Organ Trail shouldn’t be confused with the covered-wagon journey out West game for the Apple II it’s based on. No, Organ Trail is about zombies, and follows a group of survivors as they drive West across a nuclear-bombed wasteland crawling with the reanimated remains of its former inhabitants.
Ryan Wiemeyer, one of the game’s developers, said he was inspired by a speech by Hideo Kojima, the ol’ mad developer behind the Metal Gear franchise. He talked about how limitations of gaming systems force innovation.
“That inspired me to try and match the limitations of the Apple II as much as my team would let me,” Wiemeyer said via e-mail. This wasn’t easy. The most difficult part was trying to work with what he called the “Easter color palette” of the Apple II.
When they first started, it was just Wiemeyer and two programmers working at The Men Who Wear Many Hats. “I had to do all the art as well as everything else, so the art had to be somewhat simple,” he said. “We knew that a lot of our appeal was in the direct comparison to the Oregon Trail and that trying to stick to it as closely as possible would help keep us in scope.”
Organ Trail sticks pretty close to the experience of Oregon Trail. The game starts off on the East Coast (Washington DC in this case), where the city is about to be nuked. The player has to gather supplies before the bomb goes off—things like fuel, ammo, medical kits, and food.
“I’m a huge zombie nerd, so we slipped a lot of references in there that catch the other enthusiasts out there,” Wiemeyer said. “Those are the people that really seem to get into our game, discussing which of their friends got bit or how realistic the game is.”
There are some familiar scenes. The hunting mini-game is still there, only rather than blasting the local wildlife, players need to fend off the zombies while gathering food supplies. The player gets to name their merry band of survivors—and zombies aren’t the only threat to the often frail group who are prone to fevers and giardia.
The game is free to play online (real free to play), and the team is raising funds through Kickstarter to bring the game to the iPhone, iPad, and other formats. The campaign is extremely successful. Wiemeyer said they’re expanding some of the features in the process, releasing a Director’s Cut version.
One of the fan-suggested additions allows players to put down their friends, either to save them from an infected zombie bite, or to free up the daily rations. “I really want to expand on that moment for the director’s cut,” Wiemeyer said. “People love killing their friends…”
They’ll also expand on the idea of a day and night cycle. They had this in the original release, where risk of zombie bites went up at night, but they ended up cutting it. “At one point we actually had the background go through a day night cycle, but the limited color scheme made it look like you were on an acid trip as all the funky colors scrolled by,” he said.
“This time, we’re considering a better way to tell the player the time of day and making their choice of travel versus camping for the night to be an important choice,” he said. They’re still working out the details, but “At the very least, I want it to affect more elements of the game, like hunting and resting. You can expect to use a lot more bullets this time around.”
In the tradition of Oregon Trail, “Our game kicks the shit out of you the entire time you play,” Wiemeyer said. “You start out as good as you’re ever going to get and then slowly everyone dies. It really speaks to the zombie apocalypse genre.”
He said this will be even more so in the Director’s Cut, where “We want to force you into situations where you have to make hard choices. That’s where almost all the new mechanics will come in. I’m excited to see how far we can push it.”
Making the game free to play did a lot for the team, and they’ve developed a large fan base. Wiemeyer said they just wanted to make games and have fun, and making a game free is one of the easiest ways to get street-cred. “Free is accessible,” he said. Bur there were other issues at first, since “We also didn’t really know what we were doing. The flash version is admittedly buggy. I didn’t feel comfortable charging people for something that wasn’t very stable.”
“Now that it’s been a year, we grew a bit of a fan base. They want to see more things from us and those demands were starting to look a little expensive for a project we do on the side,” he said.
They’re now looking into selling the game, possibly through Steam. He said one option would be making it freemium, which would be a hard choice for Wiemeyer, since “I spend half my time on our blog, complaining about freemium games and how they can poison game design.”
“It’s going to be hard to figure all this out,” he said. “Ideally, we can make a product that the fans will be happy with that also sustains our group. I don’t know how this works yet, but we definitely have some internal documents where we are trying to figure out if and how micro-transactions would work in our game.”
Doing any of this is always touchy when dealing with vocal, core gamers. Even giving them the option to post their high scores on Facebook was rocky. “I could write a whole other post about this so maybe I will later, haha.”
But things are coming along well. They’ll be starting development of the Director’s Cut and mobile versions—they have to, since, as Wiemeyer notes, “we are legally bound to do it now because of the Kickstarter.”
“The biggest challenge now is just… everything. We have a lot to figure out,” he said. “Making a game, making it multi-platform, selling a game, engaging our fans, buying new hats… This is a big scary step for us, but this is what I was born to do and I’m loving it.”
[box_light]Images courtesy of Ryan Wiemeyer[/box_light]