ZZZ’s producer aims to “offer you the freedom to choose how to play”

Hoyoverse has undeniably produced some really amazing games over the past few years. Genshin Impact has seen colossal success since its 2020 release, and then Honkai Star Rail came along in 2023 and blew our expectations out of the water. As such, we’re naturally super eager to explore more of New Eridu following our brief time with the closed beta.

So, in the lead-up to the Zenless Zone Zero release date, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to once again sit down with the game’s lead producer, Zenhyu Li, for an exciting, pre-launch Zenless Zone Zero interview, in which we discuss the game’s development, features, future, and his personal inspirations.

Please note that this interview was conducted in Chinese and English, with the answers relayed by two translators, therefore some wording may be slightly off, though we did our best to relay Li’s words as clearly as we could. Now, strap in, Proxy – it’s time to dive into the Hollows.

First, we had to talk influences. I don’t know about you, but the PT team are huge fans of Persona 5. So we were pretty excited upon first diving into New Eridu and finding that it had some serious Persona game vibes, especially when it comes to the city exploration. Zhenyu Li also informed us that he’s a big fan of Digimon World – so, of course, we wanted to know whether ZZZ draws inspiration from these (or any other) games.

Interestingly, Li tells us that the team has already received a lot of feedback highlighting the similarities between ZZZ and P5, but as far as he’s concerned, “the inspiration is not really drawn from there,” theorizing that “it’s more because we happened to choose the urban genre in general, and some players might just find games in the urban genre to be similar. However, there are a lot of differences if you go deep into the game.” He also stresses that he and the team “hope to create an art style that is unique to us” when it comes to ZZZ.

However, there are certainly some influences when it comes to Digimon World. “We draw references from Digimon because I played a lot in my childhood. In that game, there’s this time system, whereby I actually preferred to wait.” This is something that you can see in Zenless Zone Zero, where “you will meet different incidents in different times,” referring to the in-game planner where certain interactions, quests, and events can only take place during a set time of day.

Beyond that, another inspiration that has had a big impact on Li is the Street Fighter series. He refers to himself as “a loyal player and huge fan of Street Fighter 6,” informing us that he’s “actually spent over thousands of hours in these games.” One of the biggest things that he learned from the Street Fighter series is the importance of “the feedback of action – how to make the combat, how to make each punch really feel like it’s on flesh.” It’s something that the ZZZ team is trying to learn and implement into the game.

Another lesson Li learned from the Street Fighter series is how “the feelings can be measured in a frame. So [the ZZZ team] really tried their best to make each animation – especially ult animations – different in each frame in order to get the feeling of that punch on your flesh.”

Li also credits Street Fighter for teaching him the big difference between “hardcore action games vs an action game that is designed for a newcomer.” He states “later on I found out that, for some players who aren’t really familiar with action games, it’s not because they’re not into action – it’s more because they need some time and a slightly longer learning curve. This is something that I learned from the Street Fighter series – that it’s important to give the right tutorial at the right time in the game. So, in Zenless Zone Zero, you can see that we put different tutorials and different actions at different points. We don’t want to give you everything at the very beginning.”

When Genshin Impact first came out in 2020, many people were pointing out the similarities between it and Breath of the Wild, with some claiming it was essentially a live service clone of the iconic Zelda game. However, as Genshin has continued to grow into what it is today, and with Honkai Star Rail following in 2023, the tables have truly turned. Hoyoverse is now very much seen as a trendsetter, with heaps of games like Genshin Impact and HSR popping up over the past few years. As such, we were wondering whether Li has a favorite feature in Zenless Zone Zero – and we were also wondering whether he’d considered the possibility that ZZZ could set its own trends following release and how he would feel about that.

He tells us, “when I was designing this product, I wasn’t hoping that it would become an inspiration to others – I was only trying my best to produce a product that has its own unique design.” As for the feature that makes ZZZ special, he draws focus to the multi-character system and the way characters remain on the field after you switch – he explains that this is something he hadn’t seen much in other games. “For example, if you change to another character in Genshin, that new character appears in the same place as the previous one.

