IRL Shooter: Interview with Patient Zero's live action zombie masters
(Editor's note: contains strong language) "There was a full team of farmyard animals came through, and they murdered everything they saw." Meet Dave Leadbetter and Drew Hobbs of IRL Shooter, an Australian company that's blurring the boundaries between video games, live action role playing and laser tag. In 2012 these guys launched Patient Zero, a story-driven real life zombie shooter game in an outer suburb of Melbourne. Gizmag caught up with the pair as they prepare to bring the show to Sydney and beyond in 2014.
Back in 1982, the pinnacle of gaming as I recall it was Nintendo's dual-screen, folding Donkey Kong Game & Watch. As Mario, your motivation was clear: dodge barrels to save the girl from a gorilla. Nobody questioned why the gorilla had stolen the girl, or indeed why a gorilla would be called Donkey in the first place. The technology was limited. It was the best we had.
From these humble early efforts, my generation has watched gaming develop into an incredibly powerful interactive storytelling medium. The average gamer is now around 30 years old. We expect believable stories, character arcs, plot twists and moral quandaries along with fun gameplay and neat water physics.
Which probably explains why many of us tire of paintball skirmish and laser tag so quickly. Working on skills and tactics is one thing, being immersed in a story and an experience is another.
And that's the spark behind Melbourne company IRL Shooter (IRL short for In Real Life), which bills itself as "the world's first real life, live action video game company." Founded in June 2012 with the biggest crowdfunding campaign Australia had ever seen, IRL created and launched its first real-life video game, Patient Zero, in a comically inadequate 4 months to open for Halloween.
The concept was simple enough. Players were inducted as new recruits of Grey Area Protective Services, given a short briefing in rules, tactics and communications by a no-nonsense drill sergeant, handed a replica M4 machine gun with laser tag elements built in, and thrust into a research facility that's full of zombie-style infected, as well as a host of non-player characters (NPCs) that may or may not be infected, and may or may not be telling you the truth.
With over 6,000 players in its short first run, Patient Zero taught the IRL Shooter team some tough lessons. Inadequate testing time and immediate weapons systems failure in the first couple of weeks caused massive cast overtime issues that put the business in a huge financial black hole from the very beginning. Creatively, however, it was a very successful first run that proved the concept and paved the way for a hugely refined second season that's planned for Sydney in the first quarter of 2014.
We sat down to talk over the IRL Shooter concept, the first run of Patient Zero: Melbourne and the future of the real life video game concept with IRL's Dave Leadbetter and Drew Hobbs as they worked on the Sydney production.
On inspirations for Patient Zero
Drew: Being in film, we've both had a passion for genre. And both being gamers, we talk shit all the time about this sort of thing. And the Zed Events zombie shopping mall event had just happened, which was really a Skirmish/Airsoft thing. No story whatsoever, you just go into an empty shopping mall and there's a horde of zombies and you go from one end to the other.
Dave: Pure adrenaline shooting in a disused shopping mall. Sounds great! Love to do it.
Drew: We were just basically talking shit about ... wouldn't it be great if you could do that plus everything that's great about a video game.
Dave: The believable characters, NPCs, backstory ... an established universe. With Drew's writing background, and our film and storytelling philosophy, rather than just pure shooting, because I find that a bit boring. I've done laser tag and paintball a few times, and that's fun, you run around with your friends and shoot 'em and go home. It's a one-off, standalone event. But with a game, you can replay it in different ways, you can immerse yourself in that experience far more readily.
On creating a sense of immersion
Dave: After you've been immersed in the "drill sergeant" section, it's really intimidating when you have a grown man or woman screaming in your face, and if you give them a little smile it's "DON'T YOU FUCKIN' LOOK AT ME LIKE THAT SOLDIER" – you're on. Some of the players would come in really lairy and "ooh, isn't this a bit of fun" but after a few minutes it's "YES SIR!" They were totally broken down. We owned them in that moment. That was quite deliberate, and then once they actually get into the arena, the way the cast operated to sort of lull them in. From that moment to the moment they left the debriefing room at the end of the course, it was all completely in character. No opportunity to tap out.
The first room – almost a kind of training room. There'd always be an easy kill around the trough in the middle of the room, and then while the players were focused on that, they'd get hit from behind. So you start to kind of learn the dynamics of the playing environment, as you do in a game.
Believability was paramount, but so was player and cast safety. We ummed and ahhed for a while about mélee combat, because there's nothing like twatting a zombie over the head with a baseball bat. We could have had a LARP weapon, or something else non-hurtful, but as soon as you swung it, the actor's gonna go "no" and there's the immersion gone.
On moral dilemmas and decision making
Drew: That's the way games are going, whether it be Spec Ops or Heavy Rain. Contemporary games are relying less on the pure action, and more on the storytelling and the moral consequences from your actions. How you play the game changes the game you get to play. That's really appealing to us as storytellers and gamers. That's why we presented our players with moral choices.
