Dying Light is the culmination of darker ambitions from inside Techland
After going hands on with Techland’s Dying Light at Gamescom this year and experiencing a new way of terror from the folks behind Dead Island, we’ve had some questions on our mind. So, at this year’s Eurogamer Expo at Earls Court in London, we got the chance to sit down with Maciej Binkowski, a game designer at Techland working on Dying Light. We covered all the bases in this lengthy interview, touching upon the everything from the rocky relationship with Deep Silver, all the way to the inspiration behind Dying Light‘s multiplayer mode and creative settings.
Obviously Techland’s biggest legacy is the Dead Island series, so why did you decide that – despite the move away from that IP – you’d do another zombie game with a darker tone?
Maciej Binkowski: We didn’t really have a choice. Right from the start, the deal with Deep Silver was that they get the [Dead Island] IP, and we had different ideas with what we wanted to do with our game. So, they decided to give the gig to somebody else and, well, that’s their choice right?
At the same time, we really wanted to make a sequel because we made Dead Island and people loved it. But since we can’t just make it again, we have to bring in a new IP. So we couldn’t just make Dead Island 2 and give it a different name. I think it really worked in our favour because it pushed us really hard to make sure that this is a new IP. It helped us ensure it is unique and it brings some fresh experience.
We also really liked what we did with Dead Island, the whole over the top thing with the clash of beautiful paradise with zombie apocalypse. But, that’s a used idea, we’ve had that and it’s time to come up with something new! So, if you summed it up altogether, that’s really why Dying Light is what it is.
Is that the reason why you decided to go for a darker tone and create far more of a horror game? Especially in those rather terrifying PVP sections.
MB: Yeah, Dead Island was a hack ‘n’ slash kinda thing, and with this game we wanted to try more of an action survival approach. It seems like it’s really helped us sell all the features of the game, they really support the core gameplay mechanics. Like, for instance, the parkour thing. We don’t want it to just be a gimmick, so we change the behaviour of the AI so they really push you towards using it, if you don’t you’re going to be overwhelmed really quickly. The whole environment pushes you into that behaviour of trying to survive. And, we’re not a hardcore survival game, but still, it’s about bringing in new choices and making you think ‘do I have enough time to do this while this other person is down’ and so on and so on.
We kinda went more and more away from goofy things, and it just started to feel that to support this kind of mood we should tone the whole world down as well.
How long after the outbreak are things happening then?
MB: Um, I think weeks, maybe months. But we’re not The Last of Us, this doesn’t last forever. In Dead Island the infection was pretty fresh, people were still shocked with what was going on. It was point zero and the situation was still developing.
With this thing, people who live in the quarantine already know what’s going on, and they found a way to survive in it. So the situation is already established, but it’s not like it’s been there for years.
Is the story then a story around finding a cure, or is it more one revolving around just trying to get by.
MB: [Laughs nervously] Ahh, how do I answer this without spoiling it… [laughs more] I don’t really know. Well, I mean, I know what the story is about, I just don’t know what I can really say.
The story is about a couple of things, but you’ll have to find out for yourself when you play the game. Will that do?
What I can say is that you play as a guy called Kyle Crane, and you’ll be a witness to a catalyst to certain events and the frictions between certain factions inside the world.
So there’s factions to join and they have conflicts you get caught up in then?
MB: Well, uh, we’ve already shown that you meet people in the quarantine zone, and not all of them are necessarily friendly. Some of them will be hostile from the outset, but the story will take you through both groups, so… [shrugs]
So, is it all set in that semi-apocalyptic world?
MB: What we tried to portray is a city that was once living and breathing, it had people who went about their lives, going to work, school. So you can see that those remnants are there. There are cafes, schools and this apocalypse happened and in the process this beauty fell apart.
When you were creating those open-world levels, are they procedurally made or hand-crafted?
MB: Well, the process isn’t procedural, so I suppose it’s hand crafted. We have a number of – let’s say – systems of how to create and build a city that’s a sandbox for gameplay. At the same time, we have artists making sure that it all actually looks and feels like a city.
