Any character can be the hero in State of Decay 2. Players can take any scrappy survivor they come across and have them lead civilization's rebuild. Undead Labs wanted that cast of characters to represent every facet of humanity so that anyone who played the game would feel represented and empowered. They cast a wide demographic net and captured the biggest slice of humankind they could to populate their world. It took smart use of technology, and a lot of guts.
During the development of the original State of Decay, Undead Labs' artists designed and modeled the last humans on Earth by hand. The characters were an amalgamation of artistic references—not based on any one person—so they remained fairly generic and middle of the road. For State of Decay 2, the team wanted to create more realistic characters, which meant getting more detail. Using a technology called photogrammetry, the team captured real human faces from dozens of angles with a state-of-the-art camera array and translated the images into 3D models.
The new system streamlined the character art pipeline. What used to take artists a week to model now took a day. The team kept their camera array busy, capturing over 300 people to build out a roster of zombie-fighting citizens. Their ability to quickly scan real people meant that a more diverse slice of humanity could fend off the undead hordes. Scanning actual, breathing humans made the characters feel more authentic than ones constructed from an artist's imagination.
"We wanted to make games that really represented people who lived in this country." - Grace Chien, Senior Producer, Undead Labs
Undead Labs sought to populate State of Decay with an accurate portrait of America, so they built diversity into development. "We tried to be really sensitive to the representation challenge and portray characters that are believable, relatable, and have authentic experience to share," said Philip Holt, Chief of Staff at Undead Labs. Players ran into characters who could be their real-world neighbors while avoiding the lumbering undead. The open world felt richer for it. A zombie apocalypse filled with characters is one thing—a zombie apocalypse filled with people plucked from players' real-world experience is another thing entirely.
The brains behind the braaaaiiins
"Our experiences are not scripted, they're not bespoke [and] authored. They're emergent interaction," said Holt. State of Decay 2 was based on systems and not hand-crafted narratives. Character attributes had to be carefully balanced.
While gameplay hinged on systems, players needed to feel a human touch. Every survivor was constructed from exhaustive and painstakingly-researched elements: procedurally assigned names, genders, cultural backgrounds, and traits. This amalgam of broad strokes hinted at surprisingly authentic backgrounds; all unique and emergent.
It wasn't easy. Undead Labs devs honed their procedural system to ensure character attributes cohered. A survivor couldn't be lazy and energetic at the same time. "You can imagine a person who is a contradiction, but when a player knows they are being randomly generated it looks like a mistake," said Geoffrey Card, Design Director at Undead Labs. A strange result from the system would shatter the illusion of a handcrafted game.
State of Decay 2 wove its complex character system into the game to paint a picture of society in which everyone had a role to play. Bringing a diverse and accurate cast of characters "helps you see deeper than the surface and lets you understand them as human beings," said Card. Through clever use of technology, Undead Labs gave players the experience of human connection in a zombie wasteland.
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