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7 Days to Die is one of the better entries in the burgeoning ranks of open-world Early Access survival games. Unlike DayZ or Rust, 7 Days to Die features a decidedly abstract look and encourages cooperation by making the zombies a credible threat. There’s not much time to act like a dick to other players when the undead hordes are swarming around your boarded-up house. Was that a purposeful decision on the part of the developers, or was it just an accident? I was curious about the design of the game, so I asked producer Richard Huenink some questions, and he was kind enough to humor me by answering.

Do we shamble or sprint through some questions after the break?

The Fun Pimps. Tell us about the studio. What brought you guys together and why is it The Fun Pimps?

Joel [Huenink] and I are brothers and worked together on several games under 4D Rulers so we had a history but hadn’t worked on a project together for about 7 years. We had wanted to make a zombie survival game for many years, but the core idea for 7 Days to Die started in late 2012 after a turkey dinner at our Mom’s house. We had both been playing a lot of Minecraft and thought somebody should make a game like Minecraft only with better technology, graphics, crafting, and a real zombie threat. Like every holiday, Joel and I talked games and have come up with many great ideas over coffee and my Mom’s peach pies, only this time something was different. This time instead of going back to our normal lives and forgetting our peach pie, we had a moment of genius. This time Joel and I kept calling each other and talking about this game.

A few weeks later we had a Google docs game design concept and Joel found Chris who was working on Unity voxel technology and a game of his own. We talked and got to know each other and soon formed a small 5 man team adding a couple more ex-4D Rulers alumni. We became an LLC a few months later.

We could have stayed 4D Rulers, but we wanted a fresh start. So we kicked around a bunch of names, but “The Fun Pimps” just seemed to fit. We wanted this to be a fun place to work and our core philosophy fun trumps everything.

What do you feel makes 7 Days to Die unique? What would you tell a prospective player?

We’re really the only true open world voxel based zombie game. And really the only open world zombie game that focuses on zombies. We have a deep crafting system. Our game plays solo, co-op and PVP all pretty well so whatever you like we have a mode for you. Each game can be customized by the user changing difficulty, 24 hour cycle, zombie walk/run states, and a slew of other options so everyone can dial in the game they want for their own personal zombie fantasy.

We’re still in Alpha but we’ve gotten an overwhelming positive response and we’re adding in new great features every build which we’re trying to kick out every 3-4 weeks. We have great plans for the game which will have smooth terrain, random world generation, user world creation tools, skill trees, vehicles, Occulus Rift support and much, much more. What’s not to like?

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The Kickstarter from August of last year seems to have been a success for you, raising over $500k for 7 Days to Die. Similarly, bringing the game to Steam Early Access appears to have paid off. (7 Days to Die was routinely in the top ten best sellers during the recent holiday sale.) Did you attempt to get the game published through the traditional process, or was the intent to always remain independent? If the traditional route was attempted, can you speak about that? Any lessons learned in either process that you’d pass on to other indie developers?

With 4D Rulers we went through the traditional publisher model on 3 games and with this we wanted to do it on our own. The internet is a much bigger place now than it was in 1999 and people are used to buying digital goods. With services like Kickstarter and Steam, self-publishing is a reality and buying digital goods over the internet is widely accepted. If the world likes your idea and your team can execute on it then you’re rewarded with customers and sales.

As far as advice goes, if you have a marketable idea, find people to help you make it a reality. Passion is contagious. If your idea really does interest a publisher than you know it’s worth something. But you should ask yourself do you really want to give up 60%-80% just to distribute it. If it’s a good game people will find out about it and buy it, it’s as simple as that. Marketing can help but if it’s a bad game it still won’t sell.

Describe the experience of managing the expectations of Kickstarter backers and Early Access players. How much has player input influenced the work in progress?

The Kickstarter backers and Early Access Steam customers have been great. Most customers these days are really smart about games and have a good understanding of the development process. Of course they want it all right now, but at the end of the day they know good things take time and they have been extremely patient about understanding a realistic timetable for new features.

We pull ideas from our forums all the time and the community has no problem letting us know what’s important to them. We like to keep our ear to the ground and add in what they want the most first. Of course some, of the bigger desired features that can take 6-8 weeks have been held back as they aren’t quite ready for prime time.

Regarding the alpha participants’ desires, how do you balance what they want with your vision for 7 Days to Die? How much of a sense of ownership do you allow the players to have? For example, one of the comments I see most often about the game is about the art style. The look is distinctive. Some people want it to look more like the other products on the market. How do you reconcile that tension?

Obviously we can’t fulfill every desire our customers have, but if they bought the game already chances are they like the concept and want to see the full idea realized and come to fruition. We balance it by being objective and measuring how much bang for the buck does an idea add to the game. Is it a good return on investment or a bad one? If they’ve already bought the game then they must not have a problem with the art style. It’s a result of our conscious design choice to use voxel technology for its gameplay possibilities such as a fully buildable, destroyable dynamic world and not follow the hundred other voxel games who chose blocky characters.

Simply put, we wanted to make a voxel game that appealed to a more mature audience. We have smooth terrain in the works and it looks awesome, so any art style concerns will soon be mute.

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7 Days to Die, unlike other recent survival games, features traditionally slow zombies during the day that become incredibly fast and deadly at night at the default setting. They’re not just window dressing. They will swarm and break through structures to attack players and cannot be ignored when the sun goes down. Was this a conscious decision to encourage player cooperation? What was the impetus for this game play mechanic?

