Dead Island: The Reckoning

What's scarier than an island full of zombies? Making your first open-world game.

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If there’s one thing you learn quickly as a game developer, it’s that innovation is hard. Not just hard to do, but hard to to sell. Innovation means doing things differently. It means taking risks. It means going way out on a limb with no guarantee of success. It means building engines from scratch, designing levels with tools fresh out of the box and telling stories that, in the finished product, may not make any sense. No one knows this more than Techland, the Poland-based developer behind last year’s tropical island zombie brawler, Dead Island.

Dead Island is a four-player co-op action/horror game, with a fully scripted and acted single-player and co-op campaign set in an open, tropical world filled with zombies and hundreds of customizable weapons with which to kill them. It is huge, ambitious and in order to bring it to life the Techland team literally redesigned its development tools, its game engine and its internal production processes; basically rewiring everything they do.

The result? The Metacritic average for the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC versions of the game stands at approximately a 75, with a user rating of 6.5. Not, in other words, so much of a bang as a “meh.”

Vox Games spoke with Techland’s Senior Level Designer Piotr Pawlaczyk and writer Haris Orkin about the years-long development process; what when wrong, what went right and what they will do when (or if) it’s time to make Dead Island 2.

The challenge


It was a difficult task from Day One: build an open-world game in the over-used zombie apocalypse genre with a team that had never before built either an open-world or zombie game. And then, just for fun, add four player co-op.

"This resulted in a completely different logic behind the level construction, interconnected quests and a ton of new mechanisms and solutions … which meant new problems we’ve never experienced in the previous projects."

By 2010, the relatively unknown development studio Techland had been making games for over a decade. The team was best known for their Call of Juarez series, which breathed new life into Western shooters in 2006, but the developers had nonetheless failed to make a breakout game that would get everyone talking. When Dead Island’s jaw-dropping and artful trailer erupted in February of 2011, all of that seemed set to change.

Suddenly they found themselves with a new problem: Gamers, who had largely ignored Techland for years were now paying too much attention to Dead Island, and — perhaps — expecting too much.

"I think that fantastic trailer that brought so much attention to Dead Island created an expectation for a tone that really isn’t possible to pull off in a game where you’re decapitating zombies," says writer Haris Orkin.

Gamers, hungry for more information about this new zombie game, latched on to the narrative in the short trailer and fell in love with the story of the vacationing family caught up in the middle of a zombie massacre, and forced to make stirring sacrifices in order to survive. Unfortunately this story had nothing to do with the finished game.

“That fantastic trailer created an expectation for a tone that really isn’t possible in a game where you’re decapitating zombies.”
D__piotr_pawlaczyk_300“There was no one to say ‘This is how it's done.’”

While an early iteration of Dead Island did feature a narrative about a lost family fending off zombies, it was dropped in favor of focusing on four unrelated protagonists, each with a separate backstory and each contributing to the overall game in separate ways. This transition from one story to four coincided with the decision to add four-player co-op to the final product, which in turn coincided with the acquisition of the Dead Island IP by publisher Deep Silver, who went on to work with Techland to finish the game.

While it’s arguable whether the dropped sentimental story would have been a harm or hindrance to the final product, it illustrates the admirable fact that Techland was willing to murder its babies in order to make the best game they could, despite having little idea what they were doing.

"There was no one to come and point their finger saying: ‘This is how it’s done,’" says Pawlaczyk. "[All] we had were lectures, books, snippets of postmortems of other projects, other games themselves and a team of people ready to face any challenge."

The challenge, in this case, being to create an open-world, co-op, zombie apocalypse game with more weapons than some MMOs, a strong central narrative, four main characters and a world built from the ground up to encourage exploration. That would also have scripted levels. And be scary. In the daylight.

"I love working with Techland," says Orkin. "They're extremely talented and they have no fear when it comes to pushing the boundaries of story and gameplay. Dead Island was an extremely ambitious and very risky game for them to develop."

Some developers would cry themselves to sleep facing such a challenge, but Techland dove into it with an admirable zeal, methodically laying out the challenges and then addressing them one-by-one.


The Addressing

"We set several goals for ourselves at the beginning of the production that became the main challenges for the Level Design department," says Pawlaczyk.

