The zombie apocalypse, 10 years on

This small group of dedicated players have been playing the same abandoned browser game together, almost continuously, for ten whole years. What keeps small communities stuck to dying games like this one?

10 years ago, the city of Malton underwent a government-imposed quarantine due to a zombie outbreak. Not literally, but virtually. This happened in a browser-based online game called Urban Dead that’s almost entirely composed of clicking a variety of links to do one thing or another from shooting other players to putting up festive holiday lights. So, it’s not like there’s actual people clamoring for their government to explain themselves.

There are, however, still people playing the game over a decade later. But why? Who are these people? What's kept them going all this time? These are the stories of two different people, the zombie and the survivor, that both began playing the game in their 30s and have continued to do so into their 40s-- despite the fact that there's almost nothing to do.

Emphasis on the 'almost.'

The Game

Urban Dead, created by developer Kevan Davis, launched on July 3rd, 2005. Davis based the majority of the game’s initial mechanics on another browser-based game called Vampires! The Dark Alleyway -- which itself was based on an earlier work of Davis’ that tasked folks with sharing a zombie-themed link that would increase the number of brains they’d eaten for each click. This kind of mechanic should be familiar with anyone that browsed the Internet back in 2002 or so.

The game itself features a grid-based map of suburbs with names like Ridleybank and Dunell Hills. Players can take up the mantle of a survivor or zombie, each with different abilities. Interacting with other players is how both sides get experience. Damaging them with weapons, healing them, and so on all grants experience to one degree or another. There are other ways of gaining experience, but player versus player is really the name of the game. This is then used to buy skills, which is how the level of a given character is determined.

Action Points, which recharge in real-time, are the resource paid as cost of any action in the game. Talking, moving, searching -- everything costs Action Points. Survivors can be killed, at which point they become zombies, and zombies can be revived to become survivors. When a zombie’s killed, they simply stand back up at significant Action Point cost. That’s about the sum of Urban Dead.

It's honestly rather simplistic, and the sporadic updates to the game from Davis haven’t exactly added a ton of things for folks to do. There’s only 45 skills total to purchase, and most players cap out at 43 thanks to the fact that two of those skills make it significantly more difficult to swap between playing a survivor and zombie. All this is to say that it’s somewhat shocking that there are still people playing the game 10 years later.

The Zombie

"I've been playing pretty much every single day for ten years, except for this year," says Liche, the current 'High Inquisitor' of the Militant Order of Barhah. The MOB, as they're typically referred to, are a splinter zombie group that formed out of the Ridleybank Resistance Front, arguably the most famous zombie group to ever grace the streets of Malton. Both have severely dwindled over the years, but they do still exist and continue to operate. There's even a relatively active set of IRC channels to coordinate strikes amongst members.

When asked about his rank in MOB, and where he existed within the power structure, Liche described its leader as “the Prophet Jorm, who dwells in a Far City, fast by a deep bay and protected by a gate of gold and iron. Liche, in turn, “was merely, for a time, it's caretaker. This kind of flamboyant roleplay is common amongst those that remain in Malton, as it's one of the few ways to continue playing above and beyond the Action Points required to, well, act in the game proper. But that isn't always enough.

Liche stopped playing this past January, but returned in October. His one and only sabbatical from Urban Dead. Unfortunately, a number of folks that he had played with for those many years also left during that time -- and have yet to return. "The other zombies I played with have floated off [...] which is very sad to me" he says. Some of those had been playing for nearly as long as Liche -- 10 years and some change as of writing. "I still hope they will come back at some point, but [Urban Dead] doesn't really have much to pull you back once you leave -- except for the reason I came back: the friends you make while playing."

Friends are an important resource for players, but perhaps even more so for zombies. Taking on a group of survivors is almost a waste of time alone. A single zombie is good for ripping at barricades and maybe, just maybe, taking down an injured survivor that’s found themselves outside the security of a building. Two zombies working in tandem is much more effective at any given task, and that only continues to improve with each successive zombie.

Even with a major personal reason to continue playing gone, Liche waffles between being cautiously optimistic and frustratingly nihilistic about the game's future. "The [Urban Dead] community is pretty passionate and I don't think it would take all that much to put a lot of energy back into the game," he says, "but since Kevan [Davis] doesn't seem interested in it, it is left up to the players." The attitude towards Davis seems evenly split amongst players. Some are resentful, but others are just happy that it's been developed to the point it has. It is, after all, free to play.

Updates to the game are few and far between, especially 10 years later. A brief blip of activity occurred this summer with Davis issuing a fairly lengthy survey about the state of the game to players in honor of its 10th anniversary. It also hinted that perhaps that game’s not entirely out of development steam, as it were, with a section devoted to asking what players would like to see changed in or added to the game.

But nothing's happened just yet, six months later. When reached by email, Davis declined to comment on the future of the game. Even when they were more frequent, months or even years would go between changes of any significance. "Since Kevan does just about nothing with the game," says Liche, "you see the players coming up with all kinds of really clever ideas to keep the game fresh and interesting -- they're pretty much forced to."

