Judging by the explosive popularity of Project Zomboid right now, you’d be forgiven for believing the game is newly launched and full of fresh (un)life. Despite sitting comfortably as one of Steam‘s most-played games and having upwards of 60,000 concurrent players, Project Zomboid is far from new – in fact, the hardcore zombie survival sim has quietly spent nearly a decade in Early Access.
So, where has Project Zomboid‘s new fanbase swarmed in from? The answer is in Build 41, a sweeping update that – put simply – overhauled the entire game. The patch has been in the works for years, and although Project Zomboid is still in Early Access, it now feels leaps and bounds closer to that elusive finish line. The new-found polish and detail has transformed Project Zomboid into its best iteration yet, and it’s perhaps no surprise that it’s been warmly received by thousands of new fans.
Chris Simpson, coder and managing director at The Indie Stone, says the success of Build 41 has been “beyond what we could have expected”, adding that “we knew we had something good, but we were still looking for ways it could go horribly wrong for us – so we were glad to be proven wrong.”
Being anxious about the update’s release is understandable, especially when you consider the amount of time that went into the update – Simpson clarifies that while the full team has been working on it for a couple of years, “seeds of it have been going for about four or five years in the background”. The build itself – which includes a complete overhaul to every animation and action in the game, dedicated multiplayer and heaps of new content – looks to match The Indie Stone’s ambition for Project Zomboid, which has grown exponentially since its inception in 2011.
“What we didn’t want to do is just stick with the same level of production value and graphics, and everything that we started with, because we were two people right at the start. When you look at it after a decade – or a decade later – that doesn’t cut the mustard anymore,” explains Simpson, admitting that the game felt “quite clunky” before the latest update. Although the game started its journey looking deliberately modest, that’s something Simpson feels Zomboid has outgrown.
“The way I always like to put it – there’s a scale between attainable depth and graphic visual fidelity. You have games that go straight for the highest visual fidelity, but then the cost of adding features is so much higher in terms of time and effort, that it’s hard to attain that type of depth. Then on the other side, you’ve got roguelikes and stuff like that, that have practically no visual element apart from ASCII art, but can achieve massive depth. We tried to aim quite low, so we could get that depth, but then pushed the game over time, so we could end up with the best of both worlds. So that’s the approach we took in the long term – and this has paid off now, because we’ve got something that’s a lot more attractive to more people, but still has all that depth that it did from the earlier days.”
As much of Project Zomboid‘s development has been conducted through opt-in betas and various experimental branches, it may have come as a surprise to more long-term fans when Build 41 received a full launch. While Simpson says that a smaller update would likely have involved another month of bug fixing for The Indie Stone to release happily, he explains there’s a “very good reason” for the earlier launch of Build 41.
“It’s been in beta for a couple of years, and it’s such a massive departure from what’s currently there. It’s like a prequel game, it’s not the same game. And the problem is, when people buy the game and download it, that’s what they get – and they have to actually go through this extra effort to get into the beta. There comes a point where that casts a worse impression than Build 41 with a few bugs in it. It was a judgement call that we feel is better for the game and our audience, that they’re getting all of this extra development and progress when they actually download the game.”
“The thing is, of course, we couldn’t really advertise [Build 41’s development] progress on our store page if it’s on the beta branch. We couldn’t have a new trailer, or any new screenshots. After a while it became a millstone around our neck, it was really just waiting for multiplayer to drop.”
As Simpson touches on, Project Zomboid‘s lengthy time in Early Access has influenced the game as it stands today. Laughing, Simpson says that although development has taken “a decade of my bloody life,” he “couldn’t be prouder” of the game.
“When people on the outside who haven’t followed the game’s development see headlines like “this game has been in Early Access for a decade”, it’s instantly perceived as a horrible thing. [Are they] slow? Incompetent? It’s instantly cast in a negative light – but there’s nothing I’m more proud of than the fact we’ve done that because I don’t think we’re ever going to make anything remotely this big ever again. I fully believe that no one would have complained if we stopped development of Zomboid in 2015, then announced Project Zomboid Two, then did that for three or five years, then announced Zomboid Three. We would have made a lot more money essentially selling people the exact work we’ve still been doing, and the fact we haven’t done that is because we’ve just got this overriding desire – we just want to make this one thing that’s the biggest thing we’ll ever make, that will hopefully stand the test of time and be remembered. That’s the motivation behind it – it comes from a good place, so when people judge that Early Access tag it does hurt a bit, but I’m proud of it.”
“When we finally hang up our spurs with this game, we want to leave it relevant, still playable, for years to come. [Build 41] was an important step to not only getting the vision we wanted, but also make [Zomboid] appealing for more of a general audience.
Now that Build 41 is in the hands of players – albeit a great deal more than The Indie Stone were expecting – many will be wondering what’s next for Project Zomboid. After pausing for a moment, Simpson reveals a bombshell the community has been waiting years to hear:
“We’re planning on doing NPCs pretty much next. Although there may be smaller builds in between, the next big thing that we’re working toward and talking about in the new year is going to be NPCs.”
Simpson says that as NPCs are “both the thing we get the most hype about people wanting, and also the most criticism for the fact that we don’t have them”, it’s been “especially hard” for him to work on NPCs in secret. Elaborating, he explains why The Indie Stone has chosen to set the ambitious feature as their next target.
“We were initially going to do animals, hunting, husbandry and pets next,” says Simpson, though the team realised that the update would give away the behaviour for their wider NPCs update. “So we thought, we’re just gonna do NPCs next – I don’t think that will upset too many people! Even if animals slips, I think the majority wants NPCs next. We’re not sure entirely what would go in, because NPCs will be split over various builds – we’re still trying to figure out how to structure that. The first release [needs to be] something special that people won’t be disappointed by. We need it to be impressive enough and good enough that it’ll satisfy people, but we need to split it up, because we can’t just do everything in one go.”
“Another big thing we’d like to focus on is extending out the tech tree to provide more of an endgame in terms of crafting and building. We want to approach that right because we don’t want it to be a bit silly that you’re in this zombie apocalypse and suddenly you’re building manufacturing machines or anything like that. It seems a bit weird for our game, to have any sort of long-term survival really, but I think the endgame needs it, so people have stuff to build to and new achievements to get to.”
Those are the biggest things that The Indie Stone is set on implementing before Project Zomboid gets its long-awaited 1.0 release. Although the team is keen to see Zomboid cast off its Early Access tag, they feel the “very strong community development vibe” has been integral to its development so far, and has “vastly” influenced the game’s direction.
“Frankly, we’ve been making this game for a decade. We love the game dearly, but it does take a toll, [spending] this amount of time working on a single project, and there is that desire to work on something new – that’s always burning – but we can’t do that while it’s in Early Access. So the moment it goes to 1.0 is the day a lot of us will hang our spurs up on it forever. Maybe there’ll be DLC, or maybe we’ll get another team, or port to consoles, but 1.0 is when we’re done – and we don’t want to be done until we’ve got exactly what we want.”
“Early access is holding us to account. It doesn’t matter what perception it has, we need that, so that we know that we still can’t be tempted [to stop development] – because we’re in Early Access. And we’ll stay there, until everything we promised is done, and the game is exactly as we want. And then we’ll move on.”
Project Zomboid is available to buy on Steam (in Early Access) today.