Rebuild developer explains how to fit a zombie apocalypse on an iPhone

, | Features

In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m pretty bowled over by Rebuild, a zombie apocalypse game recently ported from a web-based Flash game to an iPhone app. You can read my review of Rebuild here, and you can follow a game I’m playing in real time here. And now I’m bending developer Sarah Northway’s ear about the game’s history. She reveals connections to The Warriors, Day of the Triffids, and Faith No More; she tells you how close you came to having to play a tower defense game; and she reveals the life of an itinerant game developer.

Read the interview after the jump

Tom Chick: So let me start by asking you to tell me a bit about why this is a zombie game. It’s got a straightforward boardgamey elegance, a familiar city builder concept, and some typical RPG trappings. But what really draws me to it is that I feel you’ve got a unique appreciation for zombie mythology. Are you as big of a zombie dork as I’d guess?

Sarah Northway: I am definitely a huge zombie dork, but I’m not so much into campy gruesome zombie movies as survivalist stories. Actually I love anything post-apocalyptic, no matter what form the apocalypse took. In my opinion, one of the first zombie stories in that style is Day of the Triffids, where everybody goes blind. You can imagine them lurching about town with their arms out in front of them, latching on in desperation to anyone who can see. 28 Days Later is pretty much a remake of that book. The important part is the commentary on human nature, fascism, etc., and the zombies are just a convenient way to add action and horror. I actually kind of hated the Walking Dead comic and show, although I can’t quite say why. I guess I think it’s too derivative and badly written. I loved the World War Z audiobook though and I’m really looking forward to that movie.

TC: I’m glad you mentioned Walking Dead, because my impression of Rebuild is that it’s the game of the show that Waking Dead tries to be. You manage to include in the gameplay this idea that zombies are only part of the problem. Rebuild is also about dealing with morale, disease, and starvation. In fact, a big part of the learning curve for me was appreciating that I have to feed everyone first and foremost, and that I really need to make sure to get a hospital early on, and that down the road I have to decide between religion and booze. In a way, the zombies are just another issue on the list. How did the game evolve in terms of striking that balance?

SN: In the first iteration of Rebuild, you didn’t eat food every day, instead it was a kind of currency you had to spend to do missions. It felt kind of artificial and didn’t convey enough urgency though. Random illness events were in the first version, as well as hospitals, since I wanted buildings that did a lot of different things. But science/labs came after.

I was nearly done with the game before adding happiness and churches/bars, which are exactly the same thing and originally you could replace one with the other. Kind of a joke. I’d been doing a lot of tuning at that point, playing the game over and over — oh man, am I sick of playing Rebuild — and was happy with the attacks and the food situation but felt like it needed one more resource to balance things out. I also wanted something that mattered more in the late game, so it made sense to add morale. I imagined it would be a serious issue in the long run, but not so important when you’re first starting out and people are more concerned with eating and not getting eaten.

TC: The morale is kind of odd, but in a good way. As you mentioned, it’s not that big a deal early on, but as the game goes on, shocking things can happen. Characters can commit suicide or kill each other. Or they can just up and leave. You also equate alcohol and religion, which is something only an indie game could do. I love how it works, but I can imagine some folks objecting. Have you had to deal with any complaints?

SN: I’m surprised so few people have objected to the content in Rebuild. I did get a complaint once about the Last Judgement Gang. They’re misogynistic bikers who keep female slaves, dress like Catholic priests, and quote the Bible during their raids. The only problem the player had was with the specific denomination, and would have been happy if they were described as “Christian” bikers. I think I dodged a lot of complaints by having a harsh language setting, which is off by default. It does more than just censor swearing. It removes many references to religion and some of the gorier descriptions.

TC: Oh, that reminds me that I have a complaint! “Riffs” is too precious a name for a group of heavily armed bad-ass zombie slaughter squads, even if they are good guys. I love those guys, but they sound like something in Westside Story. So please lodge that in your official complaint book.

SN: “Riffs” is a reference to the Gramercy Riffs from the movie The Warriors, which had a bit of a Westside Story feel to it, as a matter of fact. It was a very cheesy movie. I’m not saying it was a great idea to use that, but I’d just seen that movie again when I was writing the gangs stuff. It was kind of stuck in my head.

