FeaturesHow we developed City Z game series (and stayed sane): an interview with Anvio’s game designer

Game development in virtual reality is a complex and exciting process. What it starts with, why some ideas have to be abandoned and how to learn to manage the emotional palette of a user — we talked about it all with Alexei Yakunin (hereinafter referred to as the ‘A.Y.’), Anvio’s game designer. Today, Anvio is a network of VR clubs with playgrounds in 10 countries and 16 cities around the world. The company launched VR...

Game development in virtual reality is a complex and exciting process. What it starts with, why some ideas have to be abandoned and how to learn to manage the emotional palette of a user — we talked about it all with Alexei Yakunin (hereinafter referred to as the ‘A.Y.’), Anvio’s game designer.

Today, Anvio is a network of VR clubs with playgrounds in 10 countries and 16 cities around the world. The company launched VR arenas with free-roam and full-body tracking of players’ movements before it became mainstream.

E.T.: How did game plot of the first part emerge? Were there references that inspired you? How did you come up with the legend?

A.Y.: In the history of City Z we were a team who faced a challenge to transit a project from one motion capture system to another – OptiTrack to VIVE. We adapted the game and changed the size of the play area having added a column in the middle.

What looked like a semi-working prototype at the outset turned into a full-fledged mission, as there was a lot to rework. The goal was to do something new using what we got. Having studied the legacy, we decided that we could refine the draft and make it playable.

‘Let’s see what we have here. The game is about zombies — it means gloomy atmosphere, dark colours and sinister sunset. Next, what about foes? We take the gold standard: common zombies from the movies and tubbies for good measure, a huge boss in the end – ready for production. Fab!

Zombies look great, askew animations will add charm to the game. What? Are those players? Well, then we have to do something about it. Nothing can be done? What does it mean we have to redo it?!’

Game development was like a disco on a rake blindfolded.

The original idea was to revive visuals of the project. That’s how light and effects that emphasized atmosphere in the game came to be. We redrafted textures of both environment and zombies, added a lot of visual elements that spiced up the game.

We didn’t have much time but we wanted to create a story, not a mere shooter; we decided to add a narrative that would be presented via replicas. A story was born in which half of the game participants think they are going to save people and then find out the task is quite different. The result was the first part of City Z, and even then we wanted to do better and more interesting. But that’s another story… 

E.T. Tell about zombie shooter as a genre — why did you choose it, why do you think it’s so catchy?

A.Y. One classic answered this question long before me… 

There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.

Ernest Hemingway

In our case, people are fighting against zombies and, I must say, do it with skill. There are dozens of reasons why killing zombies is the right thing to do, from religious to emotional. Everyone sees a zombie as an enemy, and everyone sees his own. I will never forget the woman who came to play with her grandchildren. She was in her 90s. Killing the walking dead, she recalled her military youth on the fields of The Great Patriotic war. Abandoned bunkers, the sound of gunfire and the desire to survive in the midst of this chaos — parallels of wartime with the zombie apocalypse can be traced easily.

E.T. How long did it take your team to develop each part of the game series?

A.Y. All in all, work on one part took at least 6 months. But development begins not with concepts and code but with an idea that can change drastically in the process.

The second part of City Z has a subtitle ‘Survivors’. It was planned that players would face a choice and be able to save a group of survivors in the building. What happens in the end  depended on their actions but due to time constraints we had to make the plot linear and it became different.

Soon on Anvio locations there will be launched another game in line with a subtitle ‘Necropolis’. The main idea is to survive in a limited space building barricades, charging weapons and using a transmitter. The game turned out to be very dynamic, although much of the planned had to be reduced. Now it passes the last tests. 

The same happened with the new part that is in development at the moment. We had to give up on the planned final game location but we found another way to finish the project on a positive note and meet the deadlines on the way.

Next year we plan to release a big project for 3-4 hours of game time on SteamVR.

E.T. Did you use Unreal Engine, what are the unique features therein?

A.Y. Yes, this engine is perfect for our tasks, no wonder it is used for shooters in a huge number of projects. But Unreal Engine is only a part, the real heart is the system of game kinematics and positioning, which was developed in the company. It is this system that connects the real world with the world of City Z and beyond.

Unreal Engine is one of the most dynamic game engines on the market. We closely monitor what appears in it and use the latest possible versions, each of which can give us new opportunities.   

E.T. What’s the difference between the games? Compare texture quality — how details of environment and effects are worked out.


A.Y. Now there are almost no engine differences between the games, we use a single engine in all parts — this is done intentionally to make a big project in the future that will incorporate all the developments on City Z. But, in retrospect, the differences between the projects were as huge as they are between the cars ZAZ Zaporozhets and Bugatti Veyron.

While working on the first part, we realized that we needed to change the appearance of zombies so that the player would see different walking corpses and not stumble on the same ones. We developed a modular system that assembled each zombie from separate parts. This gave us hundreds of different-looking bestiary creatures with minimal chance of meeting two alike side by side.

New zombies got far more complex skeletons which gave us the opportunity to make facial animation and use their full potential for horror elements. And yes, sometimes people are really scared, especially girls.  

I often visit our location in Saint Petersburg. Once we had guests from Germany and one girl literally had to be taken away from the site. After her friends finished playing, she came to her senses and said she had never been so scared in her life as at that moment when she turned around and faced a screaming zombie.

We try to make the players experience strong emotions: anxiety, danger, fear, sometimes horror. This is the palette we learn to use. We are also working to ensure that the environment is reliable in details. For instance, when a player fires on the wall, gunshot residues leave on it, the glass breaks and shatters into pieces, and the light looks real.     

But everything will seem like children’s crayon drawings on the asphalt when the next part comes out…

E.T. What game mechanics are used in the games – describe them a bit?

A.Y. The main shooter mechanics is shooting and at this stage it looks a lot like the real. Gaming and development society will get to see the weapon in the project City Z: Necropolis very soon. The weapon has a recoil, you feel via the vibration of the sensors and you hear it — it has a juicy sound, hits are clearly recorded in the place of bullet impact points. Together, these provide a real feeling from using weapon and shooting.

You are not immortal in the game, zombies can put you out of commission. Hence, the value of life increases players’ interest in team interaction. Players begin to cover for each other which makes the game even closer to real life as players inhabit their characters and believe in what is happening.

The game has a good deal of interactive objects that players can interact with, objects that need to be collected or repaired. It all works as an anchor immersing players in the setting.

Flexible complexity. The game has four levels of complexity and if someone considers himself a natural-born killer of zombies, just ask operators to put you on the hard level of — the main action happens here. Only at this level can you understand what players are capable of as a team. 

Contention-based system that appeared in our project Necropolis will allow players to fight for cracking the top and where there is competition, there will always be those who want to be the best. All this can develop into world-class championships — DotA also began as a mod for Warcraft, didn’t it?   

E.T. Who of the game designers (working close to this genre, but not necessarily) inspires you?

A.Y. For me, the guys from Valve will remain an example, they shook the world, turned the genre upside-down in their time.

From the perspective of work on the project, I’m most excited by the work of Left 4 Dead creators (of course, special thanks to Mike Booth.

Also it’s Resident Evil and its creator Shinji Mikami, truly a master of his craft. The game opened this genre to players many years ago. 

But the first game that struck me was not about zombies, it was Metal Gear. I played it when I was 6, since then I admire Hideo Kojima’s genius and mastery.


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Elena Ter-Mikaelyan

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