Zomz is a work-in-progress and everything you see here is subject to change and iteration.
Zomz is a single player, strategy based, story driven game where the player can control Zombies. In Zomz, we explore the beginnings of what control love has over us.
“Zomz takes place five years after the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. You will play as an ex-Ghanaian Armed Forces Officer, Abraham Adu, who leads his family into a madman’s refugee camp where the compromise for safety begins with surrendering his freedom.”
Role: Game Designer & Narrative Designer
Platform: PC | Team Size: 3
- Implemented and iterated enemy behaviors and character stats.
- Designed, paper play-tested, implemented and iterated all level designs within the game.
- Modified item drop rates, and item stats with A/B Testing during play-tests.
- Organized and participated in brainstorming design sessions.
- Documented and constantly updated design documents so that each team member had uninterrupted access to getting the information they need.
- Collaborated with the narrative adding side quest ideas to better serve the narrative design throughout the game.
- Play-tested game mechanics, level designs, enemies, combat, and more with multiple play-testers at multiple times. Documented responses for team recollection and for future potential iterations.
Software & Hardware
Further Detail: My Processes
Below follows a detailed description of the processes within the design of the game. Such as level design, systems design, etc… All sections will be distinguished by a heading with the name.
- Game Design Pillars
- Paper Prototyping
- Zomz Mode Digital Prototyping
- Player Character Combat
- Level Designs
I first concepted Zomz back in 2015. I have always been a fan of the zombie genre and my idea seemed new and exciting to me. The ability to control zombies? I had never seen or heard of something like that before. I was excited to get started so in the process of finding a team, I started world building and concepting level designs. But, first I needed Pillars.
Love, Loss, Hopelessness, and Hatred
This was an easy one for me. Having been inspired by a close family member’s death, I knew I wanted the game to envelope Love and then what happens when we lose that love. But also, now that I have lived through that loss for the past 10 years, I added hatred for I feel like I have a better understanding of why it’s the exact opposite of love. I want the player to go through this same arc. The feeling of love, to losing it, to feeling anger, hopelessness, and hatred.
Control follows directly after the player experience their emotional arcs. Once they’ve experienced love, and it’s loss. I want to give the player the ability to control things they normally wouldn’t be able to. Imagine being able to control life or death? The peace of mind that could give us, but also the corruption that could take place. Emotions are a complicated tricky subject and can stem into many different arcs. Because of this, the player should be able to control most things, that would normally be out of their control.
Science, Futurism and Everything’s Possible
I have such a love for dystopian stories and societies. I quite honestly think, depending on the perspective, we already live in a dystopian society. To me dystopia is just unveiling the negative and shadowed emotions that people are uncomfortable talking about. In these stories and worlds, those feelings are front and center. With the fact I wanted those emotions upfront, I also wanted the story to be as organic and authentic as possible. Science is a huge part of the story because I wanted everything to make sense as it would in the real world. The player will by default experience realism and immersion as the rules of the world seem very similar to our own. Besides the fact that they can control zombies.
- Play testing zombie controlling mechanics
I had an idea at first of how I thought the zombie controlling mechanic should feel and operate so I created paper prototypes and with the help of some friends, I assigned someone the role of moderator, and narrator who was responsible for narrating the actions and rolling dice for outcomes. We started experimenting.
After finally deciding on a layout, we decided to fine tune it and use it for our play tests.
- Zombie controlling mechanic was fun. Felt powerful to control multiple zombies at once. Especially throughout the zombie mayhem.
- Puzzles and mystery added to the atmosphere. Making the game feel more like an intriguing mystery to unravel as opposed to just another hack n’ slash.
- The players were upset that some things just seemed to happen without their doing. They wanted to be responsible for most of the things that happened, regardless of what they were.
Pivot, New Goals
The paper play test gave me a sense of whether or not the zombie controlling mechanic would be enjoyable and fun. Now that we know things that our guests enjoyed we should now experiment with quick digital prototypes.
