Zenless Zone Zero’s Zhenyu Li says being better than Genshin is both pressure and motivation

Interview with the lead producer of the urban fantasy action RPG

Safely isolated from the humid and hot climate of Singapore just outside the glass windows, we get a chance to sit down with HoYoverse’s Zhenyu Li, the lead producer of Zenless Zone Zero – you may have seen him introduce the urban fantasy action RPG at Gamescom Opening Night Live in 2023. Flanked by retainers, he must have felt both relief and dread at the approach of yet another group of foreign journalists planting their recording devices in front of him, hungry for his every word. Though not used to the attention, the developer faces us bravely and we clearly hear the passion filling his speech as he answers our questions through translators.

That we can speak directly to the man behind the game is in itself a sign of changing times: Such interviews with HoYoverse’s developers still are the rarest of commodities, but following the phenomenal success of both Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail in the West, the company and its creative minds are opening up more.

Work on Zenless Zone Zero started in 2020 and in these four years, the team led by Zhenyu Li has increased to around 400 developers with no signs of growth slowing down. In China, the company is known for “eating people” – not in any nefarious way. Talented people would all of a sudden vanish, their online projects laid on ice, and months later fans spot their names in the credits of this or that HoYoverse project. Hierarchies at HoYoverse, we are told, are flat – each member of every team can come up with ideas and make their creative voice heard. 

Zenless Zone Zero screenshot of Anby in combat.
Designed for fast-paced action with simple controls, Zenless Zone Zero is meant to be an approachable genre entry. / HoYoverse

One of the examples of this freedom comes from the art team for Zenless Zone Zero. In order to capture the broad variety of art in our lives, the team’s creatives had free reign when it came to designing assets like the covers for the videotapes Zenless Zone Zero’s two protagonists, Belle and Wise, rent out in their store on the Sixth Street of New Eridu.

Such manpower and a certain degree of freedom are necessary to feed the well-oiled machine that is HoYoverse’s update schedule – Both Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail get a healthy content update every six weeks and the plan is for Zenless Zone Zero to follow the same cycle.  For this to work out without having the developers work themselves to death – physically and creatively – the teams at HoYoverse always work in several content pipelines simultaneously, giving themselves enough lead time to not only finish the content, but polish it to perfection.

Anyone who’s played a HoYoverse game will be able to attest that the system works – rarely will a bug worm its way into a live version, and even then they’re so obscure that people sometimes joke that the developers are putting them into the game intentionally in order to give out some freebies as compensation. Another developer from the studio tells me that these bugs are, in fact, real.

An Asian man wearing a black hat, glasses, and a black shirt explaining something with his hands.
Zhenyu Li wants to make an action combat game everyone can approach and appreciate. / HoYoverse

Zenless Zone Zero will feel familiar to HoYoverse veterans, as its general infrastructure – what kinds of currencies there are, how you level up characters, get new equipment, and so on – is built on the same framework. Despite the shared DNA, its internal game project teams work in isolation from each other. 

Where it really starts to differ is the story’s general set-up: In other titles, you’re immediately cast as a grand savior and destined hero who will save the world. While the situation of New Eridu isn’t exactly great – large parts of the city have been swallowed up by hostile dimensions called Hollows – life in town is pretty normal and people face the same challenges we do: Deliveries getting lost, schoolwork getting in the way of a passion project, getting your friends together to play the newest game at the arcade, and so on.

It’s this slice-of-life aspect paired with the immensely stylish and cool vibes – that ‘urban’ part of urban fantasy – that keeps Zenless Zone Zero fresh in between the exploration and combat that will fill most of your playtime. For Zhenyu Li and his team, this balance is key to players enjoying the game. “It will be closer to us normal people,” the producer explains. “If we only had players fight in the Hollows and had no other content, they’d get sick of it. So the players get to have different lives outside of the Hollows with our urban experience, specifically New Eridu.”

Zenless Zone Zero screenshot showing the TV boards.
The TV exploration has been cut back a bit due to test feedback, but it's here to stay. / HoYoverse

It’s not just the players, of course. Playable characters from the game will be around town as well for quests and events, giving users a chance to unwind from the strains of the Hollows with them. Billy may want to play a game at the arcade and Nicole may want to enjoy a coffee together – and probably have you pay for it, but that’s a different story. “We want you to have other joys and experiences as well,” Zhenyu Li says. 

This versatile identity as an urban fantasy action RPG was a strategic choice as well, he elaborates, allowing potential future content additions to come from a wide variety of directions – and with how flexible HoYoverse’s other games are with things like time-limited events, one can only imagine at this point how wild the team could go with Zenless Zone Zero.

Of course, the team has to stick to the landing first and nail the immediate phase of post-launch support with its unavoidable waves of player feedback rolling in. Zhenyu Li signals that they are prepared to make rather drastic changes if players demand it – specifically when it comes to the time commitment everyone needs to make to keep up with the content that’s being rolled out. In times like these where players are spoilt for fantastic gacha game choices from HoYoverse and other studios, and an army of Western live-service games vying for attention as well, it’s quite important not to demand too much time from anyone. Zenless Zone Zero, the producer says, is settled somewhere between Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail on the scale, but it’s best enjoyed “in your free time” instead of on the side at work. That, though, could change.