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“For us, there’s collaboration between the roles – for example, the next character will appear elsewhere to continue the fighting. […] For the combat system, we focused on this team collaboration.” He then goes on to state, “through the launch I feel like this design has been seen by many, and they’ve actually drawn inspiration from that. I’m quite happy to see this because it means that what we did has become a sort of benchmark for products of this kind.” He also notes how ZZZ has approached designing UI differently, stating “it has a good effect, and hopefully it will affect subsequent product designs.”

Whether you’re a long-term fan of Hoyoverse games or have simply played other live service, ARPG, or… Well, just about any game, you’re likely familiar with grinding and just how tiresome it can be. Games like Genshin Impact and Honkai Star Rail rely on a daily commission system, where you need to log into the game and complete certain tasks in order to earn some rewards. Sometimes, it begins to feel like an obligation rather than something you want to do – because, let’s face it, we’re not jumping on a mushroom or rummaging through trash cans for the fun of it, we’re in it for that handful of gacha currency, right?

As such, we were curious about ZZZ’s approach to grinding and daily commissions, and whether the team has gone about it a different way. And, interestingly enough, it seems like they have, as they intend to bring the daily tasks in-line with ZZZ’s genre and atmosphere.

“We have a unique genre in contrast with [Hoyoverse’s past games], so we’ve specially designed the daily grinding to suit that. As you can see, our game revolves around urban living. So, in contrast to, for example, Honkai Star Rail, where players have to do core combat, our product is more focused on urban living – you can have a cup of coffee in the morning or take part in some urban-related activities, and you can complete the daily grinding that way.”

He goes on to highlight the difference in genre between ZZZ and Hoyo’s other games, stating “for our style I think we are, of course, presenting new features while also trying to provide sufficient content for the players.”

Zenless Zone Zero interview - a screenshot of the Hollow exploration system

One element of gameplay that truly split the community during the betas was the Hollow Deep Dive system, where you take control of a bangboo and travel between TV screens (which Li refers to as ‘boards’ later). I personally adore this element of gameplay – in fact, my favorite part of the second closed beta was a DND-style quest that entirely took place on the HDD boards – but, while some players agree with me, many find these segments boring and repetitive, and prefer the combat gameplay. As such, we asked Li how he and the team felt about this feedback, and whether they have implemented any changes to this system.

Li confirmed that “during the beta tests, we realized that there’s a part of the player base that doesn’t like the boards and prefer combat. In contrast, another group of users find the boards very fun. This sets the team in conflict – like, ‘who do we satisfy?,’ because if we aim to cater to either group, there will be a loss in the other group, and that’s not right. However, the board is one of our selling points, so we do face an issue whereby we have upcoming content to put on these boards intended to enhance the gameplay.”

Li makes it clear that ZZZ aims to “offer players the freedom to choose how they want to play,” so, following the feedback from the first two beta tests, the team made some adjustments. “What you can find in the third closed beta is that we separated the hollow exploration into two kinds of missions. The first are the combat missions and the second are the exploration missions. With combat, you can just dive directly into the combat without any further actions, and for the exploration missions, it’s pure exploration and board-based gameplay.”

And that’s not all – the team constantly listens to your feedback and strives to make it a better experience for all players. For example, “another huge problem that the team realized during CBT one and CBT two was that we might have some problems with the pace and flow of the general missions in the Hollows. So, in the third beta test, we aimed to smoothen the pace and flow of the overall Hollow exploration experience to a great extent.”

Zenless Zone Zero interview - a screenshot of another scene in the Hollow deep dive system

Which is why “in the third closed beta test, we didn’t add any new content.” This is due to the fact that, during the second closed beta, the team realized that there were some issues with the product – “specifically in support, as well as players finding that they felt more negative towards the boards and the TV wall. I would say that it wasn’t because the boards weren’t fun – I realized it could be because [those segments were] excessive.