The goals, he shared with Vox Games, were as follows:

Dead Island:

    will feature open locations that the player will be free to explore

    will feature maps that are not generic or repetitive

    will astonish with its visuals, number of models and details not repel with a "flat and angular grayness"

    will maintain the atmosphere of danger while featuring an open-game mechanics and a resort island environments

    will be as fun to play for a single player as it will be for a four-player coop party

The last item on the list proved to be the one of the most complicated to address. Pawlaczyk says the Techland team wanted the game to be just as fun for one player as for four, which involved careful management of weapons, enemies, objects and even story.

Another thing that doesn’t make sense: being afraid of a beach

Part of the problem was the zombies themselves. Not only were they, in Pawlaczyk’s words "unruly," with behavior and performance difficult to predict from a level design perspective, but a zombie encounter that may be challenging for a single player could be too easy – or worse, boring – for a co-op party.

One solution was to carefully manage the number and types of zombies on the map. Another was to give a co-op party ways to play that differentiated their experience from that of the single players’.

"At a fairly late stage of development we introduced 'heavy objects' to the game, such as canisters or crates, that supported the co-op experience," says Pawlaczyk. "One of the players was carrying the objects while the others protected them. In a single-player game the objects could be thrown into the enemies faces and topple them.

"[In] this way we managed to create two fine, though completely different, types of mechanics in one game: the single-player mode that gave the player a chance to experience the atmosphere of terror, get to know the plot, learn to conserve the weapons, ammunition and health; and the co-op mode that enabled the players to get all the fun of group mayhem and hunting down the ‘defenseless’ zombies."


The addition of four-player co-op also created significant challenges for Haris Orkin, the writer tasked with creating a deep, compelling narrative for Dead Island.

"When you throw in four-player co-op in an open world, adding a cohesive over-arching story is just more difficult," says Orkin, who’s resume includes story stints on Call of Juarez, Call of Juarez 2, Command & Conquer: Kane’s Wrath, and Red Alert 3.

"When you design and/or create a story for a game, you’re trying to predict what the player will do. If he has three paths he can take, you need to work out the story for all three. But if you have four players, those paths increase exponentially."

Orkin says a lot of what he and Techland had planned to do with the game, narratively, had to be adjusted to be more compatible with a four-player game.

Not only do players in an online multiplayer co-op match typically ignore the story in favor of high-fiving over their favorite zombie kills, but in a game where the same story has to make as much sense to one player as to four, there are some tools that have to stay in the box.

Like split perspectives.

"Originally, the [four main] characters were going to have different takes on the story and discover different parts of the mystery," says Orkin, "but those narrative elements were getting in the way of gameplay and mechanics so it was decided to remove them.

"The designers wanted you to be able to play any character in the four-player co-op. So that meant there could be four Sam B's simultaneously which, of course, made no sense in terms of the over-arching story."

Another thing that doesn’t make sense: being afraid of a beach.

The decision to stray away from "flat, angular grayness" in Dead Island’s visuals meant the team had to design a horror game with a color palette dominated by the cheerful green of jungle foliage and the bright, white sunlight reflected off a pristine, white-yellow beach. Not to mention the powder blue skies and crystal-clear waters. And the well-manicured landscapes. Cheerful beach umbrellas. And so on.

Techland leaned on zombie surprise attacks to carry a lot of that weight.

"We put a lot of effort into creating the events," says Pawlaczyk, "placing the zombies, building level geometry, environment storytelling and the logics that would enable the opportunity for the zombies to surprise the player in this open world."

Turning a corner in any of Dead Island’s environments, players could find themselves face-to-face with a zombie horde, a single powerful zombie or ... nothing. The tension helped ground the "joyful slashing" and overly cheerful locale and allowed Techland to introduce a bit of unexpected terror in an otherwise exuberant zombie bashing game with a sunny holiday setting.

Optional, sweet pullquote. Use it or remove it, the choice is yours.

The leveling

While zombies, objects and story could be relatively easily manipulated to help Techland address many of the challenges they faced in developing Dead Island, one thing over which they had no control whatsoever was the limitations of the hardware that would be running their game. In spite of the the team's desire and ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles with innovative solutions, there was simply nothing they could do about the number of operations a given Xbox could perform at any given time.

Yet they were set on creating an open-world zombie game that would:

Feature maps that are not generic or repetitive.

Astonish with its visuals.

