E3 2011: Dead Island Interview - We Reveal Some Island Secrets with Producer, Adrian Ciszewski
Written Wednesday, June 29, 2011 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
More than five years in the making, Dead Island has been through rather a lot since the initial idea surfaced and its original announcement back in 2007. A lot has changed and now, as the game has been re-introduced earlier this year with that heart-wrenching CG trailer and created renewed buzz, Techland knows that it has something potentially rather special on their hands.
Following our hands-on with the game behind closed doors at E3 2011, we took some time out between appointments to sit down and talk with the game's Producer, Techland's Adrian Ciszewski, who assured us that he could offer us some genuine insight into the inception and development of the game.
Turns out that he wasn't wrong, and not only does Ciszewski offer some interesting anecdotes behind Dead Island's long development cycle, but he also offered up a few secrets about the game, including what could have been. A mystery island in the same vein as The Island of Doctor Moreau? It almost happened! Read on to find out more in our in-depth interview.
Originally, Dead Island was announced in 2007, so what has happened in the time since that first announcement and the game's return with the new trailer that sparked so much interest?
Dead Island in 2007 – or rather 2006 internally – was in the process of research and development with a small team who were trying to create something very close to our vision of the zombie genre. We're all fans of the zombie genre, so we wanted to create something really unique, something close to reality, something like 'zombies for real' and therefore a very mature game. We started making prototypes of the game, kind of internal pitches where our marketing team, PR team and testers at Techland were doing playtests and figuring how our game might work.
It was named differently in the past, but 'Island' was always in the title every time, so basically we were doing a couple of different Dead Islands, before we started doing this one. The first one we tried was very single-player focused and it was very much a tropical island, but not a paradise. It was more like a mystery island, like The Island of Doctor Moreau with laboratories, a lot of chemistry and the zombies were everywhere, but no one knows why. It was a very cliched idea for the first version of Dead Island, but we were playing with things like the physics and that kind of stuff for the project.
After two months we switched it to something different, then after another two months we switched it again and then I stepped into the project in late 2007 and we arrived on the general idea of creating a game that had this clash between paradise and survival horror. So we created a tropical island with hotels, holiday resorts and all that cool stuff... Drinks with little umbrellas in them; everything that is connected to that idea of a holiday paradise. Then we added zombies and we knew it worked well.
What do you think sets Dead Island apart from other first-person games and horror titles?
People today really only buy into that mechanic of the more shooty shooters, but they're also buying a story and so that kind of clash that I mentioned was interesting [to us]. It was that interesting that everyone internally at Techland from the heads, to marketing and PR thought that it was a cool thing and something new, in the clash between paradise and the horror game genre. After about half a year, we made a deal with Deep Silver and it was at this time we added the co-operative factor to the game, which actually had an influence over the overall game structure, because we removed all of the non-linear experience from the story, because that would be impossible for different players to join with different progress. Say if one person said 'no' on one side quest and the other had said 'yes', it would be very hard to manage each player's progress.
Once you settled upon the version of Dead Island that we now recognise, was it a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater or did the stuff from those previous iterations carry over?
So, we started to make Dead Island as you recognise it now at the beginning of 2009, but we didn't start from scratch. Our previous research and development process offered a huge base of experience, assets and mechanics. For example we had the same kind of combat as well as an optional combat mode, which was another style of control where you could swing weapons using the right analogue stick. Those systems are in the game, so you can switch to it and use it as an optional control method. So a lot of stuff from that original research and development process is in, as well as a lot of new elements, like randomly-generated weapons and crafting that were added before the alpha stage. We found we needed to add some new stuff to the game, as we were thinking that we didn't have enough weapons, so we had them randomly-generated to improve the experience of exploration and finding different weapons. If you're exploring, then you want something interesting to find, so with hundreds of weapons, that might be okay for a couple of hours. We created special items, crafting, generated weapons and more to solve this problem.
What were the core gameplay elements that you wanted to pin down for Dead Island?
We want players to be focused on the story of the survivors in the main single-player storyline, which is very cool, huge and has some big twists. The story is very mature and dramatic. There's side quests too and because this is a co-op game, most of them are very short, to be honest. We want to keep the player progressing without encountering any major problems, preserving the pace. The side quests are simple, but on the other hand there are parallels to the main storyline, because you'll be wondering how the zombies got here and how they started appearing on the island. Where is the military? There should be soldiers there because it's this massive zombie outbreak, but there are no soldiers. Maybe the zombies came from somewhere outside the island? For all we know, it could be the end of the world.
