Dead Again

Dead Frontier by Creaky Corpse

Platform(s): Unity Web Player

Creaky Corpse’s shoot-‘em-up Dead Frontier brings zombie hordes to the massively multiplayer arena

Published: August 11. 2012

As his naming conventions might imply, Creaky Corpse founder and Dead Frontier developer Neil Yates had always been a fan of zombie films and games. Favorites range from Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days later to Resident Evil and Silent Hill, all of which became primary inspirations for his biggest project. “I'd been dying to make a game based around that genre for years, and I finally got my opportunity in 2007.”

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Interestingly, Dead Frontier was originally planned to be a small series of zombie-killing Flash games: basic shoot-‘em-ups, where the player would kill zombies for points. When the first of these mini-games launched to some unexpectedly positive reviews and achieved a fairly rapid rise to popularity, however, Yates reconsidered his plan. “At that point I started thinking about where it could go next,” he says. “My original idea was to turn it into a downloadable single player RPG; I had set up some forums for the game series, and I noticed they were getting a lot of traffic. At that point I wondered if it might be possible to combine the forums into the game; I started putting the pieces together, and over time it slowly started to evolve into an actual MMORPG.”

Ultimately, the all-important “eureka” moment came to Yates when he watched the George Romero’s 2005 film, Land of the Dead. “A major part of the film was how the rich—living in the safety of the outpost—would pay the poor mercenaries to go out into the zombie-infected city and loot the things they needed,” he says. “My brother and I brainstormed for a while, and finally came up with a way to make this ‘post-apocalyptic capitalism’ concept work inside the game.” A few months of development later, Yates started Dead Frontier’s open beta.

To the untrained eye, Dead Frontier looks a bit like any other zombie shooter; beneath the surface, however, lingers something more unique in the game space, and something that clearly took Romero’s Land of the Dead concept to heart. You start as a lone survivor in the zombie apocalypse, without a penny to your name. You’re forced to venture into the zombie-filled inner city to loot for food, medical supplies, weapons and ammo; some of this you'll keep for yourself, and some you'll trade back to the wealthy at the outpost. As you progress, your character becomes increasingly more skilled and acquires better weapons, enabling him to venture deeper and deeper into the city. A brave few can eventually leave the main outpost and start their own in one of the various abandoned buildings.

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“There are plenty of zombie games out there, but Dead Frontier was the first (non text-based) zombie apocalypse MMORPG,” says Yates. “The most unique feature would probably have to be the player-run economy. It's constantly in a state of crisis, which I think is quite fitting for a post apocalyptic game!”

Remarkably, the “team” behind this MMO is comprised almost entirely of Yates himself. He’s made extensive use of contractors to help with specific areas—art, music, server administration—but Yates does all of the programming and design. “I think the biggest limitation is definitely time,” he says. “Single-player games are hard enough work, but an MMORPG is just insane! Just keeping one up and running takes a lot of effort. Then you have to fix bugs, add new features, new content, run events and competitions. It's taken me 5 years to get Dead Frontier to its current state, and I still have loads of things that I need to add.”

The most unique feature would probably have to be the player-run economy. It's constantly in a state of crisis, which I think is quite fitting for a post apocalyptic game!

Getting the idea up and running was tricky, mainly due to networking and server issues. He had originally built the game in Flash, and had little experience with the technical hurdles involved. “The initial version of the game was really basic,” says Yates. “But even that took a lot of work. At the time I really had no experience working with server side technologies such as PHP and MySQL, so the learning curve was massive. The first version of the game was really a bit of a mess.” The game was buggy, slow, and even with a fairly decent server, would crash several times per day. It took Yates six months or so before he could get things to stablize.

Yates chose to convert the game from Flash to Unity at the end of 2009. “Due to its poor performance, Flash had effectively limited us to only a handful of zombies and players on-screen at a time, and we wanted to change that.” Yates also wanted to upgrade the game to 3D in order to give it a more modern look, and at the time Flash couldn’t accommodate that wish.

“Converting to Unity was the best move I'd ever made,” says Yates of the decision. “Like all engines, it has its small flaws here and there, but there is quite simply nothing out there that comes close to matching its feature set, ease of use and competitive pricing. We did look at UDK briefly, but it was far harder to use and the idea of giving away a percentage of our sales was totally out of the question.” He calls Dead Frontier “really quite a low-end in terms of technology,” and therefore notes that Unity’s basic functionality was more than enough to get things going.

Dead Frontier

Surprisingly, it’s not networking or implementation issues that come to mind when Yates is asked about the most difficult aspects of running his own studio. “I personally find dealing with criticism to be the toughest aspect of the job,” he says. “I've had countless years of practice, but I still find it very hard to keep my cool when players are unhappy. I've poured a ton of energy into this project, and to be honest it hurts when people bash it.” It’s been one of the hurdles implicit in merging a shooter and a forum into an MMORPG—particularly one that hinges on an in-game economy—but Yates seems to be coming to terms with things. “Unfortunately, I've just got to accept it,” says Yates. “You can't make something popular without taking the odd bit of flak now and then.”

Developmental Memories

“I think the funniest thing that happened was when I created a bug which gave every player 2200 credits, which would normally cost about $70 USD in the shop,” recalls Dead Frontier developer Neil Yates. He had gone to bed that night thinking his update was working perfectly; when he woke up the next morning, however, the game was in complete chaos—and not in the way he’d designed it to. “I worked out that I gave away approximately $7,000,000 USD worth of stuff that night!” The game economy was wrecked, and he was forced to roll back the database to the previous day’s backup. “Although some players weren't happy, most understood that it was the only practical way to fix the problem.”

Read more about Dead Frontier and Creaky Corpse

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