Is the appetite for games based on The Walking Dead so big that fans will support a second virtual reality game based on the long-running television series? Survios and AMC will find out soon as they prepare The Walking Dead: Onslaught for release. It’s a visceral survival-shooter where you have to deal with dozens of Walkers coming after you in virtual reality. The game is set to debut sometime this year on PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, and SteamVR. And it’s coming not long after Skydance’s The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners debuted in January on VR platforms.
I spoke with Survios senior game designer Andrew Abedian about the game and its progress in development. He said that, as the official AMC game, the title will have familiar characters like Norman Reedus’ Daryl Dixon and other characters such as Rick, Michonne, and Carol from the TV show. And Survios is going for a more visceral feeling in things like melee, where you’re going to have to swing a club or other weapon around as 30 zombies try to take you down at once.
The game will be a single-player title — it is shedding a previously planned co-op mode — with a longer-than-planned campaign and hub world where players can move around in open-world style, Abedian told me. Players will have to rebuild a settlement of Alexandria, restore society, and prepare for an onslaught of Walkers. It takes place after the war with the Saviors in the show, and it will feature tasks such as scavenger runs, where you have to scrounge for food, medicine, and weapons.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Why are fans going to like this game?
Andrew Abedian: Walking Dead Onslaught is a game that Survios has been making for the last two-ish years. There’s been a lot of Walking Dead games, but the special thing about it is we’re the official AMC’s The Walking Dead game. For a majority of fans who got into The Walking Dead through the show, they’ll recognize the characters specifically, like Daryl. They’ll recognize places like Alexandria. Our game falls between seasons eight and nine of the show. It’s after the war with the Saviors. We’ve been working directly with AMC’s producers, writers, and acting talent like Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride to make sure we’re hitting the brand directly.
Previously we announced the game and talked about it. The game had a core of combat. We were trying to do the brand justice through the walkers. We had this entire progressive dismemberment system. We’ve put a lot of emphasis on that, to the extent that the very first time I got to experience that and stabbed a walker, I actually felt pretty bad. That’s expanded significantly, making sure that we’re providing a lot of variety toward combat, a lot of hit reacts, different ways to move the walkers around, push them around. You can choke them with one hand and punch them into other walkers. It’s a very physical style of interacting with an enemy type.
We’re lucky to be able to use the iconic walkers from the show to get this done. The walkers, as AMC uses them, in terms of their behaviors and some of the more special ones — we have normal walkers, and we also have some that have bits of armor on them. But we also have special enemies like the spike walker that are directly from the show. That was in season seven or season eight. We’ve been working closely with AMC to make sure that the walkers behave the same way that they do in the show. They’re very protective of how walkers move. You can’t have them suddenly climb buildings, anything like that. Making sure they sound right and look right. We’ve looked up all the videos of how walkers are supposed to act on the show, trying to stay true to form as much as possible, within gameplay moments of course. We still have to make it fun to play.
GamesBeat: What’s new about this?
Abedian: Last time we spoke, I believe that the game did not have all the various features that have been built up over the last year or so. We’ve had a very long development, and the game has evolved. We did focus testing, made sure that we got other eyes on the game. Within that we found out that we wanted to expand the game and its feature set. Where we’re at now is a very different experience than what we had before, even though it still has that combat core.
We have a game that’s about a conflict between Rick and Daryl, where the player shifts perspectives between the two. Rick represents almost half the game, which has this whole scavenger portion where the player can go out on supply runs. They have to go into a town and loot it as fast as possible while the walker threat is chasing them. We’re trying to tap into those moments in the show where the characters go out, everything falls apart, maybe somebody dies — those are very intense moments that happen throughout seasons two through seven. That’s what scavenging is trying to hit. It’s about finding supplies out there, finding crafting material, because you want to get those materials and bring them back. That drives the progression of the game.
