Interviewing Marciej Binkowski was a stroke of luck at Gamescom this year, as Warner Games’ stand was rammed to the gills with journalists who wanted the latest on Techland’s upcoming shooter. And with the developer of Dead Island now readying its next zombie opus in the form of Dying Light, the pressure was certainly on for Marciej’s parent company to deliver. Would Dying Light prove to be just as anti-climactic as Dead Island, and what was Techland doing to ensure that its game would not be overlooked in the forthcoming holiday season? To answer this and more, Dying Light‘s Lead Game Designer sat down with me and agreed to have his game be put underneath the spotlight. Enjoy!
What is your role on Dying Light?
So, I’m the lead game designer. That means I’m responsible for putting all the pieces together, making sure that everything fits nicely, balancing the game. You know, how much health everything has, how much damage. I’m responsible for the mechanics and systems in the game like crafting, inventory, loot and stuff like that. So pretty much all the game.
Did you work on Dead Island 1?
Yes I did.
Were you the game designer for that?
Part of it. I started working at Techland as associate producer. My first responsibilities were localization and voice overs, but Techland mixes roles a lot so I started getting little things to design and with time they liked what I did, so
Why did you decide to break away from the Dead Island franchise and carve out a new IP with Dying Light? What do you think are the major differences?
We kind of got forced to make a new IP. The deal right from the start was that Deep Silver keeps the IP. Basically we had different ideas of where to take that franchise, so you know they’re the owners of the franchise, it’s their call.
So creative differences basically?
Yeah, pretty much. They decided to go their own way. We knew we wanted to make a sequel, and since we were pushed to make a new IP you can’t just make Dead Island 2 and just change the name right? So I think it actually worked in my favor, because it really pushed us to come up with something new, fresh, and unique. I don’t really know that much about Dead Island 2, unfortunately I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had a chance to play it yet. I hope to play it. I think the biggest difference that we have is dynamic day and night cycle, and the unprecedented freedom of movement. In our game you can go pretty much wherever you want, you know, all maps are open vertically. That’s something [that’s] really unique, I would even say that it’s unique in the FPS genre, not only the zombie game genre.
Parkour is a feature that Dying Light implements. Parkour hasn’t really been done that successfully before in first person shooters. EA tried it with Mirror’s Edge, and other games [such as Brink] have tried it too. What makes you think that parkour as a feature can be successful? What steps have you taken to ensure that its implementation is considered to be fun as opposed to hindering the enjoyment of the user?
The basic idea was that when we started working on the game we were thinking how can we take the game to the next level? One of the most recurring topics was freedom of movement. In the old games like Wolfenstein there was no jumping at all, then they added jumping and from that point on it became a basic feature you have to have jumps right? It’s obvious. We kind of got tired of playing super soldiers that can’t walk over a simple wall or climb a building, that’s ridiculous, you know [we said] my grandma could go over that wall, why can’t I? So we thought, why don’t we bring this really natural ability that you have on this human being into the game and that will bring a new layer of game play. Of course it wasn’t easy.
Yeah, two companies have already tried it from a mass market perspective and they’ve both failed, to a degree obviously…
Yeah, you know we have really absolutely genius programmers. It didn’t work from the very beginning. We had prototypes that ended up having unmanageable 50-thousand objects on scene that we had to manage and it was absolutely terrible. It was kind of late in production, we were already producing it. We got really scared because, holy shit, we might go the same way that everybody [before] did. But like I said, our programmers are absolute geniuses, so they came up with yet another prototype that scans the environment in real time. Nobody does that, we did. We saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Then we spent another year iterating and polishing it, and that’s what we have now. I’m really proud of what we were able to achieve.
Do you think you’ve finally been able to achieve the potential of what the parkour system offers?
Oh definitely. I would really hope that this is going to be the next step in the evolution of FPS games. We see that when we let people play this game for a couple of hours, they come back to us saying “I can’t play FPS games anymore, I feel so restricted. It just feels stupid that I can’t do stuff that I can do in your game”, so I really hope we can push the industry further, and that this kind of freedom is going to be the basic in the next couple years. People will expect this kind of stuff to be basic, just like jumping.