TC: Hey, I’ll take a Warriors reference any day! You’ve restored the Riffs’ coolness factor. Let’s talk a bit about the actual combat mechanics. In that you don’t really have them in the game. When you go on a mission, or when you stave off an attack, you see a percentage chance of a bad outcome and sometimes the number of zombies involved. There are also a couple of tech upgrades for more efficient zombie fighting. But otherwise, it’s all hands-off and mostly under the hood. Did this change much over the course of making the games? Was there ever a time you wanted more involved zombie killing, or more detailed stats about the combat?

SN: I’d actually had serious plans of having a combat minigame in [the web-based versions], which would have been kind of tower-defensy and optional. But you could play it to increase your odds a little, or decrease them if you sucked at it. The problem with optional minigames is that core players feel compelled to play them to gain that extra edge on harder difficulties, then they complain that the minigame is boring. Reminds me of why Master of Orion 3 failed.

TC: I think one of the pitfalls of adding a tower defense section is that it would interrupt the action. Part of what I like about Rebuild is that it’s elegant and fast. To be honest, I would dread horde attacks even more if I knew I was going to have to play a separate game to optimize my chances!

SN: I wanted Rebuild to be as much about surviving and building your fort as it was about fighting zombies, so thus the simple combat model. It is a little more complicated than it looks, though. For instance, placing guards in a building reduces the chance of nearby buildings falling to a zombie attack. And if the game decides that somebody needs to die, it’s more likely to be a newb survivor. So it’s a good idea to keep a couple around as fodder.

TC: So let’s talk about difficulty levels. I played through a couple of games on the default difficulty, but I felt like I didn’t really appreciate the game until I dialed it up to impossible. Before then, things like research and morale were more or less options. But at impossible, suddenly every decision mattered that much more. How much tuning went into the difficulty levels?

SN: At some point I tested the game with a kid who didn’t realize you could start more than one mission per day, but he enjoyed himself, loved the stories, and played to the end. So I made that my goal for easy difficulty, that playing like him, you could still find an ending and win the game. For harder difficulty I had my husband Colin play, and I kept making it more difficult until he could only barely beat it part of the time. He was an amazing playtester, I don’t know what I would have done without his enthusiasm for the game. Then I increased all the difficulty constants by another 50% for nightmare/impossible which neither of us could beat.

For [the web-based] Rebuild 2 I sent a beta version out to a hundred fans of the original game and made sure that they could only barely beat harder, and hardly ever beat impossible. Although a few still did. These guys were amazing. It’s too bad that the difficulty selection screen isn’t more clear that gamers who will be bored by easy should start on the second or third difficulty level even for their first game. Then they should get their asses whooped, and try again.

TC: I like that you make it clear on the scoring screen that the difficulty modifies your score. For guys like me who enjoy the scoring aspect, that’s a loud and clear message to try the harder difficulty. And thanks so much for breaking down the score at the end. I love a game that walks me through why I got as many or as few points as I did. Well done. Over the course of a game, how do you determine how and when it gets harder? Do zombie hordes just naturally get bigger and more frequent? Or is it happening in response to things I do? Right now I’m at the top of my friends list by a comfortable margin, so any advice you can give to help me stay there would be much appreciated.

SN: The number of zombies spawned per day slowly goes up over time, but there are three special days when certain things activate: morale, zombie hordes, and lategame events. Those days can happen sooner if you’re doing well. This is the only holdover from early versions of Rebuild, where the entire game scaled based on how well you were doing. You’d find more food if you were starving, and the zombies would lay off if your defenses were low. This made things like scoring kind of pointless, and if you were losing it would take a long time to actually die which was just tedious.

TC: Did anything change in porting Rebuild 2 from a web-based game to the iPhone?

SN: The mobile version is way, way more optimized and faster than the original. The ending animations had to be changed to just a single image, which is a shame because EvilKris put a lot of work into the original ones. There’s also some bonus content. The “uncle’s cabin” plotline designed by my husband Colin, three or four new random events, and a few new buildings including towers which you need to research and upgrade at a tech lab. The optimizing took four times as long as the bonus content. It wasn’t very fun to do.

TC: You credit EvilKris for the artwork and Bill Gould and Jared Blum for the music. I presume EvilKris’ artwork is the stuff in the attack cutscenes, right? And I can’t say enough about how much I like the music. It lends the game a creepy building tension, almost like ambient sound instead of music. It’s about as perfect as any music you’d find in a AAA horror game. How did you find those folks to contribute the art and music?

