Generation Zero Celebrates Five Years Thanks To A “Sustainable Work Environment,” Studio Says


Generation Zero, the co-op shooter that pits kids in the 1980s against threatening machines that have overtaken a vast Swedish wilderness, is celebrating its fifth anniversary in 2024. The game’s earliest days were shaky at best with pre-release hype seeming let down by the game’s subpar launch, but the independent team at Systemic Reaction Group has survived not just that rough start, but also a pandemic and an industry that demands multiplayer games either dominate the zeitgeist or die trying.

I reviewed Gen Zero way back in 2019, and I’ve played it several times since I gave it a middling score myself, always hoping it would reach the obvious potential it had. With the studio having successfully turned the game around in a way most teams like it don’t get a chance to do–its Steam page now features “Mostly Positive” reviews both recently and all-time–I wanted to find out exactly how that happened. How does a studio, especially an independent studio, survive those years of wanting to improve the game while understanding it’s probably not going to compete with the major timesinks already swallowing up massive slices of the multiplayer timeshare pie?

For that, I spoke to lead game director Ash McAllan and studio creative director Emil Krafting to walk me through not just how the team has survived to celebrate the game’s fifth anniversary, but also to look ahead at what’s to come for the survival game. You can read our full chat below alongside an exclusive fifth-anniversary trailer seen above.

GameSpot: Generation Zero (GZ) is coming up on its fifth anniversary at a time when the industry seems dominated by a select few but massive multiplayer games that don’t leave a lot of room for the “middle class.” What has led to GZ’s longevity and success at a time when sometimes even many players aren’t enough?

Emil Kraftling: I think at the heart, Generation Zero offers an experience you can’t get elsewhere. The atmosphere and setting are unique and the machine enemies stand out in a survival genre plagued (pun intended) by zombie games. The guerilla-focused gameplay has you surviving against an overpowered foe instead of the environment itself, which also brings to life a fantasy that neither indie nor AAA titles have realized in quite the same way.

The second and maybe even more important aspect, I’d say, is the love that is consistently poured into it by both the community and the developers, growing the game in all directions. Being a part of first-party partnerships like Game Pass and Playstation Plus has brought in waves of players who may have churned on the initial experience but have come back and found it to be a vastly improved and expanded game.

Lastly, I think a lot of it comes down to our unique studio structure. In an era when most major independent developers were part of buyouts or consolidation efforts made by publishers, Avalanche Studios Group retained its independence while still gaining a very stable long-term owner in the Nordisk Film Games foundation. This has allowed us to carefully spread risks and provide a sustainable work environment for developers, while still being able to experiment and explore creative autonomy, IP development and a wide variety of team sizes and genres.

I’ve followed GZ since I first previewed it on the show floor at PAX so I’ve seen it start out shaky and eventually establish its community. Is there a moment you think back on as the turning point regarding the game’s quality and potential?

EK: I think the potential was always there and we could see it in the excitement and reception we got at our E3 announcement. In fact, it scared us a little, because the reception raised expectations that felt more like what we saw with our [parent company Avalanche’s] AAA titles, and Generation Zero was our little indie-corner self-published project with a lot of passion but without the same kind of team size or marketing muscles as our bigger titles.

But the main turning point came about six months post-release. After a launch that wasn’t as positive as we had hoped, the team put in a lot of effort to address the most important issues that the players had encountered, and during the fall of 2019 we released a major free update with fixes and content additions, together with a very successful expansion island in Alpine Unrest. I think it sent the message that this was not a fire-and-forget title but rather a world and experience that we loved and were going to invest in and expand on long-term.

Around the same time, we saw a massive uptick in ‘most recent’ Steam reviews. That sentiment increase kept steady after that and eventually helped our all-time score increase by over 30%.

As the game’s community has grown so much in these years, how have you balanced listening to the core fans who have been there for years while also appealing to a wider audience?

Ash McAllan: For me, that’s one of the most important parts of the work. We have an amazing community manager with a deep understanding of what the community cares about and who is able to have those discussions where we take the time to go over details and get our priorities on the same page. What we’ve seen is that the concerns of the community and our hardcore players are almost never in actual opposition to our ability to improve the game for new players.

This might appear to be the case at first glance, but after digging deeper and including those discussions and concerns in our design process, we’ve been able to create an experience that meets the needs of all of those parties. Also, it’s important for us to keep a focus on our core audience–people who play the game and people we want to play the game–rather than watering the game down. Generation Zero may not be for everyone, but we want to make sure that everyone it’s for can enjoy it.

EK: There have definitely been times when we’ve faced big challenges with our different audiences. For some of the new features that we added we geographically introduced them to places of the world that our long-term players had easy access to, while we realized that for newcomers we had unintentionally locked away some of these cool additions some 10 hours of normal progression into the game. So we updated our intro flow to include some of these features earlier.

As part of that, we made major improvements and changes to our starting missions, but realized that the persistent nature of the game meant there were few incentives for core fans to start over and see all the new stuff. This became another reason to add the ability to have multiple characters and worlds, as well as ways of resetting progression.

Have things continued to get better all the time since launch, like an unending upward trajectory? If not, what other obstacles have you been met with on the way?

