Game, Systems & Level Designer
Director (Game & Video Content)
Cannibal Fever is a fast-paced zombie Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game set in a fictionialised version of the United States shortly after the release of the biggest zombie movie of all time.
A government Black Book project to rid 'murica from those who the government see as a drain on society backfires causing a zombie pandemic.
The RTS allows players to play as either the survivors or the zombies/evil people and games take place in a maps with pre-existing builds/structures that must be captured to produced units and research new abilities/upgrades. Production is time based and will reduced with the players control over the map, strategic objectives and after researching certain upgrades.
Cannibal Fever was exhibited at PAX Australia in 2014 as part of what was an ultimately unsuccessful Kickstarter Campaign.
Whilst the project was unsuccessful it was a significant stepping stone in my own development as a designer and producer, and they say you learn a lot from your failures, this was my biggest and i learned so much from it.
Real Time Strategy
On this page I will discuss the Game Design choices that I made for this project as well as important lessons that I learned during the failure of this project.
Here are the key features of the game design that were discussed during the Kickstarter campaign and PAX AUS 2014.
The maps of this game were important to the overall gameplay as they were bespoke maps they would act more like lanes in a MOBA than a traditional RTS.
The game was to use a territory control system inspired by the one used in the game Z by The Bitmap Brothers to determine how fast units would be produced.
This meant that how a level was designed would essentially determine how matches would play out so that balancing the mechanics and levels were intrinsically linked. If all key buildings were directly in the centre of the map the game would be determined by the intial skirmish for those building during the early game battle.
So ended up being an interesting gameplay element to balance of providing enough strategic buildings through the map so that both players could maintain units, research and could participate in a struggle over central any resources that might turn the tide but they had be designed so that they weren't the only key to victory.
In Cannibal Fever unlike most RTS games the player isn't building a base; as an entire faction of the game revolves around the undead who are hardly going to go cut down tress to gather wood or build a barracks.
The maps were designed with specific buildings that can be controlled for research and unit production. This meant the early game was about getting to the resources you need quickly and potentially denying your opponent access to vital buildings they might need for their strategy.
A police station would produce cops for the prey (Good Humans) faction whilst a drug den would produce high level infected called Conduits for the Predator (Zombies/Evil Humans) faction. So if you can denying them control of one of those buildings by claiming it as your own and protecting it might be the difference in the long run.
As this game was removing resource collection from the RTS formula i went back in time to Z By the Bitmap Bros as inspiration.
That game had territories you would capture which would capture the building producing units on the map and the more territories the fast everything built, which meant you were doing more of the strategy of attacking and defending instead of turtling whilst you wait for resources.
This strategy was implemented with alterations into Cannibal Fever so that you would be able to capture strategic points on the map to increased the speed of you unit production or research upgrades that makes unit production speeds increase.
Unitd would also be produced from buildings that would make sense, be that cops from police stations or patients from hospitals and asylums. Those buildings might have uses for the opponents where hospitals increase unit health points etc.
HUD & UI
The HUD & all other UI was designed to mimic news broadcasts or media, the HUD itself is designed to look like a new broadcast with the Breaking News Icon, Ticker Tape which would tell the player about new events like unit production and battles, which could be clicked to have the player move to that location or the Red Button for menus as the Click Red for options was a massive push at the time on cable TV.
The menus were designed to look like a modern newspaper named "The Last Digest" where the weather maps would show locations of maps/level and allow you to change weather on them, sports would be online matchmaking and the obituaries were the credits where each developer could write their own short obituary for their time on this game as a fun and novel way of getting people to actually read the credits.
Any zombie game worth it's salt knows that you need to address the fact that zombies are an exponential threat that not only growns as the pandemic takes over the planet but that the real danger is in not knowing if the ones you are infected and will turn at any minute.
That was acor pillar to the idea of the zombie genre and was one of the first mechanics i worked on after realising the Z-like Unit production mechanics.
In Cannibal Fever a unit killed by an infected unit would have a percentage chance to turn into a zombie and those would immediately be able to be controlled by the zombie faction. This percentage chance could be increased by researching more potent strains or reduced with vaccines & immunisations. To add this there was also special syrette ammunition for some of the evil units that could be used to create more high level infected out of the population of their opponents forces.
This really meant that player had to be strategic, as sending forces to their death to weaken the enemy might only end up feeding them extra units.
As someone who had experience in Video production with Special effects, theatrical armouring and other behind camera experience I thought that there wasn't enough integration between the two mediums, I thought this was a missed opportunity and a way to add something new using my own experiences.
The idea was to have some video content appear in the game acting as picture-in-picture reporting on the live broadcasts that would act out certain events. These would act similar to the ticker tape in the fact the player could click these either live action or gameplay videos but they would be a way of adding storytelling into even multiplayer experiences, something that has long been a desire of mine.
This became an issue in the Kickstarter as when we had issues with the actual game development the videos were really only the supporting content to the video itself and it felt as if all the money had been spent on these intead of where it was needed in development.
Whilst i still think this is a good idea and something i'd like to see more of in our industry it's clear to me that even with the issues we had with development if i had spent this money on the game itself it would have had a better chance.. but also would likely still have failed to meet the funding goals.
Here are some of the things from the Kickstarter I think went well and how they've made me a better designer, even if they came from my production success on the project.
PAX AUS 2014
PAX Australia was both the start of our Kickstarter campaign and our major marketing event for it. Which in hindsight is a terrible idea, but at the time I loved the short hype cycles that whipped people up to a fervour and basically relied on the game going viral, a terrible plan but I was too young/too overconfident to realise it at the time.
However the actual running and organising of the event was a highlight from a production side but the event itself was a vital developmental stage for me as a game designer.
