Gamescom 2014: An Interview with Dying Light’s Maciej Binkowski
After my hands on with Dying Light’s intense coop demo at Gamescom I was able to have a brief chat with Maciej Binkowski, the lead game designer on the title. Read on for his insights into the game’s development, why programming AI to replicate a human player is such a difficult task and how Dying Light built on the foundations laid by Dead Island while forging its own unique identity.
Why did you decide to differentiate the day and nighttime gameplay experiences?
We knew we had to build a new IP, building new ip means you have to have something new, something fresh, something unique. Even on Dead Island we wanted to have dynamic day and night cycles we just weren’t able to pull that off. We had some DLC (Dead Island: Riptide) that had a day and night cycle but it didn’t happen dynamically. But we needed something more than simply having the visuals change. Why don’t we have something more, why don’t we change the rules of the game. Why don’t you have the advantage during the day and lose that advantage during the night, and from there we started brainstorming how this would work and we ended up with what’s in the game now, and an additional byproduct was the invasion system.
Are there different types of hunters (player controlled zombies) than what we saw?
There is only one type of zombie, but we will be providing more details about the zombie player later this year.
He has his own skill tree and you can decide how you want to develop him.
The hunter might invade your game even if you are playing solo.
The zombie is always controlled by another player. That’s also what makes each match unpredictable.
Do you think AI will ever get to the point where it can truly replace a human player?
I don’t know, humans make the most unpredictable choices. Teaching AI to do that is extremely difficult. The AI is too good, it would kill you too quickly. If we ever come up with Terminators we’re screwed. The whole thing about building AI is making sure it isn’t too good, but that it still feels believable and maintaining the challenge.
The flashlight can be a gift or a curse? How else has stealth been integrated into the game?
Sound plays a big role. Zombies are attracted to noise, which you can use to your advantage. Say you are playing coop and your partner starts banging a pipe against the wall, this will grab the zombie’s attention so that you can sneak around them. There is a crouch button as well as your ‘night sense’, which is used for both stealth and navigation. Night sense can give you better awareness of your surroundings, and crouching can both mask your movement and be used while running to slide under obstacles. Both tools give you added mobility and flexibility in dealing with the dangerous world that you are surrounded by throughout the game.
Can ‘night sense’ be turned off to increase the game’s difficulty?
We only have a single difficulty level so far, but we might implement multiple difficulty levels, as it is an interesting idea to give the player the choice of turning night sense off and on.
What lessons did you learn from Dead Island and Dead Island: Riptide?
Dead Island was our first open world game, and we had to teach ourselves everything from the ground up and with this title we have the chance to apply those lessons, we know a lot more about how to tune AI, and how to balance player progression. More than that we have had an opportunity to truly increase the player’s immersion in the game. One way of doing so is the parkour movement system. It’s one of our proudest additions to the formula. We had some dynamic movement in Dead Island, but we have taken it so much further in Dying Light, your body has weight and momentum now. That sense of weightiness also carries over to combat, and beyond simply making the combat feel more impactful we have made Dying Light less of a hack and slash game than Dead Island was and made this game a little more dark and a little more serious.
Hack and slash is ‘ok’ but when you hit a zombie on the hand a dozen times and end up killing him that way it sucks you out of the experience to too great a degree. Which is why we removed health bars from popping up over the zombie’s heads, and required you, at least with the more common zombies, to have to destroy the brain to put them down, as you should.
Did developing for current generation consoles have a big impact on the gameplay systems you were able to build into the game?
The new consoles made it much easier for us to focus on making the game as opposed to making the game work. The SDKs (software development kits) are much better and make things easier for us. But one of the biggest changes that current gen has wrought on our design of the game is the knowledge that at any time a console player can press a button and share their gameplay experience with the world. It’s a great opportunity to build a community, and make it centered around the zombie kill of the week or whatever.
At the end of the day the game is all about making the game the player’s own, we want to give people toys and let them play with them, and see how far they can take it.
Sony announced Shareplay at their Gamescom Press Conference, is that something you could see further expanding Dying Light’s community?
We’re not making any statements just yet. But regarding cooperative play, we are aiming to make it a competitive experience by implementing things like the coop challenges, as we believe it’s a natural tendency for anyone that does anything else with another person. We play competitive games at the office all the time to help the team both blow off steam and bond, and we hope Dying Light is able to acheive the same thing?
Speaking of your team, how big is your development team?
It’s at about one hundred and fifty people now, we were only eleven when we first started developing DI 1 and that became one hundred by the time the game was completed.
How long did it take to go from concept to completion on Dead Island?
It took about five years, and over the course of that time Dead Island almost completely transformed. It was an entirely single player experience that evolved into an open world multiplayer game. I joined the team at the crossroads of the project.
Lastly, what were you doing before you joined the Dead Island development team?
I used to do a lot of different things, I was a programmer, which was ok, but through it all I have been a gamer. River Raid on the Atari was one of my first gaming experiences. When I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up my only response was: “I don’t know, but I want to do something with games.” Now I’m making toys that I like to play, how perfect is that?