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Dying Light Interview: Emergent Gameplay, Challenge, Scare-Factor and Not Being Like Mirror's Edge Meets Dead Island
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 11:30am 25/11/13 | Comments
AusGamers chats with Techland producer Tymon Smektala, about the studio’s upcoming new zombie survival title, Dying Light. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: The most surprising thing to come out of Dying Light is just how well it functions and how good it looks, and while Dead Island was a great title to really put you guys on the map, I feel Dying Light is the game you really want to be known for. Can you talk about the engine creation process and just getting Dying Light off the ground?

Tymon Smektala: I think one of the things people don’t realise about Techland is: I know it’s a relatively unknown studio from Poland, but the company is quite huge and we have a few studios working on different projects. So it was quite important for us to create an engine.

We were using an in-house engine from the start of the company, really, so it was very important to create an engine that is next-gen ready -- it supports all of the next-gen features -- and that allows us to create games for the scope of ambition that we have. Thankfully, one of the studios is focused solely on the engine-side, so we don’t have to do it.

Dying Light is a work of the original Dead Island team -- the team that created the original Dead Island -- and how we approached it when we started the development process of Dying Light… or to put it another way: when we stopped supporting Dead Island in early 2012, there was this feeling around our studio that we didn’t want to just do another Dead Island game. But we’re still fans of the zombies genre. There are guys at the studio that literally love that genre; they watch every movie, read every comic book and book or whatever.

So we had quite a huge list of features we would like to see in a zombie game. We picked the features that we liked the most, and we noticed that when you combine these features, they really create a very unique experience -- an experience that we imagine as being quite engaging and quite exciting for people. So that’s how Dying Light was born. But when we played that game in our mind, we realised that it’s not ok to call it Dead Island anymore, so that’s why it is Dying Light.

Then when we started to show that game -- of course, we worked on it for a couple of months by ourselves; financing everything by ourselves -- we starting showing that game to people, and Warner Bros. which was really like a dream come true for us to work with -- a company with such expertise -- they were interested. The business side was handled by some other people; we as developers weren’t involved directly.

So there were lots of things happening at our studio, but thankfully the most challenging things -- which are the creating of the engine, and the business side of everything -- were handled outside of our area of interest. We were able to focus only on making the game, and as I was saying: we didn’t want to make another Dead Island game, but we wanted to make a zombie game.

We learnt some lessons the hard way creating Dead Island: on how to create an open-world game; on how to create a game that can compete with the best games on the market. So we wanted to use these experiences.

AusGamers: You touched on it a little bit in the presentation, but can you go into what you and the team in general maybe feel is lacking in zombie games now?

Tymon: Well, I think the thing that’s lacking the most, in our opinion, is the fact that the only thing that you can do in zombie games really, is kill zombies. There aren’t that many games where you can proceed within those games without killing zombies. Even if you look at a game like The Last of Us -- which was a great game, and a game that many people consider being a game that changes the whole zombie formula -- even in that game, there are sections which you just have to kill zombies to proceed, even if those sections are smaller than the actual story and the setting up of the characters.

So we wanted to create a game that really gives you these options; that really gives you that freedom to choose you own way around the world. I’m not sure if I explained or revealed this in your session, but we have a couple of guys at our studio, in our QA team, playtesters that just play the game without killing zombies at all. Their only job is to complete the game, and complete each of the missions without killing zombies, and they are able to complete the game without doing that.

AusGamers: So any player can play the game without killing a zombie?

Tymon: Well, I think yes. Actually, at the moment, to be extra-specific and precise there, the guys that are doing that they have to kill some zombies in a few instances, because of how the story missions go. But I think in the final game, we will look at these missions and we will try to tweak them in a way that they will not have to do it. It’s not official and not confirmed -- it’s still work in development -- but I think it will be possible to finish the game without killing zombies if you’ve rescued enough players.

AusGamers: That’s a pretty bold way to create a zombie game really. It’s interesting that that might end up being an option, because the other game that your game is compared to all of the time -- which is Mirror’s Edge -- you could play that whole game without killing anyone, and get an Achievement for it. I did that, and it was the most frustrating experience of my life, but I got all the way to the end.

Tymon: I’d like to talk about that reference, because many people tell us that Dying Light is Dead Island meets Mirror’s Edge, and I can see where they’re coming from, but I think it’s a lazy thing to say. If you look at the game, it has zombies in it and it’s melee-based, so it is Dead Island, then you look at it again and see that the motion has that free-running aspect to it, so it is Mirror’s Edge.

Of course, that description is ok, and covers the basics of Dying Light, but I don’t personally really like that description because it’s just a very small part of the picture that we’re trying to paint here. It’s like saying that the Mona Lisa is a portrait of a lady; ok, it is a portrait of a lady but that description doesn’t do justice to all of the smaller things, it doesn’t give you the subtleties of the Mona Lisa. So I don’t like that description a lot.

