Back when people paid for mobile games, Zombie Gunship was one of the first to make good on the App Store's commercial and creative potential.
Toned in atmospheric grayscale, and elegant in the simplicity of its touchscreen gameplay, it had you aiming the guns of an AC-130 gunship in the attempt to save humans fleeing into bunkers as it circled high over the zombie apocalypse.
Back in 2011, it was also a number one top grossing game in the US.
But following the deluge of the free-to-play apocalypse, what was the future for such an signature experience?
For Arash Keshmirian, the CEO and creative director of developer Limbic Software, the move to F2P for what was originally called Zombie Gunship Inc. - but which became Zombie Gunship Survival - was a purely commercial decision.
“After releasing TowerMadness 2 in 2014 as a premium title and being disappointed with the resulting monetisation, we quickly realised the days of being able to reliably support and grow a studio on premium games were coming to an end,” he says.
No time outs
Yet given Zombie Gunship’s strong gameplay, Keshmirian was certain taking it F2P had to be a holistic evolution.
Zombie Gunship as a franchise is all about the weapons.Arash Keshmirian
For example, while it would have been obviously nonsensical to add an autoplay system to Zombie Gunship Survival, after some experimentation it became clear the game didn’t need an energy system or building timers either.
“We believe strongly a lot of energy mechanics are designed to prevent player ‘burnout’ in designs where the game isn’t actually that great,” comments Keshmirian.
“Most console games don’t need energy mechanics because the gameplay is often more engaging and rewarding than what’s typically expected on mobile.”
In this way, Limbic’s first task when starting development on the game in early 2015 was to preserve the fun of the original Zombie Gunship, while building a new metagame around the battle component.
“We made every effort to make sure the metagame didn’t interfere with battle, but rather, enhance it,” Keshmirian says.
Although Limbic had self-published all its previous paid mobile games, it became clear it was going to have to work with a publisher to make Zombie Gunship Survival a success.
“Our team were huge fans of the original game and saw the potential to evolve what was a unique gameplay model for a mobile game at the time,” says Borja Guillan, the game’s lead at Flaregames.
The German developer/publisher announced its partnership with Limbic in mid-2015. The game then had a 2016 release date pencilled in. But this extended into 2017 as the two teams tried to work out how to build an appropriate metagame around the already solid gameplay.
“The early direction focused on base-building and raiding in the context of PvP,” Guillan reveals.
“This was very similar to the heavily replicated format established by Clash of Clans and we didn't feel this played to the game's core strength.”
Keshmirian adds there was also an iteration called ‘Zombie Zoo’ that had players collecting different types of zombies that they could unleash at attackers in PVP mode.
In time, however, it became crystal clear what Zombie Gunship Survival was all about.
Making Zombie Gunship Survival a multiplayer game is one of our primary goals.Borja Guillan
“Zombie Gunship as a franchise is all about the weapons,” Keshmirian states, while Guillan adds the overarching design goal in terms of the user experience become to reduce barriers between the meta-gameplay loops and getting players back into the game’s intense combat missions.
This focus also highlighted the approach in terms of the game’s monetisation. With no fuel and no building timers, the chest reward system is all about levelling up existing weapons and unlocking new ones.
All about the guns
Indeed, in the later stages of development, it was the weapon upgrade system that experienced the last minute changes.
As originally structured, the levelling process (called boosting and fusing) was similar to card collection games as players directly consumed unwanted weapons to increase the power and level of the ones they were using.
With the introduction of a new ‘bolts’ currency, this process changed to players scrapping unwanted weapons for bolts and then using their bolt balance with another soft currency to level up (now labelled boost) weapons. Also added was a new weapon rarity system that better matched the chest-based gacha monetisation.
“Focus playtests and live data suggested players experienced a lot of friction when boosting and fusing their weapons,” says Guillan.
Using weapon parts as a currency rather than an inventory reduced this, and also allowed the game’s user experience to be streamlined. The rarity issue played well with the over-riding desire to focus on the weapons too.
“The different weapon types and their associated properties are one of the game’s biggest attractions,” add Guillan.
“Players like to collect and spend time enhancing them and adding rarity allowed us to give players something further to look forward to when assembling their armoury.
"From a system point of view, it allowed us to increase the weapon’s depth.”
One thing often forgotten about the development of free-to-play games is the scale and man power required.
This has certainly been the experience of Limbic, which during Zombie Gunship Survival’s development changed from a six-strong US team to a 30-strong team with offices in the US and Cologne, Germany.
The process of running strong relationships between the development team at Limbic and the publishing team at Flaregames has also been non-trivial.
Guillan describes the process as giving Limbic the creative freedom, while Flaregames provides the intelligence that shapes both future development and marketing efforts, as well as handling QA.
And there’s certainly plenty of headroom for the game still to explore. One element is base-building; something Keshmirian describes as currently being “under-utilised”.
“Rest assured that there’s more to come in this area,” he says.
Similarly, the PVP elements ditched early in the development process seem likely to be resurrected in some form.
“Making Zombie Gunship Survival a multiplayer game is one of our primary goals and something we are exploring,” says Guillan.
Lock and reload
More generally, though, the pair seem happy with the market reaction to-date - it hit two million downloads in within a week and peaked in the US top 100 grossing chart - and are set on building up the game’s already passionate community for sustained engagement.
“The amazing passion the community has for publishing combat and defence strategies in-game has definitely blown me away,” says Guillan.
“One focus is to bring an even deeper social layer to the game beyond the existing community portal, giving our players more ways to interact with each other in-game.”
Guns, zombies and gamers. The virtuous cycle continues apace.