shows, but that’s how people roll. I’ll sit there trying to explain it, describing the game as an FPS/RTS/RPG/sim. People would just blink. I’d be like, ‘Sounds like buzzwords, but it’s not! It’s all true!’ It was a good time.
GB: It seems like the game has inspired a lot of devotion from its players too.
SW: Every community reflects the company that they’re dealing with. If people feel like they’re screaming into a void, they just keep screaming. People don’t stop screaming when they think they’re screaming into a void. They scream louder hoping their sound will escape. I’m pretty clear on social media that the game’s not going to be for everyone. Everyone who tries it has my thanks, and I hope if you didn’t like it you might like another game that we do someday. If you did like it that’s fantastic! Thank you so much. We are a small, community-focused company. We can’t do all the things a big company can do, but we really appreciate what we do get. That’s valuable to us. Our community is a really valuable part of the process in every possible way. That’s a pretty big deal to us. I’ve worked at the big companies. I have always cared about my community no matter who is paying the bills. It’s just how much I’m allowed to express it and how I’m allowed to express it can vary pretty wildly. I wouldn’t want to suggest that a bigger company doesn’t care because the people who work there do care. They just might not be allowed to tell you, and they might not be allowed to act on your feedback either. The process at a large company is pretty crazy. Even so I can remember pushing some stuff through. I’d get some feedback from users, and six months later there’d be a patch. I wouldn’t be allowed to say, ‘This thing you suggested is the patch!’ I might not have been allowed to draw that connection because somebody somewhere would be afraid that it would create a sense of entitlement with the customer. Like, ‘If they do respond to our feedback, then they have to respond to our feedback.’ That’s of course nonsense. Like most slippery slope arguments, it’s specious. It sounds plausible, but it really isn’t. People who think that way are just wrong. I’m sorry. At the same time, one person can’t change a corporate policy. I don’t like to crap on bigger companies. I know they care. They just may not be allowed to show it. I’m allowed to show it, which is why I have the most awesome job in the world.
State of Decay’s newest DLC Lifeline should be available soon on Xbox 360 and on PC via Steam. Head to undeadlabs.com for more info, and while you’re there say hey to Sanya. She may look like a zombie in the picture up top, but she won’t bite.