Zombie Playground: The Goonies and Attack the Block with a splash of The Walking Dead

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For Massive Black, one of the entertainment industry's largest concept art shops, Zombie Playground is a chance to finally be in the spotlight.

"I used to play games like this with my friends all of the time on the jungle gym at school."

Well maybe not exactly like this. 8-year-old Jason Chan and his friends probably weren't holed up in a giant plastic bucket perched atop a spiral slide, armed with trashcan lids, sling shots and bricks, fighting off a shambling horde of undead classmates.

Perhaps Chan's childhood games were a bit less macabre, a bit less threatening, a bit less surreal than his memories of them. But those games were powered by the same imagination that years later created Zombie Playground, Chan's 2009 painting that tapped into the growing zombie zeitgeist among gamers.

That one-off piece of art proved so popular it became Chan's most sold print; and now it's set to become the concept for a video game. The Kickstarter for Zombie Playground hit its $100,000 goal this week, a bit more than a week before its deadline. Chan and concept-art house Massive Black say any more money that comes in during the drive's remaining four days will go to expanding their idea for a game: An adult-themed zombie apocalypse title which features children as the protagonists. The game's success, or failure, could help determine the future of Massive Black not just as concept creators, but as game makers.

Left 4 Dead Grade School

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"ALL I HAD TO DO WAS IMAGINE WHAT I WOULD DO AS A KID TO SURVIVE A ZOMBIE OUTBREAK."

It all started with that image.

In the painting we see tiny children armed with children's toys and the oddments of a school playground. One is holding a trashcan lid like a shield, the other threatens with a school-house-red brick. They hold a Wiffle Ball bat, maybe a measuring stick, as weapons. The four stand crowded in a chipped and scratched jungle gym. One boy prods a zombie slithering up the curve of a yellow slide, the boy's small frame silhouetted against the fluff of white clouds in an incongruously pretty blue sky. A little raven-haired girl stands with one foot balanced on a yellow railing, mouth agape, slingshot gripped in a diminutive hand.

That there are four children surrounded by a horde of the young undead, that the painting was noticed shortly after Valve's Left 4 Dead was released, led some to believe that the piece of art was meant to be an homage.

But Chan says it wasn't.

"The image was originally created for an art contest with the theme ‘outbreak,'" he told Polygon. "A lot of people were going to go the zombie route, but I wanted to do something a little different. Then I had the idea that maybe all of the zombies and survivors should be kids. From there, the image pretty much painted itself. All I had to do was imagine what I would do as a kid to survive a zombie outbreak.

"I used to play games like this with my friends all of the time on the jungle gym at school. When I started thinking about how kids would react in this situation, all of those childhood memories came flooding back. It's as much an autobiographical piece as it is a zombie apocalypse painting."

Zombie Playground was a "fun image to make," Chan said, but he never really expected it to become anything more than that. Then it was discovered on Digg, and sites like Kotaku wrote about it and suddenly people were drawing parallels between it and Left 4 Dead.

Massive Black, Massive Talent

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Founded in 2003, Massive Black is one of the entertainment industry's secret weapons. The concept art and production house in San Francisco has more than 300 clients and holds workshops throughout North America and Europe. But what Massive Black does best is pull the imagination of other people into the real world through paintings, concept drawings and animation.

The team at Massive Black's concept art has provided the backdrop, the settings, the characters, the creative pulse for films, advertising, merchandising and video games. You've seen their artistic touch on everything from Super Bowl and 5 Gum commercials, to movies like Transformers and GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, to Silent Hill and Forza video games.

But a few years ago, business slowed for the studio as video game companies started to go under. The trickle of work was a wake up call at Massive Black, and the studio heads started to think about other ways they could make money.

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"As a company whose primary income is creating artwork for other game studios, this was a very tough situation since some of our clients were unable to pay us for the work we had already done," Chan said. "We knew that we had to do something to generate alternate revenue.

"So we started a lot of side projects. (Massive Black president) Chris (Hatala), along with a number of the other members of the 3D team, suggested I try to create a game based onZombie Playground. I was a little hesitant at first because I didn't think any publisher would pick up something about kids killing (zombie) kids, but I couldn't deny how fun I thought it would be if the game was done right."

Chan and the folks at Massive Black set about creating a pitch document. Hatala called the process pretty organic.

"After Jason created that epic image, we just couldn't stop going back to the idea of how cool it would be as a game," he said. "There's just too much good material, hilarious to scary, since it's also based on all of our childhood memories, the ideas never seem to stop flowing."

Massive Black started shopping the idea around to different developers and publishers. But the results were mixed.

"AFTER JASON CREATED THAT EPIC IMAGE, WE JUST COULDN'T STOP GOING BACK TO THE IDEA OF HOW COOL IT WOULD BE AS A GAME,"

Chris Hatala, president of Massive Black.

