There’s a lot of games out there that feature zombies, so sometimes it can be a little difficult to stand out. This was especially true for Dying Light, as Techland had previously worked on the two Dead Island games, but this had attention grabbing visuals, free running and an intriguing new day-night cycle with lots of scary things that really want to eat you at night time.
Blair played the game back at EGX, but we’ve not really had to many chances to look at the game, so when we sat down for a chat with Lead Game Designer Maciej Binkowski, we took it right back to the start and how Techland had to shift gears and move on from Dead Island.
TSA: I think the most obvious starting place for people who are looking at Dying Light is by thinking of your work with Dead Island. Dying Light has a similar vibe in some places, but you’ve also tried to push off in a new direction. How difficult was it to get into a mindset where you were still doing zombies, but doing them in a different way?
Maciej Binkowski: We sort of got forced into it, because since we were developing a new IP, we couldn’t just make Dead Island 2 and change the name for it. So that really pushed us to come up with a fresh setting and unique features. We really had to look at what we can deliver that will really create a new IP.
So we sat down, and I remember our Game Director, Adrian Ciszewski, noticed a really interesting thing about classic zombie movies. The zombies in Dead Island would come at you and would start to hit you, but what happens in the movies or comic books, the first thing the do, they don’t hit you, they grab you. He said we should try to change their behaviour into that.
The other thing was that we wanted to go away from the goofiness. That was an idea for Dead Island, and it was a love it or hate it thing, but we wanted to step away from that and gave ourselves the question of how we would behave if this stuff would happen for real. Would we grab stuff, run into the streets and start killing things? Probably not!
We’d probably run away, so this time around, we wanted an approach where combat is there, and when you do it it’s awesome, but it’s only an option and many times it’s better to run away than fight.
TSA: Yes, and in the game you now have separate skill trees and progression for this. A skill tree that levels up as you clamber on top of objects and get around the world, one for hitting power and combat, and a third one for survival skills as well?
Maciej: Yeah, so in the Survival tree, you have stuff that helps you craft new recipes, abilities to put more stuff in your backpack. Agility and Power work more on how you want to play the game.
We really trust in our players and know that they’re smart and creative people, so we don’t want to push players into a certain play style, we’d rather say, “This is a sandbox experience, so here are all the toys and have fun!” The player progression system is designed specifically so that you can adjust the character to play the way you want to play.
If you feel more like a guy who runs around and is very agile? Sure no problem. If you’d rather feel more like a brawler and want to kill everything in your way? Sure, no problem.
Dead Island was kind of a hack and slash type of game, and this time around we want it to be more action survival, and one of the aspects of survival is how you have limited resources. So you still have to manage those resources, like if you use a weapon here you might end up in a situation where your weapons break and you have nothing to defend yourself with.
TSA: That must have been tricky to design boss battles and fights against the bigger zombies, where people can come at the same problem but with very different play styles.
Maciej: Yeah, that was a big challenge for the level design, and giving the freedom of movement to the player, that was another challenge.
With pipeline games, it’s pretty easy, because you design it like a movie set where all you see is a façade and everything that happens in the façade is awesome but everything else is empty inside. Even with Dead Island, it was an open world game but you were pretty limited in where you could go, so we could at least know where to expect you to come from and how we can present stuff to you to look attractive.
With Dying Light, because you can climb up everything, suddenly the level designers were like, “They can come from anywhere so how am I going to script this mission?” and I was like, “You don’t!” [laughs]
We have to develop systems that create certain situations in the game, so that no matter where you’re coming from, there’s always something attractive waiting for you. Of course there is a little bit of scripting where we can do it, where there’s something that starts off out of sight, but then we also have co-op. We might know that one guy is here, but we don’t know where the other guy is, so we can’t just spawn things because he might be looking there and if something pops in it would look really stupid, and so on, and so on.
So we had to learn how to build levels and build missions pretty much from scratch.
TSA: Having that parkour and traversal is one of the biggest parts of the game, but you really had to come up with a very different feeling control scheme, with jump on the shoulder button, for example. What did you take from other games that tried this, like Mirror’s Edge?
