(Editor's note: contains strong language) IRLShooter is quickly becoming my favorite company to visit. In terms of sheer glee per square meter, the offices of IRLShooter must rank somewhere between “roller coaster designer” and “Top Gear.” Every time I pop in, Dave Leadbetter, Drew Hobbs and Zoe Tame are giggling maniacally about some new feature they’ve built into their flagship product, Patient Zero.
The Australian company's first season, Patient Zero: Melbourne, was unlike anything that had come before it. The bastard child of laser tag, but with an interactive storyline, a purpose-built game environment, radio communications and a host of non-player characters, most of which were hordes of infected zombies thirsty for the players’ blood.
Despite its success, the IRLShooter team views Patient Zero: Melbourne as “the worst game we’ll ever make” and they’re keen to make some pretty significant upgrades before the 2014 launch of the next installment – Patient Zero: Sydney.
The GunChief among the upgrades is the Mk.2 weapon. This alone will make a major improvement to the player experience. The Mk.1 gun was large and heavy, you pressed a button to “reload” it, and when fired it made a meek little "bang" sound that some players found difficult to distinguish from the "out of ammo" click in the heat of zombie battle.
The Mk.2 gun is a major improvement. It feels sexy and solid in the hand but is significantly lighter and closer to the actual weight of a Colt M4 rifle. It has selectable single shot, safety and burst fire modes. The gun now fires with a satisfying gas-powered recoil and a much better sound, something like a paintball marker. And ammunition is much more realistic too. To reload, you have to expel the empty clip and put in another – a task that’s going to be all kinds of stressful with zombies bearing down on you.
Ammo will be limited, adding to the pressure to use your shots wisely, although you’ll also be able to scavenge cartridges from fallen enemies and other spots in the game map if you have time. You can also share your fresh or half-used cartridges with your teammates.
True to the video game aesthetic, you’ll also be able to use your weapon on a lot more than just the zombies.
Here's what the IRLShooter team had to say about the new elements of the game:
Dave: the fundamentals of the weapons system are now solid – shooting at things and registering the right thing. So we can use that system to interact with the environment. For example, you can shoot out the lights and progress in stealth mode. You can shoot a toxic barrel and it will release gas that will hurt you and your teammates.
Zoe: And all these things can be scored with XP, or added to achievements – you might get the "stealth" achievement for shooting out the lights. And those XP can be used to buy unlocks and upgrades – for example, this gun is completely stock at the moment, but it’ll have the ability to have all your tactical attachments.
Drew: This quad rail attachment can take a torch, fore grips, laser pointers … you can pimp your gun, basically.
Zoe: And like any video game, you can get these upgrades by grinding for XP as you play the game, or you can buy them in advance. That’s the kind of player I am – if there’s DLC or weapons packs or any of that shit, I want it all, and I want it up front.
The Addition of Real Pain
Dave: As a player, you need to feel like you're under threat. And a couple of times [in Patient Zero: Melbourne] we were able to achieve that. But that's something we've worked on a lot more this time.
Drew: We solved that. It's SOLVED. Ohhhh yes. (giggles)
Dave: As a company, "are you game" has been our tagline. But we're refining that to "real guns, real pain, real game." You've experienced the real guns, now it's time to experience the real pain. It's totally optional, but if players want to experience the game on that visceral level, they'll now have the opportunity.
Drew: And it's pretty fuckin' visceral. (giggles)
Zoe: This is a wirelessly controlled, IR-synced tactical pain belt which we can use to deliver pain to the players or the zombies ... mostly the players, I don't think the zombies would appreciate it. So the true badass will be adding this device to their kit which allows you to feel pain when you're under zombie attack.
Dave: Or when your player health is being affected by friendly fire, or other environmental hazards that you encounter through the game.
Drew: Also other enemy fire.
Zoe: We can control what kind of power it puts out, and how long the duration. It does have a 'pussy setting' which is a vibrate-only mode. But at the highest setting, it does actually tickle.
Dave: I had to have a lie down. As you turn it up, the tickle becomes a bite, becomes a sting, becomes a slap, becomes "GET IT OFF ME."
My brother and I were then both invited to sample the delights of the pain belt first hand, with Dave filming for your enjoyment:
It’s certainly not pleasant – at the higher levels it hurts as much as a paintball hit, and I can’t imagine it’ll be easy to concentrate on the task at hand when you’re getting hit.
Considering that the (totally painless) Patient Zero: Melbourne was already a highly stressful experience for most players, the optional addition of genuine pain to the game world should make things significantly more frightening. There will be a lot less fooling around now that there’s real consequences. My brother and I had red marks on our chests for a couple of hours afterward.
The MedicThe IRLShooter team is keen to take the "real life video game" concept to the extreme and as such the guys are looking at designing player roles and equipment fitout for those roles. The first on the table will be the Medic.
Zoe: We've actually designed a medic role in this game. Now, in combination with the pain belt, your lives will actually be deducted. You can now get a medic upgrade. When you die, the medic has the ability to give you a life.
Drew: So you really have to protect your medic.