Maintain the atmosphere of danger while featuring an open-game mechanics and a resort island environment

Something would have to give.

Pawlaczyk admits that Dead Island development hit some roadblocks thrown up by modern consoles, particulary in the area of graphics. He says the team intentionally reduced the game’s draw distance, sacrificing some of the scenic views in order to preserve each individual environment’s lushness. They also constructed the geometry of the world in such a way that objects behind another object (such as a building behind a mountain), were not rendered until the player could actually see them, reducing the load on the precious system memory and processing power.

“Using a location people know from their everyday lives stimulates the players’ imagination.”

Another example is the on again / off again nature of Dead Island’s open world setting. The game, set on the island of Banoi and the surrounding areas, is actually not one open-world environment but several, strung together and broken up by smaller levels which Techland calls "mission" levels.

"The ‘mission’ levels were different from all other levels," says Pawlaczyk. "By design they were meant to be scripted, linear levels that delivered to the players a different type of fun. They were created to be a kind of break from traversing the large sandboxes."

In practice, this means that players will occasionally venture into a police station or other structure more resembling a classic, linear game level than the modern open-world environments that form the backbone of Dead Island. Techland cleverly packed each mission level with encounters and scares, or used them as safe houses or opportunities for fetch quests or other missions. Partly to reduce the demands of the game on current console tech, but also to create a sense of terror by taking recognizable settings and twisting them in the direction of horror.


"Using a location that people generally know from their everyday lives such as a hotel or hospital and making it the site of an unusual tragedy ... stimulates the players’ imagination better than attempts to build the atmosphere of terror inside a space station," says Pawlaczyk. "It is easier for people to imagine themselves in a similar situation and the thought alone gives them goose bumps!"

He says of all the environments in Dead Island, his least favorite is the prison level, near the game’s end.

"Not because of its design or the events that take place there but because there were a few things we would have liked to do with it that wound up not happening."

There was also a level in an early version of the game that was a series of tunnels connecting the various bunkers on the resort island and in the jungle. This level was apparently so little fun it didn’t even make it out of the prototype stage, which explains why a trip between bunkers — in the finished game — begins and ends with a load screen.

“There were a few things we would have liked to do with it that wound up not happening.”

Pawlaczyk’s favorite level in the game, however, isn’t one of the mission levels, but rather a small section of the open world map in the city of Moresby. Hardly more than an alley, the "Quarantine Zone" is an isolated and claustrophobic neighborhood in which the game’s fictional residents staged a pitched battle against the zombie horde and lost — all before you even pressed ‘play.’

"If you played that part of the game I’m sure you know the place," says Pawlaczyk, "a shut off part of the town where the people still tried to stop the disease from spreading and locked the infected inside these walls just like during the Black Death. It’s a place where dozens of infected come at you from every direction and a spot for well-equipped hardcore players."

The intensity of the action in this small space, and the subtextual story it tells are examples of where Dead Island flourishes and what makes it a stand-out in a market otherwise crowded with zombie games.

Well, that and the buckets of customizable weapons.

Dead-island-ripperDi_aks74u_300“Maintaining the balance and diversity of the weapons was close to impossible.”

The weaponing

In Dead Island you can take simple weapons like machetes and baseball bats and turn them into items of extraordinary death-dealing with just a few simple household objects and a set of blueprints. Pawlaczyk says the option to develop and modify weapons was designed to reward players with extra bad-assery for exploring the game’s nooks and crannies, and to motivate players to explore even further.

"We tried to design the levels and place blueprints in them in a way that allowed the players to quickly build a new gadget and easily find a place to use it," he says. "The location of the blueprints was also meaningful. Most of them, depending on the level of their complexity and power appeared later on in the story progress."

There is also a completely undocumented Easter egg that rewards players for collecting rare colored skulls with blueprints for extremely powerful weapons.

Pawlaczyk calls these "developer weapons" and says their inclusion was something of a lark:

"We built logic around how to unlock [developer weapons] and hid them within the levels. Very few [people] knew about these blueprints to the extent that we purposely gave no instructions in any guides on how to find them.

"It was a nice surprise to see how quickly fan videos appeared on YouTube showing the [colored] skulls. We hope the players had a lot of fun finding them!"

