Urban Dead

Extraordinary Decentralized Organization and the Madness of Hordes

Other Web-playable
Kevan Davis

In honor of Halloween...Urban Dead is a web-based persistent world game; your character is either a "zombie" or a "survivor", two factions eternally trapped in an urban warzone. You gain experience by fighting, you buy skills when you level up, you have "action points" that accumulate over time.

That much is easy to say, but there are surprising depths to Urban Dead. It's worth playing for a while, and it's even more worth seeing how other people play. There are some interesting aspects of the game when you start out, like: Which skill should I buy first? How do I survive as a newbie zombie? But many players have all their skills bought, and that's where you start getting into the really interesting strategies.

If you read about game design at all, you'll eventually come across something about "second order design". The idea is that game designers create experiences indirectly; they create rules, the rules delineate the players' actions, and those actions lead to experiences that are engaging in some way. The designer attempts to create rules that lead to the kind of experience they're trying to engender. A related concept is "emergent behavior", which arises when rules interact to encourage new actions.

The designer of Urban Dead, Kevan Davis, has set down a number of simple rules delineating what someone could do during a zombie apocalypse. The persistent nature of the game implies that there have to be some times when you're logged off, but your character is still around. Zombies roam the city searching for survivors, so if you're a survivor, you want somewhere to hide. Therefore, survivors hole up in buildings and barricade them. If a building is at all barricaded, a zombie cannot enter it; they can attack the barricade, but success is dependent on a die roll and tends to take a lot of AP. Survivors can enter buildings unless they're "heavily barricaded" or above. Therefore, newbie survivors roam about looking for buildings that are barricaded well but not completely.

From the other point of view, a zombie wants to find a likely building, tear down the barricades and feast on the brains of those inside. However, if you're one zombie against a building with 10 survivors, they're likely to blast you with a shotgun and repair the barricades as soon as they log in again. You could get a dozen friends together and coordinate in real time to break into a survivor safehouse; players certainly do that. But there's another, more interesting way...

When a zombie is face to face with one or more survivors (which usually means they've broken into a building), they can use the skill Feeding Groan. Everyone within a radius of several blocks will hear the groan and its position. Zombies that hear this groan know that someone broke through a barricade--that the survivors are, for that moment, vulnerable, and that a fellow zombie is asking for help.

The result is decentralized organization. Like ants or slime molds, the zombies swarm in where there's a vulnerability. Nobody said "Attack this building"; even throwing 10 zombies at a building might not work if it's heavily barricaded, or if there aren't any survivors inside! But Feeding Groans allow the zombie hordes to organize themselves without a central authority. Each zombie is acting on its own initiative, but for the greater good (in a zombiecentric sense).

From a survivor's perspective, one zombie breaks through and starts groaning--and suddenly a huge fucking zombie horde bursts into the room and totally tears shit up.

Sounds kind of like a zombie movie, doesn't it?

(And hey--those 10 friends coordinating their invasions through IRC or messenger? If they start groaning, they can attract huge numbers of zombies into their little crusade.)

There's more to the game I haven't even touched on. For example, if survivors are killed, they rise as zombies...and some skills let survivors resurrect zombies into survivors. This has fascinating implications for how you play your character; Do you like being a survivor, or a zombie? If you die as a survivor, do you try to be the best brain-eating zombie you can, or do you try to get resurrected? If you're a zombie and someone revives you without your consent, do you just jump off a building to "die" and become a zombie again?

If you're at all interested, you don't even have to play the game, you can poke around the Urban Dead Wiki. It's filled with strategy suggestions, roleplaying tips, humor and all sorts of crazy stuff produced by the (extremely passionate) UD community. Just skimming through will show you what can grow out of a few simple rules.


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I think I'd argue with the

I think I'd argue with the notion of emergent play here. There really is no end win condition to this game - if your still using this thing after you've bought all your skills (taking it that owning them all is some sort of win condition), well it's just repeatedly using something. Is that emergent play, or someone just messing around with something after the win condition was met long ago?

Philosopher Gamer Blog


I must say, it does get repetitive after you've become an über soldier/zombie, but in the meantime, it's a lot of fun, there a ton of things to do, tons of groups to be part of, and the game has his own history.
Hell, just thinking about all of this makes me want to play it again !

Oh, I enjoyed it too while

Oh, I enjoyed it too while still buying skills. But once they ran out - well, that didn't seem a win condition, and there seemed to be no other win condition around - just the option of messing around.

Funnily enough what bugs me in a shrodingers box sort of way is that when I decided to stop I logged my guy off in a boarded house somewhere off the track. The thing is, I dunno if by chance he was found and zombiefied. I imagine it takes quite a few days before it stops treating someone as existing. In that time, if I logged on, it'd reset those days. If I don't log in, I never know. I'm left in suspense for perpetuity!

But all in all I wish I could make a game like this - I'm sure it'd be both fun and could spin money (two great tastes!). If anyone knows how to do so, or where to learn to do so, much appreciated! :)

Philosopher Gamer Blog

Urban Dead elder game

Ah, but you see...Once you get all your skills, then you can try influencing the tide of battle, getting in on large-scale troop movements, planning out battle strategy...

Or, you know, not. But some people do really get into it. ;)

on Urban Dead


the best part about Urban Dead is the siege. Hundreds of survivor players come together to fend off hundreds of zombies, all in real time. Whatever side you are on, you have to fight as part of a larger group to accomplish a goal, which is very satisfying when you achieve a degree of success. The zombies always win in these situations (after all, when they get killedm they just get back up) but either way, its a lot of fun for a while.

Also, to add, while zombies get feeding groans, players can use radios that broadcast messages that every other player in the entire game can also here (including zombies) if they are carrying a radio tuned to that frequency.

Also, to add, the game keeps you down to 50 moves a day, and tracks your IP address to prevent you from using multiple accounts too much.

Also, to add, the developer, last I checked, actively changes the game, adding new maps with easter eggs and constant references to other things zombie, and also buffing or nerfing classes to keep the game balanced...

it does get old after a while, but if you have zombies on the brain this is a fun one!

Yeah, but why? It seems like

Yeah, but why? It seems like some real life instinct to assign meaning to mass carnage is at play here. Your just inventing a meaning to all that carnage but reacting to your invention as if it really is the case.

It's like being a moth attracted to a flame, because the moth thinks the flame is the moon and you think this carnage is a 'tide of battle'. When it's just carnage. Pointless. Endless.

It's like the human brain simply cannot accept any idea that real life is pointless and endless, so it starts inventing meaning to it. Fair enough in that case, what else can we do? But you don't fucking stop - you start doing it in games as well. And in doing so, you actually perpetuate games which are both meaningless and endless. You perpetuate the darkness. Games are some meaning we can add to real life, but your fucking perpetuating meaningless games. It's like your so certain life has meaning, your freaking destroying what meaning we have been able to make.

It's up to the author to invent a point for a game, not for people to take their RL meaning making and apply it to the game.

Philosopher Gamer Blog