Spending time on the island of California.
"It was the game you couldn't get around in the office," says Yager Producer Michael Kempson. "It was on every retail console we had. People were playing it at lunch time. It went on like that for weeks and weeks."
He's speaking about the original Dead Island, which was a surprise hit in 2011 developed by Polish studio Techland.
This office-wide obsession hit just as Yager finished development on Spec Ops: The Line. Kempson was beginning to look for new projects for the studio, and it wasn't long before he heard through the grapevine that publisher Deep Silver was looking for a new development partner for a Dead Island sequel.
Deep Silver Creative Producer Sebastian Reichert admits that the earliest pre-coding planning for Dead Island 2 had started with Techland, the developer of the first game and spin-off Riptide. But "they decided to go do something else," Reichert says. "We wished them the best of luck. Dying Light looks nice."
But Deep Silver still had a problem to come to terms with before bringing Yager on to the project: Spec Ops: The Line was a very serious game, in many ways the polar opposite of what Deep Silver wanted for Dead Island. And the franchise already had a problem with tone.
"We found that out with the trailer for the first game," Reichert says. That non-gameplay reveal was praised for the powerful, sad story it told in just a few minutes of computer animation. But that gravitas was nowhere to be found in the game itself. "The tone is something we had to address."
For Yager, this wasn't a problem. "The thing we learned with Spec Ops was to do the right thing with the right game," Kempson says. "We learned a work ethic and attitude to how we pursue and portray a story in a game."
Thus the E3 2014 reveal trailer for Dead Island 2, which played during Sony's press conference at E3. Reichert reiterates the point of the stylish trailer: "We're not dark and depressing. We're not ridiculous and stupid. We're cool and kick-ass."
Tying into the attempt at being hip is Dead Island 2's new setting: California. While not technically an island, the entire state has been quarantined off from the rest of the U.S. after the first game's zombie virus spread there. The game will include a large number of California locations — Reichert mentions the beaches of Los Angeles, the hills of Hollywood, and the streets of San Francisco.
Don't expect a hyper-realistic or to-scale version of California, though. "Perhaps our geography will be a bit weird," Kempson says. "The reason we do that isn't technical. It's artistic."
He explains Yager's inspiration for the world: "When we first thought of California, what came to mind was this postcard California. If we went down the Santa Monica beach right now, went to the tourist store and they had a postcard of California — that's how we approached the vistas and the scenery. It's the version that I think people are going to recognize from television and movies."
In the demo shown at E3, we only get to see an unpolished slice of that dreamy version of California. The demo is a combat-focused prototype that Yager created last year, and it's set in the streets of San Francisco. The player character is driven through the city in a large van until they come across a barricade that the van can't get through. The player hops out while the driver looks for a way around.
The initial combat looks very similar to the violent, first-person melee fighting from the original game. Zombie limbs are sliced off. Zombie torsos are run through. Zombie heads are lopped off.
As in the first game, players take on the role of special humans who are immune to the zombie virus. The four playable characters have embraced this strange fate, using it as an excuse for a new life tracking down people and treasure in the quarantine zone.
In the demo, the player enters a house looking for a survivor. It turns out a group of survivors have decided to hold a wedding in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. The survivor in question complains about this poor planning bitterly until he's interrupted by the sound of squealing tires outside.
Carrying forth another trend from the first Dead Island, zombies are not the only enemies. Players will also encounter uninfected humans who are out to hurt them. In this case, a human faction called "raiders" has decided to crash the wedding festivities. A friend tosses the main character a machine gun.
This brief portion of the demo is where Yager's contributions to Dead Island really come through. The original game struggled with unreliable gunplay. While we didn't get hands-on time, Dead Island 2 seems to handle guns ... well, like a traditional shooter. Spec Ops: The Line proved that Yager knows how shooting should feel, and it seems like Dead Island 2 will carry that forward.
Of course, you can choose your wits in addition to guns in these battles. In the demo, the player shoots some cars near the raiders. Not only does the inevitable explosion kill off some of the human enemies, it grabs the attention of a nearby horde of zombies that rushes in to distract and kill many of the remaining humans.
"We want the combat to be more of a sandbox," Reichert says. The game's enemy encounters will mix humans and zombies in a lot of different permutations, allowing players to approach each situation differently.
That includes the ability to bring other human players into the mix. The first game's four-player cooperative multiplayer is being expanded to up to eight players in what Deep Silver is calling "seamless social multiplayer." That means it goes beyond co-op this time.
"We ended up with basically a localized MMO on our hands," says Kempson. "A very small MMO in a big open world."
Reichert says that internally Deep Silver has been referring to Dead Island 2 as "the world's smallest MMO." He notes that once a server goes online for a player, it's persistent until such a point that no players are logged on. Theoretically, if you left at least one player in at all times, a server could go on indefinitely. "I'm looking forward to the moment where we find out what the oldest game we have is," he says with a laugh.
Kempson explains how it works: When you turn on Dead Island 2, it defaults to online and creates a server for you or joins one that's already open. It will populate a server with your friends first with the option to pull in strangers from there. Once another player is in your game and on your server, you can choose to group up with them or ignore them. Or, you can fight.
"Maybe you're pissed at how I behaved," Reichert says. "We wanted to make sure there's more than living next to each other and cooperating. There should be a chance to compete with each other."
Deep Silver isn't ready to talk about how the game will encourage or foster competitive play quite yet, but Reichert mentions "designated areas where things can get really rough." Kempson hints that players will fight over resources in some way.
The conflicts and alliances of online are important to Yager's long-term plans for Dead Island 2 — namely its buzzword promise of "endless replayability." This is another area where the game is attempting to emulate an MMO.
Kempson recognizes the huge burden this puts on the game in terms of content: "When you're playing an MMO, you don't want to have a point in the game, whether it's the level cap or a narrative moment, where the game suddenly says, 'OK, you've had a great 50 hours, now stop playing.' We figured out early that we want to keep people playing in that world."
For Yager, that means a constant stream of new things for players to do is a necessity. "I've been on other projects where people are doing downloadable content planning," Kempson says, "and it's like, well, we're still finishing the game, so we don't even want to think about it right now. We can't do that. We have to think about it right now."
Right now, Kempson says the most important missing element is seeing how people actually end up playing Dead Island 2. "What we're thinking about now is how do we keep a good eye on the game to see what players are reacting to the most and extend that experience," he says.
A big test for that will be Dead Island 2's upcoming public hands-on events, which will be at Penny Arcade Expo and Gamescom later this year. That's where the rough combat demo we saw will be blended with a much more beautiful (and much shorter) environment demo.
In the mean time, both Kempson and Reichert are confident that Yager was the right choice to move this franchise forward. "We're very happy with the situation we now have," Reichert says. "Everyone believes this is it."
For his part, Kempson still seems a bit stunned by the turn of events: "It's so strange as a fan of a game to suddenly get the opportunity to act on the things you see in the game and think, 'We would have done this.' It's a real big responsibility. None of us take it lightly."
"We've just tried to put as many great things as possible into Dead Island 2 for people to play with," he says. "We think all the toys are there; we just hope people have fun with it."