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How do you innovate with zombies? Dying Light searches for the answer Exclusive
August 20, 2014 | By Mike Rose

August 20, 2014 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive, Video

After Techland sold the Dead Island IP to Deep Silver, the studio knew two things: That it wanted to make another zombie game, and that the next game couldn't simply be Dead Island 2.

That's why iteration after iteration led to Dying Light, a co-op zombie game with Mirror's Edge style running and vaulting, and some game-invasion thrown in for good measure.

That latter feature makes the dynamic day and night cycle of Dying Light that bit more anxious, as a player can choose to invade someone else's game as a beefed-up enemy, and attempt to kill them in the dead of the night.

I spoke with Maciej Binkowski, lead game designer on Dying Light, about finding innovation in a genre that appears to have already been beaten to death.

I want to talk about your views on innovation in zombie games, since you guys already have a track record with zombie games. I find it fascinating that zombie games and zombie DLC just continually sell by the bucketload, regardless of how many are released... and I don't know if anybody has worked out exactly why yet. From your perspective, what is it about the genre?

Maciej Binkowski: I think it's a unique experience that we have in these games. They're selling something that you can live through, that you couldn't before. That's why people are attracted to it. Maybe they are just tired of having the same shooter every year.

But then again, people complain about zombie games as well, right? I regularly hear "Oh great, another zombie game." And then they go and buy it anyway!

Binkowski: Yeah, it's pretty fascinating! A lot of people say, "The zombie genre is saturated, it's going to die soon." I'm not so sure. There's still so many stories to be told. We keep finding new perspectives where the focus of the game is different.

You have games like Dead Rising, where it's all about getting goofy and building the ultimate killing toy. Then you have something like DayZ where it's all about this feeling of being helplessness. It's like every single encounter is something that might lead to your death, so you're really anxious. And the first time you play and see another player you think, "Hey, it's another person!" And then he kills you, and you're like holy... And the next time you see a human being, you're like, "Stay away!"

Then you have Dying Light, where we're kinda in the middle... we're not going all the way with the goofiness, but we're not hardcore survival. We call it action-survival. It's something in-between.

"I would really hope that we could do something that will be seen as the next step in the evolution of FPS games."
So which elements of the game do you feel are going to progress the zombie genre?

Binkowski: Our feature that we're most proud of is the freedom of movement. I would really hope that we could do something that will be seen as the next step in the evolution of FPS games. Back in Wolfenstein, there was no jumping, and that was cool. Then you got Duke Nukem with jumping, and suddenly it's like, "Well of course you have to have jumping! That's just the basics."

So we hope that once you've spent a couple of hours with Dying Light, you suddenly think like, "Of course I can go over that wall or climb this obstacle! My grandma could climb over it, so why can't I?" I hope in the next couple of years, we're going to see games that do that - it'll be a basic thing that could expect from an FPS game.

With both Dead Island and now Dying Light, it seems like you guys are really keen to make yourselves known as the people who do zombies differently.

Binkowski: Dead Island was a huge surprise, even for us. It evolved tremendously -- it started as a single player game, it was something completely different to what we actually delivered to the market. In the process of development -- and I was really lucky, because I joined the company at the moment where they made the shift and said, "OK, we're going open-world and co-op" -- it was like we had to start from scratch.

It was kinda goofy, but we liked it. I think it was kinda niche too - there wasn't really good melee combat games. We really wanted to make it visceral as possible.

It felt more meaty, like you were really hitting the zombies.

Binkowski: Yeah, we wanted to feel it. And then of course, we weren't in a very good business position with Dead Island. Right from the start, we knew we had to sell the IP. In the process, we decided to split with Deep Silver - so that means you've gotta come up with new IP. Of course, since it was a success, we wanted to do a sequel - but since it's gotta be new IP... you can't just make Dead Island 2, and name it different. So we sat down and thought right, if we need to make something unique, what are we gonna do?

One of the most recurring ideas was the freedom of movement. Then we really wanted to try the dynamic day and night cycle in Dead Island, but we didn't have enough time. So we had DLC that happened at night, and we knew that it felt night, so it'd be awesome if we could make it dynamic.

"We weren't in a very good business position with Dead Island. Right from the start, we knew we had to sell the IP."
It wasn't what it is right now. We iterated a lot. At first it was just visuals, and then we thought well, it's kinda nice, but it felt like we could do more. If it doesn't change anything, why bother? So at some point we said, what if we make you "the man" during the day, but when night comes, you're fucked?

