The popularity of zombies in video games has gone fairly unchallenged in the past couple of decades since Resident Evil, and Tyson Ibele’s first game almost fell into the trap of becoming a realistic first-person shooter in a games industry that is saturated with them. Fortunately, “Zombox” became something else altogether: an “open-world zombie apocalypse sandbox game”, with fully destructible environments and a gorgeous visual aesthetic. Seven months into development for web and iOS platforms, the game’s really starting to take shape, and Ibele says he wants to get a beta version out by Christmas-time, and the full product by around May. We enjoyed the opportunity to talk to the Vancouver-based animator-turned-developer to find out more about the game’s development.

“I work as a 3D animator, so I’ve done short films and things in the past, but I’ve never touched game design before. Someone on the CG forums I frequent posted something about Unity, which is the engine I’m currently using, they were basically developing a game with it, and it looked really accessible and user-friendly, so I thought I’d give it a shot and it’s been great so far. I’ve done some scripting and programming in the past, I’d just never touched game development or game design because it looked really complex and I didn’t know what it involved, but Unity made it look really simple and it turned out it was.”

Working alone on his first game, Ibele quickly found that he didn’t have the time to develop the first-person shooter he originally had in mind. That’s how Zombox’s curious and cute visual fidelity came about: a need to find a graphical style that would let him develop the game quicker. “I thought: ‘what’s the simplest, most basic aesthetic I could use for a zombie game, so I could pump out assets really quick?’ and one afternoon I just came up with this concept for this little box-y zombie guy, and the rest just fell into place. It’s really a world where everything is made of cubes, and it’s the most primitive, simple design you can get before your characters are just pixels or something.”

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While he’ll be deploying Zombox on Mac and Windows via Unity’s Web Player, which allows for gamers to enjoy the game in full from the comfort of their browser without needing to download an executable, the game’s premier experience will be on the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. It’s been a challenge to get the game running on the device smoothly – Ibele says the world has “around four hundred buildings […] and tons of polygons I have to crunch through” – but the user interface and the controls have been designed with the platform in mind. The game will run on the 3GS too, but the technical limitations will become more obvious when doing so, with objects breaking up into fewer pieces.


The latest gameplay video of Zombox

“I’ve thought about maybe releasing a standalone version [on PC] or submitting it to Steam or something like that, I’m undecided, but right now just the accessibility of the web player is ideal,” he tells me, when I ask about the possibility of releasing a fully-fledged downloadable version of the game on Mac and Windows. The web version of the game will apparently be free compared to the paid mobile version, but will have some limitations as a result. “The game world to explore might not be quite as big as the mobile version, the number of items or weapons might be limited, or they might be harder to find.”

“I really do want to push the mobile release, but at the same time I don’t want to shaft the people who just want to play it in the browser, but because it’ll be a free release in the browser, I may put some superficial limitations on it, just so that there’s still a reason to get it on a mobile device. For people who don’t have those mobile devices, they’ll still get close to a full experience.” In terms of price, Ibele is leaning towards $2.99 for the mobile version, and considering the possibility of integrating in-app purchases to generate some extra revenue – which might allow him to lower the price.

“The in-game currency is called ‘Zombucks’, and you’ll be able to purchase things with the Zombucks, and you can collect them by killing zombies, but killing enough zombies to earn yourself a more expensive item or weapon might be very tedious or take a long time,” Ibele explains. “Instead, you’ll be able to purchase Zombucks, and that’s where I’m thinking about inserting an in-app purchase system – but at the same time, the in-app purchases won’t get you anything that you couldn’t collect in-game just by working a bit harder. There won’t be any kind of bait-and-switch where people feel like they haven’t received the whole thing without having to do in-app purchases.”

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Ibele’s also considering the possibility of supporting the web version of the game with in-game purchases, which might allow him to lift the superficial restrictions placed upon it. He expresses concerns about piracy if he makes the web version a paid game altogether, but in-game purchases could make it work – as long as he can find a reliable transaction platform, whether it be PayPal, Google Checkout, or something else, like Amazon Payments. Those in-game purchases could cost more than the in-app purchases on the mobile version, though, since gamers with the mobile version will have already paid to access the game.

An Android version could also be in the pipeline, depending on the popularity of the iOS version. “An Android license, I believe, is $400, and the Pro version is another $1,100. I’ve already paid around $2,000 for the licenses to get Unity Pro and to get Unity iOS just to get this iOS release done, so the way I’ve looked at it is that I’ll do an Android release if the game’s successful – if not, I don’t want to throw another $1,500 away if the game isn’t financially viable. If it is, though, I definitely plan on doing an Android release.”

“I thought about iPad, too, and how I’m going to deal with that. The game sort of has an 8-bit style to it, so I’m not too worried about texture upscaling and stuff, because even if the textures are just scaled up and they’re not high-resolution, it still fits the style of the game. I’ve done testing at iPad resolutions with the game and it looks fine, so I might just go with the simplest port possible, where on iPad it just plays at a higher resolution than it does on iPhone. Depending on how well it does, I could do a kind of HD upgrade for the iPad release, but right now I just plan on using a scaled-up version of the iPhone version.”

You can follow the development of Zombox on the game’s official website here, where Ibele frequently posts updates and new gameplay videos. This concludes the fifth day of zConnection’s Indie Week, during which we’re celebrating indie games developers by writing about seven unique projects. You can find your way back to the event page by clicking here, or follow us on Twitter with the hashtag #zcindieweek here. (Apologetic post-script: this article was originally intended to be published on Saturday but was slightly postponed due to circumstances outside of our control. We hope you enjoyed it anyway!)