'Freaks' and tweaks: ZombiU's winding path to launch

Why one of Wii U's most promising launch titles was almost a completely different game
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Ubisoft typically puts forth a sizable effort for console launches, but ZombiU is an unexpected find in the Wii U's day-one lineup. While it shares a common naming heritage with the publisher's first-ever release, 1986's Zombi, many at Ubisoft consider it a new intellectual property — which makes it essentially the only major one to debut with the system. Amidst a well-stocked offering of extensions to existing franchises and lightly enhanced ports from other platforms, ZombiU proves an anomaly.

Had you shown it to the developers at Ubisoft Montpellier a year and a half ago, it might have surprised them too. Up until shortly after E3 2011, what we know today as ZombiU was dubbed Killer Freaks from Outer Space, and lacked the hard-edged, undead violence of the finished release; instead, it offered a comical shooter experience that put players up against the knee-high titular creatures. When the project surfaced again at this year's expo, it had completely transformed.

While it's impressive ZombiU is ready for the Wii U launch, more startling is its status as a standout — considering the fact that this time last year, it was just shifting over from a co-op romp to the deliberate, individual endurance test it is today.

Killer Freaks

Rabbid relaunch

What Ubisoft showed of Killer Freaks from Outer Space at E3 last year was clearly an early demo; it looked more akin to a traditional Wii game than something running on a new console. But that work-in-progress glimpse showed how wildly different the project could have been. Aside from the setting of London and general use of the GamePad for shooting, ZombiU and its earlier form couldn't seem more disconnected.

According to game designer Jean-Karl Tupin-Bron, who worked on both versions at Ubisoft Montpellier, Killer Freaks was a fast-paced run-and-gun shooter, with games like Bulletstorm and Duke Nukem as references, though the pint-sized titular creatures gave it a distinctive feel.

"We thought about making them cousins of raving rabbids, but very quickly we decided to split [it off] — this is not what Raving Rabbids is all about."

As seen in a handful of gameplay clips online, players racked up visible score bumps for plunking the little buggers with the likes of shotguns, electrified bursts and a gun that fired boomeranging buzz saw blades. Moreover, the arcade-style affair was intended to be played by up to four players in co-op, as hinted by the shadowy figures on the mocked up box art.

Ever since that first showing, many have remarked on the similarities between the killer freaks and the cartoonish rabbids spun off from the Rayman series. Such speculation is warranted — Tupin-Bron confirms that the game was originally conceived as a Rabbids tie-in.

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Killer Freaks concept art
Jean-Karl Tupin-Bron
Killer Freaks and ZombiU designer Jean-Karl Tupin-Bron
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"At the very beginning, it was linked to Raving Rabbids, but we moved it to the Killer Freaks game quickly," he says. "We thought about making them cousins of raving rabbids, but very quickly we decided to split [it off] — this is not what Raving Rabbids is all about. It's a new IP, so we decided to try to create Killer Freaks."

"We loved Killer Freaks, and the idea of changing subjects at the very beginning was a bit painful."

While the official link disappeared, the rabbids' influence seems starkly obvious in the footage available of Killer Freaks from Outer Space. One notable sequence shows a pair of the creatures in a dark corner of a room, one spanking another in a suggestive but farcical manner. And while your protagonist haunts the deserted streets of London, he spouts accent-tinged one-liners and sees silly reactions to the chaos.

Might Killer Freaks have found the right tonal balance between its spinoff origins and the raunchy shooters it used as a thematic template? We'll never know for sure, but it wasn't the humor or storyline that sank the project.

Zombiu

Killing 'Freaks'

Following Killer Freaks' debut at last year's E3, the team at Ubisoft Montpellier seemed satisfied with the initial reception, though something was off. "It wasn't exactly what we wanted to do, because we wanted to develop a game that was only possible on the Wii U," says Tupin-Bron. The fast pace of the action was part of the issue, but so was its use of the GamePad. With most of the action centralized on the smaller screen, the approach didn't make worthwhile use of a TV display.

The killer freaks themselves were also a significant problem — they were simply too short, and too small of targets to be satisfying kills. "You always had to aim down," Tupin-Bron says, and perpetually staring at the ground didn't make for a particularly interesting experience, nor was it one that benefitted the Wii U GamePad. The designer laments the loss of the miniature monsters, however. "I loved the creatures," he says. "It reminds me of movies from the 1980s, like Gremlins."

It all came to a head not long after E3 2011. "At one of the [publisher] meetings, the problems appeared; but we were already aware of them, so it was just a confirmation," he says. "We were already thinking that the creatures and the universe were fun, but it doesn't work so well. So when Ubisoft Paris told us that it had issues, we said, 'Yeah, you're right.'"

"We saw that the traction on Killer Freaks was fine, but it was not as appealing as we wanted, and we wanted the gameplay to slow down a little bit," says Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot.