- Controlling multiple zombies at once.
- Puzzles incorporating Zombies and Humans to increase atmosphere.
The first prototype involved controlling multiple zombies at the same time. Like transistor, planning each move carefully, I wanted to bring that to the game. Planning moves of each zombie individual, but the amount you can plan is determined by a mana bar that regenerates over time. This method is smart because it allows the player to remain in control of themselves, but also by being a zombie the player can do things their player character normally wouldn’t be able to do.
Zomz Mode – Design One
- Easy control scheme for controlling zombies.
- Guests controlling multiple zombies at the same time.
- Zombie mana bar to represent how much time the player has left controlling zombies.
- Different types of zombies with different abilities, disadvantages, and advantages to controlling.
Video – Design One
As you can see in the video, there are different zombies that can be controlled. In this version of the design, the player can choose a zombie, do a certain number of actions and then click on another zombie and continue to pick actions, until all of their mana is depleted or otherwise. Once done, the player will resume control of their player character and watch as the zombies follow their instructions.
Problems with Design One
There were a few notable problems with this design.
- Controlling more than one zombie at a time to do the same thing, such as, attack another zombie, or character, or object, the zombies would collide with each other and both would miss the target they were attacking.
- Controlling the zombies didn’t feel satisfying, something felt missing.
- Controlling Abe the whole time felt underwhelming and ‘unexciting’.
- We decided to make it so zombies could overlap with each other so that they don’t inhibit each other from completing their goals.
- We decided to experiment with even more different types of zombies to make controlling them more exciting, and versatile for puzzles and combat.
Some different types of Zombies we added
Preliminary Zombies and their powers
Our first iteration of adding zombies, they all had one specific powers.
- Runs towards the player and explodes.
- Charges towards the player.
- Screams, bring all zombies attention.
- Spews vomit on to the players.
We had so many ideas of different types for zombies and abilities. As a team we brainstormed a huge list within an excel sheet but chose to start with the zombies aforementioned with one ability each, to prototype and play-test.
Fixing Problems? New problems.
Along the same vein of our first iteration, our second iteration tried to address problems we originally discovered. We made an effort to fix all bugs pertaining to zombies so that play-testers could get the best zombie control experience we could give them.
- Zombie types were almost uncontrollable in this mode, when trying to direct their abilities, once activated, the zombies would react sporadically. This called for immediate technical attention.
- Now that the zombies were no longer colliding, they were now overlapping with each other while attacking the same object. Since the zombies range quite a bit in size now, it was easy for the smaller zombies to be hidden within the bigger zombies. It was almost impossible to tell how many zombies were attacking you at once.
- Playing Abe felt even less exciting then it did before.
- Lack of accuracy. With directional abilities, how does the player have absolute control over the zombies, their abilities, and where the attacks are going?
Throughout play tests we did of this design, we kept hearing that our play-testers wanted to be able to control the zombies first hand. Being in a user-centrist industry, we decided to oblige and test it out. We iterated and decided to experiment with a new version of Zomz mode.
Zomz Mode Design Two
The main difference in this design from the first, is the ability for the player to actually control the zombies. This leaves open a whole other can of problems but I’ll get to those in a bit.
- Guests consciousness goes into a zombie, whom the guest controls for any amount of time so long that they have mana.
- Guests feel confident to approach puzzles and encounters with their new found abilities.
What the new design does well
- Giving the player the ability to control zombies gave the player unfounded confidence to fight against other zombies, and to solve puzzles pertaining to zombies.
- The players were never really concerned about the well-being of their player-character. A few mentioned there concern though.
- No more clunky design trying to control multiple zombies at a time. Our original design was more strategic then hands on but this design gives the player the interaction and confidence over their actions they wanted to enjoy the game.
What still needs work
- Zombie abilities are bugged sometimes, and do not act as they should. Difficult to aim abilities.
