Part Stubbs the Zombie spiritual successor, part Pikmin homage, part indie development experiment.
It was the question you couldn't escape. In 2005, Wideload Games released cult favorite Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse — the story of a lovable zombie who destroyed a corrupt town by, among other things, peeing on it. And whenever someone interviewed Wideload after its release, you could set your watch by them asking about a sequel.
"There will be another Stubbs in the future," responded Wideload founder Alex Seropian in 2006. "Probably not the immediate future, but Stubbs has more stories in him."
"We love the character," said Seropian in 2007. "We hope to do more with him."
"I can't say anything specific right now," said writer Matt Soell in 2008, "but it's safe to say he'll be back."
But while Wideload was externally confident, behind the scenes it struggled to find favorable publishing deals, at one point considering a Stubbs 1.5 rather than a proper sequel. As the years went by, the company transitioned into kids' games and eventually licensed games, and most of the team that developed Stubbs left. When Disney bought Wideload in 2009, and Seropian and Soell departed in 2012, the nail seemed firmly in the coffin.
So perhaps it's appropriate that when two former Wideload team members started an indie studio and began work on a game with many similarities to Stubbs, their prototype would begin with the main character rising from his grave.
Ragtag Studio, seemingly by definition, doesn't have an office. Its staff hasn't made a game as a team yet, and all three members currently live on their wives' salaries while they give independent game development a chance. So they like to temper expectations, which can be challenging to do while promoting a game.
This is their first interview for the new game, sitting in co-founder Chris Cobb's living room in Chicago on November 6th, a few miles from where Barack Obama will accept reelection later in the evening. The trio is preoccupied with something else, however. The question they're stuck on at the moment is whether they consider their game a spiritual successor to Stubbs.
"That's tough," says Cobb, who has used the term himself on occasion without committing to it.
"I feel like I'm an old man when I say this kind of thing, but I'm still not quite ready to embrace the mobile market ..."
Playing the Stubbs card seems obvious on the surface — both Cobb and Ragtag co-founder Matt Carter are ex-Wideload staff, their game uses many of Stubbs' mechanics and the main character is a zombie who looks like Stubbs' child. Their game concept even originated from a conversation about what they liked and disliked in Stubbs.
But calling this a Stubbs sequel without the license could lead many down the wrong path, since it has different priorities, an indie budget, an overhead perspective and influences ranging from Pikmin to Galcon. Set the Stubbs expectations too high, and Ragtag might disappoint people wanting a direct follow-up. Set the Stubbs expectations too low, and it might not be able to get people to pay attention.
"... And it was important to me to make a real game. Not to say there aren't real games on the mobile market."
Factor in that spiritual successors are quickly becoming common, with Godus and Dizzy and Star Citizen and Elite and Project Eternity and Pitfall, and it becomes a tough marketing decision.
Ragtag's members can't seem to nail it down, so they ask me how I'd describe it. And the best way I can think is to say that this is what the original Stubbs would have been like if these three people had made it — with all the preferences and budget limitations that carries with it.
Stubbs the Zombie key art.
Ray's the Dead concept art.
Who are these people?
Carter (left) handles much of the art and story, while Cobb (right) does much of the design, though both contribute in most areas of development.
On the surface, Chris Cobb and Matt Carter look like The Odd Couple.
Cobb is the conservatively dressed one, wearing a convenience beard and a t-shirt featuring a bear fighting a penguin. Picture a game developer's apartment and it probably looks like his, with a wall covered in board games, game art hung tastefully and anime figurines facing the dining room table.
Carter, meanwhile, is the trendy one, with spiky blond highlights and likely more expensive jeans. Later in the day while driving, he'll point out a bar that hosts turtle races, then 10 seconds later spot a taxi and pass five cars in a one-lane road to track it down. He says the outlandish things, then Cobb reins him in.
"That's how it's supposed to work," Cobb says.