SN: I found EvilKris on the forums where he’s pretty active with his own games, including the Insanity horror series. He also did most of the art for the survivors, the attack sequences, and the zombie on the main menu. He was great to work with. As for the music, I saw Bill Gould and Jared Blum open for PIVIXKI with Mike Patton. Mike and Bill are also members of Faith No More. Bill and Jared played tracks from The Talking Book and I kept closing my eyes and could perfectly imagine playing Rebuild to it. It was really extra surreal to hear it played live at a concert. I talked to them after the show and worked out a licensing deal within a week.

TC: Ah, I didn’t recognize Bill Gould’s name. That’s quite a coup. No wonder it sounds so awesome. I’d say that’s as much a feather in your cap as Mike Patton doing zombie noises in Left 4 Dead! Okay, finally, I want to bring up something you’ve done that I love. You’ve insinuated into the game these storylines with what I assume are associated victory conditions. I can pursue these, but they’ll often take up game resources. Such as whatever that crazy scientist is doing in the lab, or the Church of the Chosen taking over the church, or whether that helicopter will ever be of any use. I’m assuming these are alternatives to that brutal ten turns it takes to form a government in the city hall for the regular victory. Because, seriously, who can spare five guys for ten turns at the end of the game? But your storylines accomplish two things for me. One, they’re an incentive to replay the game in slightly different ways. And two, they let you, Sarah, tell us, the players, your version of the zombie apocalypse story. It’s almost like narrative is one of the game’s resources, along with food, morale, and equipment. You must be very happy with how that turned out.

SN: The plotlines were something I wanted in Rebuild from the get-go, but they took a surprisingly long time to code for, since they involve so many different variables and there’s no telling what order you’re going to reach them in. A real debugging nightmare. So they didn’t make it in to [the first game on the web], although ideas like curing zombieism and rival gangs were still present in a simpler form. I struggled with how to make the storylines branch and interweave without being way too darn confusing, and ended up focusing on the effect each choice has on your resources, as you noted. I hear a common challenge is to get every single ending in the same city on the same day. I think it’s possible, but it certainly wasn’t something I’d intended.

TC: Can I ask you about your background? How did you come to make this? And what are you working on next? Before we started, you mentioned being in Eastern Europe. Are you from there?

SN: I’m from Vancouver Canada, and until a couple years ago I was a professional web programmer, then game programmer at Three Rings Design (Puzzle Pirates, Spiral Knights, Whirled). Then my husband Colin wrote Fantastic Contraption in his spare time and it did pretty well and introduced us to the indie game community, which is positively thriving right now. We sold everything except our laptops and headed out to travel around the world and make games.

Rebuild 1 was my first game, then I wrote Word Up Dog (the cuteness was a good chaser after all the zombies), then Rebuild 2, and the Rebuild mobile port. Now I’m working with Colin on his next game Incredipede. We’re in Greece right now in a traditional little mountain town on Thassos island. We move and rent a house every couple months, and spend about the same amount on rent and plane tickets as we used to spend on rent alone in San Francisco. We’ve been to (I want to sing this to the tune of that old Animaniacs name the countries song) Philippines, Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Costa Rica, Honduras, Turkey, Scotland, Malta, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, and we’re planning to spend the whole winter in Mexico.

TC: Holy cats, Sarah, that sounds absolutely idyllic! Can you tell me anything about what folks can expect in Incredipede?

SN: Incredipede is kind of a cross between Fantastic Contraption (you build things), Spore (those things are creatures), and QWOP (you’ll have to play this one to understand; look it up if you haven’t). And it’s going to be beautiful, which is a first for any of our games, because this time we’ve got amazing woodblock artist Thomas Shahan on the team. I’ve been having so much fun working with Colin on this. It’s his baby though. Well, we’re married, so I guess it’s both our baby. Whatever. He spent a year getting the design right before I joined him to work on the server and menu system and some other stuff. He demoed an early, pre-art version at the Tokyo Game Show last year.

TC: Thanks so much for the back-and-forth, Sarah. I wish you the best of luck with Rebuild and I look forward to Incredipede. But before I let you go, from one zombie dork to another zombie dork, are there any lesser known zombie movies you recommend?

SN: I recently saw and loved Fido about the kid with the pet zombie, but it’s not exactly apocalyptic. And you should see Pontypool. It’s a low-budget Canadian zombie flick that’s really well made. I enjoyed the BBC series for Day of the Triffids (steer clear of all the movies), which influenced the genre even though there are blind people and evil plants instead of zombies. My husband suggests Dead Snow (Norwegian Nazi Zombies) which is a little silly, but a good scare.

Read the Rebuild review here and follow a game in real time here.