Zombie Driver HD in-depth interview
XBLA Fans recently had the opportunity to chat with Pawel Lekki, COO at Exor Studios. Exor’s Zombie Driver HD released on XBLA this past October, and Lekki was more than willing to talk about the title as well as his background in game development.
Pawel, please tell us a few things about yourself outside of the world of gaming.
I think there isn’t much outside the world of gaming because I spend most of my day at work to be honest. But if I’m not working I enjoy travelling by car around Europe. Moving around in your own vehicle gives a lot of freedom, and I annually make road trips with a few friends. Our record braking trip so far was visiting 11 countries in 7 days with a total of 5000km on the road.
How did you get into game development?
The first gaming-related thing I did [actually involved] classic role playing games. I was a game master for 5 years, and together with our team we created our own version of one of the popular RPG systems. I guess you could say we started modding with pen and paper.
When it comes to traditional computer game development, I started by making levels for various games with my brother. The first game for which we made our own maps was Age of Empires, then StarCraft, and later we moved on to first person shooters like Unreal Tournament, Quake 3 and Half-Life. The first Make Something Unreal contest actually played an important role in our journey because it made us go public and share our works on the internet. After that we started working on mods for Half-Life and informally started Exor as a modding group. Our first public mod was ‘D.I.P.R.I.P.’ for Half-Life 2 and because of our work on it we were all hired by a Finnish mobile game development company called Gamelion. That was the beginning of my professional game development career which started 7 years ago.
What led you and your co-founders to form Exor Studios?
After working for two years on mobile games at Gamelion we felt like we weren’t really getting enough satisfaction from our work. In the days of Java mobile development, there was a lot more business development and porting than actual game development. There was never enough time to iterate on game design or to polish our games enough. That was our main reason for starting our own studio and going independent.
Since Exor is located in Poland I have to ask: do you know the guys at CD Projekt? And are the Witcher novels awesome in the original Polish?
CD Projekt is located in Warsaw and Exor Studios is in Szczecin (relatively far away), so unfortunately we don’t know anyone at CD Project, but I personally enjoyed playing The Witcher a lot. They are probably the most known Polish game developer and I hope they can represent the Polish game development scene as well as they [have done] so far.
When it comes to the original Witcher novels, I personally didn’t like their style. In my opinion they were too dark and “down to earth.” They also have a very strong “Polish accent” – just as you see it in the game. I think that worked incredibly well in the game, but when it comes to reading, I’m more of a Tolkien, Margaret Weiss, or Tracy Hickman fan. Nevertheless the book series is a huge hit in Poland and it has a strong cult following. I guess I’m just different in that regard.
Let’s talk about some of the influences on the original Zombie Driver. What was the initial idea behind the game?
We first wanted to make a quick and easy project and we thought that a retro top down perspective would fit that purpose very well. We also wanted to make a game with cars that have guns attached to them. The next logical step was to populate a city with zombies and let the player mow them down in huge numbers. We had a few ideas about making the gameplay more open and less linear, but we simply didn’t have the resources to do that.
Did any classic games help inspire the gameplay?
We definitely looked at the classics – Grand Theft Auto 1 and 2. One of the best things in that game was making a juicy gouranga and we wanted to recreate that feeling, but with much more intensity – hence the zombie horde. (The term “Gouranga” is displayed in the first GTA when players run over a group of Hare krishnas. –ed.)
Speaking of zombies, do you have a favorite zombie movie? How do you like The Walking Dead?
To be honest I haven’t seen or played The Walking Dead yet. I know it’s a shame and I have that in my plans, but I simply didn’t have the time to get to that yet. I think my favorite zombie movie would be Shaun of the Dead, with the “not so serious” approach.
Zombie Driver accumulated a real cult following on Steam. When did you realize the game had become a success?[It was not] a breakout success from day one. We had a lot of player feedback and we kept working on it. We released two huge free updates on Steam with the Slaughter and Blood Race modes. I think people really enjoyed the fact that we kept on improving the game and didn’t abandon it after release. I guess they simply paid us back by telling their friends about it. And that kept us going…
What led Exor to revamp the game as Zombie Driver HD?
We always wanted to release it on XBLA and PSN, but originally we didn’t plan a re-release on Steam. The technical side of developing the console ports took much longer than we expected, but [during] the same time we kept adding content to the game and improving it. At some point we decided that [HD had become so] different from the PC original that it warranted a new name. However, I’m not sure if calling it Zombie Driver HD really worked well. Most people [seem to] think that we just improved the graphics, but there is simply so much more content in the game.
Did you address any specific feedback about the original game when creating the HD version?
Absolutely. One of the biggest complaints was that the Story mode missions were all the same, so we completely overhauled that mode and added a lot more variety to the game play. Another huge complaint was the lack of a mini map in the original PC version or that the nitro was treated as a regular weapon – now it works as a separate system. [We also made] a lot of other small tweaks and changes.
What aspects of Zombie Driver HD are you most proud of?
I’m really happy with the new nitro system and how it made the game a lot more dynamic. We also made the game run almost three times faster on the PC than it did before. The story mode in Zombie Driver HD has received a lot critique. Nevertheless, I think it is much better than in the original.
One of HD’s improvements is the addition of voice acting for the story. Unfortunately, the voices – particularly the female – aren’t so great. These scenes are unskippable during actual story missions, too. If you ever release an update, would it be possible to change it so they can be skipped?
We are aware of the reviews that the voice acting has received and are actually working on a new version of some of the voices – including the female ones. We don’t have a date on when the new voices will be ready, but we will release them as a patch on the PC and include them in the PS3 version. Unfortunately the audio files would be too big for the 4MB patch limit on XBLA so we won’t be able to update them on that platform. When it comes to skipping cutscenes, we aren’t planning to change that.
Aww. Well, do you have any concrete DLC plans for HD yet, and if so, will the DLC add new Xbox Live Achievements to the game?
We don’t have any DLC plans yet. We would like to add some new vehicles and maps to the game, but at the moment we are focused on the PS3 release.
Zombie Driver HD has a fun single-player racing mode, Blood Race, as well as well-developed leaderboards in both Blood Race and Slaughter modes. Might we see true multiplayer in a sequel someday?
If there is a sequel to Zombie Driver HD then we’ll certainly think about it.
Zombie Driver HD is Exor’s first Xbox 360 project. What was it like working with Microsoft, from the earliest stages of the process through final certification?
We have a mixed opinion about working with them, to be honest. Their technical support works really well, but it appears they don’t really want to talk to developers in terms of how their platform works. Our only contact with Microsoft was through our publisher Cyberfront. Microsoft refused any direct discussion with us about the game. We don’t actually have anyone to talk to at Microsoft about our future projects.
Zombie Driver HD has also just come out on Tegra-powered Android tablets. Would Exor be interested in releasing Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 ports in the future as well?
We would like to do that, but Microsoft doesn’t allow games rated PEGI 18 on the Windows Store, so that platform is closed for Zombie Driver HD. I don’t understand Microsoft’s policy on this, and I hope they change their mind someday. I mean, you won’t see a lot of blockbuster hits on their Windows 8 platform because of this. No GTA, no Assassin’s Creed, no Witcher…
Lastly, are you working on any other games right now, console or otherwise?
We are working on a new game concept, but at this stage it is too early to even define the genre that we are going for.