Florent Sacre is both the Art Director and Creative Director at Ubisoft Montpellier, having worked on numerous games such as Rayman 2: The Great Escape, Beyond Good and Evil, Peter Jackson’s King Kong and (most recently) the topic of this interview – ZombiU.
Ashley Harrison – As we know, development of ZombiU originally started out as Killer Freaks from Outer Space. Where did the inspiration come from for Killer Freaks?
Florent Sacre – P0p culture essentially and a brand we created in 2006: Rayman Raving Rabbids. We wanted to create a “special” creature to expand the Raving Rabbids brand to teenagers and adults. During the character development, we noticed the similarity of our “Killer Freak” with Steven Spielberg’s Gremlins – that was good news! I love the Gremlins, they are the creatures of my teens! The movie is one of the greatest scary funny movies from the eighties!
AH – You’ve mentioned that Killer Freaks started development as a game for Sony’s PS3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 systems before development switched to Nintendo’s Wii U system. What circumstances brought about this change?
FS – The good relationship between Nintendo and Ubisoft. Ubisoft has invested a lot on Wii U, and our managers asked us to consider our game on Wii U and our proposition was accepted.
AH – As a result of switching systems for development from PS3 and 360 to Wii U, the game would obviously have to have been optimized for the Wii U. Was the Wii U optimization easy from a developmental viewpoint, or did it cause problems?
FS – There are always problems, especially when developing a game together with a console. Nintendo has offered us good support, however. We didn’t develop so much of Killer Freaks on PS3/Xbox360, so it wasn’t that hard to move onto Wii U. I must say that the console has allowed us to make the game we wanted. Some people blame some technical weaknesses, but consistency and emotions were the most important things for us!
AH – Sometime between E3 2011 and E3 2012, Killer Freaks became ZombiU. What were the circumstances behind this?
FS – Our knowledge of the Wii U GamePad. The Killer Freaks were a very fast enemy, meaning it was difficult to manage two screens. So, we thought to a slower enemy to allow player to manage their two screens. Our Killer Freaks from Outer Space couldn’t be a slow enemy because of their volume; a big head and a little body, making it impossible to create slower animation. We decided to keep London and we replaced our Killer Freaks with Zombies. The team understood this, and the choice of Zombies was easy to bring everyone onto the same vision, everybody knows Zombies!
AH – Was it a straight switch from Killer Freaks to ZombiU, or were there other concepts tested before ZombiU was decided on? If yes, can you reveal what some of these concepts were?
FS – Straight switch. Straight, straight!
AH – What were the inspirations for ZombiU?
FS – 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Resident Evil, Dark Souls and Metroid and more generally the city of London itself. We spent a few days in London, visiting a lot of famous (or not) places and taking thousands of pictures.
AH – ZombiU is based on a post-apocolyptic version of London. Was there any specific reason you chose to base the game in London instead of another city, say Paris?
FS – In 2012, London had a big media coverage because of a Royal Wedding and the Olympic Games. London is also one of the most famous cities in the world (History, culture, zombie movies …) so it is very appealing for a lot of gamers.
AH – Parts of ZombiU’s London replicate the real London perfectly, how important was it to you that you got this right in order for the game to feel more realistic?
FS – My first goal was to create a credible London rather than a realistic London. During our journey to London, we were very sensitive to the atmosphere which emanated from streets, houses, pubs, hotels, famous places etc – the atmosphere was the most important thing to deliver to players. A huge bank of pictures has been very useful to deliver these feelings. The best compliment came from Nintendo Club’s guys. Their UK colleagues told us it was the real London because they recognized some of the brick walls. They recognized our bricks as being from their homes! Though they told us our computers were outdated!
AH – How did you go about replicating London as well as it is done in ZombiU?
FS – I took thousands of pictures and we did a journey to feel the atmosphere of the city, feeling everything we could! I am the wrong person to claim if it is a success or not but my sensations were very good, London is an amazing city and it was very stimulating to depict a small part of it!
AH – Were there any areas from the game’s development that had to be scrapped due to reasons beyond your control, such as time constraints, and if so, what were they?