“So, for me, when I was playing for the first or second time, it was quite fun and meaningful. But the subsequent times I felt tired, so I realized that this experience was not ideal. However, I went to sleep, woke up, and I’d find it fun again. So I realized that it’s not that it wasn’t fun – it was more that the team didn’t manage to weave in the pace properly.” So, in the lead-up to the third closed beta, the main focus was to “manage the pace better.”

And it seems that this is working, as Li muses, “as of the final closed beta, we’re actually seeing comments from the players and the community saying that the HDD board gameplay has actually changed a lot. The interesting thing is that, while we have changed the pace and speed of the overall experience with the hollow boards, we didn’t really change the amount of it. So it really was the pace and speed that was the problem, which we’ve fixed now, and we’re glad to see it.”

Another element that the team has been trying to find balance with is the difficulty. As he mentioned when discussing his inspirations, Li is striving to produce an action game that’s more accessible to newcomers while still providing a challenge for the players that want it. “There are definitely challenges [in ZZZ],” he confirms, “but before this core gameplay, the players have to learn to grasp the mechanics, and for different stages we provide different difficulty levels for them to gain confidence,” pointing out that the game offers different levels and points to “retrain” players and raise their confidence and to make it “easy to learn and gain the skills.”

The main way the ZZZ team has implemented this beyond cleverly-timed tutorials and adjustments to the flow of the early gameplay is through difficulty options. “So for this current version you will find two modes – the hard mode and the easy mode – and you get different qualities of challenges along the way. Veterans of the action genre can choose hard more. As for the newcomers, they can choose the easy mode, but at the same time, they can also try to challenge themselves in hard mode” because there are no penalties if you struggle or fail.

And what about when you get your confidence up? What if you’re already a veteran action game fan who wants a bit more? Well, Li promises that “you will be able to find challenges and also excitement” because, while “it’s easier to play at different parts,” there are also opportunities to “unleash your own ability to chase the challenges posed by the enemy.”

Zenless Zone Zero interview - a screenshot of a monster in the game

Of course, fighting the same enemies over and over again eventually loses its luster, as you get too familiar with their attack patterns – but the ZZZ team has thought about that too, as we can expect “subsequent updates to what the enemies have to offer.” However, Li once again confirms, “we will not unleash very difficult challenges to the players at the start” – so you don’t have to worry about getting your butt handed to you before you get the chance to build a decent team.

One of the biggest issues many of us face with live service gacha games like Genshin Impact, Honkai Star Rail, Wuthering Waves, and the upcoming Zenless Zone Zero, is a sense of fatigue over time. While we all appreciate the constant stream of content, sometimes, logging on every day to complete your daily quests and commissions, then chewing through the time-limited events and scavenging for gacha currency before a limited banner ends can begin to feel like a bit of a chore.

However, taking a break from these games can be just as unappealing, as you risk missing out on content that you’ll never see again and falling behind in quests and storylines that add up pretty darn quickly. As such, we were wondering whether Li and the rest of the team have considered facilitating players who need to take a break, so they don’t feel overwhelmed when they return – but this line of questioning was quite the surprise for Li.

“As a player, I would prefer to step away for a little and then come back to find out that ‘oh my gosh! I have so much new content to explore!’” he explains. “It’s like falling behind on a TV Series – like, you leave for a while, then come back and find out you’ve got several dozens of new episodes to watch. However, I understand that for some players, this might not be the case.”

Li goes on to say that this is another example of looking for balances – ”it’s something that’s pretty difficult for me now, because there’s totally different types of players, right? But I’m very open to listen to player feedback on this. So now that I know this, my team and I will try our best for players who step away for a little bit then come back. Maybe we’ll look into some ways to let them experience the latest content without finishing certain pre-conditions,” which would be a similar process to what we’ve seen in Genshin and HSR, where you can quick-start events and jump to certain bosses without having to rush through story quests.

Zenless Zone Zero interview - a screenshot of gameplay showing Nekomata saying 'That's a strange question. I'm a cat, I get distracted all the time.'