Well, we kind of built the game to enjoy solo first and co-op was a benefactor of zombies being the focus. I’ll have to credit Joel with the day/night cycle as it was his idea and it quickly became this sort of Ying and Yang gameplay between day and night which was a great call making the game have an interesting balance. Watch the sun position and get somewhere safe before it goes down. Day and night play completely differently.

The effectiveness of the zombies at night makes 7 Days to Die less of a griefer’s paradise than DayZ or Rust in their current states. I noticed other things that seemed to be designed to cut down on griefing as well. A new player in 7 Days to Die doesn’t remain as helpless for as long as he would in other games. It’s easy to find a gun and food within the first few minutes of spawning, which discourages killing noobs. Can you tell us what other ways you’ve designed the game to discourage disruptive play?

Weapon, item and loot balance is constantly evolving, but the main thing that discourages player griefing is the zombies, and of course setting friendly fire to off, which is configurable by every host and dedicated server out there. We’ve actually just redone the spawn rules to work depending on the friendly fire setting. With friendly fire on, new players will spawn away from each other. This option provides the possibility of PVP play. With friendly fire off, new players will spawn near each other. This option encourages, but does not force, cooperative play. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve jumped into unknown games, cooperation just happened without forcing it.

The zombies react to sound and soon blood, wounds, smells, and more so player killers take a chance of attracting the attention of the zombies. PVP is supported and not discouraged in any way. In fact, we have some ideas for Team Survival that could be happening soon.

The options in 7 Days to Die are generous. For example, a player can start a new game and turn off the increased speed of zombies at night which greatly changes the gameplay. Another tweak that comes to mind are the hornets in the game. (I love the tongue-in-cheek explanation for them, by the way.) Some people didn’t like them, so you’re adding an option to turn them off entirely. Why give the player this much control? Don’t you then have to balance the game for players of style A and style B?

The options have been added to give each customer a chance to play the zombie game they want to play. Believe it or not, zombie game fans can be very particular about their experience! Some want the traditional George Romero type of zombies, some want a more 28 Days Later experience, and some want a mix with special infected enemies, so allowing these options tailors the game to the customers’ tastes. We have our default recommended setting in which zombies walk during the day and run at night. Some of the drive behind these decisions has also come from customization and future modding capabilities which we fully plan on supporting. Balance can be challenging but it’s a challenge we like.

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Even in its alpha state, 7 Days to Die has a fairly robust crafting system. Players can mine for materials, gather resources, and construct objects through the character inventory. There are lots of videos online of people building impressive defensive fortifications to combat the zombie hordes. Tell us a bit about where you’re planning to go with crafting.

We have nearly 400 recipes and growing covering a lot of weapons, traps, building blocks and food and want to keep widening the core experience. Specifically we want to add cooking, chemicals, high tech gadgets and motorized tools. Crafting items like steroids, zombie pheromones, generators, auto turrets and more. We even want to go as far as making things like cars, hand gliders and bio-suites for traveling into radioactive areas.

Alpha 6 was just announced with some new features like a snowy biome and zombies appropriate to the area. What else can you tell us about alpha 6?

We’re shooting for a January 12th release and the big ticket items will include a robust metal forging system which is a great companion to crafting, a huge world size increase, a new snow biome with 3 new snow zombies, many new points of interest including a ski lodge, a sawmill, army camps and even an old desert ghost town. Alpha 6 will also fix many top customer bugs and a whole lot more.

7 Days to Die had some really ambitious goals from the Kickstarter like smooth terrain, stories and missions, NPCs, seasonal weather, etc. How goes the progress on these objectives? Are there any that you feel may be either out of reach, or may be contrary to the gameplay now that you have some player feedback?

We’re working hard on many things but I can tell you this. Of the features mentioned above, one of the most difficult is smooth terrain. Fortunately, this has been worked on, looks amazing, and we’re hoping to get it in for Alpha 7 along with big AI and pathing improvements. We also have some work done on user terrain tools and world generation, and are making great progress, but will have to see when it’s ready and how it fits in with the timing of our release schedule.

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What goals do you have for when 7 Days to Die will move from alpha to beta and then to finished product? What plans do you have to support the game after launch?

We’re making an ambitious game and our original Kickstarter estimates had us finishing in May 2014, but realistically it could take the rest of this year. That said, I think we’ll be close to beta by this summer but we won’t punish our Settler Kickstarter backers so we’ll send them keys near the time frame promised. After launch, supporting the best workshop mods, making DLC, and maybe even console ports are all possibilities, but we’ll just have to see where this great journey leads us.

Have you played any of the other survival games like DayZ, Rust, Nether, or Infestation: Survivor Stories? Did you take away any lessons from seeing what they offered?

Of the games mentioned the only one I played was the DayZ mod – not the stand alone – but to be fair, I didn’t play it much. Seems like a great concept and I love the fact that the game started as a mod, but I enjoy solo and coop games much more. Now, if you ask what games inspired our team and 7 Days to Die, I’d have to say Minecraft, Fallout, Resident Evil 4, Skyrim and Left 4 Dead.

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What do you make of the popularity of the survival genre?

I love it and when we first made it into the top five sellers on Steam, three of the top five were zombie survival games. I guess great minds think alike.

Finally, why is it called 7 Days to Die?

Well Nick, we’re going to have to leave that a mystery for now – keeping the story under wraps!

7 Days to Die is available via Steam Early Access.