During E3 2014, H1Z1 senior designer Jimmy Whisenhunt was getting ready to kick off a demo for Sony Online Entertainment's new sandbox survival game when he suddenly realized that the zombies he needed had wandered off.
"They were off chasing a deer," he remembers. "They ended up running across the road and I hit them with my vehicle, which caused them all to ragdoll and almost blew up my car. So you never know what's going to happen with games like these."
Experiences like these are a large part of why the sandbox survival genre has experienced explosive growth since first appearing in 2012. A mix of Minecraft's crafting elements and good old-fashioned survival horror, sandbox survival games are known for their dynamic worlds and emergent gameplay, making them notoriously hard to demo. The genre was popularized in large part by the original DayZ mod, which tacked zombies and hardcore survival elements onto the relatively obscure tactical shooter ARMA 2, becoming a Youtube sensation almost overnight as fans posted their adventures in evading mobs of zombies or simply trying to get a high-five from everyone they meet.
Since then, the genre has grown to encompass the likes of Rust, Lifeless, and 7 Days to Die, with DayZ also getting a proper release. SOE's H1Z1 is a relative newcomer, having been first announced in April 2014, and at first blush it brings little in the way of new ideas to the genre outside of being free-to-play. Like DayZ, it's a first-person sandbox MMO loaded with zombies in which you must scavenge items, craft weapons, and ulimately band together with (or kill) other players to survive. Whisenhunt acknowledges these similarities and even embraces them, saying that he's a big fan of DayZ. However, DayZ is rather notorious for its glitches and unreliability, which is something SOE hopes to improve upon with H1Z1.
"We're an MMO company. We know how to house thousands of players. We know how to set up servers with a high quality of service," says producer Steve George. "What we do is we keep our worlds running 24/7, and you're guaranteed a good experience. We also know how to grow them over time."
Interestingly for a large developer like SOE, H1Z1's team has also set itself apart with what president John Smedley refers to as "democratized development." A whole Reddit community has grown up around the game's development, where the team bounces ideas off fans and accepts suggestions they like, making players feel like they're part of the process. Not surprisingly, users have plenty of thoughts on how a sandbox survival MMO should be made, ranging from how vehicles should run to what the buildings should look like ("You shouldn't be able to build skyscrapers," says one Reddit user). It's not been easy sorting through all of the suggestions, many of which are quite ambitious, but the H1Z1 team appreciates the connection they've forged with their users. Thus far, the biggest problem they've faced is that some of the ideas are a little too ambitious for their own good.
"They can get a little too excited sometimes," Whisenhunt laughs. "They'll suggest stuff that we don't plan to implement for another three or four years."
Thus far, SOE has kept their cards close to their vest as they work to get H1Z1 to the point where they can put it out for Early Release, but a few interesting ideas have come out since the initial announcement in April. One is the notion of transport helicopters, which will periodically drop care packages, attracting both players and zombies. George says he expects to see plenty of groups that work together just long enough to clear out the undead mobs before they turn on one another in an effort to claim the loot for themselves. A variety of interesting possibilities exist with the cargo drops, the point being to tease out some of the nascent gameplay and give players more reason to interact.
Long term, Whisenhunt expects to see players banding together to build communities, start up trading posts, and create an economy, though of course it will depend on the players. Whisenhunt himself admits that he'll probably team up with one or two other players and rob passing travelers for supplies. If the mood strikes him though, he may decide to be helpful instead. In games like H1Z1, it's possible to be a regular Robin Hood if you want. Or you can be more akin to Leatherface. The only real rule is to survive by whatever means necessary for as long as possible.
[The zombies] were off chasing a deer. They ended up running across the road and I hit them with my vehicle, which caused them all to ragdoll and almost blew up my car. So you never know what's going to happen with games like these." - Jimmy Whisenhunt, Senior Designer
Ultimately, it's that sort of unprecedented freedom that continues to draw newcomers to the sandbox survival genre. The rise of streaming in particular has given players a perfect venue for sharing their adventures with an audience, putting it at the leading edge of modern gaming. The genre's only real achilles heel is its accessibility. For those used to a more guided experience, H1Z1 is rather daunting in the way that it simply drops you next to a country road with an axe and encourages you to have at it.
"We always say the first step is, 'Take an axe, hit a tree,'" says Whisenhunt. "Honestly, the industry has taught over the last 12 years or so that I can't chop down a tree. If an axe is in a stump and I walk over to it, I can't take that axe. It's just an asset. So with our game, we have to break that mentality somehow, and we hope that people will run up to a tree and hit it and realize, 'Holy crap, I just knocked over a tree. What else can I do?"
George adds: "There's a certain level of crafting you do from the start. It's probably three step. There's chopping down the tree, making a plank, and making a stick. And by the time you make an arrow, a bell goes off in your head and you go, 'Oh, I get it.' Then you start a campfire, start making items, and... someone shoots you in the head and you die. Or you might make a great friend who decides to help you out. You never know."
Compared to its competition, H1Z1 can be construed as slightly more forgiving. Death is permanent, but recipes carry over from character to character, meaning that you won't have to discover how to remake a bow every time a crazy mountain man puts an axe in your skull. SOE also plans to make it possible to stow away items for retrieval in the event of an untimely death. Granted, opposing players will be able to kick down—or blow down—your door and take your goods anyway, but depending on how sturdy your house is they will have to weigh the cost of using valuable explosives to do so. Many will probably prefer to move on.
Despite its concessions though, H1Z1 is very much a hardcore survival game geared toward a hardcore audience. For as popular as they have become, many more gamers prefer to watch videos of DayZ than to actually try and play it, making it something of a niche community. The inherent unreliability of early access games like DayZ and Rust haven't helped in that regard. Nevertheless, sandbox survival games with a strong emphasis on crafting continue to pop up, driven in part by near the ubiquity of Minecraft.
"I think it will always be a niche, but that niche is growing," Whisenhunt says. "People are seeing it and going, 'What do you mean I can be a bandit who handcuffs everyone?' That draws them in."
As for H1Z1, it still has a ways to go before its ready for an early access release. The fields, roads, and forests are nicely detailed, but its early days yet for the zombie and human character models, as well as the combat. The bow and arrow, which becomes available relatively early on, feels about right, but the melee combat feels oddly disconnected despite the appropriately chunky sound effects that greet the sound of an axe striking a zombie's flesh. And of course, it still doesn't demo that well, regardless of whether or not you're trying to herd deer. Without a significant playerbase, H1Z1 really only consists of a few car wrecks, a handful of zombies, and the odd farmhouse. For now, H1Z1 remains a blank slate.
When it does eventually hit early access, it will join a vibrant and growing genre that has done much to unlock the hidden potential of the greater sandbox genre. SOE brings with it a substantial amount of marketing muscle as well as the resources of an established publisher, giving H1Z1 a rather substantial advantage over even more established competition like DayZ, even if its success is by no means assured. Their arrival heralds the next phase of development for the still-nascent genre, with other developers likely not far behind. The future of the apocalypse has never looked so bright.