FS – Many areas were scrapped due to time constraints: The Gherkin Building, London Zoo, Heathrow (the airport), the famous London Bridge and Canary Wharf (Financial district).
AH – The “One bite and it’s all over” mechanic (whilst annoyingly frustrating at times) is a unique idea, what made you choose to implement this into the game?
FS – Haha … we wanted a true survival experience. At the beginning of the project, we had a joke: “Hey guys, this is not a video game, you can die for real!” Usually, our work is to create the good conditions to help players to finish the game (with a lot of fun), but when we worked on ZombiU, we thought the survival experience was the heart of our game. If we wanted to propose something original, we had to be tough with players with a good use of the Wii U GamePad. As survival is a story of life and death, we couldn’t treat death lightly. This means that danger is as credible as possible, the player should feel that survival is not a matter of luck. “One bite will kill you” gives the tone to the players, it’s going to be hard, it’s an experience of survival, it is realistic, this is a challenge, you’re not here to play. All of that justifies our catchphrase: how long will you survive ?
AH – As a result of this mechanic implementation, ZombiU is a very atmospheric game to the point where people were legitimately scared by it, most notably in the nursery. Were there any areas in the game that scared you or any other member of the development team?
FS – Yes! I like hearing that ZombiU is an atmospheric game. There’s no incredible “woah!” scenes in the game! Just places with enough space to let the imagination of the players express themselves. Though we really did a scary game? Nothing scares me, I am Florent Sacre!
AH – Are any of the survivors you play through the game as based on real people?
FS – Some guys in the team asked me why I put myself in the game. I did not! Everybody recognised someone in our survivors: a friend, a relative, colleague, actor… So yes, the survivors you play are based on real people … including you!
AH – Which part of the game would you say is your favourite, and why is it that you class that part of the game as your favourite?
FS – I have no favourite part, I consider the game as a whole cohesive thing, each part of the game needs others to exist.
AH – As with the development of every game, inevitably there are high and low points of the development. For ZombiU, what were these high and low points, and did they have any effect on the team?
FS – ZombiU was a very ambitious project, developed in a very short time. The team had to be welded, strong. The Ubisoft Bucharest studio was a great help for us at Ubisoft Montpellier, they did an amazing job. Each video game project I worked on is a human adventure before being virtual, and it is not derogatory to say this. All these people give more than just hours to their job, they do it because it is a passion and they want to give the best to players.
AH – On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being not satisfied at all and 10 being extremely satisfied, how would the team rate the finished version of ZombiU?
FS – Eight is fair! The team see it as an amazing job in a short time on a new console (with a new controller!)
AH – Now that ZombiU has been released for nearly 8 months now, are there any parts of the game you’d like to change?
FS – I’d like to change many things because I am very demanding. However, ZombiU is finished, I can’t look back. There is now total focus on upcomingprojects.
AH – How different is the finished version of ZombiU from the very first concept for ZombiU after its change from Killer Freaks?
FS – We can’t compare. Everything was different. The setting, the pace of the game, the enemies etc. However, we just kept the concept we had shown at E3 2011 (Killer Freaks from Outer Space live demo) where a player was the game master and another one was a survivor. They’re two distinctive visions of the same action.
AH – ZombiU received generally positive reviews from European reviewers, but not so much from reviewers in other regions. What are the team’s thoughts on this? Do you think that reviewers outside of Europe just didn’t “get” the game thanks to its setting?
FS – The biggest video game sites in USA didn’t appreciate the game but many others in the same country liked it. We can say the same thing about Europe. I don’t have an opinion to formulate about this. However, I can’t imagine a reviewer giving a good review to a game because of his setting.
AH – Official word from Ubisoft states that due to the poor sales figures of ZombiU, there won’t be a sequel to it. Despite this, would you like to work on a sequel, and if so, do you have any ideas for it?
FS – Your question will have an answer in the near future if global warming does not kill us.
I’d like to thank Florent for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions. If you wish to follow Florent’s work, then you can find on Florent’s Facebook page.