As with my communication with press and media, I had to sell the game to not only thousands of people across the 3 days ensuring the message was clear each time, but that I had to give this information and the tools to sell it to the other people working on the booth with me, people who hadn't necessarily worked on the project and have them communicate the game the same way I was to ensure one unified vision.
Whilst my vision in terms of fidelity may not have matched reality and we had to do a lot more tell than show due to issues with a programmer pulling out of a contractual obligation far too late to pull out of the event itself. The responses we got from people showed that they liked and understood what the game was and what we were trying to do.
After the last day one of the PAX Volunteers came back by and asked for a signature from me, he was a young kid in his mid teenage years but at that point whilst I knew the exhibition had been successful I knew the kickstarter was off to a rough start and due to my research was unlikely to succeed. So this moment of belief was something I will cherish for many years to come.
One of my greatest production achievements for this project the talent I was able to get signed onto the project that i'm allowed to publicly say (there are others but those I wasn't supposed to say at the time and 10 years on I'm not sure if i can still).
Whilst it is a production achievement I also think this was an important step in my ability to communicate a game idea with yet more types of stakeholders. Whilst the heavy hitters in the images below knew how voice over in games would work I also discussed this with people who were not always familiar with games or voice over for games.
One of those people was late character actor Michael Parks.
I spoke to him and his wife in a 3.30am AEST call to explain everything and it was one of the most rewarding conversations of my life. Sadly with his passing I'll never get to have that actor/director interaction with him but I am humbled by being able to not only convey they concept, ideas, characters but also the methods, audience that would allow someone foreign to game product to want to sign on for if we were successful.
Press & Media
One of the final aspects of communicating mechanics and a game concept to different audiences/stakeholders was my discussions with Press & Media, including interviews with the big names in the game media space such as IGN and Gamespot.
As we were communicating what the game would be with admittedly not enough visuals or gameplay as I'd intended I found that I was still successful in discussing the feel of the game and what moment to moment interactions with the game would look like.
This felt like pitching over and over to new audiences and getting them take the hook of what I was offering. This experience is something that has allowed me to hone in my pitching skills especially when describing mechanics or gameplay aspects.
The interviews I've done aren't all up anymore after almost 10 years and have to be accessed via the wayback machine etc. But reading them in early 2024 almost a decade since the project failed I can see I represented myself and the game well.
There's plenty I would do differently if I was ever to do a kickstarter campaign again but having myself represent the game in press/media seems to have be largely successful even if the kickstarter was not.
Even to this day this project is the hardest for me to look back at, it was the most painful post-mortem I have ever done, and although I tried a few things to keep the project alive, including sending a pitch to SONY XDEV for funding but I knew in my heart it was done.
Whilst I could write an entire textbook on the mistakes I made they all come back to two fundamental mistakes I made that at the time I didn't yet have an understanding of.
The first was that the concept was much to large in scope for a first time development team who were complete unknowns, not only for us to complete in a cohesive manner but for us to warrant funding in the first place.
The second was my lack of true understanding what it took to make a game once it left the concept phase, once it had to go from paper to 1's & 0's. This meant that as a producer I failed to use the resources correctly or even understand what was truly need to make the idea I was selling to people, years later I would realise it would have cost us a lot more than we asked for.
The other aspect I failed to see this time as a designer was that I used a lot of time, money and energy on something that ultimately wouldn't make the game more enjoyable to play in the form of the video content, I put spectacle ahead of fun.
As a Game Director and as a Producer when I look back I see many failures in successfully communicating my vision to my team, my planning and the fact I got so excited to be making a game that I never stopped to think if this was the right game, personnel or way to use that time.
But I also see my successes and I'm proud of those.
I got massive voice talent attached, I filmed in a hospital, I designed a good game loop on paper before I ever knew what a game loop was, I exhibited my own game concept at PAX and discussed it with heavyweights of the games media at 22 years of age!
However if I look even deeper I can understand why I made those fundamental errors beside just excitement and ignorance.
At 41 my father had cardiac arrest, his heart just stopped during a meeting. He was dead for half an hour, comatose for a week and hes lucky to be alive as that meeting and the quick action of his work colleagues saved his life.
I am a lot like my father, so at 17 years old it had cemented in my mind that I had until 41 to achieve my dreams and create the legacy that's so important to me. In my head I was on the clock and it was short.
This project was in its final stages of preparation for PAX when it hit the 5 year anniversary of that day and since it had happened I had set myself unrealistic goals for success as I felt I needed to do it quickly, to succeed no matter the cost. I was scheming, not planning and my passion alongside this self administered ticking clock had turned into an obsession.
Even if there were some people who failed to hold up their end of contractual obligations this was always doomed to fail, it was my fault but I just didn't know why at that stage.
Whilst I may not have hit those goals I had during that period, such as having a game that sold 10,000 copies by 25 years old... this project taught me a great deal, and it, combined with some different mistakes in subsequent projects, would lead me down the path to getting the skills, to learning and most importantly learn to be patient but productive.
Whilst I wish I had learned those lessons a different way they make me who I am and therefore I can't regret them but rather I learn from them, even to this day.
Future for Cannibal Fever
The simple answer is that there will be a future for the franchise and that I still believe that the RTS is one of the best of the concepts I have laid out for the IP.
For now, the hurt somehow is still (somehow) somewhat too fresh and I think I need something else to eclipse the heights of this so I can stomach coming back to this idea itself.
I bet a lot of time, effort and money on myself for this and came up well and truly short.
I see it now as part of my development as a game designer and as creative person in general but even in writing this page for a portfolio it's still stings, makes me emotional and if I'm honest, I'm not sure that feeling will every truly go away.
I think I'll know the right moment to come back to it but for now I'll continue to move forward, develop myself and new ideas but one day I'd love to return to the idea to do it justice.