Player-instigated initiatives -- all parts of the game that aren't officially supported by the design of the game -- include zombie mall tours where hordes of players wander from suburb to suburb cracking into heavily fortified installations that would have otherwise been nearly impossible to siege, player-killers (PKers) organizing into groups that cause mayhem among the survivors, and bounty hunters responding with a reporting system for confirmed kills in order to fight the previous. That's just a sampling of the larger group efforts over the years as the smaller bits of the meta exist in places less likely to see probing like private forums or hard-to-find sections of the official Urban Dead wiki.

Though most of these have fallen off over the years, they do all still exist. They’re just scaled far back from what they were. Coordinated zombie sieges target buildings known to include gaggles of survivors, but fewer zombies than ever before participate. The player-created tool designed to track PKers -- both their reported kills and bounty hunter claims against them -- has been down for years, but both sides do continue to operate. It’s down to a small dedicated few, and the method for reporting bounties has splintered significantly, but radio chatter occasionally pipes up with secondhand reports of killers and those hunting them. People still seem to enjoy the game they’ve made for themselves.

"To be most honest, the game has serious flaws, deep and continuing balance issues, and it's very repetitive," Liche admits. "The graphics are nothing special at all, maybe even less than nothing special. But playing the game, especially as a zombie, requires you to join a group, make friends, and work together to get anything done." He points to a severe social learning curve as one of the game's most hindering problems. New players -- especially zombies -- have a rough go of things until they figure out that there's strength in numbers, like any other zombie-starring fiction, and that they need to find a social group to be effective. A lone zombie attacking even one survivor isn't guaranteed a kill thanks to doing less damage per Action Point in general. But a pack? That's when they really get a good taste of fresh brains.

"It's that camaraderie that's really great about [Urban Dead], and the prime reason that most everyone I know who plays the game still plays it -- sometimes, it seems, almost in spite of the game."

The Survivor

Things are equally dismal for the living at current. "I think if I leave again, if I try to come back the game might be long dead by then," says Matt Aries, a pseudonymous survivor who's been playing in one capacity or another since October 2007. There's several small gaps in there, but that's not uncommon for Urban Dead. The folks still playing pick it up, drop it, and pick it up again with regularity. Fewer seem to return each time, but it's enough.

Aries is currently part of the Department of Emergency Management (DEM) group, which is long past their glory days. But at one point several years ago, the DEM was a serious presence in the game with many different subgroups attached to it, each with distinct specialties and social dynamics. They all still exist, but almost nobody's involved. Aries, for example, serves as a relative newcomer in the Malton Civil Defense Unit under the DEM with just one other active member.

"The current state of the game is a slow death," says Aries. The player behind the character's been on all side of the game's equation -- zombie, survivor, and PKer -- so he claims to have a good grasp of how the game's currently playing out for most folks. "All known groups have plunged in their ranks. Fortress has gone from the top survivor numbers to 20 total members." Things are even worse in the DEM, according to Aries, but it's just one of the most visible symptoms of the game's stagnation.

Folks seem to be dropping the game faster than new ones pick it up, but there's a core group -- including Aries and Liche -- that continues to stick around for whatever reason. Both point to other players as a reason to keep playing. "At it's core this game has a wonderful community that thrives on the creation of new tactics and ideas. This of course depends on like-minded players looking to achieve the same goal," Aries notes. That also means that one player giving up the ghost means that several more might throw in the towel, which only exacerbates the problem.

Unlike Liche, Aries genuinely loves the game for what it is as well. He compares the game to something like turn-based chess. "You have to time your moves, and place your character just right in order to complete whatever task you have set forth to do. If you do it wrong your plan is ruined." That's only if it's done wrong. "If it's done right," he says, "it's better than any other game out there past or present, as everything is controlled by the player. It's like some type of odd addiction and as much as I try to get out of Malton, something drags me back."

At this point, he's been playing for eight years, and that's a lot of time invested in something that could theoretically disappear tomorrow. It likely won't, but it could. Even with that knowledge, Liche and Matt Aries continue to play. There's always that core group to interact with, after all. So, the zombies continue to shuffle, and the survivors continue to rummage through the rumble. Life and undeath in Malton goes on.

Which, generally speaking, seems to be a common thread amongst the various browser-based games out there. Self-contained little worlds with politics, metagames, and relationships all their own slowly but surely dying for one reason or another. All of this is playing out right now, in places most folks don't look, with real people behind the screens trying to accomplish goals that are relevant to themselves and an increasingly smaller group of people.

But that's also part of the allure, it seems like. Being that last vanguard with a cadre of friends that still cares, still plots, and still plans. There's a certain charm to it that feels emblematic of all dying video games. A defiance, of sorts. As if Liche, Matt Aries, and those like them are saying, "I am still here."