The other half of the game is played through Daryl’s eyes. It’s effectively a campaign that goes chapter by chapter. It starts with Rick and Daryl kind of having a conversation around the campfire. They have a philosophical difference in the way they want to treat the group, and this is very similar to — in season nine there was this conflict between Rick as a lot more of a collectivist, trying to move society forward, and Daryl being more individualistic, more about a smaller group. They fight over their philosophy, and basically you jump into the campaign as Daryl and find out what happened to him that leads to this big conflict.
The thing that ties this all together is Alexandria. It’s our interactive hub space, where the player goes back between missions. In there you’re using all those crafting materials to construct the buildings of Alexandria, the same ones that appear in season nine. The same materials go into weapon mods. As you discover weapons throughout the game, you can mod them to get radically different effects. On top of that, we have an entire community aspect, where you’re bringing the community materials and finding more population. We think it’s very special to — we want to hit the brand on a level that respects the IP.
All of this was a tradeoff, because previously we talked about doing co-op for this title, but in order to facilitate all these other features, we decided to drop that. We didn’t want to add a tacked-on feature where we didn’t feel we could hit the quality bar. We felt that people would appreciate it a lot more in terms of branding — the feeling of literally being dropped into an episode of Walking Dead. We decided to make that shift, and we think it’s going to work out.
GamesBeat: When was the last time you had a bigger update? How long has it been now?
Abedian: I think it’s been six to eight months. Honestly, quarantine time has completely distorted everything for me. Being a dev, it’s already kind of distorted. It’s almost doubling down. I cannot tell when months are passing.
GamesBeat: This is an original story, so you’re not necessarily bound by the show’s plot?
Abedian: We’re given the wiggle room to create our own story within the larger story. It’s writer-approved. We’re working with AMC. A lot of people who watch the show, they’re going to find that the characters feel authentic. We have Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride, and for all the other characters we have amazing voice acting talent — Keith Ferguson, G.K. Bowes, Cathy Cavadini. It’s still a story that makes sense leading up into season nine. It’s almost stitching between season eight and season nine, where there’s a big time jump. Characters reference the Saviors and the events of the previous season.
GamesBeat: What kind of infrastructure does AMC have for you to access?
Abedian: We have weekly meetings with the producers at AMC. They’re essentially the gateway to us accessing talent like the actors and writers. It’s mostly been a virtual experience lately, but it was remote before anyway. We would kick scripts back and forth and get revisions from them, making sure everything was adjusted. We send them builds of the game for review. We’ve been doing this the entire time. It’s just gotten more intense as the game has evolved to develop the story between Rick and Daryl. It’s developed a larger scope.
GamesBeat: Did you feel like you had to restart a lot of work as you were expanding the scope?
Abedian: The product did have that kind of combat core, and it did have all the walkers. We planned to have all the characters. We still allowed you to play as both Rick and Daryl, as well as Carol and Michonne. All of that was made, and we invested a lot into our physical combat, pushing walkers around. We had those assets already. It hasn’t been a complete reboot. Obviously when you make a shift in scope it does have profound effects on design. We did have to go back to the drawing board on certain things, and we wanted to make sure we emphasized other things. We wanted to have a lot of VR interaction. Not just the combat, but how you interact with the world is equally physical.
We also expanded the combat through aspects like a quick access button. This is a concept we had in Raw Data, where you could quickly select abilities or weapons. We’ve brought that back in Walking Dead Onslaught. You can carry four different weapons and quickly switch between them. If you don’t remember Raw Data, it’s similar to what Half-Life: Alyx is doing. Right in the middle of combat you can pull out a machete, chop into a walker’s head, pull up and grab a shotgun, blow another walker up. You can set up your loadout before you go on scavenger missions with the weapons you’ve discovered in the game thus far.
GamesBeat: The locomotion, is it the Sprint Vector kind, where you use your arms to move around?