Maciej: Yeah, absolutely! We actually looked at every single game that we could. Mirror’s Edge was one of them, Brink was another that tried to do it, but we also looked at games like Battlefield. You might wonder what Battlefield has to do with parkour, but if you look at BF3 and up, when you see how the characters vault over fences, there’s little bits here and there that we could look at.
TSA: I guess it’s those guys that worked on Mirror’s Edge still at DICE having to make animations for Battlefield but are all, like, “I really want to make Mirror’s Edge 2!” [laughs]
Maciej: “So let’s put it here, when your guy vaults over a fence!”
So yeah, we pretty much looked everywhere to see how people did it, and see what works and what doesn’t work. We’d experiment a lot, so at one point, we thought we could put a camera on the head of an actor and just take what the camera sees and put it back into the game, but that doesn’t work. The actor sees much more, but the camera didn’t reflect the experience of what it’s like when you’re traversing.
So we had to learn about the camera, we had to learn about putting in the animations of arms and all of that stuff to give the illusion that you’re there and have a body. That was really important for us, because we had this impression that in a lot of games you feel like you’re a camera on a balloon, but we really wanted to have a player that has weight and momentum and make it as visceral as possible.
When you first start the game, you can see that you can go wherever you want, but you can feel the struggle there…
TSA: Yeah, you still feel like you have a lot of weight and you need to build up momentum if you’re going to make a particular jump.
Maciej: Or if you’re climbing, there’s the struggle there.
We also saw that the more you play the game, the more skilful you get at it, you get better. We designed the player progression in the same way, so that if you want to get better at agility, you have to do it and you get point from climbing and jumping and stuff. Earn enough point and you’ll unlock special abilities.
You can really see the progress in both ways. The player character develops, so you can climb faster and make bigger jumps, but at the same time, you as a player get better at the game. At first you struggle with the controls, you aren’t sure if you can make a jump or not, you haven’t learned the topography of the city, but after a couple of hours, you know the place. Soon it’s like, “OK, if I’m going to get to that point, I’m going to go through here, jump over this and then dive here.”
You learn the ropes and so does your character. It really becomes smooth with the skills of the character and with your skills as a player.
TSA: Another big aspect to the game is with the day-night cycle. With the blazing sunshine, you can see a kind of visual thread from Dead Island, but at night time, it’s a very different feel and also a very different, more stealthy style of gameplay. That must have been fun and exciting to come up with?
Maciej: It was pretty difficult, actually. A lot of fun, but really difficult, and we didn’t expect it to be that difficult!
We’d started with Dead Island, because we wanted to have night and a dynamic day and night cycle, but there are only so many features you can put in a game, because we have a limited production time. But we had a little glimpse of night with the Ryder White, because it was happening at night, but it was basically just visuals.
So when we started working on Dying Light, we knew we had enough time to make a proper dynamic day and night cycle, and once we had that, we were like, “That’s nice. It looks good,” but it felt like we were missing something. We had the visuals, but so what? We started looking for what we could do, and it felt obvious that we had to change the gameplay somehow to make the night feel really different than just being darker. So we brainstormed a lot of ideas, and we ended up with one that was basically what if we turn you into the prey?
You’re a master of certain situations during the day – it’s still dangerous but you basically decide where you want to go and how you want to do it – but what if we take all of that away from you? So we change the environment in such a way that you have to be really careful not to die?
It wasn’t all sunsets and rainbows from that point on, and we had at least a dozen different prototypes, for many reasons. We had some prototypes scratched off because they weren’t fun to play, others because they had a great premise but from a technical point of view it just wasn’t possible. At one point we wanted to have a huge sea of zombies flooding the area like in World War Z, for example, but even with this new generation, it’s not there yet.
So we had to come up with something that would be viable for this technology but still creates enough pressure. It seems we finally got there, but I kid you not, at some points we were like, “We’ve already had ten iterations and none of them is what we need!” And the production is already going…
TSA: Were you still prototyping ideas even once you’d announced Dying Light and shown off the first videos?
Maciej: We had one prototype where we’d said we could make it work, finally. We’d nailed the experience we wanted to have, but we also had three or four or five changes in the exact mechanics for the night gameplay, from that point to what we have now in the game.
So that was a huge struggle and I’m glad that we made it!
Thanks to Maciej for taking the time to chat with us about Dying Light. We’ll have our hands on impressions of the game soon.