You mentioned as to how you want people to be able to have a next gen experience. People have also been having that next gen experience from the use of Oculus Rift. Have you tried that device?
Yes I did.
Are there any plans to make Dying Light Oculus Rift compatable?
That’s a yes, right?
That’s a maybe (laughter). Okay, so we already had people playing Dying Light on VR. We had a number of events where we plugged people into the VR, Oculus VR with Dying Light, and it’s absolutely stunning. I had it on myself and the experience of getting on top of the building and jumping down from it, I kid you not, you really feel it in your gut. It’s so convincing that it’s really like *gasps*, you can really feel it. It’s absolutely amazing and that’s all that I can say.
Given that the results are so convincing do you think people might have a problem in deciphering the difference between reality and fiction?
No, you know that’s never the case. I mean even in terms of graphics. If you look at the level of detail that Mother Nature has, it’s going to take us a long time to get there. Even if you took like the leaves on the tree, each one of them is different, and if you look closely there are so many details. We won’t get there anytime soon. We don’t really try to make it real, I would say it’s all kind of a “Hollywood” realism. People don’t want real, not really. They want to be better than what they are. They want to feel stronger, they want to do stuff, they want to fulfill their fantasies that they can’t do in real life. So, no I’m not afraid of that.
You’ve stated that you haven’t seen Dead Island 2, but Dead Island 2 is coming out at roughly the same time as Dying Light. Are you scared at all? What are your feelings with regards to a product that you essentially ended up creating, which was in some ways, stolen from you?
No, it wasn’t stolen.
Alright it was taken from you…
What are your feelings in the context of the kind of success that you’re hoping for with Dying Light knowing very well that it’s going to go up against an established IP that you helped bring to market?
You know there’s really nothing that we can do. I mean that’s business, that’s what it is and we just have to deal with it. From what I see from the trailers, it seems like they’re creating a different type of experience, so I don’t think it’s a problem for us. I’m being really honest here, I’m really keeping my fingers crossed for those guys. We created this IP, but it’s no longer ours. There’s nothing we can do. Yager has a really nice background, they were successful before, Specs Ops: The Line was an awesome game. Yeah, I hope the best for those guys and as far as the audience, you know, the audience is going to choose whichever experience they like more so it’s in their hands.
You mentioned the word “trailer”… We all know about THAT trailer. From a lot of people’s perspective, Dead Island 1 didn’t live up to the trailer. What lessons have you learned from the anticlimax that Dead Island offered in comparison to what was revealed in the trailer? And what lessons have you been able to take from Dead Island and bring to Dying Light?
Okay, so first let’s cover the trailer…
Have you got anything similar lined up for Dying Light?
Well we already released a CGI trailer for Dying Light.
Is it good? How has the reaction been?
Has it been as good as what people…
Oh it’s impossible.
So you’ve never topped that right?
No it didn’t. Of course it didn’t. The Dead Island trailer was like a once in a lifetime thing.
Does that make you feel like a one hit wonder?
Hopefully not. I mean the guys at Access Animation did absolutely amazing, stunning work. You know that trailer had a very, very specific role to play. I know that people got disappointed, you know like the game was actually different, but the trailer did a job. The job was to get attention to a game that nobody knew existed. It did tremendously good, because it ended up showing up in the mainstream media. We were no longer a hardcore gamer thing, we were like a global phenomenon, so good job. As far as what we learned; Dead Island was our first open world game ever. That was the first game of that type that we did, so there was tons of stuff we had to learn… You know like, how do you build a pipeline for that? How do you build levels? How do you balance that stuff? We had to learn everything. We had a little bit of experience with that, but mostly recently we were building linear FPS shooters, so we had tons of stuff to learn. Being able to do a sequel now allows us to build on top of that.
How many players can play the game simultaneously?
Up to 4 players co-op. If there’s the infected invasion, then there’s the 5th player coming in.
Can it only be one type of infected or can you have many types of infected?
We have one type of infected but he has his own skill tree, so you get to unlock different abilities and you get to choose how you want to play it.