Zoe: The medic on your team will be given a certain device that can emit a healing signal. And that might be how you decide exactly how hardcore you're going to be – how many lives we give your medic to hand out.
So there's a good chance that certain players will go through and die, and won't be able to finish the game?
Zoe: Sure, unless they decide to purchase an extra life. We're down with that, too.
Dave: Insert 20 cents to continue. Like it was in the 80s. Except it won't be 20 cents.
Zoe: Remember, we’ve got the game masters constantly in radio communication with the players, so it might be a matter of “yeah, give me another life and charge me ten bucks when I get out.”
Microtransactions and paid upgrades are hardly my favorite part of video gaming, but Dave is keen to make the point that making things optional keeps the basic ticket price down while allowing the team to offer a richer experience to those prepared to cough up.
The New Patient Zero MapThe Melbourne game was cobbled together in an almost disastrously short timeframe of three months and a significant element of the game, the environment itself, was built into an old warehouse in a fairly slapdash fashion.
As it was always intended to be a touring production, IRLShooter has been busy creating a new completely modular game map that can be shipped between cities and reassembled in any decently sized warehouse space like a film set. And with the benefit of their experience running the game in Melbourne, the team has been busy making Sydney a significantly richer experience.
Dave: In order to take replayability to the next level, it's no longer a linear course. Players will have to choose which direction they'll be going in. So you can come back and make different choices next time, and have a totally different experience.
Zoe: Also the moral choice angle, we're really interested in making people uncomfortable and making the choices difficult.
Drew: If you want to be a villain, you'll have to do some really villainous shit.
Zoe: I'm the only villain here. Fuck the heroes, they don't have pimpin' mansions.
Drew: And vice versa, if you want to be heroic, you'll have to make hard decisions and sacrifices.
There’s also going to be a significant “wet work” component – players might, for example, have to rip out the gooey eyeball of a dead body to make it through a retina scan door lock. Smell is being considered as a factor, which considering all the dead bodies and rotting flesh may end up leaving a lasting impression. There will be shootable toxic waste barrels, computer based puzzles, a greatly expanded group of sub-mission storylines that may force secret rivalries between group members.
The team has also put a lot of time into fixing the ‘broken’ scoring system from the first game.
Zoe: Everything you do inside the game will have an achievement or a score or XP attached to it. So when you come out and review your score, you'll go "hmmmm, doing that gave me this many points, and I need this many more to get to this unlock ... maybe next time I'll come back and do that some more times."
Patient Zero: Sydney in mid-2014
Dave: From a business point of view, having a year between events is really stupid. We've lost momentum, other companies have tried to enter the space … but we had to, because we want to get it right. Our Sydney game is going to be everything we wanted the Melbourne game to be. We're really excited about it.
Dave: Tickets for Sydney go on sale on the 16th December – we have a date in mind, and it's an achievable date, but we're not going to announce it until we're sure. We're crowdfunding the event again, going back to Pozible. We're going to use the crowdfunding to finance the whole event. Last time we just used it for seed money to get started. Ultimately we need to sell 10,000 tickets to get started, so we've put a million dollar target on it.
Zoe: Obviously, Pozible's very excited about that because they're the biggest crowdfunding organization in Australia and there hasn't been a million dollar crowd funding here. In fact we're still the largest in Australian history and we're trying to break our own record. There will be exclusive types of tickets available on Pozible that you won't be able to get once the campaign is over.
Dave: And there will be beta testing spots available too, to run pressure tests on the teams ...
Drew: "Try and break it" sessions.
Zoe: Melbourne players are getting something special if they come up and play again. Because we feel like if you're making the effort to come up again, well you supported us when we sucked, so you deserve special treatment.
That "something special" will most likely include a free medic upgrade for each team.
Oh, and there’s one more thingBefore we leave, Drew hands us a second, smaller case similar to the one the Mk. 2 rifle was stored in. It’s padlocked shut.
Dave: We're gonna put this up as a Facebook competition, what's in the box ... is it a grenade, or a claymore, or night vision goggles, or a special comms device, or a sidearm, we'd love to show you because you’ve already seen a lot of game changers, but this one …
Zoe: This is the icing on the cake.
Dave: It's the cherry on the sundae.
Drew: This is the jizz face. (giggles)
Dave: The winner of the competition gets to come in here, just before the Pozible campaign goes live on December 16, and open the box.
Drew: And get shot with the pain gun.
Dave: Everybody gets shot with the pain gun. (giggles)
Zoe: We can't stress enough that it all hinges on the Pozible campaign being successful. We can't imagine how disappointing it would be to work on this for a year and for it not to come through.
Considering the original Patient Zero crowdfunding exercise, at over a quarter of a million dollars, is still the largest crowdfunding exercise in Australian history, the million-dollar target is certainly an ambitious one. But with many of Melbourne’s 6,000 players keen to experience the upgraded game, plus a fresh local and international audience in Sydney, the team’s 10,000 ticket target doesn’t seem unreasonable.
You can certainly put my brother and I down for two. After playing with the Mk. 2 weapon and the pain belt we’re rearing to get in there and kick some zombie butt.