Polish team Techland found themselves in a tricky position when they split with publisher Deep Silver last year. No longer involved with the Dead Island franchise that had once been their baby, they still had plenty of ideas on how to build the perfect open-world zombie game. But how to make it stand out from their previous effort (and Yager's forthcoming sequel Dead Island 2) while still keeping their fanbase on board? The answer was to add in a nimble free-running mechanic, tense day/night cycles and a new, more gritty and realistic 'action survival' feel. I caught up with lead designer Macieh Binkowski at EGX last month to discuss all things Dying Light.
Strategy Informer: First of all, the whole free-running concept really makes Dying Light feel unique. Was that one of the first things that you guys came up with when you were planning the game?
Macieh Binkowski: Yeah, pretty much. We sat down and we thought “what can we do to make this stand out?” Especially because this was a new IP, so we had to bring something unique. We brainstormed features, and what we though about was how we could really bring the sandbox experience to the next level. One of the recurring ideas was freedom of movement; it was pretty awesome that we had this huge open world to explore, but it kind of felt restricted. You know, there's a wall that's knee-high but I can't get over it, even though my grandma could do it.
What if we could bring this level of freedom, so the stuff you can do in real life you could do here. Then we started to think what it would really be like if the zombie outbreak was real. Would I be grabbing a baseball bat and smashing heads in? Probably not, I would probably run. I mean, we still wanted to have visceral combat in because it's great fun, but we wanted it to be an option rather than the heart of the game. When that free movement is not a gimmick anymore, and the environment and AI kind of pushes you to do it, that fits in really well with what we wanted to do.
Strategy Informer: Setting foot on the ground was pretty inadvisable, I noticed.
Macieh Binkowski: Well one of the things that helps us get that experience of “I shouldn't be on the ground” is that we can generate far more zombies on screen. If you see five zombies on the street, they're not really a threat. But if you see twenty, thirty, or the whole street is packed with them, then it's pretty clear you need to find another way.
Strategy Informer: How many different types of enemy are there?
Macieh Binkowski: Let me think - so we have 'Biters', they're your basic enemy. Slow and stupid but when they get close they're really dangerous. We changed their behaviour many times, because we wanted them to push you to keep moving. So they'll grab you, bite you, keep you from moving. Then we have 'Virals', they're really fast and they can climb, and they show up typically when you make noise. If you break something, fire a gun, make an explosion, they're going to come running. Then there's the 'Toad', who attacks from distance, the 'Demolisher' who's a big dude who can throw cars and stuff at you. We have the 'Goon', who's a powerful guy with a huge crowbar, and then we have human enemies as well, who are often the most dangerous things you come up against. Because they're smart, they can dodge, block. They're challenging. We have 'Volatiles' who come out at night, 'Screamers' who make loads of noise. Is there any more? There's another one actually, but I don't think we've talked about him yet so I think we'll keep that a secret.
Strategy Informer: You talked about enemies that only appear at night there. How does night-time change the feel of the game?
Macieh Binkowski: The idea is to completely turn the tables on you. So when it's daytime you're master of the situation, you go wherever you want, explore, build weapons, go questing, whatever. When the night comes, though, we want you to be prey. We want you to be scared, and we want to bring the intensity level up. There's special night creatures like the 'Volatile', and even the basic creatures get far more aggressive. It's really about not dying before the sun comes up. You can still do things, it's not like you're forced to just hide, but the population of the city gets much more dangerous, and you really have to think about what you're doing – don't make noise, because they'll get you, and if you want to get somewhere you really have to think about it. I'm not sure strategic is exactly the right word, but there's a lot more that you have to be aware of.
Strategy Informer: How do you tackle mission variety? I imagine making sure the player has lots of stuff to do can be quite tricky in a zombie game.
Macieh Binkowski: I think there's only so much you can do in terms of mechanics, so the variety comes from stories. Like, every mission, side-quest or whatever tells a story of people, of what happened in their lives, and you get to be there at this pivotal moment – that story has a beginning and it goes somewhere, and that's how we keep things interesting, because we have this huge game with so much to do, but that's how you keep people entertained over a 50-hour game, with stories.
Strategy Informer: So let's talk about weapon customisation. What kind of crazy options do we have, and how does it work?
