Interview: Jeff Strain on State of Decay 2

A lively chat with the Undead Labs’ founder Jeff Strain about tackling the undead threats in State of Decay 2.

Interview: Jeff Strain on State of Decay 2
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At a recent hands-on State of Decay 2 event, I had the chance to sit down with Jeff Strain, founder of Undead Labs, about the soon-to-be-released sequel. Prior to the interview, Strain had already commented on how my co-op partners (two of my buddies) and I seemed more interested in working against each other than fighting for the common good. Before we moved on to talking about co-op specifics, “fate cards” and the whether Steam owners will see State of Decay 2, this is exactly where the interview started.

PCPP: …if you put me and those two guys in the same room together in co-op, it’s going to end up co-petitive.

Jeff Strain: What I love is within 10 seconds you guys started griefing.

PCPP: Oh, yeah.

JS: Literally. The very first thing, especially, my favourite grief, someone is trying to get into the car, and every time they get close, you just edge off a little bit.

Microsoft PR: It’s like how you play every game.

PCPP: It is like how we play every game. We’re a bit of a nightmare like that. I was just wondering if you could tell me what the co-op limitations are.

JS: There aren’t any limitations. When you’re in somebody’s world, you can interact with the facilities in their base, but you can’t start new construction projects or manage their base. Other than that, as you point out, everything is permanent for your character in their world. If you find resources or find weapons or items that you want to take with you, you can craft things in their facilities. The whole world is available to you, but there’s no restrictions on character progression.

PCPP: You can only take that one character across?

JS: You can take one character at a time. If that character dies, or if you need to take them home and rest them and bring another one, you can do that.

PCPP: Right, so it’s drop-in/drop-out, you can just rejoin seamlessly. You don’t need to be invited.

JS: That’s right. Oh, do you need to be invited?

PCPP: If we’re friends.

JS: I think you do need to be invited. The other way you can join multiplayer is you can register to be willing to help people, and if they get in trouble, they can fire off a flare gun, and then you get a notification that they need help and you can jump right in. For that kind of multiplayer, the game will reward you quite a bit. You’ll get goodies when you get back to your base for helping somebody out.

PCPP: And can you leave at any point? If my mate is getting swarmed and he’s about to die, I don’t want my character to die, see ya.

JS: Yeah.

PCPP: You can just disconnect at any point?

JS: Yeah, but if you were playing your own game, you can leave your own game at any time.

PCPP: So that’s a little cheesy way to avoid dying then if you’re getting swarmed?

JS: There’s going to be a little bit of an imposed lag. We’re probably going to make it play out for 10 seconds after you’re say you’re leaving.

PCPP: So you definitely don’t want to do the power-off trick with this game.

[At this point, I asked a design question about co-op that Jeff wanted to give me an accurate answer for. Because of this, I was emailed a reply from design director Richard Foge after my interview with Jeff.]

PCPP: What’s up with the colour-coded searchable areas in co-op? Does this coincide with the colour assigned to each player?

Richard Foge: The colour coding on containers is indeed correlated to each player and matches the colour of your dot on the map. We add containers specifically for guest players so that they aren’t taking anything away from the host. Once they have looted their allotted containers they can share freely with each other. This is in keeping with the design intention that multiplayer is a strict positive for both players and the host, and we don’t force the host to have to pay a cost for inviting other players.

[Now, back to the rest of my face-to-face interview with Jeff.]

PCPP: Where did you start with the sequel in the sense that, in the presentation you were talking about there were certain things from the first game that you obviously liked that have carried over, there were other things that you thought shouldn’t make the cut for the sequel. So, what was the philosophy behind creating a sequel that is we’re going to keep this and not that?

JS: A lot of it was driven by what we realised after we released the game and saw how people played it and what they enjoyed. One of the things that really emerged, there was the whole question about permadeath, right? It was a big scary decision. Back in 2013, that was verboten. You did not have permadeath.

It was just common knowledge that people would rage quit and it just wasn’t a good design principle. We knew we had to have character death be meaningful to have a really meaningful survival experience. But one thing that emerged was we understood that there was a contract, an implicit contract, with players if you were going to do that, and that is that if you die, you have to believe that it’s from a decision you made and not the game randomly punishing you or the game developers engineering mechanics that just randomly slap you down.

So, we have to be really careful about that contract. And one of the things that the original game had that violated that contract was offline progression. When you exited the game and then you came back after two days, we would forward the simulation by two days and be like, ‘Oh, you’ve lost this many resources and this person has left your community because they got pissed off.’ And players were like, ‘Whoa! No, no, no.’ And what we realised then was those were… bad things were happening to you for things that were not your decision and under your control and that violated the contract.

So, we’ve been very… we’ve pulled that out, we designed this one to not have anything like that. We’ve been very doctrinaire now, every time we make a decision, we first have to test it against that litmus test. Are we fulfilling the contract of the player always believing or realising that if they die it’s because of decisions they made? And if it’s something we’re doing randomly, we don’t do it.

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