Dead Island 2 Interview – Making zombie-slaying heaven, but was it “development hell”?

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Years on from its original announcement, Dead Island 2 is finally about to be a reality for gamers. This zombie-bashing sequel has been infamous for its indefinite delays and being bounced from one studio to another.

We’ve been hands on with Dead Island 2’s opening hours, getting a look at how the final game has been coming together, but what was “development hell” like from the inside? And how has Dambuster Studios put their own stamp on a game and concept that they didn’t initially come up with? We were able to chat with Game Director David Stenton to peek behind the curtains.

TSA – It feels a little bit mean to put it this way, but what is “development hell” like from the inside?

David Stenton – I guess the only thing that we can emphasise at Dambuster is it’s not been development hell for us! Obviously there’s been iterations and the project being announced back in the day, but for us at Dambuster it’s been a pretty regular dev cycle.

Every project has its challenges, and we’ve been really trying to push the envelope with Dead Island 2, with the combat system and wanting to be best in class.

I guess it’s been interesting to read some of the comments from people that describe Dead Island 2 as having been in development hell. I guess maybe as a game title, and we can’t ignore that it was announced previously, but the fact of the matter is that just wasn’t our game. Our game is the one you’re seeing now. We’ve ben working on it since pretty much 2018, so what’s gone before really has nothing to do with us!

TSA – Maybe it’s more been development hell from the publisher’s perspective?

David – [Laughs] Yeah, that’s for sure! Some of the folks that we’ve worked with have been in it for the long haul!

PR – Hey! What are you trying to get at here?

David – Well, I’m definitely pleased to finally be able to bring the game home!

TSA – It still must be quite a strange situation to be the third studio to work on a particular game title, so how much of your own personality as a studio have you been able to put onto that original concept?

David – I mean it’s really all us and all our areas of passion. From the very first day we wanted to be all about the zombies, bringing it back to that and trying to get away from the naval-gazing evils of humanity kind of aspect.

TSA – This talk of naval gazing does remind me of that infamous Dead Island Riptide special edition

David – [laughs] No… No, I mean where the zombies are just the backdrop and it’s the humans that are really bad – that kind of story or setting. We’re super passionate about zombies and just want to really push the envelope and be absolutely best in class for first person melee combat. That’s what the Dead Island franchise is known for, pioneering that up close and personal, visceral combat in paradise locations, and we really wanted to get back to that.

We started developing the FLESH system super early on, and that’s certainly been a journey, had a couple of iterations and a hell of a lot of time and effort spent on that.

Dead Island 2 FLESH system

TSA – With the FLESH system were you inspired by Story of Ricky where he punches through someone’s fist – OK, so that’s not zombies – or maybe some of the old Italian horrors and video nasties like Zombi Flesh Eaters?

David – Absolutely! Zombi Flesh Eaters is one of my absolute favourite zombie movies, but in many ways I would say we were more inspired for the FLESH system by 80s pulp horror, those kinds of horror movies where it goes a bit too far, where you’re kind of grossed out, but laughing at the same time.

Dan Evans our tech art director always references the moment at the end of RoboCop where the guy is melting in acid, the car steams into him and his head bounces off the bonnet. It’s that kind of grossed out, over-the-top horror. We don’t want to devolve into something that’s bleak or that you feel like you’ve got to switch it off because it’s too dark. We want to push the envelope of gore and horror, but sort of burst the bubble with a bit of dark humour, levity, or take it that bit further. When you’re punching through a zombie’s skull, it’s gross, but then you see the eyeball dangling down and it’s amusing at the same time.

TSA – Speaking of that point, it’s always best in zombie films to remove the head or destroy the brain, and so I was always aiming for the head while playing. The FLESH system is so much broader than that, so how do you try to emphasise everything else it can do?

David – Within our zombie roster, we’ve got many, many different visual variants and gameplay variants, and each one tries to bring something new to the combat sandbox. There’s many different ways to succeed, but sometimes you’re trying to find the right tool for the right job.

We don’t want to reduce the fighting down to just headshots and taking zombies out like that all the time, so we’ve got the Crushers, for example, and other apex variants that have got other weak spots. We’ve also got zombies that are immune to elemental damage – the fire fighter zombies are immune to incendiary-modded weapons. So we very much encourage experimentation, and tailoring your preferred playstyle. Maybe you’re the type of player that prefers throwing weapons? Or enjoys using the Curveballs with meat bait and pipe bombs.

We give the player lots of possibilities and all of those go into showcasing the FLESH system in different ways. When an explosion goes off next to zombies, you’ll see flesh flayed away from that side. If they walk through a flaming puddle of fuel, they’ll burn from the foot upwards.

