In the March 2011 issue of Game Developer, a magazine dedicated to the
most stressing best craft in the world, Housemarque was featured with a five pages retrospective on Dead Nation. The article – technicallly a postmortem – documented all the various aspects of the game from inception to completion.
One and a half years later we decided to republish the piece in 3 parts, for those of you willing to dig deeper (ahem) and reveal what lays hidden under the tombstone of one of our most beloved titles. The original piece was heroically written by the combo Harri Tikkanen (our Creative Director) and Ilari Kuittinen (Housemarque’s CEO).
Three years ago, after the release of our PlayStation Network exclusive Super StarduSt HD, we began discussions with our senior producer at SCEE, Phil Gaskell, regarding what we could do next. The hope was to make a Commando/Total Carnage-inspired twin stick shooter, again for PSN. Our “rumble in the jungle” idea turned into a zombie-infested apocalypse, as Phil suggested that the game should feature the undeads. We went nuts over this idea, so it was quickly agreed that this was the direction to go!
We got into the prototyping after finishing off DLC work on Super StarduSt HD in the summer of 2008. The prototype used low fidelity art, with cubes representing the zombies that roamed the streets—our main goal was to prove that the core shooting mechanism was fun. The big change in twin stick controls from Super StarduSt HD was the addition of a separate button to shoot while using one stick to aim, rather than just using a single stick to aim and shoot simultaneously. The prototype convinced Sony that we had a solid foundation, and we began preproduction in autumn.
As usual, plans started small but easily got out of hand. As a project, Dead Nation grew larger during its second year of development as we (both us at Housemarque and Sony) wanted to implement co-op gameplay and a deeper upgrading system. Early user testing also suggested that players would like a story element, so we added a light storyline to frame the gameplay progression. We also extended the scoring system to further motivate score hunters.
We, as a whole, have great interest and love both for twin stick shooters and for zombies. It was a no-brainer for us to combine two of our greatest loves together. Without further ado, let’s delve a little deeper.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
1 /// Publisher Relationship. Sony as a publisher was one of the best “what went right” elements we had. After Super StarduSt HD, Sony had great trust in us. They put forth a lot of effort promoting Dead Nation whenever possible, from regular trailers to a live action one, and frequent PlayStation Blog postings.
Sony also arranged user testing sessions for us, which provided lots of insights early on in development. Also, we found a very extensive closed beta test to be really useful as it generated tons of very good PR (players talking to each other later on) and feedback which helped us iron out bugs and tweak gameplay further. We were given plenty of time to work on Dead Nation without being forced to cut many corners, or jam fixes in.
2 /// Online Co-op and Metagame. One of the most important “late process” features we decided to add was also one of the most important. Some of us were really hoping for online co-op, and originally, we thought that we would only have time to implement the feature as DLC after the game’s release, if at all. Developing the feature required a lot of man hours from our coders, and we had to hire a new multiplayer programmer to make the dream a reality. We think it was well worth it. Matchmaking was included for quick online co-op games, and there was, of course, co-op with specifically selected friends.
Another major online feature is the metagame, which doubles as the extended leaderboards. The metagame is essentially a detailed scoring system, and shows “progress reports” for anyone tracking how well their own country is doing compared to other nations around the world. People are also matched against their friends in addition to their countries, but the country the player represents is also matched against the other countries of the world. The metagame adds one extra layer of depth. We have more plans for the metagame to make it even more interesting in the future.
3 /// Twin stick Gameplay. Since we felt we really understood twin stick controls, we definitely wanted to use the control scheme for Dead Nation. It takes a bit of time to adjust for players who are unaccustomed to it, but it’s very powerful, and allows precise action and aiming without auto-aim or cheated correction to player’s aim.
Gameplay required a lot of time for us to adjust and tweak, as we didn’t want Dead Nation to work and act like a simple action shooter but to have a more realistic feel, more than just button smashing (although how realistic can a zombie game really be?). We went by the old game development axiom “Easy to play, but difficult to master,” and we think we succeeded. It takes only a few minutes to get used to the controls, but from there, you’re exploring, adjusting to the situation and threat level, and finding a way to counter the hordes of zombies. With this in mind, we also included the ability to almost fully remap your controller. The scoring system in the game is also quite deep which, like the gameplay, takes time to master and requires that you know what you’re doing at all times.
Want more? The second part of this postmortem will be splattered all over your screen in just a matter of days. While waiting, make sure you can hear us loud and clear and remember to stockpile some ammo, just in case.