But how easy has that been in creating spaces to utilise the parkour element?
MB: Yeah, we have certain blocks to set up gameplay spaces to use parkour properly. On top of that we add the art. Sometimes it’s the other way, like we have really nice looking parts and we have to try and keep those areas but add gameplay into it. But we always go gameplay first, so at times we go through lots of iterations until we strike a nice balance. Usually the first time is never perfect, but we iterate and then hand craft it into the world until it’s right.
Gamescom was the first time we saw multiplayer modes for Dying Light, but where did the idea for competitive co-op moments come from?
MB: Oh, you know this is actually something that grew rather naturally. We would sit at the office and play the game in co-op testing it and when you spend hundreds of hours with a game there’s not much that can surprise you about it anymore. You know all the ins and outs. So we would just play, and someone would say ‘hey, you know what? I bet I can get there before you’, or ‘I bet I can kill more zombies than you’ and that was something we would do anyway just to have fun. And then one day someone just said, ‘why don’t we just put it in the game?’ We we’re doing it anyway so it was a no brainer to let people have fun with it! That’s really how it all happened.
Does that mean the challenges are randomly assigned during play?
MB: Yeah, there are certain areas that have certain challenges assigned to them, and there all spread across the game. But, there are other sections that just have them happen. You get the feeling that the challenge isn’t going to show up every single time you’re there, at some points in the game a prompt will appear and you can say ‘hey, do you want to spice things up a bit?’ and jump into a challenge.
So, for instance, if you do a challenge and fail, can you go back and do it again to redeem yourself?
MB: They reset after a certain time, which I can’t remember exactly what that is, so if you just go back, it won’t be there. But venturing back later, it might be back.
The thing is, you’re not really losing anything. You can win something like extra experience to develop your character faster if you win, but we’re not taking anything away from you.
But it’s just having to live with a bruised ego…
MB: [Laughs] Yeah, a little bit. It’s incredible to see people play it at Gamescom as the first part of the demo they were playing co-op and looking for each other’s backs, killing zombies and suddenly the challenge pops up and it’s like ‘oh, screw you!’ It’s a small thing really, but it brings this really interesting change in the dynamics of the change. There’s a little spike there and it’s really fun.
What about PvP, Where did the idea for that come from?
MB: Uh, that was something we wanted to do for a very, very, very long time – back in Dead Island. Because we love to play competitive games, we play Mortal Kombat a lot and FIFA with friends, so at some point when making Dead Island we thought it’d be great to implement PvP into it. But there’s only so much you can do in a single production, so that aspect had to wait for the right time.
In this game it was a case of ‘what about this PvP idea we’ve had?’ and everybody was super excited so we started brainstorming ideas of what kind of PvP it could be. We ended up with this asymmetric combat that seems like it’s being enjoyed by many.
Yeah, it was really good fun. But did the idea of having to destroy hives come at a later stage or something you wanted from the start?
MB: At first it was just kill [the zombie player] but it didn’t really feel right. It was a sort of deathmatch thing, but it felt like there was something missing, so bringing in asymmetric goals as well then it creates a new dynamic. If he depletes your reserves of respawns he wins, but as he has unlimited respawns you have to take down its hives as a goal.
It all came from just playing it a number of times and figuring out that, yeah it’s kind of fun, but not really what we wanted. So the natural process helped us find the fun.
How does it work then, if there’s four people playing does one of them turn into a zombie, or is it a fifth player dropping in?
MB: Yeah, so one more character is coming in. Every time night falls you’re open to invasion, and that’s when the fight happens.
So someone else playing the game will just decide they want to invade a game, a la Dark Souls?
MB: Yeah, yeah, so at some point you say ‘hey you know what I’m going to play the zombie right now’ and you can choose if you want to invade random people. Although, we also track your friends, so you can invade those games and kill all your friends! It’s super awesome, and they all hate you. It’s totally worth it.
And it’s always one versus however many then? Can you have two zombies invade?
