Geoff Keene is the Design Director of The Dead Linger and founder of Sandswept Studios. The Dead Linger began development near the end of 2011 and has seen some major changes since then. Still, the project is as ambitious as ever, promising a vast customizable map to explore and an environment in which you can interact with just about anything – even creating your own barricades out of found materials in the world.
We reached out to Geoff to get some more information regarding a recent bit of flak The Dead Linger has received as well as some more info regarding the game itself.
TechRaptor: Please tell us a bit about yourself and your game The Dead Linger.
Geoff Keene: Hey, I'm Geoff Keene, design director of Sandswept Studios, and project lead on The Dead Linger (TDL). TDL is a massive, open world zombie survival game with a major focus on cooperative play, barricading, and sandbox survival against classic zombie hordes. It's currently available on Steam Early Access and has a lot of development left to fully achieve our vision.
TechRaptor: What inspired you to create a game like The Dead Linger?
Geoff: Back when I was about 15 years old (24 now) I picked up Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide, alongside the original Walking Dead comic series. I'd say those, alongside the 2004 Dawn of the Dead film and the classic Night of the Living Dead, are my biggest inspirations for creating something as grand as The Dead Linger. The design had been brewing in my head (and on paper) for years, until we finally had the capabilities to start development.
TechRaptor: You have chosen to use Kickstarter and Early Access as methods for funding, both of which have become criticized lately. Why did you choose to use those two methods, and what have you learned about each process?
Geoff: I think people like to complain about stuff that goes wrong, and ignore stuff that goes right. For every great Kickstarter campaign or Early Access title, there's quite a few flops or, in some awful cases, straight up criminals trying to game the system, and jumping ship the moment they get a little cash in their pockets. And that totally sucks. I am extremely grateful to Kickstarter for being a place where people can vote with their wallets on what they want to see created, and our timing was excellent with Valve's Early Access program. We chose them simply because it seemed like the right thing to do to continue our intimate interaction with the community, and ensure we're able to keep creating during that process.
In hindsight, we should've done the Kickstarter campaign for more money and some stretch goals (which were barely a concept when we did our Kickstarter, as we were in some ways one of the first to try it out.) We also might have waited a few months longer for some gameplay to help show the overall idea better. We still would've had the same issues and hurdles with the procedural gen and the game engine changes, but we can't spend too much time wishing about the past or we won't get anything done in the present.
TechRaptor: In what way do you think those two methods might be improved for developers, or customers, etc.?
Geoff: There's always room for improvement, especially on the analytics/data side, but nothing comes readily to mind. We've had an overall good experience with both systems.
TechRaptor: Some have argued that The Dead Linger should be removed from Steam because they feel the store page is a misrepresentation of the game to future buyers. Considering there is no mention of the game being in a transition phase from Unity to Unreal, including that there is no disclosure of the assets shown on the page being from an engine that will no longer be used, do you think that there is some basis for that argument?
Geoff: As for no mention of the transition, our announcements are full of posts about it. The engine doesn't really change anything about the game itself. Our listed features and content in the game will be the same as before when the transition is complete, and currently the Unity build (Build 15) is still available as it has been. We will be doing some optional opt-in stuff for people who want to check out the UE4 build before it's "caught up" to Build 15.
As for our assets; all of our content from the Unity build is transferring over to Unreal. The zombies, the weapons, the textures, they're all moving over. If anything, the only real issue we have right now is that the game is going to look a lot better than it currently does on the store page.
TechRaptor: This ties in to the Early Access question, but do you think it might be better to require more detail on the current state of a game on its store page? Gamers that purchase Early Access games are buying both into the game as it is at the moment as well as the promise of what it could be in the future.
Geoff: I believe the Development Roadmap does a great job of showing people where we are, where we're going, and even which specific build those features are arriving in. I'll definitely take some of the feedback into account as far as enhancing clarity on the store page. We do want to make sure everyone knows what's up when picking up The Dead Linger.
TechRaptor: The community around The Dead Linger is very vocal, what and where are the best ways they might communicate their criticism?
Geoff: The best place to post feedback, good OR bad, is on the forums over at our website at Sandswept.net. I read those pretty much daily. Steam forums, less so. You can also tweet us any time on twitter @thedeadlinger. We try to answer all the questions we receive there.
TechRaptor: What was the reasoning behind beginning the game in Ogre, and what suggestions might you give to future developers on choosing the engine that is right for them?
Geoff: Some of the custom stuff we were doing (i.e. procedural world gen) was looking extremely incompatible with Unity at the time. We figured if we programmed a lot of it from scratch, it would come out exactly how we want, and not with some of the modifications that we had to make for Unity. The biggest problem with that is Ogre is really just a rendering engine, not a game engine. All of the gameplay code up to that point was completely from scratch, with Ogre just doing the visual rendering aspect of it. Unity helped us out a lot, but we had to battle with it quite a bit. The biggest suggestion I would give to developers is to stick with the big, commercial engines that everyone uses - they use them for a reason. And of course, don't re-invent the wheel. If you're spending time developing something that every game has, chances are there's an engine already taking care of it and you're just wasting time by doing it custom. Unless you're into tinkering and have no interest in making a finished game, just pick up Unity or Unreal. I've personally grown quite fond of Unreal, but Unity works great as well for smaller titles.
You mentioned in the Build 15 video that you didn't want builds to take two months to get out, yet it has been since October since the last new build. While you do keep regular updates on some items on the official site, when might fans expect to see Build 16 and is the transition to Unreal holding it up?
Well, the engine change was certainly not factored into that at the time. Post engine change, we absolutely foresee our builds releasing on a much shorter cycle. Development is wicked fast in Unreal.
