In this interview, Atom Zombie Smasher developer Brendon Chung discusses the game design challenges behind the title, his design process, and how playtesting led him to try out some concepts he may not have thought of otherwise.
What was your process for coming up with the original concept for Atom Zombie Smasher?
The inspiration for AZS was from a Java app called Zombie3. From that, I made a prototype where you controlled a small infantry team and dropped artillery on zombies. As the game grew and expanded, I looked to one of my favorite games, X-com, and added an over-arching system of upgradeable troops and a worldmap.
What was your design production cycle like? Did you incorporate frequent playtesting, redesigns, or prototypes, or just follow your original doc?
I find the best ideas emerge out of the implementation process. The best example of this is designing levels for first-person shooters. Once you start translating your 2D napkin sketch into the 3D game engine, you instantly start to see all sorts of new possibilities for passageways, underpasses, tunnels, etc. I find the same is true for any project.
For that reason, I like to focus on implementation and prototyping. The initial prototype was basically “drop bombs on zombies.” From this sprang the idea of adding some mobile riflemen, which led to the helicopter and other mercenaries, and so on. Once I feel the game is in a playable state, I start playtesting with people. The playtests themselves create more ideas – scientists were originally just extrapolated from the people you rescue (i.e. you get 1 scientist for every 10 people you rescue) until someone suggested “why not just have scientists running around the city?”
Can you share a major design challenges did you face while developing the game, and how you worked through it?
I added a “worldmap” meta-game sometime during development. It was big, grand, ornate, and incredibly unfun. I tried to make it work, spending a long time tweaking it, rearranging it, and overhauling it.
It became clear that it was basically going nowhere. So, the solution was to more or less abandon it and strip it down to one or two mechanics. It was like having a fully-functioning car and dismantling it until only the radio knob remained. At any rate, removing that original worldmap made the game much better.
What big design successes did you have for the game?
I’m pretty proud of the mod interface. It’s not as fully-featured as I’d like it to be, but users can do a tremendous amount of gameplay tweaking very quickly and easily. I got my start doing mod work, so I have a soft spot for it. As a developer, it was a big step for me since my previous projects have been pretty strictly hard-coded.
What design lessons did you learn from this game that you think might be applicable to other games you work on in the future?
I’ll start playtesting sooner next time. It took a playtest to recognize the worldmap wasn’t working well. I find it a little tricky to find the right time to start playtesting. I want to make the game as playable and presentable so as to get the point across, yet not waste too much time doing work that will undoubtedly change a lot or be thrown away.
You’ve been very prolific with Flotilla, Air Forte, and Atom Zombie Smasher all made in a short period of time; what kind of production schedule or philosophy do you keep yourself to in order to crank out great games?
Production is very important to me, especially since I (literally) can’t afford to waste time. I focus on scope control, re-using technology/assets from previous projects, and lots of index cards. I took a production system we used at Pandemic and bastardized it for use with one person (me!). Basically, whenever I identify a new task (i.e. “add dust puffs to helicopter”) or bug, I write it down on an index card and attach it to the wall. When the task is done, I throw it into a box. That’s it. The thing that distinguishes it from a to-do list is that you can instantly visualize and compare everything that needs to be done.
Not to mention, it feels great to throw cards into a box.
How did you get all your art and music supplied, did you do it yourself?
The music is from a great band called The Volcanics (who are on iTunes!) and a friend Benny Hammond (who’s also a member of The Volcanics). Their work fits in the apocalyptic AZS world so well.
I created all the art. Lots of reference photos, and a lot of scribbling on my tiny Wacom tablet. All the 3D bits are generated in-game via low-level OpenGL calls.
What were your marketing or outreach efforts?
I handle the website. My marketing budget is basically non-existent. I email gaming news sites, use Twitter & Facebook, and talk with people like you. If anyone wants to spring for an Atom Zombie Smasher billboard for me, please do.
BLENDO Games’ latest release, Atom Zombie Smasher, as well as other titles can be found on the BLENDO Games website.