- One zombie ability doesn’t seem to be enough. The play-testers, though they enjoyed playing as the zombies, they got bored of using the same attacking ability over and over again.
- Playing as Abe was becoming dangerously dull. Something needed to be done.
Abe, the player character. Our original design had Abe intentionally being less engaging to play as the zombies because we wanted to encourage the players taking the chance and playing as zombies. But, this design thought process was flawed. Abe is a crucial and important character. Abe is the players window into our virtual world, by making Abe a weak interact-able character, we are in turn making our world weak. We isolated where the problems were within Abe’s character and most of the problems seemed to stem from what actions Abe could do and what actions the zombies could do.
Discoveries and Findings
Upon isolating the problems and viewing them from different perspectives, we understood that everything the zombies could do, Abe could do as well from interacting to objects, traversal mechanics, and attacking. The only grandeur version of one of the actions were that the zombie abilities were incredibly engaging compared to Abe’s weak attacks. We originally did this purposefully as I stated before, to encourage player – zombie controlling but it hurt us in the end. The combat with Abe is boring and feels empty. All he can do is roll, and spam an attack button.
The team and I decided to look at other games for combat references. We were mesmerized by the attention to detail and complexity within the new God of War (2018) combat system. It was so intricate and ours was so bland. We decided to use God of War as a reference and make out combat more dynamic and changing with the tides. So we thought, how can we do this?
- Adding player abilities?
- Adding more weapons?
- Adding different types of items to be useful in battle?
- Add more types of zombies to control?
- Add robots to control?
We had so many ideas but we wanted to make sure that everything stay within the frame of the narrative as well. Because the game takes place in the future, we thought that it would make sense to add robots and futuristic technology. Because the game takes place during an apocalypse, it would make sense to add more weapons. Because the game takes place within reality we thought it wouldn’t make sense to add player abilities for that would create more overhead on the narrative end. We decided against more zombies and different item types because we hadn’t finished prototyping the zombies and their abilities currently.
Abe’s Combat Iteration
Because our game takes place in the future, it’d make sense to add robots, right? But, we didn’t want to add overhead to the art since we only have one 3D artist on our team. Instead of adding robots, we decided to start adding technology in the form of special abilities for Abe, the player character. This way, we are adding more to only what Abe can do and making combat more specific, interactive, dynamic, and different. We decided to start prototyping and experimenting with technology. Some of the ideas we’ve had are…
Tech – Special Ability Ideas
- Holographic Shield
- Plasma Cover
- Plasma Grenades
- Pulse Laser
- Holographic Clone
We constantly keep brainstorming new tech ideas, but we decided to start with one piece of tech per bi-weekly sprint to prototype.
Fixing the Zombie Problem
Alongside the Abe combat problems above, I also mentioned before that the Zombie combat though more exciting than Abe’s still lacked in richness, so we decided to add more zombie abilities per zombie that were all situational. These zombie abilities would act as personification extensions for the technology we are giving Abe. This way, not all zombies have the abilities that Abe has alone, but all the zombies together can match Abe in abilities.
While play-testing zombie abilities, tech, and new combat aspects, and while awaiting a good amount of feedback from users and for tech to catch up on coding zombie abilities, I decided to start working on level designs.
Level Design – Pillars
What is one of the most important factors in any suspenseful, or horror game or movie? Ambiguity! The fear of not knowing. Even though, Zomz is not a horror game, it has elements that are very real and it takes place in a high risk environment so adding and atmospheric sense of the unknown will, I hypothesize, add to the overall mystery and engagement of the guests throughout the game.
Internal Reflection Externally
As it’s important to include Narrative into Level Designs and Environment Art, I wanted this to be an important Level Design pillar since the game is very narrative driven. I wanted to help bring out the player emotions we are shooting for by externally showing them how they should be feeling by using lighting, FX, weather, other character opinions, and environment quality/status.