Dave: The first NPC that the players met was a survivor, usually a pretty girl. And she was one of the staff of the medical facility, and her message was basically "help me, help me, save me." But on the radio comms the players had, they were told "stay away, she could be infected, you've got to keep your perimeter away from anyone inside that facility." Some teams, as soon as they saw her stand up, they were going "fuck, what do we do, we've got to save her," but the comms are going "no, take her out, she's probably infected." This is a pretty girl, standing there after they've spent the last 15 minutes being attacked by zombies, it really freaked them out. It's a real moral choice.
In a video game, sure, shoot her, collect a gold coin, move on. But this is a real person, right there in front of you, she's crying (we had some great actors) saying "get me out of here, save me, everyone's dead, what's going on?" And to be able to put a player in a believable environment and confront them with a real deep moral choice, that's amazing.
On training the zombie horde
Drew: They had 2 days of movement training. That was essentially learning how to fall over, but safely. Anyone can fall over, but falling over a hundred times a day without popping shoulders out, how to keep your head tucked – we're on a concrete floor. They had safety gear, but they were never told to land on the safety gear. Learning how to fall correctly was probably a whole day. The next day we were working out how to use them in each particular room. How they'd attack, how they'd really fuck with a team.
If you've only got three zombies standing out in the open versus a team of six, well it's over in a couple of seconds. But running around in the dark with a whole lot of flashing lights and illusion of movement, you can make three seem like 30, and if you shoot one and you're looking for the others, and he re-spawns... it was all that kind of stuff. The enemy AI if you like.
On the players who came to Patient Zero: Melbourne
Drew: You could never pick who was going to be normal or who was going to be crazy out of the teams. You'd get people coming through dressed up in the most vicious looking stuff, and they were the nicest players.
Dave: Some would come in full tactical gear, there was a full team of superheroes came through one day.
Drew: There was a full team of farmyard animals came through, and they murdered everything they saw.
Drew: Character development is something we're still fleshing out. We want to turn this into more of a MMORPG in that you can play it all year round and develop your character all year round. Maybe if you level grind you can get weapon upgrades for the next live event, that sort of thing. The side missions weren't fully realised [in the first run of Patient Zero]. This time round, if you didn't immerse yourself in the website and the backstory, there wasn't enough information for the casual player to really go on.
Drew: We've essentially got two kinds of players. There's the casual player who just wants to come in and run around and shoot things, and they'll have a great time. And we've got the ones who really want to immerse themselves, do the cosplay, learn everything they can about the universe so that when they go in, they know the backstory of this NPC, why they're there. Originally it was written only for those players. I think there's some middle ground to be made.
On preparing the production for touring
Dave: Our goal was always to take this on the road like any other big theatrical production. On the books, we had a cast and crew of around 200. On set at any one time there was about 60 including cast and crew, front of house and behind the scenes.
Drew: There were about 35 cast on for every game run. The core horde would re-spawn in each room so essentially you'd be shooting 90 to 100 zombies in each game run. In taking this on the road, we're really learning how to use that cast more effectively, so you're getting more… Death for your money?
Dave: But are you actually killing something if it's already dead? That's a debate. But look they're not reanimated corpses, they're viral infected. We're working with the 28 Days Later school of zombie rather than the Romero school. Either way, as a touring production we'll have a sort of key cast and crew, but we'll source the cannon fodder infected horde locally.
The dungeon masters/game controllers are an absolutely crucial part – the guys on comms. They would sit in front of a bunch of monitors watching the players on CCTV. They'd watch the players' progress through the facility and control the player movement to keep the buffer times between the different teams in the map.
On the original Broadmeadows set
Dave: The building itself became the set, rather than the building being the studio and building the set inside of it. So it's impossible to replicate.
Drew: We had things like "wouldn't it be great to be able to put a door through that structural wall..." But we can't because the whole thing will come down.
Dave: The whole gravity, roof, death thing.
Drew: Whereas now, with a purpose built set, we can put doorways and access point wherever you need them.
Dave: The map layout we've designed for the next run is more intricate and allows player choice of direction. And it's modular. All we need is a big warehouse, and the set will be built within it.
Drew: We can be rockin' and rollin' wherever we need to be.
Dave: As long as it has neighbours that don't mind a whole lot of blood and screaming. Because there's lots of blood and screaming. I remember sitting in a demountable outside the Melbourne game, trying to get some work done, and all I could hear was screaming. Actor screams and player screams.
On players freaking out
Dave: We had about 10 people voluntarily extracted – couldn't handle it, had to get out.
Drew: 10 wins for us!
Dave: And that number is disappointing, we want more. We are going for more. Patient Zero: Melbourne is the worst game we're ever going to put on. We had a couple of people spewing inside the facility. Did they want extraction? "Nah, nah I'm alright!" Pretty sure we had a brown-out as well but the player refused to admit it. He just said he was having a few problems.