MB: No, no, it’s always asymmetric with a single guy but he can outmatch you in terms of agility – he’s all over the place. However, he’s super fragile in terms of going head to head he doesn’t really stand a change. And that makes things interesting as – for him – it’s about keeping players guessing where he’s coming from and trying to get them separated because then he needs just an instant to kill them and he gets away.
On the other hand, for humans, it’s about staying together and watching each other’s back and trying to be strategical about it. Two people can act as a bait while another one goes for the hives. They keep the invader busy, going back and forth between players and hives. It’s a really interesting mechanic and player dynamics.
Yeah, the UV torch really seems to help turn the tables too.
MB: It was really awesome to see people getting enthused and looking around continually. That’s really how it should be. If the zombie player is good, then people are nervous. We saw a lot of people trying to go straight for hives and wondering why they fail, that’s not the way you do it. You have to use all the tools at your disposal to win that match, and it seems to be that when you can keep people guessing, that’s what really gets them going.
Like Hellraid, Dying Light uses the Chrome Engine 6, and the difference between Hellraid before and after is very noticeable. How has the new engine lent itself to the development of Dying Light?
MB: Well, definitely it looks much better. One of the key elements that we got from Chrome Engine 6 is physically-based lighting. This allows us to calculate light bounces off surfaces, thanks to that we can make materials seem really authentic. We can make glass look like glass, wood look like wood, and metal look like metal. So this really helps us make the whole world seem more authentic. And then, of course, with the technology it allows us to take such a big game to multiple next-generation platforms. Those are two of the big advantages.
How’s public feedback helped shaped the changes you’re still making to the game?
MB: You know, that’s constantly the only way we can keep improving our game. We play the game, we bring people from outside to play the game and we see what works. We hear what people think and the fantasies they have, there are times when people have said ‘playing this was awesome, but it would be good if we could do this or that.’ On the other hand, we see that people don’t use any of the stuff we thought were pretty cool, but for some reason they just don’t pick it up. We talk to them and try to see why, and sometimes it’s just that they found it inconvenient. Sometimes it’s really hard because people can’t really put their finger on it as to what’s wrong, it’s just something that doesn’t feel right. That means we have to dig in and figure out what it is that doesn’t feel right. It could be the timing of an animation, or how something works, it’s a bit like an investigation.
Let’s say someone thinks that weapons break too often, it could be that that’s the problem, but in reality it’s actually that they haven’t been repairing their weapons because they don’t have enough resources to do it. So, he feels that his weapons are breaking fast, but they’re really not. It’s just a case of not being able to fix it and maybe we need to create a way to let him know that more.
Has there been a feature you’ve quite liked that didn’t make the cut?
MB: Well, there’s tonnes of stuff that doesn’t make it through. The nighttime mechanics actually went through more than a dozen prototypes of how enemies react. A dozen of them just went to trash because it didn’t work out. We knew the type of experience we wanted to craft, so we tried something and it didn’t work out so we try to find out why it didn’t and finally you get something where people go ‘yeah, this is it!’
Sometimes it’s quite frustrating because you keep trying, and keep trying, and keep trying, and it just becomes like ‘holy shit’ [puts head in hands] ‘holy fuck, I have no idea what I’m doing’, we would try all those ideas and, you know, ‘maybe we were wrong all along, maybe it’s not a fun concept.’
You just have to drop things. I can’t give you an exact example right now, but there have been times where we’ve come up with great ideas, we tried to implement it one, two, maybe five times, and then it’s like it just doesn’t really work. It sounds awesome, but it doesn’t play awesome, so we have to leave it.
It’s a shame, but that makes sense…
MB: Yeah, maybe in a different game, as part of a different experience, but when you put some things together they just don’t work. Other times you can shape them until they fit.
Maybe a slightly controversial question, but seeing as you’re no longer with Deep Silver, do you feel that you have a lot more freedom with creative decisions?
MB: Oh yeah, we do. But that’s because we keep the IP this time around, and Warner Brothers really puts a lot of trust into us. We’re in 100 per cent of the creative side of the game. They offer us opinions, ‘this is what we really like, this is what we don’t think works’, but they always say ‘you’re the developer so you might no better, this is just our opinion. If you think it’s going to work then let’s talk and you have a different idea then maybe you’re right,’ so it’s pretty great really.