Thanks to our original prototyping for Zomz mode, we discovered that when the guests is controlling zombies, it leaves their player character defenseless. In order to mitigate the damage that their player character may attract defenselessly, we wanted to add as many “hiding spots” or “safe zones” we could so the player could more comfortably leave their player character without the risk of them dying while the guest is off controlling something else.
Level Wants and Needs
So as I started to develop sketches of concrete digital level designs, I asked myself, what purposes exactly do I want the levels to serve? What purposes does the level need to serve?
- Feel like a gladiator – in game audiences – close up
- Knowing where to go and what to do
- Visual Story Telling
- Rest Zones – No combat, hiding spots, cover spots
- Open spaces for combat
- Secret Spots in the level for loot and narrative drive
Level Design Process & Iterations
For this level design overview, I am going to pick the third level. What I used at first to design this level, to simply get my thoughts on paper was Adobe Photoshop.
For this level there were a certain number of narrative elements that needed to come through.
- This is the level after the main character gets bitten so they unlock their immunity and zombie controlling power in this level. But, the player doesn’t know that at the start of the level. The cut scene before the level starts expresses that basically the players character will die but the main antagonist wishes to get one more fight out of him. So the main bad guy completely expects Abe to die this level so he decides to go all out on this spectacle and he releases a lot more zombies than usual. Turns out that Abe is immune, and doesn’t die.
- Starting the level we wanted to give the player a feeling of dread, they are running for their lives. They think the game is over, they think maybe the messed up and this is the bad ending? So the white arrows in the graph above are the mass amounts of zombies coming from cages.
Each level has it’s own overall objective to mix up game play and keep a sense of progression but for this one the level objective was simply to survive until the end. We figured the best way to start this level off was to keep it simple with open space to help the player fight. But, that went against our idea of keeping the player on their toes and interested in the characters well being. We wanted to make sure that even though things were looking down, the player believed deeply that maybe they could get out of this rut and beat this part of the game. We decided to go back to the drawing board.
The next iteration we decided to really push the sense of urgency to survive. You start this level, half health while it’s also depleting. The main character is treating you like an animal about to die. So the first idea I had was to have a lot of sound design showcasing the amount of zombies the player would have to fight. We wanted to make it seem like there was an entire horde. So, I wanted to direct the player straight to the yellow crate that had a weapon on it, which is also the furthest location from the zombies coming towards them. As the player is running they’d hear and see the zombies chasing them. Once on the port, I wanted to make room so that the player could escape back to land and could fight the level all around the map. But, therein lied a problem. All the player was doing was running away, then hitting, then running, then hitting. There was no strategy involved. So I kept iterating.
For this iteration, I made the level bigger and tried to add more interaction through the level. I added cars and barrels so the player can light them on fire or set off the alarms. This way the player would have to be careful with where they were walking as well. If they bumped into a car, then “ARNN ARNNN ARNNN” the car alarms would show the zombies where the player is. This level design added a little more leeway into the design of how the player was interacting with the zombies but still a lack of strategy was a problem. With this, I tried to start completely over.
Problems with the levels
The strategy is seriously lacking and with the combat iteration cycle awaiting feedback and zombie/tech prototypes it’s up to the level design to try to fill in those gaps. With all of the pillars for the level designs above there was something missing from it. Zomz mode. This is the level that zomz mode is introduced and there isn’t anything that was facilitating it’s use.
This is the current iteration within the game for this level. The gains of this level is that it is combining everything we’ve talked about so far. The different heights of the map give the player a better sense of where they are and where they need to go. There are dangers for the player besides zombies, such as barrels and spike pits. Also, there are puzzles. This level takes place at night so a puzzle that was added was to turn on a generator that turns on a flood light allowing the player to see. The addition of these tiny puzzles added a fullness to the level as it stands currently. The objective is still to survive and get to the other side but allowing the player these small things to do on the way there to help them along their way adds a little flavor to the mix.