Abedian: We’ve kept fluid locomotion in the game, but we also have joystick locomotion. We’re also keeping our turning settings. We have three kinds of turning settings, because we know some people like the smooth turn and others like the snap turn, but we’ve taken a step further to have a version of snap turning that doesn’t interpolate. We know that sometimes when people rotate, even if it’s very fast, they get a little nauseated. It’s really just a blink turn. On top of that, we still have comfort settings. We’ve generally tried to maintain all the knowledge we’ve found so far to make a smooth experience for the player.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like it differs from The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners in some big ways?
Abedian: I do. Obviously that product released late last year. We all played on the team and we loved it. They did a great job. But the guiding light they had versus the one we had — it almost feels like a fork in the road. We’re going in a different direction. They have a slower emphasis. You don’t fight that many walkers at once. It’s about the world, very much of an RPG feel. For us, it’s an action feel. You’re being plunged into a Walking Dead episode and having those characters you interact with.
The combat is radically different, because you’re fighting so many more walkers at a time. We have this entire brutal combat freedom where you can stab walkers, slice walkers, punch walkers, bash walkers. All of this is a lot less guided, a lot more free-form. When you hit a walker you can hit them in various locations. They’ll stumble back into other walkers and knock them down. It’s a constant crowd-control feel. The player can get overwhelmed if they’re surrounded by 10 or more. We ramp up those numbers significantly as the game goes on. It’s something we’ve been trying to hit from a tech perspective, having at least 30 walkers on screen at the highest. Saints and Sinners, I believe, was hitting something like five to 10. It makes a huge difference. Also, we don’t have any concept of durability or fatigue. Those are concepts that we played with very long ago and decided to abandon, because it didn’t fit that combat freedom feeling that we wanted.
GamesBeat: How much of this is campaign versus the missions around that hub?
Abedian: It’s pretty evenly split down the middle, 50-50. You go back and forth between campaign chapters and scavenger runs. For the scavenger run aspect, it’s a big map that has regions that open up as you play. You open up a new region and you have new options for the scavenger runs. Then you unlock a new chapter so you go to that. You go back and forth and back and forth, so you get that variety. They’re very stitched together.
How long the game takes to complete has everything to do with how good a player is and how much they get the combat, how to work with the walkers or work around the walkers. In a scavenger run you want to go for the biggest haul without dying. If you die a lot, you’re going to lose at least half your stuff. You don’t lose everything. We’re not that brutal. And you can also go back to campaign missions and replay them.
GamesBeat: How do you want to play it, as far as sitting down versus standing up and moving around?
Abedian: We’ve facilitated both seated and standing experiences. The game should work with both. Our QA team is testing in both scenarios with multiple platformers. Personally I like to play standing. That’s just me. I like being in a more proactive position as I’m pushing walkers around. But there’s really no reason why you wouldn’t be able to do it seated. We’ve tuned the combat so it still respects more lateral arm movements. We don’t want it to feel like you can’t get the walkers off you. If people get thrown into the game surrounded, there’s a real feeling of panic in VR when you’re surrounded by walkers. We still wanted the combat to work that way, and we’ve focused on fun more than anything else.
GamesBeat: What has the team worked on before? How big is it?
Abedian: The team has been changing relative to the project. We’ve gone up to 40 or 50 people at one point. We’re winding down right now as we finish up a lot of features and content. It’s a hodge-podge team of Survios developers. The way Survios works, it has various teams, and members move from one team to another as needed. A lot of people have gone through this team, a lot of talent that worked on Raw Data, Westworld, and so on. Whenever we need somebody, since we recognize our team members have specific expertise, we try to schedule a time to get them over so the game can shine in that aspect.
GamesBeat: So it’s not so big that there isn’t anything else in the works?
Abedian: I probably can’t comment on that. I will say that Survios is a very, very busy studio.
GamesBeat: How big would you say a given level or mission area is?
Abedian: For anybody who’s played Sprint Vector and knows how long those levels are, the levels are equally as long. Obviously in Sprint Vector you’re going 80 miles per hour. You’re not doing that as Norman Reedus on two legs. But they’re quite big. In the campaign they shrink and expand as needed to fit the story, but for scavenger it’s a progression. The levels get longer as you go to different areas. It gets upward of 30 to 40 minutes in some cases.