TechRaptor: You spoke about it some here, but what were some of the key factors in changing The Dead Linger's mapping from procedural generation to randomly generated maps?
Geoff: Time and resources were the key factors. Yes, it can be done and debugged and polished, but no, we just don't have the means to do so. The "frankenstein monster" aspects of procedural generation are extremely present when you're doing full 3D environments, with fully explorable interiors. The amount of time and code development that would have to be dedicated to polishing it up, as we calculated, would take an enormous amount of time away from actual gameplay development. When we're sitting there struggling with world generation issues, and the forums are on fire with "Why hasn't Zombie AI been improved?" or "Why can't I do X, Y, and Z yet?" then you have to stop and seriously consider -- are we making a cool piece of tech, or are we making a really fun zombie game? We only have resources for one, and the latter won out.
TechRaptor: You've said in the past that the procedural generation and the massive map size are not what The Dead Linger is about, yet the Steam store page still promises a massive world. What does the current plan on map size and design offer you that the old plans didn't in terms of what you intend The Dead Linger to be about?
Geoff: The world is indeed massive. Pepper Valley, the current region we're working on, is about 360 square kilometers in size - fully playable and no invisible walls within it. The new map allows us to get a lot more intimate with each part of the world. Every home, yard, tunnel, back alley, forest, and mountain top (again, all explorable!) can be custom built to tell a real story and provide the scenarios we want to ensure people are able to experience.
TechRaptor: What do you mean by custom built?
Geoff: Custom created, as opposed to procedurally generated. We're still going to randomize the experience each time you create a new world save (loot and zombie spawns to start, more stuff later) but we now have full control over how that is delivered in Pepper Valley. Everything will feel like a much more complete and believable experience - and no more crazy procedural generation bugs.
TechRaptor: Considering that Steam now allows refunds, do you think some people that bought the game mainly for the idea of procedural generation or the extremely large map size would be justified in the refund? Also, have you seen some effects from refunds already and what are your thoughts on them?
Geoff: I am all for Steam's new refund policy. If people feel they're justified in a refund, they're welcome to try and get one, but I think the majority of our playerbase understands the risk (and reward) with jumping on board an Early Access title. Dropped features (even big ones) are definitely one of those risks. If it were me, I'd figure my money got me in on the ground floor of a game that will very well be colossal in the future (without having to pay a cent more), so I'd stick around to see what the devs have in store -- but I can't speak for everyone, and coming from me, that probably doesn't mean a whole lot since all devs are certainly biased towards their own game! :)
TechRaptor: What are you trying to do differently than other popular games in a similar vein such as DayZ?
Geoff: Our main focus is and has always been to ensure friends (or strangers) can jump into the world together and fend off classic, Romero-style hordes of the undead. Hundreds, banging on your windows, surrounding your buildings, and always a threat to you and your group. Sure, you can play solo, and yes, we have PvP planned (with zombies still the main threat), but we want to really nail down the feeling those conversations bring when you're sitting there late at night with your friends and you say; "Hey guys, if the zombie apocalypse happened, where would we go? What would we do?" That is the entire essence of The Dead Linger.
The "survival PvP" craze lately was extremely unexpected when we began development years ago. Things like DayZ popped up around the same time, something which I can only assume is pure coincidence and "the right time" for the technology. But as for the PvP aspects, it's never been something we've looked at for TDL and said "Yes, we need this to be what the game is about." That said, Chaoss is taking lead on the PvP side of things, while I'm focusing more directly on the cooperative experience. We want to ensure players who want to PvP can, and players who don't, never have to interact with the people who do.
Free-form barricading is another big feature we're pushing with The Dead Linger. Placing boards however you want, any way you want.
TechRaptor: Free-form barricading sounds interesting, how big of a role do you plan for it to take in The Dead Linger?
Geoff: Quite large. The core of The Dead Linger isn't building or crafting your own structures, but taking the existing structures of the world and turning them into fortresses or safe-havens against the undead. Free-form barricading is one of the main ways to strengthen a door or cover up a window, just like they do in the zombie films we all know and love.
TechRaptor: You said you're not leading it, but can you give some insight into what the PvP will look like? How will it differ from other similar games and where will its emphasis be?
Geoff: I'm not leading it, but Chaoss and I work very closely together on what our plans are for PvP and the game as a whole. Chaoss is very big on games like Rust, DayZ, and so on, so he's sort of bringing the familiar PvP survival stuff to the table (with his improvements) and I'm double checking to ensure we're still focusing on the zombies as the main threat. We want to have free for all, the typical lone-wolf, every man for himself stuff, but we also want to include some larger scale "clan war" type modes, such as Team Deathmatch. I don't think any games do a very powerful, classic "red vs. blue" gametype in the zombie apocalypse with zombies interrupting your firefights and clambering through the windows of your stronghold as the enemy team steals your supplies. We have a couple other gametypes in store, both cooperative and PvP, such as Tower of Power and Last Flight Out, which we'll talk more about in the future.
TechRaptor: What kind of experience do you hope players to have in The Dead Linger?
Geoff: A damn fun one. We want people to take their friends and survive the apocalypse in whatever way they see fit. That's the real essence of TDL.
If players aren't having fun, we've got work to do, and if they are having fun, then we've achieved that goal. We have a long road ahead, and we're more excited than ever to be doing it in Unreal Engine 4!
TechRaptor: Any other thoughts or comments?
Geoff: Sure! If you're interested in The Dead Linger, you can view our plans and progress with the Development Roadmap at www.thedeadlinger.com/roadmap, and you can follow us on twitter @TheDeadLinger to stay up to date on the latest!
Thanks for the interview, Andrew!
TechRaptor would like to thank Geoff for this interview.
What do you all think of The Dead Linger?