Deep Silver have a lot of ideas of their own of where they want to take the game, so at some point it was a struggle of ideas that we wanted to craft and what they wanted us to do. But, you know, that’s one of the reasons why we’re working on Dying Light and not Dead Island 2, they had their own ideas and they own it!
So as you own Dying Light this time around, are you thinking that if this does well you’ll do a sequel or a spin off or just something else in this world?
MB: I don’t really know what’s going to happen. Right now we’re 100 per cent focused on getting this thing done. But we have tonnes of ideas that had to be cut from the game because it would have taken too long to complete, we’ve moved the release date already, but all the content we have for the game would have meant it would have taken even more time. We have plenty of stuff we can add to the world for another time.
Personally, I’ve been making zombie games for five years now, so… I really love sushi, but if I eat sushi every day for five years at some point I could really go for pizza…
So if Dying Light is successful it’s a no brainer, it’s a business and we should make a sequel, I just hope there’s enough space in the company so I can do something else for a bit.
As it’s a darker tone this time around what have been your influences in the horror genre?
MB: One of my favourite movies is the Blair Witch Project, I think I must have been in High School still as that was a while ago! But that really freaked me out… Then I suppose it has to be Aliens, definitely one of my favourite films of all time. In terms of zombies it’s 28 Days Later, that’s my favourite zombie movie. It was something I’ve never seen before, it was a brand new idea that was dark and quite sad. I have this impression that there’s a lot of zombie movies that, even if they try to be serious, in the end they turn out to be just goofy. That movie was just touching on that human element. It wasn’t really a movie about the zombies, it was about the people.
Working on the game we looked at everything. I mean I’ve seen so many zombie movies and zombie books and zombie comics, and a lot of things. And, we also play games – not necessarily zombie games, who knows where these inspirations can come from. There might be one game that has a great element to it, so we try to learn from pretty much everybody and you never really know.
Would you say that, for Dying Light, it’s quite well timed in the resurgence of survival horror as a genre?
MB: Yeah, it’s somewhat helpful, I think people have grown tired of being a super soldier and have fallen for this fantasy of ‘what if we keep all these environments and people but take your weapons away?’ Suddenly you can’t fight back and it’s something new and something fresh.
Yes, it’s gone from a world of super soldiers to a world of feeling vulnerable.
MB: Yeah, it’s a brand new fantasy and people are craving it. It’s fun, and I’m actually thinking that everyone wants to be a super hero, but what if you can make a game where you play as Albert and you take care of Batman? Superheroes go through missions, but Batman couldn’t do it all without Albert. He supports him, he gets his ass out of trouble, he gets his stuff fixed, he gets Batman fixed, so that could be a quite interesting series. You know, why not? Let’s investigate those things.
So, you mean along the lines of something like Viscera Cleanup?
MB: Yeah that’s kind of insane, but it feels fun! Why not? It’s great we’re seeing this indie scene growing, it’s a way to try all those ideas and see if they stick.
What would you say, in terms of games, that’s made you go ‘oh wow that’s different, that’s exciting’?
MB: Um, I really like Don’t Starve – that was quite some time ago but I really love it. I’d heard about it, and finally I got to pick it up. A really interesting thing was that my wife was actually looking over my shoulder while I played and I’m like, ‘do you want to play?’ and she’s like ‘no, no, it’s too scary’. She finally talked herself into playing it and she got completely addicted to it.
Now I’m also seeing Alien: Isolation and, oh my God what an absolutely amazing game. That idea of being completely helpless and that VHS feel that did with it, it just makes me feel like a teenager again watching Alien for the first time. It feels like I’m in it and I just can’t wait to spend some time with it fully.
Another indie title I really liked was The Escapists. It’s incredible, I have so much respect for these guys – the one man, two man armies putting these games out.
Oh, you know what else was really awesome too? Nidhogg! We played the crap out of it in the office!