But yeah, I think we had more than 10 ideas, and finally we got what we have.

There's also the player vs. player night-time element, where other players can invade games online, right?

Binkowski: Yeah. So we said OK, as another night-time scenario that might happen, sometimes you play a regular night, and sometimes someone drops in. Bringing human factor into the game was something absolutely amazing. I'm a big fan of competitive games, and so bringing another player into the game just turns everything upside. It's totally unpredictable.

Humans made decisions that sometimes make no sense at all. You could make a really cool AI to play, but at some point it's not going to surprise you in the same way that the human players surprise you.

I guess that's a problem that Valve had with the Tank in the original Left 4 Dead -- once you realized how you could trick the Tank AI, the illusion was gone and the curtain was pulled back.

Binkowski: Exactly. So with this, you work out how they play it, and at some point he does something and you think, "Why would you even do that? You should never do that!" And then he surprises you and does something that you wouldn't expect.

It made no sense, but he caught you by surprise and he turned the tables on you and won. That's just what makes games great.

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Alex Nichiporchik
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Fantastic article Mike.

I wonder why Techland didn't just stay with Deep Silver to make "this" in Dead Island 2. I played Dead Island 2 at Gamescom with the 4 player public demo. It was a lot like Left 4 Dead to me, in a bad way. When the fat zombie appeared, someone shouted "BOOMER" and I was done with the demo. It didn't have that feeling of full control of your meleee weapon and desperation of using a gun. In the original Dead Island the gun was last resort, something you'd save up, and in DI2 it feels like a shooter.

But hey, Dying Light looks like Mirror's Edge with zombies. Want!

Chris Clogg
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" I guess that's a problem that Valve had with the Tank in the original Left 4 Dead -- once you realized how you could trick the Tank AI, the illusion was gone and the curtain was pulled back."

This is a really important point and should be highlighted for every zombie game made. My favorite zombie game of all time is Zombie Panic Source, and it's a free mod (I think people still play it today). It's actually incredible how that game can suck you in. It didn't need crazy graphics or mechanics. It's quite simple: on a server of (example) 16 players, 2-3 randomly start out each round as zombies, and the rest start as humans. The humans must then either survive or finish all objectives (depending on map type), and if any die to zombies, they become permanently zombie for the rest of that round. Humans must also find weapons around the map, whereas zombies just have melee attacks (and one strong leader zombie who is also randomly chosen).

What is amazing is that by having every zombie being player-controlled (and able to kill & convert you in ~4 hits), the atmosphere is very scary even if no zombies are around you... because for all you know they could be hiding around the corner or behind you. What Left 4 Dead lacked was that element. Having only 4-8 player games was another issue, but with a lot of AI zombies who are easy to kill, it becomes more of a monotonous grind than an intense battle to head-shot your way through real player zombies.

There's also a lot of mind-games in Zombie Panic. You only start out with a low-ammo pistol and a melee weapon, so each round is a balance of finding a good gun for yourself vs sticking with the team and doing objectives.

Michael Joseph
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"I think we're just entering a new wave of zombie stories which will be more or less self-aware and will take the zombie apocalypse for granted while looking for other stories to tell against that backdrop. The Unliving and Zombie In a Penguin Suit are other examples, although they're both shorts. The Christopher Golden-edited anthology The New Dead also has lots of examples. I think we're still a long way from "peak zombie". :)"

God I hope not. Dying Light looks like a fun and well made action thriller game. But innovative? Sorry, there's not much innovative about zombies anymore. The salient point of zombie apocalypse stories is hardly discussed. A global zombie outbreak symbolizes the epic failure of human civilization (particularly western civilization and western thinking due to their dominance and influence upon the rest of the world). The ZA is the mother of all blow-backs and of chickens coming home to roost. The protagonists are just attempting to delay the final destination they've earned along with the rest of their species.

But zombie stories created by most "artists" minimizes, trivializes or just ignores any philosophical, cultural or sociopolitical conditions that lead to the outbreak or allowed it to happen (which would serve as a indictment against humanity) and instead use the zombie outbreak story as an excuse to make melodramas with epic violence and gore using super convenient to work with bad guys. Zombie stories have no braaaaains.