"The Wii U GamePad wasn't exactly what we wanted for this kind of gameplay. We wanted to develop something for the two screens, but we didn't have any very good ideas for a very speedy first-person shooter with two screens," says Tupin-Bron. "So we twisted the concept and arrived at ZombiU. The idea of zombies was very cool, because it was a good opportunity to slow down the pace, and also to have creatures that were better known by the public. It was perfect for us."

"We loved Killer Freaks, and the idea of changing subjects at the very beginning was a bit painful," he says. "But when ZombiU appeared, almost the entire team said, 'That is really, really cool and we want to do that.'" In September 2011, a scant 14 months before the game's set release date, most of the Killer Freaks from Outer Space development team moved over to ZombiU to chart the new path forward.

ZombiU

Zombi origins

ZombiuIn game, ZombiU looks far grittier and more realistic than Killer Freaks, offering a mix of close combat (seen above) and ranged combat (seen below right).

Moving away from diminutive, devious original creatures towards undead walkers might provide a more familiar target for players, but that comes with the double-edged sword of dipping into overused source material — and zombies are all over the gamescape these days. Tupin-Bron doesn't see that as a stumbling block.

"We don't want to make another zombie game," he says. "We want to make our game with original features and game mechanics, and that's why we decided to push the concept further."

He cites the 2007 film adaptation of I Am Legend as a key inspiration. The Francis Lawrence-directed take on Richard Matheson's classic novel starred Will Smith as the last healthy human left in New York City, which is crawling with infected men and women. It's an interesting note, but one that makes sense from the shared "one against the horde" approach of ZombiU. "If he's not prepared, he will not survive one day more," says Tupin-Bron of Smith's hero in the film. "We wanted to make it a game, make it fun and make it really, really scary."

As for the title itself, ZombiU, the moniker began as a codename that quickly caught on. "It started as a working title; a kind of joke, even, because we were reminiscing about Zombi, the first game from Ubisoft," says Tupin-Bron. "We said, 'That's a codename, but it's absolutely perfect. I'm looking for a zombie game on Wii U: ZombiU. You can't miss it.'"

ZombiU isn't meant to be a reboot or a reimagining of the original Zombi, which launched on the Amstrad CPC home computer in 1986, with other versions following in 1990. Zombi offered its take on Dawn of the Dead's shopping mall full of undead concept long before Capcom's Dead Rising, allowing the player to control four different protagonists as they aim to escape the commerce-centric calamity. But similarities between the two aren't intentional, Tupin-Bron says.

"We don't want to make another zombie game. We want to make our game with original features and game mechanics."

"[Similarities appear] naturally, because the original Zombi from the 80s had the same vision," he says. "The idea was to make something very realistic — we had the same path and the same development process, and we arrive at some ideas that are very similar; but we never said that we should take an idea from Zombi because it was first."

He admits to going back and playing the original, though. Asked what made that formative game for the publisher so unique, Tupin-Bron responds, "Right now with the Walking Dead games, we know that we can make adventure games with zombies. But back in 1986, it was less obvious. There were a lot of good ideas in that game, and it's nice to have that kind of ... we can't say that it's a sequel, but it's nice to have that history at Ubisoft."

Zombi might have made for a perfect hidden Easter egg within the game, which Tupin-Bron acknowledges was a consideration, but that's one proposed element that such a quick development cycle nixed. ZombiU has some fun nods to its Killer Freaks heritage, though, including an "Attack of the Killer Freaks" movie poster somewhere along the streets of London.

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Drive-in

'Souls' searching

Also surprising, and perhaps indicative of a Nintendo-led trend to attract more core players to Wii U than the original Wii sustained, is the fact that ZombiU is pegged as a very challenging experience for hardcore players. Is it the next Dark Souls? Perhaps not — but that's another reference point mentioned by Tupin-Bron.

"Of course, we played Dark Souls a lot. We played Super Meat Boy. We played all of these games," he affirms, noting the recent trend of satisfyingly brutal titles and how that benefits the survival horror genre. "[ZombiU is] tough, but I think it's never unfair. Each time you lose, you have a way to come back quickly to get back your items. It's tough, and sometimes it's complicated, but it's not unfair."

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He's referring to one of the game's defining features: the ability for your character to permanently die and never return — not as a human, at least. Killed protagonists are reborn as zombies in the world, which must be tracked down and slain by the next protagonist to retrieve the player's former gear. It's an odd circle of life, but a clever idea that fits in well with the survival theme, while also providing tremendous incentive for players to watch every little step amidst the mayhem.