Dead Island’s massive weapon selection and customization, while adding buckets of fun for players and explorers, also created unexpected challenges for the development team. From a technological perspective, the traditional way of handling weapons was to build them in to each level, effectively "holding" the weapons within the design of the level itself. But for Dead Island, the traditional method just wouldn’t cut it. There were too many weapons.

"Maintaining the balance and diversity of the weapons was close to impossible," says Pawlaczyk. "Especially when the players returned from the Slums to Resort to find planks and sticks while being equipped with machetes and guns."

The solution was to create a separate subsystem devoted specifically to keeping track of and storing weapons in designated containers like filing cabinets or storage lockers.

"The system ... would draw items from a lot depending on the player’s level, story progression and player’s actions," says Pawlaczyk. "[This] relieved the workload of the level designers who from then on only had to make sure that the placement of the containers in the levels was believable."

Finding a chest filled with weapons and ammunition, for example, in a room where unarmed survivors are hiding from the zombie horde, begging you to save them would, while technically possible, break the realism of the game from a player perspective.

Similarly, Pawlaczyk says that another of the technological enhancements to Techland’s custom Chrome engine allowed the level designers to simply copy and paste level elements to create larger environments, which made the designers workload a lot lighter but had the unintended consequence of creating oddly anachronistic elements in the final levels."

"It might result in things as ridiculous as the memorable repeatable quest with a woman dying of thirst and asking for water while there was a can of coke standing right next to her. This was an example of unconsciously randomized selection that spawned the beverage.

"Fortunately, we managed to fix this small problem in a patch."

The escorting


Yet even with a dedicated, passionate team and the creative muscle to devise workarounds for Microsoft and Sony’s now half-decade old console technology, not even Techland was ultimately able to solve the one problem that has plagued gaming for as long as NPC characters have been able to talk and walk:

Escort missions suck.

Pawlaczyk acknowledges that Dead Island’s escort missions are are no exception.

Our programmers handed the Level Design department an AI designed specifically for escort missions that we started experimenting with. One of the first tests we made was ‘attaching’ the AI to a player in the ‘Follow’ mode. The AI was following the player everywhere as a true escort would do, but the first problems appeared when the player started to behave unconventionally and lead the AI to places that the NPC couldn’t handle which resulted in the NPC being stuck or dying quickly from the hands of a zombie horde.

We decided that it is too risky and may be highly frustrating for the players to have such escort characters in the game.

Dead Island’s designers tried a couple of approaches to making escort missions more fun, ultimately settling on powerful escort characters that lead the player through the level instead of having to follow behind, and that could defend themselves if the need arose.

Unfortunately this raised a new issue:

"We [unintentionally] created unpredictable killers who were capable of annihilating dozens of zombies," says Pawlaczyk. "There was a quest where a bulky strong guy wielding a sledgehammer was taking us to one of the apartments and it was fun to watch him pave the way for himself and the player with his weapon … the problem was the NPC was so effective the player lost all the fun of fighting against the zombies.

"We decided to ‘sedate’ the AI and only gave them the ability to defend themselves in close quarters."

“We unintentionally created unpredictable killers.”Di_killer_300

The sequeling?

Techland and Dead Island-publisher Deep Silver are being coy about discussing a sequel to the game, although the project is rumored to already be well into development. No one involved, however, is shy about expressing interest in having another shot at addressing some of the challenges they faced.

"There are always things to improve," says Orkin. "We all learned a lot creating this game and I would love to take what we learned and apply to the next one."

Pawlaczyk says the experience of developing Dead Island was, first and foremost, a positive one.

"It was the unexplored, hundreds of questions and ideas that made it a great experience," he says. "Each of us was driven by this vision and the passion to create fun games."

Although he does have one regret:

"If someone asked me what I would like to change in Dead Island (which we did — ed.) it would surely be the balancing of the final encounter. Watching the YouTube videos posted by the players, none of us would have thought that gamers would deal with that enemy that easily."

He adds that among the items on the list of things they will "pay more attention to" on future projects are things like:

    Maintaining a constant flow of information among departments.

    More closely monitoring memory usage on the consoles at every stage of development

    Players will respond positively the more fun things they have to play with and the more space they have in which to play with them

All of which sounds like good advice for any developer, and should make ... whatever Techland’s next game turns out to be even more fun than Dead Island.

Pawlaczyk also says that in the future Techland will: "Avoid escort missions," which is something we can probably all agree on.