For campaign there’s a traditional checkpoint save system so you don’t go crazy, but for scavenger it’s a totally different tempo. You’re racing through the map and making very quick snap decisions, risk-reward decisions. It’s almost the same way we had in Sprint Vector. You’re going a little too fast, so you have to think on your toes. It’s the same thing here, but instead of speed, it’s just this abstract horde wall that’s pushing you through the environment. Do I go into this building? Do I go into the basement? Am I going to get stuck in there? It’s very stressful, but also rewarding when you can cut through and get to the end and get the haul.
They’re fairly big levels. I’d say people are going to have a lot of fun replaying them, particularly the scavenger ones. We have the variety. We change things up. Walkers and items don’t spawn in the same locations. We try to keep things expanding. Even within that scavenger mode, there are sub-modes that patch it together. In this one, just try to get to the end. In this other one, you have to hold out in a location. Then we start stitching that together into a long map where you have to get to the end, hold out, and get the haul out. That’s what you deal with toward the end of the game.
GamesBeat: For fans who were looking forward to the co-op, how would you communicate about what they’re going to get instead?
Abedian: We’re going to be highlighting all the features I’ve been talking about. Not only do we have our unique combat, but we have nine fully moddable ranged and melee weapons, plus additional scavenger weapons. We have community progression, building the Alexandria hub. We want to make sure everyone understands the value they’ll get out of this, and more important, understands that Survios is about quality. I’ll let marketing take care of the marketing messages, but we’re definitively saying that we did not include it because we did not feel that, given all the rest of the features, we could hit that same quality bar. We didn’t want to dilute the product.
GamesBeat: If there are that many walkers on the screen at once, does this feel something like World War Z? Or is it stopping short of that kind of mayhem?
Abedian: It gets pretty chaotic. World War Z had that third-person camera and you had a lot more zombies pouring out of buildings. We can’t do that, because that’s not what the walkers do. But we do have walkers falling off of stuff, crawling from under things, trying to catch the player off guard.
There’s a different feel between the campaign and scavenger, too, where campaign is far more scripted, while scavenger is far more dynamic. Players are not necessarily going to know what’s going on in scavenger. They’re just trying to do their thing, and the walkers are in the environment. There are more armored walkers and spiked walkers as the game progresses. Meanwhile, in campaign, we’ve specifically scripted beats for very particular combat moments with the weapon that you get at that moment so it feels good.
On the ground level, when you start getting 30 walkers piled on top of you, it’s very hard to get the sense of the crowd. We’re not making these grand open spaces. Even just having 10 walkers in a cramped space is incredibly uncomfortable. Players have to focus on just the first five in front of them.
GamesBeat: Is it a feeling like Zombies on the Holodeck, or is it a very different experience?
Abedian: That’s a very old Survios reference! We’ve definitely taken our experiences from the past and put them into this. I’d say that it’s far more advanced in the technology we have to interact with the walkers. The melee system is so much more dense code-wise. Alex Silkin, who worked on Zombies on the Holodeck, one of the founders of the company, he’s the engineer on this product. He’s taken everything he learned from there, Raw Data, all our previous products, and applied it here. It’s just been with the additional guidance, where I said, “We need to make sure that you can push them with your gun, with your hand, with the blunt end of a blade,” just to make sure that all that physical aspect in making distance is represented. I think people will be very happy about how they can interact with the walkers.
GamesBeat: Are you talking about a time frame for when it’s coming yet?
Abedian: Walking Dead Onslaught will be available later this year. I don’t have an exact date at the moment. It’ll be available for PSVR, Oculus Rift, and Vive. For anybody who wants additional information, they can always follow us on Twitter, @survios, or they can go to our website, twdonslaught.com. We’ll try to keep people updated there. The game should also be up on Steam for wishlisting. People will be hearing more about other stuff later. And we’re doing our first official gameplay reveal later this summer.
This post by Dean Takahashi originally appeared on Venturebeat.