We had a couple of cast injuries, all their own fault. Couple of player injuries, absolutely their own fault. People forgetting the physical reality of Earth and think they were actually in a game and kind of jumping off sets of stairs or going for the big roll, and just... no, dude. There's some classic fuckin' moments on the CCTV.
Drew: If we had the time to go through the footage... aw shit!
On the addition of extra splatter for the Sydney production
Dave: There'll be a lot more "wet work" next time. One thing we were really worried about in Mebourne was OH&S issues with players and actors if we had actual wet blood or sloppy mess as part of it. There was a lot of "wet look" but no actual puddles or buckets of goo as such. There will be next time.
Dave: Players are gonna get dirty. They're gonna get covered in goo, and there's gonna be some "oh my god, what did I just put my hand in" moments. I can pretty much guarantee that in the next game there will be either fingerprint or retinal scanners [to open doors], and players will have to find various body parts to get them through that section of the course.
Drew: While being attacked.
Dave: And under pressure. And it's gonna be messy.
On the best moments in the Patient Zero: Melbourne experience:
Drew: We had this horde sequence where you had this giant roller door that you had to re-power. And when you put the battery in and reconnect it, it set off the alarms. But the door was still fucked, and the horde was coming, and so you had to find an exit through the vent. And in theory it's pretty clear, but when 15 zombies are coming out of the smoke, and you can't see, and the sound design makes it sound like there's thousands of them, Jesus, that became a hard thing to find.
Dave: That moment was just gold. Watching the teams just fall apart.
Drew: Watching one player open the vent and then seeing somebody else push them out of the way because they were going first. That's the basis of the game for me, those kind of moments. They started tearing themselves apart when it got bad. That's where the fun really is, seeing these people role play out their worst nightmare and they can't really cope.
Dave: I only got to play it once! The whole reason why we fuckin' came up with this was so that we could play it, and I only got to play it once. Do you know how frustrating that is?
On Patient Zero: Sydney 2014
Dave: Sydney is next, first quarter next year. We won't be using the Mark 1 laser weapons again, we've developed Mark 2 weapons for Sydney. A new booking system, all of these things take time.
When we went to market last time, I think we started on Pozible in June, and we went "Halloween, 31st October, we will open!" And we had nothing, we didn't even have a fucking office! We had no facility, we had no weapons system, no office, nothing. And we made a promise that we were going to be open on that day.
And we were. We opened on that day, but we weren't ready. This time round, we're taking our time. We're making sure that everything is tested effectively, so we're saying Q1 but we're not going to give a specific date. I'd love to be open by Easter so we can do the Zombie Jesus thing.
Drew: That'd be fun.
Dave: Jesus was one of the original zombies. Rose from the dead and all that.
On Zombies and the future of IRL Shooter
Dave: We're a live action video game production company. Zombies is just our first genre of game. To be quite honest, we've been living in the zombie world for a year or so now. Little bit over it. Looking forward to moving on with the next production.
This is very early days for our company. The character arc idea is a long term, really essential part of what IRL Shooter is gonna do. Grey Area, the security company, will remain an integral backbone to the playing environment but the genre will change depending on where the universe takes us, be it space, or robotics, or nazis, or whatever. But the parent company will still be Grey Area. So the character arc that you're on as a player, if you do evil things, in future games the NPCs will know that you are evil. We've got radio comms to the NPCs and we'll know everything about the player history and those NPCs can interact in that knowledge. That's our long term plan.
On the potential of live action video games for academic research
Dave: We tried to get some psychologists and academics involved to use us for case studies, like stress tests and Stanford style experiments. Unfortunately nothing really came of it yet from an academic standpoint. We're very interested in that this time around.
We're putting people under intense pressure, generally people who know each other or work together. And it really does fuckin' test those relationships. We've got eyes and ears on it at all times, so it's very measurable. We had 6,000-odd players last time, next time will be more than 10,000. That's a big cross-section. We can do all sorts of surveying before and after for case studies as well as in-game data. I would categorically love to present to the knee-jerk media that espouses the ideas that video games promote violence, some irrefutable proof that says "there you go, no it doesn't" – assuming that is the outcome. I'd like someone far smarter than me to test that hypothesis.
On the idea of taking the show overseas
Dave: Our focus right now is Patient Zero: Sydney 2014. But if someone throws a squillion dollars at us and says "come over to New York," well guess what? Brisbane's gonna have to wait.
We are still looking for private investors. It doesn't hurt to have a bit of a war chest. We've taken on a few investors over the last few months. If people are keen there is the opportunity to buy in.
To keep yourself updated on when tickets are available for Patient Zero: Sydney in Q1 2014, keep an eye on the IRL Shooter Facebook page, or sign up at the IRL Shooter website. For our part, we're looking forward to the launch in Sydney next year. We can't wait to check it out. In the meantime take a gander at the gallery to get a taste of the Patient Zero: Melbourne extravaganza.