When the two met 12 years ago, they were both new at jobs on the High Voltage Software art team, chipping away on games like Paperboy 64 and a Leisure Suit Larry prototype. These weren't the jobs they ultimately wanted, but they got their feet in the door.
Since then, the pair has exhibited a tendency to mirror each other — usually with Cobb signing on somewhere, then Carter joining shortly thereafter. They played that hand through High Voltage, Z-Axis and Wideload, working on games like X-Men: The Official Game and Stubbs — with a brief stop in the middle for Cobb to work on Thief 3 at Ion Storm, which he says was his first taste of working on a bit of game design in addition to art.
After their longest stint together, at Wideload, they got an itch to break out of their art roles and take ownership over games. So they quit and spent time on an experimental iOS project — the single-screen brawler Unstoppable Fist — before settling on a PC game (designed with three control schemes to make it portable down the road) and adding a third member, programmer Shawn Halwes.
"I remember feeling like there were so many good ideas associated with [Stubbs'] character that just made a lot of sense."
"I feel like I'm an old man when I say this kind of thing, but I'm still not quite ready to embrace the mobile market," says Cobb. "And it was important to me to make a real game. Not to say there aren't real games on the mobile market — in fact, we'll probably put our game on it. But I don't know. I really wanted to make a meaty, substantial game."
That led to a conversation about what they liked and disliked in Stubbs, and soon their idea took shape. It would be like Stubbs, but with a focus on controlling a group of zombies instead of the individual. It would have a zoomed-out perspective, with 2D characters in a 3D world to accommodate the gameplay style, and involve zombies with various abilities to solve puzzles. And it would include two storylines for players to jump between, with both told through playable sequences rather than cutscenes.
Cobb's wall of board games.
Shawn Halwes handles programming duties, coming from a background working at Paradigm on Stuntman: Ignition and Ensemble on Halo Wars.
Thinking back to Stubbs, Cobb and Carter say they loved the sense of humor, the idea of playing the bad guy, the way its visuals and soundtrack leaned heavily into a unique era (in that case, the '50s) and the idea of building a zombie army by recruiting enemies after you kill them.
"I remember feeling like there were so many good ideas associated with his character that just made a lot of sense," says Cobb, pointing out the ability for Stubbs to rip off his arm and use it to sneak around à la Thing in The Addams Family.
But both of them also wish Stubbs had put more of a focus on controlling the zombie army and using it to solve puzzles.
"I've always been a big fan of Pikmin, and when I started at Wideload and saw that [style of crowd control gameplay] was kind of in there, I really got excited, and I was really hoping that we would emphasize that as a big aspect of the game," says Cobb. "And, you know, it was in there, but it certainly wasn't the focal point of the game, and I always wished it could have been a bigger part of it. I think, to me, that's the major difference — that's now the forefront of our game."
As it turns out, if things had gone according to one of Ragtag's original plans, the team might have sidestepped the spiritual successor question altogether. Early on, the group toyed with the idea of making an honest man of the Stubbs intellectual property rights and developing the game as an official sequel. But after talking to Disney about it, Ragtag quickly discovered that wasn't going to happen.
"Once we realized we couldn't get it, it was in a lot of ways very freeing," says Cobb, "because we knew we weren't going to be tied to anything anymore, and we knew we wouldn't have to answer to anybody."
That led the team to create its own world, though Carter's niece gets the credit for naming it, suggesting the title "Raise the Dead" during a brainstorming session.
"At first I said, 'Well that's a good idea, sweetheart,' being a little bit patronizing," says Carter. "And for some reason it stuck in my head, and it somehow morphed into, 'Well what if we call the character Ray — Raymond?'"
So the team landed on Ray's the Dead, a search engine-challenged pun in the spirit of Rush'n Attack.