Some of the side quests will answer these questions. There might be a contact in the outside world for example. You'll eventually be able to figure out everything about the outbreak, its origin, everything. As you explore the island, you're going to meet a lot of survivors with different agendas and some are friends, some are enemies. At the police station in the city you'll come across ragtag gangs and they're very, very bad. They have firearms and can kill you very easily. It's like in the real world if there's a natural disaster, you have certain people stealing and looting from shops, so in the game you'll encounter rascal gangs doing this kind of crazy shit in the city. There's no police, no soldiers, so it's totally lawless.
Of course, you'll be doing some looting yourself too, finding new objects, some of which you can use for crafting. You'll be able to craft things that are nowhere near to the basic weapon that you start with. There's some very complicated stuff that you can create. So, exploration was a big focus for the single-player campaign and you'll see things like an airplane trying to land but the airport is somewhat destroyed and the people manning the tower aren't really helping. It'll end up having to land in the jungle and so later on you'll be able to find this plane and it may be okay, it might not. But as you explore you'll find a lot of cool things like this.
How will these aspects work for Dead Island's co-op then?
In co-op it's a bit different, because it's hard to find good co-op online, as it's usually chaotic unless you're playing with friends and you know each other, and communicate over voice chat so you can all enjoy the dialogue and the story together. That works, and it works when I'm playing with my friends, but playing with strangers is a completely different thing. It's more or less about looting, crafting, levelling-up, learning skills; similar to Borderlands. It works really well with the drop-in/drop-out and your XP and everything carries between single and multiplayer. So, one minute you can be playing multiplayer and 'bam!' you're back in single-player. But in co-op, you can play for hours without even touching any of the main quests or side quests, because there's so much looting, exploration and enjoying killing zombies using all of the weapons and skills at your disposal.
Then there are different abilities for each character to experiment with, like Xian Mei's assassin skill called backstab. Three of you might draw all of the aggro from the zombies, allowing Xian Mei to execute her backstab while the rest of the group is being attacked. There are many ways to make these kind of connections with regard to the skills in co-op, and then there's various specialities like blunt weapons, throwing weapons and stabbing weapons to play with, which are nice.
Where did the idea to set the game on an island come from? Did the name come first or was there another deciding factor?
Well, the name came first but as I mentioned previously, it was a name for a game set on a strange island with strange doctors and strange creatures. When I came to the project as Producer, I didn't like the clichéd idea and it didn't strike me as being all that cool. So, we had the idea to have the clash between paradise and horror, and it was like a moment I had where I thought it sounded like a great idea, jotted it down in my notebook and it got implemented into the game. The initial idea was to create an island, as that solves numerous problems such as boundaries. It's an island and therefore has natural borders and you can't easily escape. Dead Island seemed like an obvious title for a game with zombies on an island, but what exactly was on the island came after the title.
Can you tell us a bit about what else we can expect to see on the island then?
We have holiday resorts, hotels and there's actually a luxury hotel interior that you can explore, from the rooms, to the parking lot, the lobby, indoor swimming pool and everything that's connected to the hotel. Then of course there's the city, part of which formed our E3 demo that includes some indoor areas like abandoned houses. You can enter the police station, you can enter the supermarket, the sewers... There are a huge amount of interiors to explore.
We also have several jungles where there's mercenaries living, dealing with drugs and they have boats, guns and so on. There's no tribal stuff in that jungle, as there's roads running through it, but there's another jungle where you'll find tribes who are cannibals. There's also a huge prison that's one of the game's big hubs and that's made up of indoor and outdoor areas. You'll also find some interior parts that are randomly-generated like a dungeon crawler.
For such a massive game world, was disc storage ever an issue?
Well it's all on one disc, but you're right, we did have a problem trying to pack it all onto one disc. We found a solution to get it all onto one disc and the great thing about Dead Island is that every part of the map is really varied and really different. Each section is almost like a new game in itself, offering a different experience. Eventually you'll come across all sorts of new enemies like the Suicider, the Ram, the Thug and so on. All of the zombies, even the standard walkers will also be levelling up like you, so if you're at a higher level, so are they. It's not just more health and different attacks either, as they'll have more advanced behaviour. Throw a weapon from distance and they might counter-attack. These zombies will surprise you!
Finally, what's your favourite zombie movie and why?
I'm going to disappoint you now, because it's 28 Days Later. It's my favourite zombie movie because it just seems so real.
Dead Island will be sipping cold blood and eating hot brains on a beach on September 6th, 2011 in North America and September 9th, 2011 in Europe.