We’ve all been there. You have your base barricaded, your supplies secured, your weapons locked and loaded, when suddenly a strange whirring noise comes from nearby. If it’s your first time playing, you’ll be a little confused, but PZ veterans know and dread this sound – the mysterious entity known as a “helicopter” has appeared to make otherworldly amounts of noise and draw the horde straight to you.
Truth be told, however, it’s certainly one of the more under-developed features of the game – always on the table for improvement but so-often overshadowed by other things in the dev pipeline.
Step forward, then, modders Shark and ChuckleberryFinn who have stepped forward and improved this flighty mechanical beast with some panache.
The mod in question? Why it’s Expanded Helicopter Events – which adds a variety of aircraft (both hostile and friendly) to Knox Event airspace and the dreaded helicopter event.
Chopper appearances are most frequent at the game’s start, and peter out as the apocalypse continues. Each event has a draggable icon pop-up on screen to help you avoid it or, in the case of supply drops or crashes, go to them.
Military helicopters fly over, fully voiced lines coming from their loudspeaker. Jets streak past, drawing the zombies in their wake. News choppers appear looking for a scoop on the Exclusion Zone. Police, military and even raider aircraft can fly over the map, sometimes firing on zombies and even the player.
Random aircraft crashes use new models and provide the player with helpful loot, as do supply drops that parachute to earth from unknown benefactors. The new events are even incorporated with our radios’ Automated Emergency Broadcast System, like the base game’s helicopter, to help you avoid (or prepare for) them.
We tuned in our long-range radios and were able to contact Chuck and Shark at their hidden air base to answer some questions about their mod!
Who are you in real life? Tell us a little about yourself.
“I’m Chuck! I go by Chuckleberry Finn online, and I’m one of the authors/contributors to Expanded Helicopter Events, as well as a few other mods. I’m an artist/art teacher by trade, but I’m always looking for new creative outlets. On the workshop, besides my own mods, you’ll spot a few of my ‘artistic’ posters for other mods too.”
How did you first discover Project Zomboid? Why do you like it?
“I’ve always been a movie lover, and the zombie genre is one of my favorites, so when looking for new games I tend to bridge my interests. I believe I just Googled “zombie games”, and browsed around. Zomboid, if memory serves, was still on Steam Greenlight and it piqued my interest.”
“The aesthetic and artstyle was very appealing. From a technical standpoint, the actual size of hordes was awesome to see. Gameplay-wise, I love that it avoided making the player an ‘action hero’ (although games like Dead Rising/Dying Light are also really fun), and Zomboid just checked all the boxes for me.”
Tell us about the mod. What does it add to the game? Does it make the game easier or harder, do you think?
“The mod’s main driving force was the overly-brutal vanilla helicopter event. Not to knock it too hard, but it creates a meta where most people constantly ‘run for the hills’ which wasn’t really appealing to me. As it stands, the game rewards being careful and planning, and the vanilla helicopter kind of turns things upside down through no fault of your own. Our mod’s tagline reads: ‘This mod replaces the vanilla helicopter event with a more dynamic suite of events which are both challenging and fair’, so balance was important to us.”
“Our mod has nine core events, each with their own unique behaviors, sub-events, etc. Most events progress through a timeline based on in-game days, and change behaviors. Some events attack zombies exclusively, some only target players, some attack indiscriminately, and a few events drop items as well as care packages. It was a lot of work initially, but scaling up and adding new events is a breeze.”
“We also made two sub-mods: Twitch Integration (which, through a third-party program, fires off events at the streamer), and Super Weird Helicopters which acts as an overflow reservoir for ideas too silly or cruel for the main mod. I hope everyone checks out Super Weird Helis (apologies for the poster) and that they get to meet our vision of Spiffo.”
“I also suggest others modders feel free to play around in the presets file, as I’ve tried to make it really easy to create your own events!”
How has it been working with Shark? How long have you spent making the helicopter mod?
“Shark and I began working together after he voiced very similar ideas to mine regarding the vanilla helicopter event. It just so happened that our skills complement each other nicely. I handle the programming while he tackles models; there is some overlap with art assets and game balancing. All in all we have a very similar vision for the mod. I recommend everyone get themselves a Shark!”
“As for a time frame, according to the Github repo, we’ve been working on the mod since March 2021. In that time we’ve gotten to know a lot of fellow modders, including Jade and Raven, our resident ‘Voice Actor’ and ‘Sounds Guy’ respectively.”
How did you get into PZ modding? Have you made mods for other games? Tell us a little about your other PZ mods too!
“I’ve never ‘formally’ learned programming, but when I was younger I made some games on a platform called BYOND (shoutout to Space Station 13). From that, I acquired problem solving skills and ‘programming brain’, both of which helped years later when getting into Project Zomboid modding, although it was still daunting.”