Your summation that completing Mirror’s Edge without killing anyone was very frustrating, I think we will save that frustration in Dying Light. Mirror’s Edge really was a game that opened a lot of eyes, but even though it looked like it was set in an open-world, it was a corridor game with only a few objects that you could interact with. With the current demo of Dying Light, and how the whole game plays right now -- I’m pretty happy with how it plays -- you’re really not limited. You can think of any way to get around the environment and you can use that way, if it looks like it’s realistic for you to go there.

So I think you will be able to complete a game of Dying Light without killing a zombie; without any frustration as well. So if we’re able to pull it off -- and I’m quite confident that we will be able to pull it off -- then I would be very happy with that game, and I will be very proud of it.

AusGamers: Can you talk a little more about the co-op side of things? Because obviously there’s the main character Antoine, but if you’re dropping into someone else’s game do you take on another specific character or an arbitrary character?

Tymon: When you start the game, you create a profile for yourself and you get to choose one of the characters; there are four playable characters. I didn’t mention that in the presentation, but there are four playable characters that all start at the same level and have the same basic skills -- free-running skills basically. Then you build that character with some extra skills, and you’re free to choose any skills that you like so you can end up with a character that is completely different than your friend’s character.

When you pick that character, you play as that character. So when you join other people’s games, it might happen that there will be two Antoines in that game. We’re still thinking about how we should handle it. I think gamers will not be upset about it to an extent. They choose that character so they want to play as him, and they can choose who to invite to their games if they are worried that things like that can happen.

Maybe we’ll think of some ways… well actually, we have some solutions, but we are working on trying to decide which will work best, and how we should handle that situation. But basically, at the moment you’ll get to play as two Antoines if you join another player who plays as Antoine.

AusGamers: How will the story progression work? If you drop into someone else’s game, will you be just helping their story, or making progress on your own campaign as well?

Tymon: How it works: we try to match you in a way that -- as far as the story missions go -- you are at the same exact time in the storyline. But if you join someone else’s game and you complete a side-mission together, then that side-mission is completed in your game as well. So when you go back to your game, that side mission is completed, and you can tick it off your list.

What’s important about our co-op is that you don’t have to do the same things together, you can go off in different directions and you can take different missions if you want to.

AusGamers: You talked about invading other people’s games like Watch_Dogs is doing -- which is, like, a really fresh idea at the moment -- and I asked you about companion apps, and how it seems like you could also do that as well.

Tymon: Well not really. Our game is completely different really, with the setting of the game world it’s different. In Watch_Dogs it makes sense if you are this hacker who uses his tablet or iPhone or whatever, to hack into other people’s games. In our game, you play as a zombie survivor, so you’re not really able to use any apps.

We have some ideas for second-screen use that I think are quite interesting and really fit our game-world. But as I was saying, we’re not revealing any of that at the moment.

AusGamers: In Dead Rising 3, instead of actually being called in game, your own phone can ring, and you answer it to take missions. So that’s the sort of stuff that really excites me, and why I was going to ask you is because I still don’t know enough about your game-world to understand how that might work. In the E3 demo, Antoine was constantly talking to the woman, so it seemed like something similar might fit.

Tymon: Well actually, outside communications are completely cut off in our game-world, at least at the start of the game. You’re just trapped there and you don’t know what’s happening out there, because we think it’s a very powerful thing in terms of storytelling: that question hanging above players’ heads of “What’s happening out there?” I think is really the most powerful thing that we can use in our story, along with, of course, the willingness to escape that frying pan city.

So I can tell you that we will surely not use any companion app for the communications in-game, because these are very primitive radio-level communications, so it doesn’t fit that as well.

AusGamers: We didn’t see any volatiles while you were playing in today’s presentation, and they were the scariest thing I saw at E3…

Tymon: Well actually, we had them in the night-time demo when we started working on it, but when we play-tested it before going to Gamescom -- which was the first time showing the night-time demo -- and it was just too much for people. People playing the game for the first time just couldn’t handle it and were just battered by Volatiles.

How it works at night fall is that our night-time experience has four levels of intensity, and that works similar to the wanted levels in the GTA games -- when you’re out and doing criminal things, the intensity of the police chase ramps up and there are more police units appearing, but there are also new types of police units chasing you: the helicopters and SWAT teams etc. So it works kind of similar in Dying Light.

What we are showing [in] the night-time demo: we cheat a little, saying that it’s two levels of this intensity, but actually, it’s really still the first level, and even that is a little too difficult for some players. We really want to create something which is scary, and which really makes you sit at the edge of your seat, and when night approaches you kind of get all tightened up and really feel that something very bad is going to happen.

