Despite advertising features that didn't exist in the game to a point where it got pulled from Steam, The War Z bounced back, got re-relisted and continued to sell copies under the new title Infestation: Survivor Stories. That's all on top of accusations of blatantly copying DayZ and allegedly stealing assets from other media and downright treating the community terribly.
Sounds exaggerated? It's not, and the game's producer Sergey Titov has written a story to explain what really went on and how developer Hammerpoint Interactive (now OP Productions) made missteps along the way.
Titov took to Gamasutra to write a revealing article behind his experience with Infestation: Survivor Stories, using the opportunity to share the "biggest learning experience of [his] career, and something that [he hopes] other developers can learn from." It's a wonderful and engaging look into the mindset that went into building, launching and supporting The War Z after launch for the last two years, an experience that Titov describes as an "exciting and terrifying emotional rollercoaster."
But first, the success. Forgetting all the issues and one-star reviews on Metacritic, Infestation: Survivor Stories was immensely popular and it did meet a niche that DayZ didn't.
To date, the game has been purchased over 2.8 million times, a sign that both segments were effectively engaged. This is no small achievement for a small indie development team working on a shoestring budget. More than half of those 2.8 million players spent over 50 hours playing The War Z. Some have even spent over 1,000 hours to date playing the game.
Unfortunately for everyone, those numbers could have been so much better. Poor decisions and poor handling of press and the community held back the game from evolving into something much bigger, and more special. Where DayZ, both as a mod and a standlone early access release, was difficult to get into and stick with, The War Z was initially built by a small indie team (4-12 people depending on the stage of development) with only "8 months of preproduction and 8 months of active development" with the goal of being easily accessible. It was meant to appeal to both "hardcore" players and more casual shooter/survival fans.
"Our intentions were good, though we definitely made some poor decisions that made them look otherwise."
The numbers above speak for themselves and The War Z came in at the right time (100,000+ players played on launch day), taking advantage of a genre the PC community was very interested in. The naming of the game however, raised too many comparisons to DayZ and there began the problems. Worse, the devs didn't listen to the negative feedback on the forums, on social media, or from the press.
"Beyond not listening to the community, we were also very arrogant in our public communications. We should have taken more care to communicate how and why this was not a DayZ clone, citing specific differences in both design and conception. Instead of saying to ourselves “Oh well, haters gonna hate!” we should have tried to understand where the hate was coming from and address it. "
Instead of making it clear what their intentions were, and how they wanted to - and planned to - differentiate from DayZ, the team ignored or shot down criticisms. It wasn't clear and they villainized themselves to some portions of the player base. That same problem applied to how they treated DayZ fans as well.
"...we shouldn’t have ignored obvious resentment from most hard core DayZ fans who clearly were not happy that someone was “taking away their game,” as they put it. Instead of ignoring them, we should have paid more attention to addressing their critiques instead of working toward hyping the game to the more casual crowd. At the end, this ignorance bit us in the ass."
The game first launched on its own, and offered "over 500 payment options," coupled with strong server support that prevented it from crashing in the way so many online games have in recent years around launch. The problem there, is that the small team wasn't equipped or trained to deal with such a large community at the outset. With so many players playing an early version of the game without being well-informed, there was a flood of feedback and general complaints that the devs weren't able to respond to effectively.
That problem got worse when The War Z hit Steam with an inaccurate description, listing features that actually weren't in the game but planned for the future. That made the devs and title look even worse to outsiders and the media. Part of the rush in getting it on Steam was to beat DayZ to the punch and it ended up costing them.
"Even though the Steam version of the game was, at the time, responsible for only about 15% of our users, public perception was that The War Z was effectively dead on arrival. This small and avoidable error was our biggest mistake during launch, and had such a profound effect on the media and gamer’s reception of our game that we still are recovering from it to this day."
At the time, The War Z was in beta but Steam didn't support such a label at the time. It's unfortunate for the dev team and this just goes to show how harsh a business game development really is, but no one's denying that this is entirely the fault of the devs and the general controversial nature of early access (read: rushed) games. It was rushed to Steam to beat out a game they were too similar to (in content and name) and it paid the price for it. If anything, they've learned, and as Sergey Titov said up top, he hopes others learn too.
As for The War Z/ Infestation: Survivor Stories using art/assets from The Walking Dead zombie cosplay photos, Titov mentioned it but didn't admit, deny or explain in his post. As for the game itself, Titov also commented on how they monetized the game - another sticking point for the community. The game charges players to respawn quickly (to make them value survival more) and at one point featured ammo microtransactions - perhaps the most controversial and anti-gamer decision you can think of.
In the end, it comes down to marketing the game and communicating effectively, especially as a small team battling a large, vocal community with an incomplete title. Managing expectations and outlining the current state of the game and future plans accurately and fairly could have made all the difference.
"We now recognize the importance of listening to vocal groups of critics regardless of their size. We needed to engage them, open up a dialogue, explain why we did certain things, take their feedback to heart, and address it as best we could."
Still, Infestation: Survivor Stories remains a financial success, and an experience that the devs will use to do better things with future projects, and incoming updates for the game.
Infestation: Survivor Stories released in limited closed alpha October 2012, Open access November 1st 2012, Steam December 2012. It's currently available on PC.