“My first foray was to modify the saving input on the professions/traits screen so it defaulted to the last loaded preset. As minor as this was, it drove me to dig around in the files, and I got hooked. My next mod was Vanilla Weapons Expanded, which rescripted and gave sounds to a number of items including mugs (for some comic relief as it shattered after a hit). Some highlights from that was how natural it felt to bash zombies over the head with a kettle, and assigning plungers a stab animation for downward strikes, including a nice POP!”
“After that I took a leap in the deep end with another member of the PZ community, Nurver, to make SwapIt, which makes handling multiple weapons easier. I tend to do things that interest me but also do something new with the game’s mechanics. My other bigger projects, Conditional Speech and Skill Recovery Journal are examples of that.”
“I’ve also been involved in Community API, a collection of useful programming functions to make modders’ lives easier. It’s all on Github, and the plan is to have it automatically uploaded to the workshop so that anyone can contribute on it and keep that resource alive.”
Do you have a favourite event from the helicopter mod?
“That is a hard question to answer, as they’re all pretty varied. I’ve already mentioned the Spiffo event in Super Weird Helis, but in the main mod’s events I’d say the late game Raiders. Not to spoil too much, but most people expect them to just fire at you. Instead they’re a little more advanced. While technically pretty close to the vanilla game’s helicopter event, players can sleep at night knowing they’re just cheap entertainment for survivors living a bit better than they are.”
Is there anyone in the PZ community (or beyond) you would like to give a shout-out to?
“Definitely my girlfriend who is so supportive, she even tries to explain what modding is to people at family gatherings! Also Nurver for giving me a mod idea to sink my teeth into early on, Shark, Jade, and Raven for keeping Expanded Helicopters chugging along, Konjima, Co’, and the other modders working on CAPI who take time out of their day to help when I get stuck, the general PZ community for being very passionate about both a game I love and the mods I make, and finally The Indie Stone for making an awesome game!”
What’s next in your modding plans? What’s the dream?
“Firstly, getting all my mods into ship shape for MP. Beyond that just fleshing out what I have out right now is giving me plenty to do!”
“Lately I’ve had a lot less time due to work, but if I were to start a new project, I’d like to focus on making the game more open-ended in its mechanics – specifically crafting and weapons. I had a prototype mod for using tape/belts to crudely combine any two weapons for some fun experimentation. I think the game could use a more open-ended crafting system where things wouldn’t need to be laid out so rigidly in scripts. Coincidentally, I understand crafting will be getting some love by the devs, so I hope to see some good stuff soon!”
Who are you in real life? Tell us a little about yourself.
“Nothing too interesting. When I’m not swimming around the Atlantic Ocean, I’m working with computers (or, more usually, breaking them) and on my love of game development, which I discovered during 2020.”
How did you first discover Project Zomboid? Why do you like it?
“I first heard about Project Zomboid on a forum back in 2011, but I really didn’t pay attention until 2013, when a friend told me there was this incredibly depressing game where the world degenerated over time and that the only fate I could expect was to die horribly.”
“I ended up pirating the game in high school and just being incredibly uncomfortable (in a good way) with the game’s exercise in nihilism, overall tone, and knowledge that eventually I was just going to die horrifically. I was (and still am) incredibly compelled by the idea that I exist on an unsigned death certificate awaiting my signature after the first dumb mistake I make. I ended up really getting into PZ in 2015 and I’ve been here since.”
Tell us about the mod. What does it add to the game? Does your mod make the game easier or harder, do you think?
“Expanded Helicopter Events seeks to approach the helicopter event in the same way that Rimworld approaches story tellers. The rule has been to never overshadow PZ itself, but to keep it interesting. The mod features everything from military helicopter patrols and jet flybys to spice up the early days and keep the early game interesting, to late game events such as air raid sirens, off-screen air strikes, panicked cops, government aid drop offs, with early game events ending with the military turning completely hostile and eventually going silent completely.”
“Our main goal was to entirely rework the helicopter event into less of a player-centric challenge, and instead make it into a series of world events with the player acting as a witness and sometimes a background character.”
“Definitely our most stand-out feature is helicopters falling out of the sky and crashing for a litany of reasons. We have done our best to create helicopters in PZ that are effectively entities unto themselves that respond to the world around them. Helicopters refusing to fly in fog, severe thunderstorms, or snow has definitely been a good way for players to manage and plan their strategies accordingly, but not entirely eliminating the danger of unpredictability.”
“We have given the player almost complete control over difficulty to give newer players and veterans alike a chance. If you wish for a softer experience then crank it down and have the events just be a rare but interesting experience. However, if you want a very wild ride, then by all means crank it up high and ride the lightning!”
You collaborated on the helicopter mod with Chuckleberry Finn. How and when did you meet Chuck? What’s it like working with them? Which parts of the helicopter mod are yours and which are theirs?
