Dying Light, the upcoming zombie apocalypse game by Dead Island developers Techland and published by Warner Bros., is shaping up to be an interesting experience. I played a bit of it late last year, and found it enjoyable. Combining hoards of the undead with a huge open world and the freedom of a parkour-like movement system, and with the option of four player co-op, Dying Light promises to give a unique experience of the zombie apocalypse. We recently talked with Tymon Smektala, producer of Dying Light, about how the crew at Techland are making the zombie apocalypse happen.
Dying Light, while an open world game, does contain a linear narrative experience. According to Smektala, it’s a cinematic experience, and “all of the main events, twists and conclusions are the same for each player and every playthrough.” Variety comes from the specific path you choose to take between these events, with Dying Light’s open world offering “many elements of emergent gameplay” that will shake up the experience. There are side quests – a “few dozen”, according to Smektala – that you can choose to follow, some of which “influence the flow of the game.” More interesting is the way the game creates situations just for you – what Techland are calling the “Dynamic Encounters system”. This is similar to Left 4 Dead’s Director, in that it “contextually generates random events just for you, based on your experience level, weapon, condition, etc.” Players can choose to participate in these randomly generated events, with some tangible rewards. “If you participate in these events – which is completely up to you – your character will be able to grow, he will be recognized by the survivors in the quarantine zone, he’ll get access to new options, features and missions so… there are more important consequences than just missing out on XP.”
It was important for Techland to build a clear identity for Dying Light, since it is a brand new IP. Aside from the obvious gameplay and art design decisions, Dying Light is also distinguishing itself through its story. Dying Light takes place a few months after the zombie outbreak, within the quarantined city of Harran. Being cut off from the rest of the world raises questions about the outside world. “What’s happening outside? Is there anyone living out there? And if there is, what do the outside people think about those trapped inside? And what about the survivors? Is there still a hope for them? What’s their take on the Infected? Do they perceive them as bloodthirsty, soulless monsters or maybe they still have some feelings for them? In Dying Light, we will ask all these questions, and our story will answer some of them. But, of course, we’ll leave some things for the players to interpret.”
A few things have changed since I played it in October, and even since the latest sets of trailers were released. Combat and freerunning – “two pillars” of the Dying Light experience – have both been refined, but not reinvented. Techland has confidence in the foundations of their mechanics, and have worked to polish them, rather than chopping and changing. “I’m extremely pleased with what we have,” Smektala said, “in Dying Light you can move with freedom that’s unprecedented in FPS games, you can participate in brutal, weighty melee combat, and I really think that these features will leave a mark on the first person genre.” Every day brings Dying Light closer to completion, and with that comes constant improvement. “As all game developers do, we work on our baby 24/7, with uncurbed enthusiasm, constantly improving every little thing.” Smektala told us. “Our ultimate goal is to create an experience that will immerse players in our game world, and we’re on a right path to deliver just that. I hope players will see that next time we show Dying Light.”
Dying Light’s Infected are designed to be a challenge. Techland’s approach to the zombie apocalypse was decidedly realistic from early on, according to Smektala. This resulted in a different way of presenting the undead – they’re relentless, sometimes smart, hard to kill, and have a powerful bite. “I was once asked by one of our fans about how many ‘zombies’ the player has to meet to feel challenged and threatened, and my answer was really simple – ‘just one’. When you see two, it’s already a ‘Houston we got problem’, and when there’s a crowd, and you know that three is a crowd – then it’s DEFCON 1.”
We asked Smektala if there would be any additional hardcore difficulty modes, and he told us “[t]o be honest, it’s not really necessary – Dying Light can be a pretty hardcore experience without the need for any additional modes”
As for death-dealing goodies – the weapons and tools you have at your disposal – Smektala is promising “[t]ons”. “To be honest,” Smektala continued, “we didn’t count them one by one, but considering that there are a few dozen regular weapons and you can craft nearly all of them in different ways, it gives you literally hundreds of shiny, bloody toys. I don’t think anyone will be able to see all of our tools of destruction in one playthrough.”
Dying Light’s world is large – the biggest the Techland team have ever built. It’s not just three to four times larger than Techland’s previous open world game Dead Island, but it’s also more dense – graphically and gameplay-wise. It’s a response to the gameplay’s freedom of movement. “Because of the freedom we give the players and the fact they can go anywhere, we have to create not only the streets and alleys – the corridors of a traditional FPS game – but almost literally everything that’s inside the quarantine zone: every shack, building and skyscraper.” We’ve already seen one area – the overpass – but Smektala is promising many more on the way. “So far we’ve only shown one of our locations, and we keep other areas secret, but I’m sure that when we reveal them players will have something to look at. It’s a promise!”
Part of Dying Light’s density is just how much of the world is accessible to players. Specifically, players are able to fully explore a majority of the buildings in the game. Not all buildings are accessible, though, as “some have been closed for a reason”, but Techland are looking to reward players willing to explore. “We aim to reward players for being curious, for role-playing a real survivor scavenging for supplies,” Smektala told us, “so there will be lots of secrets, collectables and environmental storytelling ‘views’ to find in these buildings.”
Dying Light’s world really comes to un-life after the sun sets. The (relatively) leisurely approach of wandering the streets, fighting enemies, and looting supplies goes out the window when the sun goes down. “[T]he night experience is completely different,” Smektala said, “new types of freaks come out and they are more dangerous, more intelligent (they can cooperate), and more agile (so they can jump on top of roofs just as good as you).” This necessitates mastery of your skillset and a change in tactics. Sneaking, evasion, and combat play an important role at night time, as do the traps placed around the city which the player can use to ditch pursuers. And there’s always the option to call in extra help in the form of co-op if you can’t handle the dark.
Important to Techland was that the game performed well across all platforms – but with a gameplay focus rather than graphics. “[T]he number of enemies on screen is one of the most important factors influencing how the game plays.” Smektala told us. Keeping the same number of enemies across platforms is a challenge for the team. To keep the framerates acceptable, Techland have had to upgrade their Chrome Engine. The same gameplay experience is being aimed at across both current and next-gen consoles. “The only thing we change [across platforms], though, is the amount of graphical glitz and glamour, but we squeeze everything out of all the platforms, so no matter which you choose to play Dying Light on, you can expect some pretty nice sights.”
Since Techland are developing simultaneously across all the platforms, there is no clear lead platform. Smektala told us that the team are conscious of the technical capabilities of each platform, as well as what is and is not possible. The exact degree of performance parity across platforms is yet unsure, though, since it’s still too early in the development process to tell, although a powerful PC does have its advantages. “We’re still optimizing our game,” Smektala said, “it’s an ongoing process, and it will not stop until the final submission.”
“Our aim is to offer the same gameplay experience on all next-gen platforms, and we’ll not rest on our laurels until we know that we did everything we could to have the game play & look great on every piece of hardware.”
Interestingly, Techland are not using the Xbox One’s much-touted cloud technology to enhance the game on that platform. While Microsoft have been pushing cloud tech as a viable way of enhancing in-game elements, such as AI, Dying Light won’t be offloading any AI compute load. Smektala told us this was to ensure that the user experience of the zombie AI would be “equally kick-ass” across every platform.
Dying Light is currently aiming for a 2014 release, although no specific date has been announced. It’ll be coming to PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC. It’s being developed by Techland and published by Warner Bros. We’ll naturally keep tabs on Dying Light as it continues to be worked on, so stay tuned. Thanks very much to Tymon Smektala and Techland for their time.