Zenless Zone Zero screenshot of Sixth Road, a stylish neighborhood.
Sixth Street is the first area in which slice-of-life content takes place in the game. / HoYoverse

Features like auto-battles are potentially on the table, but the team doesn’t want to make a move in this direction until it is able to gauge the players’ mood. “We are trying our best to understand,” the producer said, “but whatever we’ll find out, we want to make something truly fun for the players, rather than just making it easier for them to take their hands off the keyboard.” 

Zenless Zone Zero already tries to cater to those seeking a challenge and those who’d rather take it a little easier. Its entire story is available in two difficulties, with the harder one buffing up enemy stats and making foes act smarter during combat. Its two-pronged approach with the slice-of-life aspects on one side and the combat plus exploration combo on the other feeds into that desire to make something accessible to everyone, regardless of skill level. Plans for further exploration gameplay and modes focused on casual play are already being laid as well.

For Zhenyu Li, the charm of action combat games is the freedom of choice when it comes to team-building. While players can – and will – min-max to build the most efficient combos they can, “that’s not the goal” for the producer. “Please, players, choose whoever you like,” he says.

A part of the push to open up team-building is the “urban team” aspect of the character roster. They all belong to different factions rooted in the game world and teaming up fighters with the same affiliation provides similar benefits to teaming up those of specific damage types. There are secret combo attacks that can only be unlocked by putting certain characters and moves together as well, which further rewards players for experimenting with their compositions. 

Four characters dressed in maid and butler uniforms standing next to each other.
Victoria Housekeeping is one of the "urban teams" found in Zenless Zone Zero. / HoYoverse

Besides, skill always trumps spending in Zenless Zone Zero, according to Zhenyu Li: Players can tackle content with any teams they wish.

During development, more than ten potential titles for the game were considered – though the producer wouldn’t tell us even one, saying that they didn’t satisfy him and were unable to truly represent the game that became Zenless Zone Zero. At one point team sizes of four and two characters were considered, though four-character teams ended up feeling too chaotic due to Zenless Zone Zero’s characters being more complex on the whole than those in the studio’s other games, while two-character teams seemingly will make their way into the title as a new mode in the future.

At launch, no healers will be in the line-up of available characters, though that’s another area in which change looks to be coming – at least, if they fit the “style” of the game. Sometimes the team builds characters around a certain kit it would like to introduce to the game, other times a particular design concept is so visually appealing that fitting abilities are created. But it all has to fit into Zhenyu Li’s grand vision of a quick-paced, stylish combat game that finds enjoyment in simplicity.

Zenless Zone Zero screenshot of Ellen oin combat.
Zenless Zone Zero's animations are some of the best work the studio has done in terms of visuals. / HoYoverse

With HoYoverse riding high on the continued success of Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail, expectations naturally run high for Zenless Zone Zero. For Zhenyu Li and his team, “the pressure is there, but it’s also our motivation.” His guideline? “Be better.”

It’s a competitive attitude that seemingly fuels every project team’s drive forward at HoYoverse. Asked about the general industry situation, Zhenyu Li simply says, “The only way to survive is to do our content properly and make it the best.”

Before leaving the hotel and getting back to his traditional arena, the man who counts Frieren, Jujutsu Kaisen, Evangelion, and the Fate series among his favorite animes and who “could talk for days” about his most beloved video games – a cultured mix of Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Hades, Counter-Strike, Overwatch, Street Fighter, Monster Hunter, and “Miyazaki games” – is shyly accepting photo requests and signing some merchandise. He even goes along with my typical ‘awkward white guy who doesn’t know how to pose in a photo’ peace gesture, so I think he’ll get used to this.

Zhenyu Li and Zenless Zone Zero lead a new era for HoYoverse – and you know how it is with change: For a long time it can seem like it’s never coming and then it’s arriving all at once.

As for Zenless Zone Zero, the urban fantasy action RPG that screams “cool” at you from five blocks away will be arriving on July 4, 2024, on PC, PS5, iOS, and Android.

Marco Wutz


Marco Wutz is a writer from Parkstetten, Germany. He has a degree in Ancient History and a particular love for real-time and turn-based strategy games like StarCraft, Age of Empires, Total War, Age of Wonders, Crusader Kings, and Civilization as well as a soft spot for Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail. He began covering StarCraft 2 as a writer in 2011 for the largest German community around the game and hosted a live tournament on a stage at gamescom 2014 before he went on to work for Bonjwa, one of the country's biggest Twitch channels. He branched out to write in English in 2015 by joining tl.net, the global center of the StarCraft scene run by Team Liquid, which was nominated as the Best Coverage Website of the Year at the Esports Industry Awards in 2017. He worked as a translator on The Crusader Stands Watch, a biography in memory of Dennis "INTERNETHULK" Hawelka, and provided live coverage of many StarCraft 2 events on the social channels of tl.net as well as DreamHack, the world's largest gaming festival. From there, he transitioned into writing about the games industry in general after his graduation, joining GLHF, a content agency specializing in video games coverage for media partners across the globe, in 2021. He has also written for NGL.ONE, kicker, ComputerBild, USA Today's ForTheWin, The Sun, Men's Journal, and Parade. Email: marco.wutz@glhf.gg