"It works on three levels," says Carter, pointing out the phonetic meaning, the character named Ray and the rays emitted from the lightbulb on his head. Take it further, and the title also shares Stubbs' "Blank the blank" naming convention, and "raise the dead" serves a bonus meaning of reviving a Stubbs-like game. And to go even further, one of the features that Ragtag changed from Stubbs is that players now press a button to transform fallen enemies into zombies — rather than seeing them transform automatically — turning the title into a miniature tutorial.
"I don't even know if I like it or not, but what I do know is that it's interesting to me to look at and to think about," says Cobb of the title. "So I almost don't even care if people like it or not, as long as they remember it ... but of course I do hope people like it."
Five months in
When Ragtag starts up its Ray's the Dead prototype on Cobb's dining table, it quickly becomes clear this is a game customized to these guys' personal tastes, and not something aimed at a perceived audience.
"Personally I feel that it's a mash-up of all the games that I really like playing," says Cobb.
The demonstration begins with Ray bursting from his grave, under a headstone labeled "1950-1980," and though I point out that Stubbs took place in an alternate '50s and Ray's takes place in an alternate '80s, Carter says the dates weren't meant as references.
"No, those are just numbers that I put," says Carter. "We're going to change that."
"I hadn't thought about that," says Cobb after a long pause. "I can see why you would think that — maybe it's his offspring or something. Hmm. Yeah, sorry to disappoint ... Yes, the answer is 'yes.'" [laughs]
"Pretty much everything about the '80s I'm a really big fan of — good and bad," says Carter. "Stephen Spielberg. Gremlins. Red Dawn."
Ragtag's prototype begins in the graveyard ...
... and ends in the trailer park.
"Honestly, now that I think of it, I was originally thinking of it as, 'What if Stubbs awakens again in a different time,'" says Carter. "I don't know if those numbers were inspired by that, but that's definitely something I had been thinking about — a time capsule or something."
Freshly thawed, Ray starts to explore the prototype world, at first trying to talk to locals, and then, after realizing he can't, killing them instead. He picks up a lightbulb — known as "the device" — and sticks it on his head, giving him the ability to resurrect dead people as zombies, and then control them. Before you know it, it becomes a video game, where Ray needs to resurrect eight zombies to proceed — some out in the open, some hidden and some buried underground.
"Personally I feel that it's a mash-up of all the games that I really like playing."
At this point in development, Ray's combat abilities are limited to melee attacks and controlling his zombie team, but Cobb says he will have more combat variety in the full game, possibly influenced by the mechanics from Stubbs, or giving certain zombies the ability to breathe fire and use other specialized attacks. "Nothing is off the table yet," says Cobb. "The only thing we probably won't do is let the zombies shoot guns."
A path leads Ray through a tutorial, where he learns the basics — how to recruit and control zombies as a group like in Pikmin, how to stash zombies in bushes to flank enemies, how there are different zombie types with specific abilities, like those who can hide, those who can't cross water, zombie dogs, and so on. Cobb says that many areas in the game will offer contextual scenarios, so you may need to use your zombies to take over a police station to control an area, or to solve specific puzzles.
One big change from Stubbs is that, with the zoomed-out perspective and focus on the group mechanics, the game makes Ray seem like a coach rather than the person doing all the combat himself. This becomes especially evident when you kill an enemy, because they don't automatically transform into a zombie that fights with you. Instead, you walk over to their corpse and press a button to transform them. So you find yourself running around, giving orders, attacking, then running around more, like a coach who's also the quarterback.
That may lead to less accidental chaos, which was one of Stubbs' strengths, but Cobb says Ragtag made the shift to make Ray seem important and to put the focus on building the zombie army. Though, he says, the team might change it if it slows things down too much.
As Cobb guides Ray to the end of the prototype, he finds his way to the Naughty Pine Trailer Park and uses his bag of tricks on a series of locals before tracking down a boss, who stands atop a stack of mobile homes in an arena with outhouses on the sides of the screen. Ray fends off grunts flowing from the outhouses while his minions gnaw on the trailer pile to lower it layer by layer, literally leveling the playing field and bringing the boss to ground level.