EK: For the most part, it has been an upward trajectory, but we’ve run into some snags and pitfalls along the way. Things coming from the best of intentions have definitely presented us with some lessons learned. A couple of years in we spent a lot of time refactoring the enemy AI, that had been a source of some complaints. We made some major improvements to how the machines acted and mitigated the errors players had encountered, but unintentionally ended up making the game insanely hard. So hard that our player numbers dipped for the number of months and console certification cycles it took for us to balance it again.

Fortunately, this was temporary and our player numbers normalized after the fix. Well, except for the minority group of players who loved the harsher difficulty and have asked us to bring it back ever since.

At launch, GZ felt very wide and atmospheric, but that vastness could be lonely at times. As you’ve added much more content over the years, how do you manage the trade-off between giving players more things to do and letting the world feel as massive and isolating as it does?

AM: I think we know what makes our game special and we know that if we mess that up we’re in trouble. During initial development the project had its feature set clearly defined by the game pillars that communicated a unique vision. The way we do design has changed a bunch of times over live development and we’ve found some approaches more successful at keeping things focused than others. These days the design team has those same set of pillars, and also profiles of our audience and what works for them, and we make sure that when we’re designing new features and content, our documentation clearly shows how this new work will fulfill those pillars and audience desires. And then we just make sure that the need for maintaining our atmosphere and tone is kept in focus with that process.

EK: There’s definitely players who specifically enjoy the sense of isolation and eerie emptiness, and some of them were a bit skeptical when we started working through all of the regions of the world and adding more locations and environmental storytelling to them. But the sheer size of the world has still made it fairly easy for us to add variety without sacrificing the sense of solitude–and the most common feedback we see now are players being excited about returning to areas they have previously explored and finding tons of new and different things to discover there. It definitely adds to the sensation of a living and growing experience.

Now five years since launch, Generation Zero has carved out a sustainable future for itself and its community.

What does the future of GZ look like, both this year and beyond? When do you think the game will receive its final update?

AM: Generation Zero’s development has been successful because of the team’s ability to adapt and update the game as the landscape and audience has evolved over time and our ability to continue to do that is something we’re pretty heavily invested in. As we come up to our fifth anniversary we’re looking at how huge the game has become and we want to really stabilize the game the team has built, making sure we honor our amazing long-term community with more endgame progression, but also continuing to make it more accessible to new players by refining our fundamental core gameplay to make it the best it can be.

For players who haven’t tried GZ yet, after so many updates, what can they expect to find if they jump into it today?

AM: Players entering Östertörn for the first time today have a much richer and more dynamic environment than the first explorers of the islands had in 2019. Players now have to deal with invading machines from two different factions, and compete with those machine factions for territory, establishing their own outposts and taking down the bases constructed by the enemy, while the machines themselves, left unchecked, evolve into terrifying rivals. But they also have so much more at their disposal with new weapons, equipment, and bikes that they can craft and customize and gear up to make trouble.

EK: I mean, in many ways, I’m a new player to the game these days! After the launch I stepped into an overarching role in the company and left the game in the safe hands of the team, and oh boy have they not disappointed. Every time I jump into the game now I feel like there’s some new exciting thing to get giddy about!

I remember the first time I crested a hill overlooking a big open plain and hunkered down at the sight of two warring machine factions duking it out in open warfare, I was blown away. It wasn’t something we had talked much about during the development of the launch game, being way out of scope, but when I saw it in the game it made me feel all the right emotions. I felt like a small vulnerable pawn in a grand stakes conflict. It perfectly captured the kind of guerilla survival atmosphere we’ve always aimed to create.

Bringing it back to my first point, what, if anything, do you feel GZ demonstrates that can be applied more widely to other games that want to succeed without needing to succeed at the Fortnite level? How might other teams look to GZ and learn lessons on building a living game and/or a community?

AM: I think the obvious lesson is clarity and passion. Generation Zero has succeeded because we have a strong identity both within the team’s understanding of the game and with our audience, and that clear identity is what we’re all excited about. Working in game dev, you can often end up really siloed where you’re incredibly passionate about the work you’re doing, but might not have the same idea of how it fits into the whole as other people on the team. Generation Zero is a big enough team to make amazing work, but small enough that we can all be excited about the same vision we’re working towards together. Then that clarity makes it accessible to the audience. They can see what you’re doing and they’re free to fall in love with it, even in the rough patches.

EK: Like Ash said, I think the size and nimbleness of the team provides a lot of flexibility and fosters creativity, while at the same time allowing you to be very close and personal with your community. Depending on your organization, it also allows you to be small enough to fail, but big enough to innovate. And to be honest, in just the five years since Generation Zero launched, the market has changed immensely. The amount of fantastic smaller team- and indie games launching on Steam each year is insane, and many times what it was in 2019 when Generation Zero launched.

Considering how important visibility is to success, it is much harder to launch a title like Generation Zero today and there is a certain amount of luck involved. But you can boost your chances with a passionate team built around creative autonomy, growing a community around the game by including them early and often, and offering an experience that can’t be found elsewhere.

Generation Zero is available on PC, Xbox, and PlayStation platforms.