TSA – There must have been some very strange research sessions in the parking by the studio!

David – Oh yeah! You say strange, but I’d say awesome!

If you’d have been in the studio while some of the character artists were researching, intricately modelling all the anatomy of the zombies, the burnt zombies… It was pretty spectacular.

Dead Island 2 Fire Machete

TSA – From the elemental combat, which has always been a key part of Dead Island, how are you taking that further? You’ve got those resistances, but I also noticed that the LA citizens drove around with a lot of canisters of water and petrol.

David – Yeah. The game is first and foremost about slaying zombies in awesome ways, all of those different possibilities that I’m talking about. We have many physicalised props, so you can drop kick zombies into tables and the table will move, the chairs will scatter around, so you’ve got that lifelike physical environment.

You’ve also got many aspects of the environment that tie into gameplay benefits, so you can pick up a car battery to stop the alarm going off, and then you can throw the battery and when it impacts it will create and electric shock, and if there’s water around then that will amplify the electricity within the puddle. You can use that by maybe throwing a meat bait across the puddle to lure zombies across.

We’ve got all kinds of gas canisters and flammable pipes – you can shoot a hole in the pipe and flames will spew out – patio heaters that you can detonate and explode.

I think the combat really comes into its own when you’re in the zone. You’re dodging, you’re dash-striking, you’re drop-kicking, you’re throwing your electric weapon into a puddle, and you’re really in the zone of slaying and taking advantage of all the opportunities. You’re swapping your skill deck on the fly, switching weapons on the fly. It’s really cool when the pace picks up in that way.

TSA – How have you built up your version of LA to take advantage of everything it has to offer? You don’t have a totally open map, but break it up into smaller chunks.

David – We call them districts, and they vary in size quite significantly. Some of them are smaller, more channeled experiences for story, and then some of them are much, much bigger. Really what we wanted to capture when we were building LA were the postcard locations […] but also really tailoring those locations to suit combat.

We’ve not gone for a Google Maps like-for-like representation of these places – they are incredibly lifelike and detailed, but first and foremost they just suit that combat sandbox. We’ve got fire hydrants, car alarms going off, shops you can break into, and don’t forget to disable the alarm before you smash the window, or it will go off and attract all the zombies around!

I think we’ve trodden a good line of creating these postcard, very vibrant districts in a recognisable way, but making them work spectacularly well for the combat sandbox as well.

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TSA – There’s also a bit of, similar to GTA V’s lampooning LA culture, this large-than-life tone to the environments and references. One of the obvious ones was fighting through a Friend-like sitcom set in a film studio.

David – There is so much love poured into the environment design by the narrative and art teams. I think they’ve absolutely knocked it out of the park. It looks vibrant, there’s so much detail there to explore, so many little easter eggs and really funny references, journals to read and indications of life as it was at the time of the outbreak.

So yeah, there’s a lot of replay and exploration value in a lot of those districts.

TSA – For the character customisation, you’ve got the slayers and their skill decks, but how open is it for customisation? Is it fully freeform or is there a bit of structure to the options available to you?

David – So we’ve got six slayers and they all start out with slightly different innate skills, which are two starting skills they begin with. Each character will then have a slightly different journey of skill acquisition, because you can acquire them as quest rewards and through exploration as well.

But it’s absolutely central to us that the skill deck is really there to allow for maximum flexibility. We don’t want to paint players into a corner where, six hours in they wish they hadn’t chosen a particular character at the beginning of the game. With that combat sandbox that I keep referring to, it’s very much about using the right tool for the right job, so we absolutely encourage players to acquire many different skills and then combine those with many different weapon builds and mods. By utilising all of those, you can really tailor your playstyle to suit the challenge you’ve got at that moment.

Dead Island 2 Skills Deck

TSA – Finally, what’s your feeling on so-called broken builds? Do you keep it controlled, or embrace the overpowered skill combos? I remember playing the original where we got so overpowered we were able to yeet the final boss off the rooftop!

David – More of the latter! We definitely do embrace the synergies, and it’s not a bad position to be in where people are really feeling empowered toward the end of the game… but the game designers do absolutely try to keep things in check so that there aren’t exploits. We want players to be encourages to take advantage of the combat possibilities, and if there’s just one singular win strategy, it reduces the game right down to nothing. I think we’ve hopefully guarded against that, but also allow the player to feel empowered.

The player journey we’ve always talked about is survivor to slayer, and by the end of the game you should absolutely feel like a badass zombie slayer.

Thanks to David for taking the time to chat with us about Dead Island 2 – and if you want to see more, then check out our hands on from the game’s first five hours. Dead Island 2 is finally coming out on 21st April across PS5, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, Xbox One and PC.

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