On top of this, Li states that “I don’t want to make players feel like there’s an ultimate goal they have to achieve. I think the primary method we’re trying to figure out is how to get this player to come back when they’ve been away for a while. When they’re back, I want to create something to better facilitate them – to bring back the joy again and to get them back into the mood of enjoying this game, rather than focusing on achieving an ultimate goal or completing the latest mission.”

While the roster of Zenless Zone Zero characters is pretty impressive already, Li stresses that the team is taking a “quality not quantity” approach to character creation. He states that they have “already covered the majority of the characters, however, we’re working on refining and betterment” as they strive to “make the movements more delicate” and are tweaking the combat and animations to make it “as original as possible.” So don’t worry, there will be plenty of new agents for you to test out in the future, with Li assuring us that “we are actually working on it, and the quantity will definitely match Genshin.”

Following on from this, though the characters we’ve seen so far offer a lot of different fighting styles and mechanics, we’ve noticed one glaring omission – there aren’t any healers yet. Considering the important role healers play in other Hoyoverse games (and many other types of games in general), we were curious if there was a reason why ZZZ has yet to get its own version of Honkai Star Rail’s Luocha or Genshin Impact’s Kokomi.

“It’s not on purpose that we avoid healing characters,” Li laughs. “It’s just that we’re more inclined to action. As for healing characters, it just happens to be that this batch of artists have not come to that yet, and we don’t have an appropriate image of appearance. So, for now, we’re trying to work out what style would blend into the game for a more appropriate, action-focused presentation.” So… The reason we don’t have healers in ZZZ is because the team hasn’t decided how they should look yet? Interesting!

Li goes on to say, “moreover, the action included in the game – this is what we insist to have. If you’re looking at other games like Genshin, they have epic visual effects. However, our team tried to avoid this. For example, in Genshin you can see that there’s a special effect around the character. For now, we’re trying to work out how to integrate this part, because with the action genre, we need our animations to be clean so players can see the movement and the combat more clearly.

Zenless Zone Zero interview - a screenshot of Grace holding a grenade

“For ZZZ, I would say that the visual effects will be quite different from the past games, as we’re adopting a more subtle approach. So we may have healing characters in the future, but we’ll have to work out to make his or her skills blend or interact with the current match to present a more perfect effect that would be comfortable for the players.”

On the topic of character design – and the fact that the team has yet to settle on a suitable appearance for a healer character – we couldn’t help but wonder whether the team designs characters for their look first and their role second. In response, Li states that “in the early stages, the aesthetic does come first. However, right now, our style is to work closely with the planning team. Otherwise, we have a general direction when it comes to how to design characters.”

Elaborating further, he tells us that they “collect to discuss things a lot of times throughout the process. The planning team will pass an idea of what they hope to see, which will then move on to design. However, during this process we make adjustments, and after all of this discussion we try to come to a mutual point – not only about the aesthetic part, but we also focus on the gameplay part, and we hope to perfect this system.”

We’re also curious about the concept of crossovers. While we do have Genshin Impact’s Aloy from the old crossover with Horizon, some ‘expy’ characters that share names and similar features across Genshin, HI3, and HSR, and a few small pop-up events and crossover items such as the KFC wings in Genshin, collaboration with other games and media is pretty scarce in Hoyoverse’s games. As such, we had to ask whether there were any plans for ZZZ crossovers in the future and whether there are any specific games or anime Li and the ZZZ team would like to do.

Unfortunately, he states that “we have no plans yet, but I have given it some thought during the second closed beta.” He clarifies, “I enjoy many products – I play many games and watch a lot of anime – so, personally speaking, I have so many favorites that I’d have a difficult time making a choice, so it’s something that we really need time for.”

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Now, regarding character designs, I’m not sure if you were on the scene when things kicked off about Zenless Zone Zero’s censorship, but that was truly a wild time. While members of the community still bring it up now and then (especially in Twitter replies on official posts), back when people first noticed the toned-down gore and the suddenly absent jiggle physics that once made ZZZ Nicole’s chest look more akin to a buoyancy device, it felt like a digital war was about to break out.