So you have to learn how to survive during the night, but because we don’t have time for the learning process in the demo, it’s kind of cheated. But I think that the experience that people will get from playing the game for the first time and that excitement they get from it kind of relates to what you will get in the final games, considering that you will be playing better and have more time to prepare for the night.

AusGamers: It’s arguable that zombie games, and first-person games in general, are actually quite easy as well now: the zombies are toys, and the challenge isn’t quite there. But you guys are talking pretty heavily about this being a very challenging game, and that not even being shown in demo sessions yet.

Were you consciously going into it thinking: they need to be scary, but they need to be scary because they’re challenging, and people need to feel like survival actually is the only option?

Tymon: Well, the fact that we want the zombies to be as scary as possible, that idea I think happened at the very start of the process of making the game. So I think that’s something that everything that happened next kind of took off from that point. Of course, we don’t want to make it too challenging -- we don’t want to make it a very hardcore-only game…

AusGamers: Like Dark Souls or something like that?

Tymon: Yes, so it’s not like that. Of course, we might be able to tweak the difficulty a little with the difficulty levels that you choose at the start of it, but we’re not quite sure if we’ll use that or if it will be just one default level, and maybe one more for people that want the harshest of challenges.

But I think it is necessary, if you want to create an experience that people will really remember and really be afraid of; that will bring feelings out of people. I think the key is not to make it too challenging, but rather to give you tools that you can use to meet the challenge. When you look at our game, there are lots of things that are [there] just to give you that chance to meet that challenge.

The actual movement, they improve the ability of the main character so you can imagine that he’s not just a simple guy like a bus driver or something trapped in that city -- these are really special guys, and you really feel like you really are special in a way that you can do all of these things, with the traps, and everything.

So it is a challenging game, but we also give you lots of tools to meet that challenge, because there are lots of these tools, then you’re free to choose the ones you like the most.

AusGamers: You mentioned before that it’s a melee-based game, but I do know that you can get projectile weapons -- handguns and stuff like that. How are you limiting the player? Is it just a case of you can’t carry much ammo, or is it hard to find ammo?

Tymon: Ammo is hard to find; the guns are hard to find in general, and it comes with the realistic approach really. If the apocalypse happened right now, in this building, or in Sydney, I don’t think there would be many firearms around. So it really is a realistic approach in our minds.

The ammo is scarce, the guns are scarce, and then when you use guns, the guns are very noisy. So even though they are extremely powerful, they attract other zombies. Of course you can use it tactically: for example, if there is an outpost of people which you aren’t friends with, and you want to kill or distract them, you can shoot a firearm in-front of their safehouse then escape, and the zombies will come to that location because they heard the sound and the survivors will have to deal with them. Then maybe you can use it as a distraction to go another way around and sneak in and maybe steal something.

So I think all of our game is basically systems like that. When you combine all of these systems, it gets very complex, but it also gives way to an emergent gameplay experience which we really would like to create.

I don’t know if you remember when EA promoted Battlefield 3, they had this series of videos called Battlefield Moments, where they were showing various things that happened on the battleground because they were so emergent. So I think we could do a similar thing with we our game: we could do Dying Light Moments that would capture lots of playthroughs of our playtesters and pick the funniest or the most spectacular things that happened.

At the hands-on session, there is this guy who had a gas tank on his back, and when you hit him and damage that tank and there’s some gas leaking out of that tank, the pressure of that gas makes the guy fumble around, then he explodes. We had sessions where, for one example: there was a zombie standing on the roof of a building that was made out of wood, and that gas tank guy was hit and flew over to that roof; he exploded at some height and the roof collapsed, and the zombie that was standing on the roof fell down.

So just funny things like that; there are lots, and lots, and lots of moments like that, that can happen because of the complexity of the system we have in our game.

AusGamers: Alright, awesome. I love emergent gameplay, so that sounds great.

Tymon: I’m the same. I hope Destiny will provide that as well.

AusGamers: Yes! So do I.

AusGamers: Thank you so much for you time.

Tymon: Thank you.
Read more about Dying Light on the game page - we've got the latest news, screenshots, videos, and more!

Latest Comments
Posted 12:08pm 25/11/13
So what he's saying is that it's open world Mirror's Edge with Dead Island-ish zombies.
Posted 01:19pm 25/11/13
So its Assassin's Creed, crossed with Dead Rising
Posted 03:50pm 25/11/13
"Mirror’s Edge -- you could play that whole game without killing anyone, and get an Achievement for it. I did that, and it was the most frustrating experience of my life, but I got all the way to the end."

I know that feel bro, that heavy machine gunner on the gantry at the end killed me about 200 times.

No way I am going for that approach in Dying Light, Zombies don't kill themselves you know...
Steve Farrelly
Posted 04:07pm 25/11/13
hahaha. Yeah it was such a pain. I remember getting around halfway through the game to see if I could get that far without killing anyone and then it just became a grudge match against DICE for making such an Achievement almost impossible
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