Macieh Binkowski: Well we're actually going to cover weapon customisation in detail later this year, so I don't want to tell you too much, but yes, it basically works a bit like Dead Island. You have recipes that you can find, and there are certain crafting materials in loot or hidden in the world, and you put them together to makes something. It starts at building a medkit from alcohol and bandages, and then goes on to molotov cocktails, bombs, then exotic weapons that can electrocute enemies, set them on fire and so on. We don't want to go completely over-the-top, Dead Rising-style, because we're not that kind of game. We're trying to be more mature and dark with the experience we're trying to craft, but there's enough exotic, powerful stuff to have lots of fun with.
The way we approach this game is to give them this open world and these tools to push the story forward, but we really believe in peoples' creativity. We want to have this big sandbox with all these toys, and let them have fun their own way. It's up to you.
Strategy Informer: Is there weapon degradation in the game?
Macieh Binkowski: Yes. We want this game to be an action survival experience, so we want you to have to ask yourself some serious questions as you play. So maybe I have this awesome weapon, but it's almost broken. If I use it on this group, I might not have it down the line. Or, do I have enough time because the sun is going down, if I spend my time looting this area I might not have enough time to get back to my shelter, and then I might not be suited to survive at night right now. And if I use my crafting materials to make a medkit, okay I'm healthy but then how do I take down these enemies over here or vice versa. So there's never enough to build everything.
Strategy Informer: Sometimes you just gotta run, right?
Macieh Binkowski: Exactly. We really love combat, and making it as visceral as possible is one of our goals. But at the same time we don't want combat alone to be enough. You can't kill everything in sight it's just not going to happen, I mean you can try, but you're going to run out of weapons. It's not that easy. Taking a big group of zombies and killing them, you need to make sure you know what you're doing.
Strategy Informer: It must be really hard getting melee combat right, getting that sense of physicality and impact while making it control well.
Macieh Binkowski: Yeah it is, but at the same time it's really rewarding when you get to the point where the player feels great. We're at the point where we look at Dead Island and think “Oh man, that looks ****, that's just bad”. One of my friends who works on the combat, he's an excellent programmer, he says when he plays a lot of FPS games he feels like he's just a camera on a balloon. So we want the player to have a body, and that body has weight and momentum. It all helps sell that feeling that you're actually hitting something. Getting up close and personal with your enemies is such a different experience from just shooting stuff. When they get really close, right into your face and you can see them biting you and scratching at your face, breaking bones it is... what I say is that there's a voice in the back of my head going “Dude, this is crazy!”.
But at the same time there's a certain something to enjoy in destruction. People like to see explosions, like to see things crash and burn. There's a certain beauty in destruction, and being able to be the cause of that destruction, it kind of makes you feel like a crazy kind of artist. It's awesome.
Strategy Informer: In Dead Island guns just sort of started popping up about halfway through the game. Are they more or less important in Dying Light, and how does the game handle them?
Macieh Binkowski: Two things to know about guns; first, they are very scarce. If you get a gun earlier than in Dead Island, which can happen, the ammunition is still very scarce. The other thing, even if you do have ammo and the gun is really powerful, it's very loud. That means if you stay in one place shooting, you'll kill lots of them, but you'll attract a lot of other ones. It's always a trade-off. On the other hand you can use that against enemies, the humans. When you're fighting them you don't really have to shoot them, you can run in and make some noise, fire into the air and bring the infected running. Of course, when the infected are finished with them they're going to come for you, but there's a lot of back and forth decisions like that. It's the same if you get them to shoot at you, and you don't have a weapon. You can trick them into shooting at you and bringing a horde of infected down on themselves.
Strategy Informer: Lovely stuff. So how does co-op multiplayer work in Dying Light, is it much the same as in Dead Island?
Macieh Binkowski: Basically it's the same as in Dead Island, we have four-player seamless co-op, and you can switch in and out. We suggest people who are at the same story point play together, so you don't spoil anything. So at the click of a button you join a game, play around, press a button again and you're back in singleplayer. Much like in Dead Island. And then we have 'Be a Zombie', which is our other multiplayer aspect, and that's pretty much what it sounds like.