It’s undeniable that ZZZ targets a more mature audience than Hoyoverse’s other games, with the rating set to 12+ and some mature themes and vibes threaded throughout (though I’d argue there’s some very mature themes hidden in Genshin and HSR too!), so some fans were very unhappy with the idea of this censorship.

On this topic, Li can’t really say much – though he does explain “as a game that’s operating globally, we do have to comply to global policies no matter where, so it’s really a hard question of how we should handle these things,” and he assures us that “we’re just trying our best.”

The team behind ZZZ has grown quite a lot throughout the game’s development, with Li estimating that “at the beginning it was around 12 people, then we grew to 60, and now the development team has more than 400 members.”

He also informs us that he has a special process when bringing people on board – “when interviewing new members, I would always find out whether they really like and are pushing to do ZZZ, rather than purely looking for a job” because “you can only produce something that the players will like if you like it too.” Of course, we love this approach, as you can really feel it when the team behind a game truly loves the project they’re working on – and that’s certainly the case in ZZZ as far as I’m concerned.

On a similar note, for better or worse, AI is becoming a more and more popular tool in just about every industry, including videogames. However, Li informs us that it doesn’t really play a part in ZZZ, highlighting that they “have tried a part of it to touch on programming,” but “as for the art aspect, I think that the human touch is more meaningful right now, and this is what our team is pursuing.”

Zenless Zone Zero interview - a screenshot of the owner of Coff Cafe picking out a cup

Moving onto the topic of world and environmental design, if you’re a fan of previous Hoyo games, especially Genshin Impact and Honkai Star Rail, you’ve likely noticed the cultural influences shown in the different nations and locations we visit, with each new area creating a parallel with a real-world location, and lots of elements like food and festivals lending from real life. We were curious whether ZZZ exhibits such influences, and whether that was a big consideration during the game’s development.

However, it seems like the locations we explore in Zenless Zone Zero have more of a loose approach, with lots of different elements, both inspired by real-world cultures and fiction, jumbling together to form the game’s urban setting.

Li states, “as you can see, we have a lot of interesting locations in the game, such as the coffee shop (Coff Cafe) and the noodle shop (Waterfall Soup), which already appear in Sixth Street.” Of course, there are more locations coming in the future, with Li highlighting “as a live service game, our goal is to continually produce interesting new content, so there will definitely be some new interactions and gameplay elements that you will see in the future.”

But don’t worry, you don’t have to wait long – as these upcoming locations include the brand new area, Lumina Square. This fresh, bustling commercial district features “a lot of strange and weird shops, including some that we haven’t really explored through gameplay or interactions yet. This area will also include a lot of restaurants and food – one of which is actually a hotpot restaurant.”

Personally, I love this sort of melding pot approach to building environments, with different elements from different cultures and eras mixing together to create a futuristic landscape. As Li says, “as we’re doing something that people might have seen already, we also want to produce something that players haven’t seen before. So, compared to a ‘real’ city, it’s more like a ‘lived-in’ city.”

We welcome the news of new areas, too, as, while we absolutely loved the little taste of New Eridu we managed to experience during the previous beta tests, there’s no doubt that the world of ZZZ is pretty small at the moment. Of course, as a live service game, we can expect plenty of new content in the future – not just with new areas, but plenty of other fresh content.

Zenless Zone Zero interview - an exclusive image showing the new location, Lumina Square

“As the plot and storyline develops, our team will continue to release more. So what you see right now with Sixth Street and the other areas is not enough to adequately present the ambition of the story and the world that we hope to create, so we will introduce new content as the storyline goes forward.” He also highlights the team’s desire to “reveal something that the players haven’t seen before and will be pleasantly surprised by” as they “continue to enhance the urban atmosphere.” He goes on to confirm “we’re looking forward to producing different cultures and urban areas – but unfortunately I can’t share more than that for now.”

As for his personal vision for the future of ZZZ, Li tells us “I hope more people will join and feel the thrill of action games. As for the characters, the scenes, and the gameplay, we hope to make it in a way that more people can come and enjoy this genre, and I hope that the action genre transcends this need for a high threshold of games that are difficult to grasp, so not only high skill players can enjoy action games. I think we should find a way to overwrite such labels, and that’s what I hope to do with this game.”