“I first became aware of Chuck through our shared friend Nurver and his work on Conditional Speech. We both became involved in a modding collective where EHE can really first be traced. I was beginning to get the mod off the ground before I hit my first real roadblock. Looking back, it’s rather funny considering how much time and effort has gone into EHE, but I simply asked if he wanted to collaborate and he said yes. The modder collective eventually fell apart and Chuck and myself continued work on Expanded Helicopter Events on our own.”
“To best explain how Chuck works, I’ll give an anecdote: when were first getting Expanded Helicopter Events up and running we ran into a problem live on-stream while showing it off with RoyaleWithCheese. Chuck was helping out at a friend’s wedding that day, but he refused to allow that to stop him and within 30 minutes we had a patch ready to deploy and it was smooth sailing! That’s who Chuck is.”
“I handle any physical asset creation whether it be the actual helicopters, pilots, wreckage and debris, or any other trickery that needs to be pulled off. Chuck handles the backend and the overall logistics of the mod, and is effectively the pilot!”
When did you start making your helicopter mod? How long have you spent making it? What was the most difficult part to make? How has it changed and developed over time?
“Overall, the amount of time to execute the mod, from conception to where it is now is now, is in excess of 2000 hours for all parties involved. Development got fully underway in March 2021, and we got feedback from trusted players in April. I reached out to the RealRP community that was in stasis pre-MP, and their feedback proved incredibly important in getting player reaction to our events.”
“We released the mod in June after slowly making it public knowledge beforehand. The overall public acclaim was a bit overwhelming! I’d spent a lot of development bouncing between being confident that this was gonna shake up a lot of people’s PZ experiences, and being nervous that people were going ask what the hell this was.”
“Our semi silent partners have been Jade and Raven. Raven was the idea man behind helicopters having announcers and acting as additional ambience, along with doing voice lines with his girlfriend. Jade has also been critical and has had enough vocal range and quality to encompass most announcers. Without their help this mod would be only half of what it is.”
“The most difficult part to get a handle on was actually not the mod itself but the human element. Having cool things happen all day long is great – but people need to understand what is happening and be able to interact. We’ve made strides with our indicator system to allow people to be able to point out nearby helicopters and crash sites in relation to the player. A very positive side effect of this is that players who play deaf or are actually deaf are not excluded and punished by having helicopters fly around the area – they just need to be able to “see” them in relation to the player. We still have plans as of writing this to tighten this up even more to eliminate remaining guess work by the player.”
As a player, which would be the event in your mod you’d most want to get? And which is the most dangerous?
“Military events, for sure. They add the context to the world’s story and act as a framework and they also seem to be the ones that we get the most praise for. They are also the single most dangerous because people tend to get lulled into a sense of security after experiencing military events for a week and then freak out when a military helicopter buzzes them and lets off some machine gun fire. It never ever gets boring to watch.”
Your mod is very popular. How have the community reacted to it? Are there any requests or questions that keep coming up?
“Very positive across the board – so much so that we’ve created a spin-off to show off the mod’s ability to be “sub-modded”. Super Weird Helicopters features aliens, a flying ice cream van that drops RJs, the IRS, and an evil boss-battle version of Spiffo. We have also created a Rube-Goldberg version of Twitch Integration for streamers to use to call down all sorts of hell, whether it be UFOs, or aid drops to help you. If you are interested in checking that out, I recommend tuning into Drunkonlife, RoyaleWithCheese, and Djackzz as they are usually getting into helicopter trouble and have made a routine of getting murdered by chat!”
Is there anyone in the PZ community (or beyond) you would like to give a shout-out to? Which mods or maps by other users do you enjoy or find interesting?
“I first need to highly recommend AuthenticPeach for being an amazing modder, and a close associate. People should also be on the lookout for Dylan and PlentyT’s collection of maps as they’re outstanding. Anything that Commander touches is also golden; this also extends to the assets that Throttlekitty has authored (also shoutout for helping us with our parachute!).”
“Save Our Station by Spacew00t was also an inspiration for Expanded Helicopter Events. Finally, I have to give a shoutout to Azakaela for being one of Zomboid’s most interesting modders with some wonderful ideas!”
What’s next in your modding plans? What’s the dream?
“We have plans to continue evolving alongside Project Zomboid’s development cycle. NPCs are on the top of that list. Having our own story events is something we are interested in. Who knows, maybe soldiers will visit you in the dead of night and you’ll get to meet the one of those pesky helicopter pilots? *wink*”
“I think I’ve accomplished my dreams for Zomboid. If I embark on another massive project, it would be to help bring the elements that make STALKER work into Project Zomboid. We shall see!”
Thanks to Chuck and Shark for taking time to answer our questions! You can subscribe to the Expanded Helicopter Mod here.
Big love and big thanks to all you modders and mod lovers out there!