Then, like most good demos, the screen fades to black.
Look closely and you can see Cobb and Carter's art roots carry over to Ray's design — the characters all have large heads and small legs, which helps make them visible from a distance, and Ray has a lightbulb on his head for similar reasons. "Ray's gonna be down there in this sea of zombies," says Cobb, "and early on we talked about, 'We need a way to make it so the player can't lose track of him.'"
Appropriately sized britches
Watching the prototype, it's easy to identify the team's priorities and what distinguishes Ray's the Dead creatively. But while a big part of Ray's the Dead comes from the tastes and strengths of the specific people developing it, another big part comes from the fact that there are only three people developing it. Compare that to Stubbs' full time staff of more than 10 — itself very small for a traditional game, thickened by many contractors.
Ragtag is well aware of the disparity in team size and plans to keep its scope in check.
One cost-saving measure comes with the change in perspective. Stubbs ran on the Halo engine, and featured large characters in relatively open environments. Ray's runs on the Unity engine, which Ragtag chose more for its ease of multi-platform development than for its high-end capabilities, and the game design requires less detailed characters due to the zoomed-out perspective.
Ragtag is also aiming for a shorter game than Stubbs — too early to say exactly how short, but likely close to four hours. And the team is planning for a limited set of environments, to allow time to add a high level of detail and destructibility to each.
Ray's the Dead villager concept art.
Ray's the Dead zombie concept art.
Perhaps the most clever budgeting technique is the team's plan to reuse the base mechanic of controlling a group of creatures in the playable story scenes — instead of managing a team of zombies, players will guide teams of other characters or objects that will help tell the story. Ragtag is hesitant to describe any of these out of context, so Cobb uses a cutting room floor example instead.
"One dumb idea I threw out once was, there's a moment when Ray conceives his child with somebody and you actually have to guide the sperm in the right direction," he says. "It's dumb, but it's basically just showing how we can use the same mechanic, and all it is is just changing the art. Which is not necessarily a small task, but [it's smaller than designing a new mechanic]."
"If we get too big with the scale and the mechanics break down, that's when we know it's not working."
Though likely unintentional, Cobb's example also highlights how the team plans to experiment with scale on the other end of the spectrum. He's not sure how much of it will end up in the final game, but he wants to zoom the camera back further than normal at certain points in the game, and "scale up the destruction to pretty crazy levels" where the player's control over zombies would be less about stealth and more about taking out buildings to knock the power out in a city, for example. Keeping budget concerns in mind, this becomes a practical idea for the team if it means it can reuse the base mechanics.
"I think the point when we need to decide to punt is when those mechanics break," says Halwes. "If we get too big with the scale and the mechanics break down, that's when we know it's not working."
Calling the shot
If all goes according to plan, Ray's the Dead will go on sale on Halloween, 2013 — which, appropriately, is also Carter's niece's birthday. The Ragtag staff isn't ready to guarantee that timing, though, given that long term dates rarely stick in the game industry.
"I think it's one of those things [you shouldn't say], but we're indie developers so we can say things," says Carter.
"And they can be wrong," says Cobb.
"One of the cool things about having our own company is we can decide when we want to talk about things," he continues. "But naturally, when you talk about things as early as we are, things are gonna change. So as long as people are aware that a lot of what we're saying right now could be lies, then that's OK."
Now five months into development, the team has plenty left to decide. From finalizing combat mechanics to deciding platforms to sorting potential Kickstarter plans (which Cobb says won't determine whether the game gets made, but could help for securing '80s-themed music and adding additional content), the schedule is far from locked. Ragtag also hasn't ruled out working with a publisher on the game, which could inject its own benefits and complications.
So while it would be nice for Ragtag, for marketing and sentimental reasons, to release on Halloween, the team has just shy of a year to figure if that will be possible.
And just as long to figure out how it wants to brand the game.