Interview / We talk to Techland about killing zombies on a Dead Island

If there is one thing that everyone can agree on it’s that killing zombies is hella fun. It’s with great joy then that I learned about Techland’s Dead Island coming out for the Xbox 360 and PC. The guys behind Chrome and Call of Juarez have developed a multi layer damage system that sounds like it’s going to make butchering zombies in FPS style gameplay one of the best looking and most fun pastimes, especially since you can do it with pretty much anything in the game.

That VideoGame Blog recently got the chance to interview Techland’s PR Product Manager Blazej Krakowiak, so a few of us (Zee, Brian, Mike, Rain and I) tossed a number of questions his way to find out a bit more about the independent developer/publisher and their upcoming survival horror game.

That VideoGame Blog (TVGB): Techland has been around for 11 years now. Where many others fail, what do you feel have been the driving factors for your relative success?

Blazej Krakowiak (BK): Techland remains an independent developer. This allows us to set our own standards and innovate without the need to fight a ponderous corporate machine. We keep creating quality games and constantly pushing our limits. Each of our projects has been bigger and more ambitious than the last one.

Our skills and experience in development are put to good use in our other role as a publisher. It allows us to understand both the needs of players and the problems that other developers face much better.

TVGB: The current edition of the ChromeEngine is an impressive one. With DirectX10, Pixel Shader 4.0, physics system, integrated networking and artificial intelligence, plus a host of other features, do you feel it provides enough technology to last through the revolution brought about by quad-core processors and groundbreaking stardard-setting games like ‘Crysis’?

BK:10 years of development have allowed us to polish Chrome Engine not only as powerful technology fuelling modern graphics but also a complete package that facilitates and improves the process of creating games. It’s not an abstract concept or technological demo but a tool which evolved together with our titles. The engine team is working closely with all our game developers to make sure Chrome Engine provides features we need.

TVGB: Let’s talk about Dead Island. First and foremost, the premise is halfway between LOST and a George Romero flick. A couple’s plane crashes on a remote, tropical island filled with zombies. I guess the immediate question that comes to mind is: why an island? Why not a remote mountain town? Or a desert setting?

BK: It’s the idea of apocalypse in paradise that makes our particular setting so appealing. Isolation from the outside world is obviously an important factor, in the best tradition of horrors, but there are other aspects. A tropical holiday resort is a place associated with relaxation and happiness. This makes the impact of the zombie outbreak even more overwhelming. This dissonance between subconscious expectations and reality is an important part of the atmosphere we’re creating.

TVGB: Innovation, I am sure you will agree, is central to every game. The reason games like BioShock and the Elder Scrolls series were so popular was partially because of a heightened sense of innovation, creativity and ingenuity blended into the core gameplay. In September 2007, at Games Convention, you mentioned that one of the things that sets Dead Island apart is that you rarely get to shoot. In fact, you do most of the fighting with objects you find lying around, such as a wooden plank or a crowbar. What are some of the other innovative elements that set this game apart from the hordes of others out there, and are there some parallels between Dead Island and SEGA’s Condemned series when it comes to melee combat?

BK:That’s a real challenge game developers face every day. It’s much more tricky than just cramming in as many new features as possible. Innovation for its own sake is worthless. Dead Island features many innovative ideas but our real effort goes towards ensuring that everything works together smoothly to create the best gaming experience possible.

It’s the scope of the game that really makes Dead Island unique. For example the ability to fight with objects found in the environment is taken to a completely different level. It’s no longer about a long list of weapons. If players can pick up an object, they can use it in a fight. Their way of looking at in-game locations will reflect the perspective of a person caught in a situation of extreme danger. “I need a weapon and I need it now”.

Honestly, whatever weapon you choose, it still looks awesome when it hits the enemies. One of my personal favorites is a giant hammer that construction workers use to demolish walls. It’s a bit slow but when it hits, the ground trembles :). While I’m wielding it, I feel a bit like a priest dishing out holy retribution to the undead. Indoors I prefer to throw sharp objects at zombies. Shards of glass, darts, letter openers, you name it. The look of the enemy still coming at you with all this stuff sticking out of his flesh is creepy.

TVGB: The Multi Layer damage system looks truly amazing. Will the transformation occur in real time as, say, you are bludgeoning an enemy zombie to dead with a blunt instrument? Or is it more of an iterative process of the zombies decaying over time? And how often is the player actually really close enough to witness the gory details up close and personal?

BK: All the transformations are calculated in real time, with per vertex accuracy. This is the revolutionary part of our damage system. It is possible to pre-script several ways of gradual decay and make it look convincing but we wanted more. All damage occurs exactly when and where the model is hit by a specific object. Sharp and blunt weapons cause different types of injuries, just like in the real world. Players will get plenty of opportunities to admire all those effects from the front row. Melee combat is important throughout the entire game and we’re adding a lot of features to make sure it never gets boring: new fighting moves, deadlier foes and other attractions that will be revealed in due time.

TVGB: The Multi Layer damage system also brings up another important question. It is apparent that ‘human physics’ has been carefully and deliberately constructed to aid in the close-quarters gaming experience of hand-to-hand zombie fighting. Will object physics also come into play? Games like Half-Life 2, Crysis, and the upcoming Red Faction: Guerilla Warfare are taking in-game physics to a near real-life level. How accurately will the physical modeling in Dead Island represent real world elements?

BK: World physics are not our focus in this game. With the ability to manipulate the environment limited to the equivalent of human strength, it’s much more important to perfect the combat controls and tissue damage. All objects will have correct physical properties, we can also model any materials we need, physics of gases, liquids and fire also come into play on various occasions. All this serves as a realistic background rather than a feature we want to wave around because this isn’t what Dead Island is about.