"We didn't want to have our own hero in ZombiU because it should be possible to lose him. That brought us to the point that we wanted a survival game; we wanted it difficult and tough, and we wanted to have a death system that is painful, but not so much," says Tupin-Bron, who adds that this feature wasn't a part of the game when it was Killer Freaks from Outer Space. "When you lose a character, it means that you lose a lot of things, and it means that you will do whatever you can to avoid death. For a zombie game, it was perfect."

Shunning a notable lead not only creates potential narrative headaches for the developer, but also problems with providing continuity to players relying on their wits — and often little more. Ubisoft solved that problem with The Prepper, an unseen character who speaks to each protagonist via radio, preparing you to enter the apocalyptic world after waking up in the safe house. He'll be your eyes and ears in the world, helping to guide you towards your former self to reclaim weapons and tools, as well as push the action forward. "The idea was to create a non-playable character, who is going to be the link between all of the survivors," explains Tupin-Bron. "This guy is the most important character in the game."

And you'll need the help. Tupin-Bron says testers have been finishing the campaign in 16 to 18 hours, and while it is possible to complete the game with a single character, it's not a likely fate. An unlockable Survival mode cans the ability to reload a save file once killed, which he confidently states is for "very, very hardcore players." Wary first-timers might consider what's referred to as a "chicken mode," though he claims it's not as breezy as it sounds. "Even for a chicken mode, it's still complicated."

A fresh perspective

Zombiu

Survival horror games are more often than not experienced from an external perspective, so ZombiU's first-person view is uncommon, though not unique. "We have talked a lot about Condemned: Criminal Origins, which is an amazing survival horror game, and it's a first-person shooter," notes Tupin-Bron. "It works very well because using the first-person view is a perfect way to hide things. When you are developing survival horror games, the best way to find scary things is not to show them."

Having players frequently switching their eyes between the television and the GamePad also helps facilitate scary situations. "Of course — that's part of the idea," he adds. "[The game says] 'Yeah, look at your Wii U controller; do not pay attention to your TV.'" And then a zombie appears.

It's a helpful perk in that regard, but balancing the two screens — and instructing players on how to ably utilize both throughout — proved a challenge that required plenty of playtests and user interface iteration. "One of the biggest issues we had was telling the user, 'Stop watching this screen and start watching the other one,' and vice versa," says Tupin-Bron. "It sounds quite stupid, but telling that to the user is seriously complicated."

As such, the team came up with perspective-switching cues that should trigger a reaction in players, such as looking in your backpack or attempting to pick a lock. "I think users will learn very quickly that when you start switching from the first-person view to the third-person view," he continues, "it means that you have to look at your Wii U controller."

At least in the asymmetric multiplayer mode, each player will be able to concentrate on his/her own respective display. ZombiU's King of Zombies mode — based on a similar separate-screen option from Killer Freaks from Outer Space — lets one player (as "King Boris") use the GamePad to manage resources and place enemy zombies and armored units in the game world, viewed from a top-down perspective. Meanwhile, a second player with a Wii U Pro Controller or a Nunchuk and Wii Remote combo fights them off in first-person combat.

With three play variations — including one that merges elements of traditional capture the flag and control point domination multiplayer modes — and five maps, it should be a fairly sizeable addition to the ZombiU experience. To make that happen in time for launch, Ubisoft Bucharest took lead on the multiplayer part of the game (and assisted with single-player), adding their talents to the pool of about 80 developers utilized at Ubisoft Montpellier.

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Stupid ambition

Ubisoft has a long history of supporting new hardware launches with heaps of titles, but one in particular has resonated with those skeptical of ZombiU: Red Steel, another original first-person action game that used the Wii Remote to offer both firearm-based action and swordplay. Developed by Ubisoft Paris, the game was one of the most anticipated Wii launch titles, but reviews were mixed thanks in part to control and presentational issues. Tupin-Bron claims the comparisons are unwarranted.

"It's surprising. It's not the same team at all; [Ubisoft] just developed the two games. Red Steel has a history and ZombiU has a history, but we are not the same game at all," he says. "But to be fair, if Capcom or Sega is developing a game for day one for the Wii U, we are not talking about the day one game from Capcom or Sega for the first Wii as well. So it was surprising, but we didn't pay attention to that."

He also says the team was surprised by having the only significant new property ready for day one, but its own launch day fate sounds like a foregone conclusion; there was plenty of expected pressure from within to make the date. For Ubisoft, that's resulted in prominent placement of the game in Nintendo's marketing efforts for the platform. "You can be sure that all of the guys who are buying the Wii U on day one will have an eye on your game," he says.

Getting there has been a difficult road, however, exacerbated by the need to shift gears and adapt to a new roadmap within a tight development cycle. "To be honest, right now the game is finished, so we can speak freely," says Tupin-Bron. "One year ago, trying to make such an ambitious game, it [was] a bit stupid, I think. It has been tough. It has been a huge amount of work, but it's done." Babykayak

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