Speaking on the future of the game, since the launch of Honkai Star Rail, we’ve seen Hoyoverse working hard to introduce new quality of life updates to the game – to the point where Genshin players got a bit jealous, though Genshin has now caught up a bit with some new elements and features we’ve all been waiting for. As such, we were curious whether ZZZ has taken any notes from HSR’s trajectory when it comes to such features and optimizations.

In response, Li began by highlighting that “there are in some parts, but not everything – as you know, ZZZ’s systems in-game are quite different, and for those systems we’re trying our best to do something new. As for those overlaps – for instance, the daily quests system – as you may have seen, what we have tried to do is to incorporate these better with our own urban setting. Like what we mentioned about having a coffee in the morning instead of doing other quests. So for this type of thing where we have to overlap, we will try our best to do some optimizations.”

Zenless Zone Zero interview - a screenshot of Elfy in the record shop with a selection of disc drives

Whether you’ve managed to explore the game yourself or you’ve simply visited the official website, it’s clear that music plays a big role in ZZZ. And there’s a good reason why – as Li says, “I’m very interested in music!” Even the equipment, such as the disc drives and W-engines, revolve around the music-related theme in a way, as these audio devices “protect” the characters as they dive into the Hollows.

But it’s not just the equipment and Elfy’s record store that carries a musical theme – there’s also a thrumming OST full of EDM and dubstep bangers that really get your blood pumping as you dive into the action. Commenting on this, Li tells us that the “dubstep and EDM-style electronic music” that’s the typical style for ZZZ is “very special” – though he’s not necessarily the best person to grill on this topic.

“It’s not really me who you’d want to talk to about this, it’s actually our music director. Actually, he’s been a very good friend of mine since we were very young, and we’ve been going to these EDM festivals a lot. I’m the type of person that’s focused more on visuals, and he’s the type of person that focuses on the music. I feel like we’ve been working together for so long, and his music style just fit into the world of ZZZ so much, so I invited him to join ZZZ to work on the music, and now I actually rely on him to create the type of music that fits in better with ZZZ.”

Li then goes on to say, “another thing I’m very happy to find out is that our music is actually very unique and independent, setting it apart from other games in this market – so it’s a very lucky thing that we have this music as a unique part of the game.” And honestly, I agree – I feel very lucky to have this awesome music on my work playlist!

Now, as the interview time began to draw to a close, we had one more important question to ask. Of course, Zenless Zone Zero is set to come out on Android, iOS, PlayStation 5, and PC on July 4, 2024 – so we really don’t have too long to wait! However, we did notice that Hoyoverse has produced some Switch-related merch – namely, a cassette-style Switch cartridge case. So, naturally, we had to ask whether ZZZ is coming to Switch or any other platforms in the future.

Zenless Zone Zero interview - a screenshot of Nicole holding up a pink suit dress and saying 'What do you know! The whole city's following this case. In other words, it's a chance for us to make a name for ourselves'

Unsurprisingly, Li stated “of course we’re hoping to have our game on all platforms. However, we have to ensure a good experience on all individual platforms. We’re actually working on that. And yes, that includes Xbox and Nintendo Switch.” Unfortunately, we’ve got no confirmation of a release date or anything yet, but we can’t help but hope for a Zenless Zone Zero Switch port in the (preferably very near) future.

And that’s everything we had time to discuss in our latest ZZZ interview. We want to extend a heartfelt thank you to Zhenyu Li, as well as the translators, the ZZZ team, and Hoyoverse for their time – it’s always a treat to pick their brains a bit.

If you want to hear more from Zhenyu Li, be sure to check out our previous Zenless Zone Zero interview. We’ve also got a Zenless Zone Zero preview discussing our experience with the second closed beta, as well as guides to all the upcoming Zenless Zone Zero events and a handy Zenless Zone Zero tier list for your perusal.