TVGB: So attacking the zombies is going to be great, but what about when zombies attack the player? Will the game lean more towards a Resident Evil style of a few zombies at a time or will there be an onslaught of living dead more like House of the Dead?

BK: Zombies in Dead Island come in several variations, each with different abilities and behavior. There is no single pattern for the number of the enemies. They may move individually or in small groups or they can completely flood the place when there is something to draw large numbers of them. Even a single zombie can be dangerous and scare the living daylights out of the player.

TVGB: There appears to be four main points to the story. 1. Survive. 2. Find your woman. 3. Figure out how the zombie infestation came about. 4. Escape the island. How much of an actual story can we expect – will the player be thrown in the middle of a huge storyline or fed little chunks here and there to keep the player moving from one location to another?

BK: There is definitely a story behind all that and it’s big. Those initial goals appear straightforward but there is more than enough to fill the space between them. Think of the initial objectives as an earthquake at the beginning, from there on the tension will keep rising right to the end. Dead Island definitely is story-driven.

TVGB: How do you hope to keep that tension going? Will the horror be more of a slasher/gore kind of scary or suspense driven? A mix of both?

BK: A mix of whatever’s best to keep the excitement up. There will be plenty of gore because it makes sense, not because we’re pouring red onto the screen. Players will experience the situation of extreme danger and desperation that the main character gets thrown into. The atmosphere is the most important factor in a horror and we’re making sure that all parts of the game contribute to it. Dead Island has an exciting and immersive plot, frightening enemies, the unique setting of apocalyptic reality in a tropical paradise and adrenaline-pumping fights to provide the ultimate survival horror experience.

TVGB: It appears that the player has the option of interacting with survivors as well as joining certain factions on the island to combat the zombie menace. These RPG elements necessitate a somewhat open-ended environment. Is the game progression linear, or does the player control how everything plays out along the over-arching main storyline?

BK: There is a mix of both. The main storyline has clearly defined goals that may evolve or increase in number but which are always of utmost importance to the main character. Players still have a lot of flexibility in the way they approach each objective so it’s not the typical linear progression.

Aside from the main plot we have a ton of side quests. They’re optional but each of them is interesting and allows players to explore, understand and fully appreciate the world of Dead Island. We have created believable, living characters with their own stories and their personal goals may support or contradict our main character’s cause. By delving deeper into the reality their small apocalypse, we can gain a significant advantage thanks to experience, items and information we obtain. I want to emphasize that ‘RPG elements’ and a more open-ended structure of the game don’t mean boring interruptions with players wandering around aimlessly, looking for something to occupy themselves. Far from it. Side quests bring even more exciting action to the game.

TVGB: How many hours of play time can gamers look forward to?

BK: It’s too early for such specifics. ‘Enough to thoroughly enjoy the experience’ is all that can be said at this point.

TVGB: What type of character health system will Dead Island be using? Are we going to see the re-birth of health bars, or will the game feature the now-standard regenerating intuitive health levels?

BK: This is one of the things we’re still prototyping and playtesting extensively. Both options have their own advantages and downsides. The intuitiveness of the regenerating health system is debatable and very unrealistic. Nothing is set in stone yet but we’re actually leaning towards the traditional, visible health indicator.

TVGB: In an interview earlier this year, you mentioned that you didn’t want to dilute the single player element by delving into a half-hashed multiplayer aspect of the game. Do you feel that this decision may take away from some of the replayability value of the game? Additionally, with traditionally single player games like Grand Theft Auto finally delving into multiplayer modes as well, do you feel that incorporating multiplayer, perhaps at a later date may be a feasible and prudent option?

BK: Forcing the idea of an excellent single-player game into a completely different environment of multiplayer can be just as bad as the single-player „story mode“ of pure online shooters. Dead Island is a survival horror relying on its mature, immersive story and unique atmosphere. There is no room for multiplayer or even co-op in our current vision of this title. We love multiplayer games and it’s possible we’ll make one in the future. For the moment we’re concentrating on delivering a complete and enjoyable single-player experience.

TVGB: Dead Island, along with other games you currently have in development, will be released on PC and Xbox 360. Why the decision to leave PS3 owners out of the fun?

BK: We’re currently in the process of adding PS3 capability to Chrome Engine. Once it’s done, all decisions regarding the release of our games will depend solely on the publisher.

TVGB: Violence in games has been an even hotter topic than usual as of late. How are you influenced by the press and restrictions that are placed on titles like Manhunt 2? Has there been anything you’ve had to think twice about before adding it to Dead Island in anticipation of it being too gory/graphic to receive an acceptable rating in some territories? And how do you feel about an organization deciding whether or not a game should be released at all; do you think there should be limit when even a ‘Mature’ rating isn’t sufficient?

BK: The right of certain organizations to effectively censor video games by refusing to rate them is a case of pure hypocrisy. Obviously there are laws that specify things excluded from the freedom of expression, like the Nazi ideology or encouragement to commit crimes. Anything beyond those laws – and there should be as few of those as possible – should be available to adults who can make their own decisions. I am sure that everyone would agree that it’s impossible to effectively ban anything in a democratic country with access to the internet. It’s better to have a consistent, independent and complete rating system covering all titles than to refuse some games their rating which results in confusion on the customers’ part.

We’ve been aiming at the Mature rating from the beginning. Dead Island is a survival horror. It features gore and violence because it’s a part of our story. Of course from the business standpoint the rating organizations are important but we’re not afraid that we’ll have to somehow ‘gimp’ Dead Island to satisfy them.