Braaaains… Zombieville USA: Tech review

Braaaains… Zombieville USA: Tech review

Zombies’ zombies never change, and yes we’ve all seen them before in a variety of incarnations, but any true zombie fan will continue to salivate in anticipation to set out on yet another adventure dispensing the hurt on the shambling cannon fodder known as the undead.

MikaMobile, the small development team behind Zombieville USA debuts with an impressive foray in the never-ending fight for survival against the legions of undead. To find out how it was all done behind the scenes, I got in contact with artist Kelli Noda at MikaMobile.

Finding inspiration in others

Inspired by the likes of Castle Crashers and Alien Hominid, MikaMobile set out to create a title that was a simple but nicely illustrated survival shooter with every gamers’ favorite enemy’ Zombies!
As an iPhone developer, one of the first tasks is deciding on the scope of the project, not only to protect your small team from over exertion, but to also make the game a fun experience in the shortest amount of time due to the nature of the iPhone platform. And yes although the iPhone is capable of grand scale games such as gameloft’s Hero of Sparta, it is crucial that when starting out on a much smaller team, discretion is duly advised. If fact here’s what Kelli had to say on the subject;

‘I guess I would say that I was trying to think of a game that fit the iPhone well, and could be completed with a very small team in a short time frame. We also wanted to make something visually striking and stylish. We decided on an arcade style, survival based game so we could focus on making high quality art, as opposed to large amounts of it. Especially for the handheld market, I think you’re best served making a fun and simple sandbox for your player to mess around in for a few minutes at a time, rather than spending a lot of time and energy making consumable content that is used up and discarded.”

Having been in development for roughly a month, Zombieville USA made its appearance on the Apple store earlier this month.

Simplicity in design

One of the more notable aspects of Zombieville appears not only in the visual quality of the contents but in the animation of the characters themselves, moving your ‘hero’ character across the screen as he plugs the shambling undead is a pleasure. When asked about the simplicity in the controls Kelli went on to say;

“‘When it comes to game controls on the iPhone, you pretty much have two tools – touch control, and accelerometers. I decided early on that accelerometer control is simply too floaty and imprecise for a fast paced action game, so I opted to go with a purely touch-based interface.
I spent some time just holding an iPhone sideways and imagining how different button layouts would feel. The two arrows and a big spacebar-like fire button between them felt very natural to me.’

Keeping with simplicity, it was apparent that the A.I. shared the same qualities, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when exposing your game to the causal market. The zombies are deceptively simple at first, by evaluating their distance from the player allowing them to shamble towards the player until they die, or claw you to death. Simple yes, but there is strength in numbers and as you progress they can become quite the bullet sponges.
Regarding design and aesthetics, one thing I would’ve liked to have seen is differentiating colors in the zombies as they become stronger or faster, even a slight color hue change in a faster or stronger enemy would not only add visual diversity but also add a slight strategic element to the game play.

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Outsmarting the iPhone

When developing for a platform such as the iPhone, they’re many facets that come into play; not only do you have to be cautious of your final game size, but also how your application plays with the limited resources and processing power it would adequately need to accomplish what you would like to see game design wise.

Software wise, the Mika team used a small selection of standard industry tools. All content was drawn in Corel Painter followed by touchups in Photoshop and cleverly textured the created art onto geometry planes in Maya, essentially making it very easy to animate with Maya’s robust animation toolset. Once all the assets where created, the Unity 3D engine was then used to tie it all together. When I asked Kelli about the Unity Engine, she stated this;

‘Unity is a pretty great package, and we certainly couldn’t have built Zombieville in such a short time without it. Our team comes from an art background, so it’s very helpful for us to have an artist friendly tool that streamlines so much of the development process. The asset pipeline in particular is commendable.’

Hardware wise the team used an ancient Wacom Intuos (Kelli’s words, heck I’m still using a 4 x 6 graphire at home!), an iPhone and a Mac.

Aesthetically speaking, MikaMobile found a delicate balance between art and performance; as any artist or programmer in the industry will tell you; these two philosophies rarely meet throughout production!
As previously mentioned, all assets where created in Corel Painter and Maya, the main character was composed of 7 textured quads, one for each body part, and one for the muzzle flash that comes from his gun. The zombies consisted of a slightly higher polycount weighing in at 10 quads a piece; this was due to the fact that their hierarchy also included 4 blood splatter effects.

‘Again, keeping the draw calls low was a main concern for us, so incorporating some of our needed effects directly into the characters bodies was helpful.”

Environmentally, the polycounts where even more primitive, consisting of 2 polys per house and roughly 10 polys for other screen assets.
According to Kelli, when it came to the texture sizes they appeared to not have much of a performance hit on the platform. Realizing this they kept most of the textures relatively high to make them appear as crisp as possible. The largest textures used were for the backdrops and main menu, which allotted 512 512 texture space. Characters are 128 128, and the houses where slightly higher at 256 512. Additionally all elements in the UI were comprised of a single 512 512 texture which includes the store you encounter between each level.
So with that said, during my play through I rarely encountered any frame rate drops, the iPhone handled the on screen elements quite easily even with scores of baddies on screen.

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Technically speaking, the only hurdles the team came across were not surprisingly enough, the optimization of the game for the iPhone platform. According to Kelli this was a tricky task;

‘Optimizing for the iPhone is pretty tricky, and we had to pull some interesting tricks in order to display the copious amounts of gore you see on screen constantly. The dozens of particle effects you see in the game are actually all one skinned mesh, attached to dozens of bones that are being animated via script. This allowed us to have a huge amount of blood and guts all rendered in a single draw call.’

Not only was optimizing for the platform a new experience for MikaMobile, submitting to Apple for the first time was a nerve-wracking exercise in and of itself, since it required them to muck around under the hood in an unfamiliar territory call xCode. This was all in order to make the build distribution ready.

‘Something that we had practically zero experience with since Unity was making everything fool-proof for us. But thankfully we followed the dozens of steps Apple has on their developer portal, and managed not to screw anything up.’

As you can see, the process for creating applications can be both rewarding and sometimes time-consuming, but with the abundance of help available, you won’t be stuck for too long.

The small but capable MikaMobile

It’s always an inspiration for indie developers and the like to find out they’re not alone when it comes to team sizes, and the fact that they can in part perform the same tasks themselves.
MikaMoible consists of three members, artist and animator Kelli Noda, her partner programming behind the scenes and calling all the shots as acting CEO and company logo, Mika their pet kitty.

Though Zombieville would appear to be a causal game for the market, Mika intentions weren’t so focused;

‘The goal with Zombieville was mostly just to make a fun game that we enjoyed, I wasn’t even sure if we’d ever release it or not! We certainly weren’t targeting the traditional ‘casual’ market, or any established, successful genre. If we were thinking along those lines, it probably would have been a tower defense game with a lower-case i somewhere in the
name! :-)

Some ideas the team had in mind where mentioned earlier in the article but had to be left on the cutting room floor in order to not have instances of ‘feature creep’. In upcoming updates to Zombieville, the team has plans for the fans of the game to have reason to be gitty over. You can expect to see varying types of zombies and environments, different difficulty option amongst other additions are all considerations moving forward.
With the warm reception to the game, Mika was expecting quality feedback from their consumers, and the demand for tweaks, further optimization and content are top of the list going forward.

I would like to thank Kelli Noda and her team at MikaMobile for taking the time out to conduct this tech review. Best of luck in the future.

Related links:

Zombiville USA – Get it now

About the Author

Tito A. Belgrave is currently employed as a Character Artist at Ubisoft Toronto. He's also an avid freelance game journalist.