Why did you decide to go for one type of player controlled enemy rather than go for a more Left 4 Dead style approach which ultimately gives you four types of baddies to control?
Well, you kind of answered the question yourself because we don’t want to copy other people’s games. We want to do something fresh, we want to do something that’s never been done before. We want to be unique, so we thought this… and it was really funny because we started working on it over a year ago and suddenly there’s an announcement for [the game] Evolve which is kind of similar, and we were like “hey look at that, great minds think alike”. Right?
Since you mentioned Evolve… Given that it’s a similar type of game, unintentionally, but given that Dead Island 2 is also coming out at roughly the same time… Having implemented what you describe as being a successful attempt at implementing parkour, which in itself makes it different enough from the other titles I’ve mentioned… What are your hopes for Dying Light in terms of its commercial success when it is released knowing that there are other competitors on the market that are of a similar nature and are being made by companies that have a lot more experience than you?
Well of course they are, but what? Should I like sit and cry you know? (Laughter) It’s a big market and of course it’s a huge competition, but we a really awesome game out there. I think we’ll be good, like we don’t have to worry, we don’t have to be scared. Our game is good enough to stand out there, and as far as what’s the measure of success, I don’t really know. The sky is limit, and I hope it does the best. The bigger audience we can reach, the better.
The game is being published by Warner?
Does Warner own the intellectual property?
No, and that’s a good thing. So you know, the deal for Dead Island right from the start was that they keep the IP. Having success with Dead Island allowed us to have much better business negotiation positioning, so right from the start we knew we wanted to keep the IP [for Dying Light] right when we started pitching the game to the publishers. We were able to strike the deal with Warner.
Why did you choose Warner rather than say… Square Enix?
They [Warner] had the best offer. It’s not only about the money but it’s also about the kind of connection that you establish talking to people. The Warner Bros guys, they have a lot of trust in us. They give us a lot of creative freedom and that’s really awesome. We can feel safe, and we can develop the game that we want to develop and they’re out there covering for us. They’re supporting us, they have tremendous experience you know, look at all their titles. Whatever Warner Bros releases is awesome, and it’s great quality. So having them help us deliver the title to the market is awesome.
You’re the lead game designer, but how much of a creative influence has Warner Bros had in Dying Light‘s development?
They were playing it really cool. We have their producers expressing opinions on stuff, but they never ever forced us like “No you gotta go this way!”, it was always like “hey, this is what we think, this is what we like, this is what we don’t like, perhaps you could discuss this and think about other options”, but pretty much we make the game our way and they never stopped us from it. I don’t know what else I can say. It’s really a relationship of trust. They believe we can deliver an awesome game and they always express their opinions but they never force anything upon us. That’s absolutely great.
You’ve obviously been associated with two zombie games that were first person shooters. Eventually when Dying Light is released, do you have any ideas in the pipeline in terms of what Techland’s next game will be?
Well, we have a bunch of ideas but right now we’re just focusing on delivering this game. We still have a couple months to go, we’re going to release in February. We’ll slowly touch on ideas here and there to see what sticks, but right now we have all hands on Dying Light. Get this game to the market, polish it to make it as smooth as possible, that’s it. We’ll see what happens next.
You obviously had an idea for a sequel when Dead Island was released and however that may have been, that sequel has manifested itself onto the market place. Are there any plans for a sequel to Dying Light, or [to put it another way] would you like to see a sequel to Dying Light?
You know just thinking about all the stuff that we had to cut, you know, because we have a lot of ideas, a lot of prototypes, features that we just don’t have time to implement, so there’s plenty of material that we can use in a sequel. So yeah, if we’re successful… If people like the game, if people want another Dying Light game then sure, let’s do it.
Do you have any plans for the Dying Light franchise to maybe go off into directions that aren’t necessarily associated with first person shooters? For example, would you ever like to see Dying Light IP maybe translated into a… graphic adventure game?
Who knows? Why not?
Or a MOBA?
(Laughter) That’s interesting. I don’t know how that would work, but if we can turn it into a big franchise, sure that’s a dream of every game developer, right? Making your thing huge. But you know, right now, focus on what we have. Make it the best and we’ll see what happens.
Maciej, Thank you.