Insight on the IPhone's Zombie Invasion

We launched Zombie Week because of the abundance of zombie applications in the App Store; now, we hope to unearth some reasons why the living dead have invaded the iPhone and iPod touch.

To help us with this task, we talked with PopCap Games' George Fan and Andrew Stein, creators of Plants vs. Zombies; Lauren Jones of Ghostbird Software, creators of The Raging Dead; and Matthias Höchsmann, PhD, of Gamedoctors, creators of ZombieSmash.

Zombies in the media

Zombies have appeared in games for over 20 years. Titles like LucasArts' Zombies Ate My Neighbors and The Secret of Monkey Island featured memorable zombie antagonists. Of course, these antagonists were more comedic than terrifying. Macworld contributor Dan Waingarten cites these games as being kid-friendly. He points out that the hero of Monkey Island is able to defeat pirate ghost zombies with the aid of witty comebacks and a root beer-soaked sword. Meanwhile, the zombies in Zombies Ate My Neighbors can be taken down with squirt guns and popsicles. Terrifying, I know.

But depictions of zombies would evolve into something more genuinely frightening and become a common staple of games. Dr. Matthias Höchsmann of Gamedoctors believes that zombies speak to a unique kind of human fear--not only are they relentless, but their task is to create more of their number. "You cannot negotiate with a zombie. Should you try, you will soon see yourself (and your delicious, delicious brains) eaten. Don't expect any mercy from a zombie, for they have none to give." Games like Doom, Resident Evil, and The House of the Dead utilized this schema; in these games you'll often confront wave after wave of fearless, shambling living dead.

Zombies are not only relentless, but they have a nasty habit of multiplying. The prospect that your best friend can turn on you and become a zombie can become very terrifying, explains Lauren Jones of Ghostbird Software. Of the games we've looked at this past week, Ghostbird's The Raging Dead is the only application that tackles the idea of a zombie outbreak and how quickly such a plague can spread. Entire cities can turn in hours.

Still, Ms. Jones sees zombies' inclusion in gaming as not simply due to their horrifying nature, but due to their ability to be killed without remorse. "...zombies are the perfect fit because they are us, but without the guilt of killing one of your own, in fact you're even doing them a favor by killing them. They are the perfect enemy, evil and guilt-free to kill."

Zombies invade the iPhone

By all accounts, recently we've seen the rise of cultural interest in zombies. Dr. Höchsmann sees a "revival" of zombies occurring in 2009 thanks to a "slew of zombie-related movies and other entertainment hitting the shelves." While titles like Resident Evil, Dead Space, and Dead Rising brought zombies back to the forefront of gaming villainy over the last decade, books like World War Z, How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies suggest that the cultural obsession with the living dead isn't limited to gamers.

But in 2008, few could have predicted that zombies would be such a cultural force. Other Internet memes were more popular, and the iPhone was still in its infant stages. No one knew what was to come next. George Fan of PopCap Games was simply trying to make a game that hadn't already been made before.

Fan's Plants vs. Zombies originally was launched on the PC in 2009. Despite the beneficial timing of the game's launch, the development cycle occurred before the cultural obsession with zombies was at its highest. "Back when we started, people were still going on about pirates and ninjas. I always joke that leprechauns are going to be the next big thing, and I'm only 90 percent kidding when I say that." Zombies weren't the go-to antagonists at the time, but in large part due to the success of his game and other zombie-themed media, zombies became hugely popular in gaming.

The iPhone, perhaps better than any other gaming medium, can respond to cultural trends quickly thanks to shortened development time and its wider net of clients. If developers wanted to cash in on the zombie wave, the iPhone was the platform to do it.

"Zombies games, like zombie movies, are not typically deep experiences--the stories can be thoroughly exciting without having to tell much story or do much explaining," explains Lauren Jones "This suits a platform like the iPhone perfectly; single serving games go hand in hand with a mobile platform." While many iPhone games have extensive budgets and robust development periods, Jones point is irrefutable; zombie games appear on the platform because the platform supports simple games. Zombies not only are simple-minded monsters, but offer a simple plot and gameplay setup.

There is a bit of copy-cat development going on as well. People see other iPhone games succeed, so they copy the formula. "The success some zombie games have enjoyed [on the iPhone] has probably contributed a bit to their popularity, and I expect the zombie onslaught to continue in 2010," explains Dr. Höchsmann. If it's a formula that works, developers will stick to it.

Not lost among the masses

But this doesn't mean that the developers themselves have become mindless drones bent on propagating themselves. There is still originality in the zombie sub-genre.

George Fan actually developed his tower-defense game by focusing on the plants first. After having finished Insaniquarium, he began toying around with a defense-oriented sequel to the game. "At the time I was also playing some tower defense mods in Warcraft III and thought 'What if I used plants as towers? Plants are great because you can give them lots of character, and no one expects them to move.' So out went the fish, in came the plants." By focusing on plants, Fan was initially afraid his game would be lost among the trees of another gaming sub-genre: gardening games. Explains Fan, "I thought, no way is anyone else going to make a game that features both plants and zombies. And I was right."

The zombies, when they were included, would not be faceless hordes either. Fan's unique vision for his game boils down to a focus on gameplay; when creating the unique characters of the plants and zombies, he wanted to make things funny but also wanted to make sure that the game mechanics were sound. But there were some exceptions to this rule. He really wanted a zombie bobsled team included in the game, first appreciating how it would be funny and then deciding how it would work gameplay-wise. The zombie bobsled team became one of the more iconic (and original) characters from the game-not to mention one of the more difficult enemies to defeat. "It's nice to be able to sprinkle the humor in here and there. We had a fun time making this game, and hopefully it shows."

Ghostbird Software's team also chose a different way to depict the living dead. Instead of focusing on tower-defense and humorous characters, as Fan's team did, Lauren Jones and company focused on a unique game perspective: a mass zombie outbreak in an urban center. Instead of focusing on the intimate terror of zombies by getting you up close and personal, The Raging Dead creates a much more massive scale. Now, instead of dealing with two or three, you're dealing with hundreds. It's perhaps the best example of what a zombie outbreak might look like from a bird's eye view. Books like World War Z and some recent movies have illustrated the power and terror of zombies unleashed en masse in a city center, but only The Raging Dead allows you to make the tough decisions on how to deal with it. Do you firebomb an area to box-in some zombies, whilst sacrificing some civilians? Or do you pick off zombies with smaller weapons and hope that it's enough to stem the tide? One of the most common themes in zombie movies is the moral ambiguity of what people must do to survive. The Raging Dead embodies that ideal.

Finally, ZombieSmash, due to be released to the App Store later this month, takes a more classic way to separate itself from other zombie apps: class. That is to say, Matthias Höchsmann and company are focusing on polishing the game; they're seeking a patent on their hilariously gory ragdoll physics engine, they've hired Chris Huelsbeck to ensure the game has a quality soundtrack, and they have a longer development cycle with a bigger budget than your typical indie title. While the subject matter is now commonplace on the iPhone, Gamedoctors aren't just jumping into the fray. They've taken the time to develop a quality game that just so happens to be a zombie game as well.

[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]

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