The terror of a child's imagination

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Zombie Playground, which Massive Black hopes to launch in March 2013, will be a mostly online, team-based, action arena game with some role-playing game elements. The gameplay will be, according to the Kickstarter page, deep, challenging and rewarding. The PC and Mac game will be played as a third-person shooter with characters that level up as they fight together to survive. Finding new weapons, items and clothing will allow gamers to further customize their characters, according to the site. The four-player cooperative game will launch with at least two character classes. There won't be a single-player campaign.

"The game might have a small story, but it's more about jumping straight into the imaginary apocalypse and staying there for as long as possible," Hatala said. "That's the meat and potatoes."

While there is not meant to be much story (think Left 4 Dead), the inspirations are pulled straight from film.

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Hatala broke down the movies that gave life to the game's unspoken story; they're drawn from a dichotomy of film classifications that form a strange triad of influence. There's one part childhood nostalgia powered by movies like The Goonies; one part adolescent horror, like 2011's Attack the Block; and finally the dark, brooding horror of The Walking Dead.

"We are looking to instill the fun and awe feeling we felt after our favorite childhood movies coupled with the dread of a seemingly unstoppable threat," Hatala said.

The game's backdrop will play with the loose threads of an intriguing idea: marrying the true horror of a child dropped in a vicious zombie uprising, with the imagined, but usually harmless summer adventures every child has growing up.

"It is really a combination of both ideas," Hatala said. "As scary and visceral as a real zombie uprising, but with the added perk of a child's imagination to help dominate the scenario. While a zombie can be pretty frightening, a child's imagination is the perfect counter. Creativity rules in this world, and as we know, anything goes in a child's imagination."

Mothhead

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This isn't the first time Massive Black decided to do more than breath life into other people's ideas. Before there was Jason Chan's Zombie Playground there was Peter Konig's Mothhead.

Konig's work as an artist, sculptor and puppeteer has shown up in a number of surprising places. Movies: Arachnophobia, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, Child's Play 3,Star Trek IV, Jurassic Park, Starship Troopers. Video games: Left 4 Dead, DOTA 2,Portal 2 and Halo 4. The lists go on and on.

The sculptures found on his website show deformed, faceless people, grey, stripped of identity, often headless. Next to a sculpture of what looks like a handless, stooped figure with wild tufts of grass growing out of its neck - above the sculpture of the bunny-eared mummy, its hands missing, its legs shriveled to sticks - stands Mothhead. As a sculpture, Mothhead borders on vulgar. Perhaps that was the goal: a model that deconstructs the human form and reshapes it into something repulsive. A massive pointed bone curves upward out of Mothhead's crotch. The nubby arms end at the elbow, rags hanging in tatters almost to the ground. A cage of exposed ribs wrap around the gaunt torso. A twisted root of a neck ends with the flat disc of a perched moth. Ironically, Mothhead seems to become more substantial when he moved from the form of a physical sculpture to that of concept art, and then finally a video game of sorts.

The sculpture made the leap to interactivity, populating a "world where your head is a moth," to help show off the prowess of a video game engine. But it wasn't released to the public.

"Mothhead is really a tech demo done in collaboration with Unity Technologies and is meant to show off Unity 3D's high-quality rendering capabilities, effects, and HDR," Hatala explains. "Unity is a great engine, and one that is certainly a contender in creating AAA quality games. We're not sure if/when Unity will decide to releaseMothhead, but maybe someday we will add a bit more gameplay and release a Massive Black version free to the public."

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The Kick

It was Massive Black's dabbling in Unity that helped fuel their interest in Zombie Playgroundas a video game.

"We started doing some work for Unity and we were introduced to their Unity engine," Chan said. "We were surprised at the results we could get with their engine in a relatively short time and decided that we might be able to actually do the game ourselves."

The problem, Chan said, was that they needed funding.

"All of the work done on the game so far has been contributions from our team and friends in the industry donating their work either pro bono or for maybe a chance to get more work out of it later if it gets funded," he said.

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Then came Kickstarter and its success stories and suddenly a new option opened up for Massive Black.

"If we couldn't get funding from the companies," Chan said, "maybe we could get some from the community."

Massive Black hit their Kickstarter goal of $100,000 with less than a week to spare. With just four days left, the future developer has pulled in $124,332 in promised funding from 2,865 backers. Any extra money they bring it will go toward expanding the game, its features and characters.

"We really hope to have the opportunity to share our full vision of Zombie Playground with everyone," Hatala said. "While we want to make games we like to play, we also want to make games you like to play. So you are not only our audience, but also our sponsor, and co-developer. The reception has been simply incredible, so we hope to keep those positive vibes going. Zombie Playground will be what we all decide to make it, including the community. Since only with your support, can we make this project a reality."

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And Hatala says he hopes Zombie Playground won't be the last video game they make.

"Creating video games really seemed like a natural progression for us," Hatala said. "We've been working in games so long, and most of us just simply love playing games. Playing video games since our childhood, they are pretty much hard wired into us now. There are many other exciting media out there, and we like to explore those too, but it's just so fun to immerse yourself into another world where you are actually in control of a character and influence an outcome.

"We never have a shortage of ideas around here, so we hope to someday get all of our internal projects out to the public in one form or another."

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