You get to play as this ultimate 'night hunter', he's really bad ass, and the cool thing is that people play their regular game, play story missions or whatever, and every time night falls your game is open for invasion. Zombie players might jump into your game, and then the match starts and you have to defeat them. We billed it as DLC right from the start, but the cool thing is that anyone who plays can be invaded, even if they don't have the DLC. If you pre-order the game you can be the Zombie. It's not just random either, you can jump into random games but we also keep a list of your friends. If one of them is playing at night, you can jump in and start hunting them. Playing against your friends spices things up so much.
Strategy Informer: Do you think there are things you're doing in Dying Light that you wouldn't have been able to do in a Dead Island sequel? By that I mean, do you think not getting to make Dead Island 2 forced you to be more creative when you were planning Dying Light?
Macieh Binkowski: That's actually an excellent question. I think the fact that we had to develop a new IP, because that was the deal right from the start, we had to brainstorm different ideas about what to do with the game. Like we couldn't just do another Dead Island, we had to come up with something new. It's hard to judge, I don't know. Stuff like the freedom of movement, the day/night cycles, how much of that stuff would be there if we hadn't had to... because suddenly we had to choose stuff that's really separate. We didn't want to be hack and slash again, so we had to think about action survival – so what does that mean? Okay, so the player has choices to make, he's got to be aware when he's playing. Day/night cycles, do we keep those as just visual things?
With a sequel you have this list, and you might play it safe. You keep what works and you add a few new things. That's understandable of course, this is a pretty hard business. If you put $50 million on the line and you crash, even if you're a big developer one crash like that can take you out. So we were kind of against this wall having to come up with this new IP. I kind of think it worked in our favour, you know. It really pushed us hard to come up with something unique.
Strategy Informer: Because now you're separating yourself from a game that you actually developed, right?
Macieh Binkowski: I'll tell you, there were times we had to step back and say “this is too much like Dead Island.” Why does it feel like that, and how can we make it different and keep it fun. That was one of the difficult things. We made a game that was fun, and suddenly you have to find a different kind of fun, and that's really difficult because you've got more questions than you do answers. Building a new IP can be painful.
Strategy Informer: Were you always going to do another zombie game? Was that always the plan?
Macieh Binkowski: Dead Island was a surprise for us. Even for us. It started as an experiment, and ended as this pretty awesome game, love it or hate it maybe, but it was a success, and we didn't expect it to be that successful. So we really didn't know what was going to happen with that game, we didn't think “OK, now we've got that done we'll make another zombie game”. It was a lot of fear, you know? Are they going to like it? And suddenly we discovered that people like it, and okay some of them hate it, but a lot of people like it! Awesome. So now we're confident enough to have a bunch of ideas, stuff that we wanted to do that we couldn't in Dead Island, let's see what we can come up with.
Strategy Informer: Do you see Dying Light as a recurring franchise?
Macieh Binkowski: That would be great. Yeah, if people love it and we can make it into a franchise that would be awesome... I'm a newbie in this industry, really. Dead Island was my first game, this is my second, I'm five years in to the industry and I'm a noob. I don't really know how to make a game into a big franchise. There's loads of people in our office, smart people, smarter than me, that know about this kind of stuff. Of course we're now able to build on a fanbase, and if we can keep giving them an experience that they love, we'll see. Who knows what will happen?
Strategy Informer: It must be very tricky building on that fanbase when you've suddenly got these two games coming out, and now you're trying to separate yourself from Dead Island 2 – when you actually made the first game.
Macieh Binkowski: Yeah exactly, it's very difficult because we're making a different game now. So people who want to play a Dead Island sequel might be disappointed, because it's very different. At the same time we want to keep enough about Dead Island's spirit, the stuff that people loved about it, that it's still there. It's in the blood and guts of Dying Light still. And yet there's lots of new ideas too, so it's so much more. And it seems like people love it, they've bought into that. We've seen a lot of fans play this new game, and they've been really positive, they've really loved it, so that's good. There will be people who say “oh that's not Dead Island 2”, well to be honest it's not. But at the same time we really hope people give this game a chance, we hope they'll find enough of what made Dead Island great, but at the same time they'll find a really fun and new experience.
Many thanks to Maciej for talking to me in the midst of a noisy, sweaty EGX show. Dying Light is set for release on January 27, 2015 in North America, and January 30 in Europe.