With the original team having left to craft its own IP, the task to follow up Deep Silver’s original multi-player zombie game fell upon Yager who were more than happy to bring their own unique spin on the Dead Island franchise. And even though some players have been skeptical of the developer’s ability to credibly deliver on Techland’s earlier promise, Bernd Diemer (Design Director at Yager) and Jan Eric Lauble (Creative Producer at Deep Silver) were both on hand to answer questions and allay any fears that fans may have. What follows therefore is an interview with both senior members of the development team, where Bernd and Jan assure fans that Dead Island 2 is indeed in safe hands. Enjoy!
Let’s start with you Bernd. Now obviously Yager weren’t the ones in charge of developing Dead Island 1. How did you rise to the challenge of filling Techland’s shoes who did the first game?
Bernd: (laughter) I mean, it’s a big responsibility and also a lot of pressure if you look at that, like as a gamer. I played Dead Island 1 as a gamer. I really liked it and I probably discovered it similar to a lot of people. I didn’t know much about the game before it came out. I saw the trailer and I thought “oh my God, I have to buy this game because it’s the best game ever”, before I saw it. And then I played it and between the trailer and the game, it didn’t quite match. But it was a lot of fun. We played it when we were [finalizing] Spec Ops, which was a very, very tough and [had a] long production. We still played games on lunch breaks or when we were waiting for new bills and stuff. Something that stuck with me afterwards, I didn’t realize it at the time but we played the co-op because it was so easy. You know, you could just start playing and then people would drop in, drop out and play with you and then when you got back to work, it didn’t wreck the game for everyone. That is something that really stuck with me, but at the same time as a developer, you know, if you play a game as a developer you sometimes play it with a super critical eye. You know, “I don’t like this and this and this”.
Because you know how things are done?
Bernd: Yeah, yeah. You always think and imagine that you could do much better, of course (laughter). Then we started talking to these guys like two years ago when they were ready to look around for somebody to do the sequel, so we started talking to them. You know, Spec Ops was a game that… you could say that the game is dominated by narrative. It was a super linear, narrative game and every moment was handcrafted, so we wanted people to experience a super dense story, but the problem you have there is [one of] creative balance. Game designers and narrative designers always fight because game designers go “Oh this is awesome and cool. Let me do a mission with this weapon” or whatever and then the narrative designer says “No, no, no. We cannot do that” and then we looked at Dead Island and there it’s basically almost the opposite. It’s completely dominated by multi-player and game play. That is at the core and that interested us a lot as a team, you know, that you have something like a focus. You can look at everything that is in the game and all the new stuff we came up with and all of the new things we wanted to put into the game. When we started playing around, we came up with these rules over the course of development. Our number one rule that we actually printed out and put on the wall in big letters [was] “Never do anything that keeps players from playing together”. We have more rules, but that is kind of like our top priority, number one rule. Then we looked at everything in the original game and our ideas that we have and tried to apply that. To give an example, in the first game we had these work benches for crafting and that meant that you had to go to a specific location. What happened then, if people were playing in a group, if we were playing together (Jan and Bernd) and I said “Let’s go slaughter zombies!” and then Jan said “Oh, wait a minute. I still have to craft” and then we’re standing around waiting 10 minutes to find a work bench and come back, so we said “No, no, no we can’t do that. It needs to be instantaneous”, so we transferred that into the player so he can craft anywhere. That’s one of the things that we looked at to make the game basically fit that the narrative, and that the narrative fits the game play and not the other way around.
Obviously you said that you did Spec Ops and that’s a very linear game. In what way do you think you were qualified to take on the role of developing a game that happens to be more open-world in comparison and is also multi-player focused?
Bernd: In the studio we have lots and lots of experience with multi-player games and sandbox games. I myself, prior to joining to Yager, I was at Crytek, so I did four games which were basically sandbox, open world-ish. Not like super open-world, but very dynamic sandbox games. We have guys from Gearbox who worked on Borderlands, which… game-play wise at the core, is very close to the vision that we had for this game because it fits so well. When we started talking with Deep Silver… you always have to found out what your clear references are – like how you can communicate [between everyone]. The things we mentioned were like for tone and mood (‘Zombieland’ the movie) and for game-play (Borderlands). That may sound weird, but our biggest inspiration for multi-player, how we wanted to do multi-player was actually Journey. When we play Journey, like myself when I played it, I was struck by how brilliantly they bring me to play with other people. How effortless and flawless that is, you know? I started playing and all of the sudden people turn up and they leave and come back and there’s new people and everything. While Journey is of course a very, very, very different game, we wanted to keep that. So, we started talking and at first we had similar experiences. We wanted to do something special like seamless multi-player and then we started talking and at first you sound crazy like “Dead Island and Journey? What?” But then, we realized that actually in our minds, we have the same picture. We want a seamless world and that is at the core. I think that also this strong vision that we had internally and this attention to detail, I think, convinced these guys. I don’t know Jan. Why did you choose us?
Jan: I have no clue (laughter).
Bernd: I think another thing that we at Yager, you know, we don’t do a lot of games. Our track record as a studio is only three games, so we are very careful on what we work on. You commit yourself to years of your life working on a game, so you don’t want to work on something where your heart is not into it. While it may sound strange that we went for something that was so different from Spec Ops, if you look at our track record, our games are very different. We’re not in one spot. The first game that we did was a flight sim called Yager and then we did a bunch of other things and then we did Spec Ops, which again is linear single player (but has multi-player), but the focus was clearly on the single player experience. Now we are doing something where I am personally super, super happy because this seamless multi-player, this core experience, this ease of playing with other people – not only did we manage to develop a very strong vision that holds the game, it’s also something that when I look around in the industry (currently), it’s something that a lot of people are very interested in. You have, I don’t want to compare ourselves to Destiny because it’s a completely different game and it’s a lot bigger and everything, but they have some of the same elements. You play together before you notice it. There’s Titanfall, there’s Destiny, and The Division. And a lot of people in the industry, players, developers, press, everybody, is interested in this new way of playing multi-player.
Obviously the DNA that comprises the game (i.e. the developing team) is different to Dead Island 1, but obviously you’ve got your own ideas. What steps did you take to ensure that the people that like Dead Island 1 weren’t alienated by the changes, modifications, or design choices that you brought to the game, because let’s face it, nobody likes change. Sometimes when other people make changes based on somebody else’s blue print, the results can end up not being as cohesive and not as good.
Bernd: I think what we do is, we have a very strong guardian of the IP like the Corpulus because we, Jan and I, work super close together and Jan, more or less, lives at our studio because we like embedding people. So he’s not sitting in headquarters writing emails “Do this or else”, but we talk. We also fight because its creative work so there is passion involved and we disagree on things, find solutions, talk to other people and when we change things, we always try to do it for a good reason. Not because “Hey old shit, new shit.” That’s very tempting, you know. “Ha! New sequel!” and everything goes out the window and here’s the new shit.
Jan: You know, we look really carefully in regards to what other people really like, what we need to keep. We investigate a lot into forum feedback. You know, people visit us at shows and tell us what they really like, so you we’re always careful that people will still get the Dead Island experience they expect from a Dead Island sequel. We always look at the core pillars of what people like and we’re always building on top of them.
Bernd: I’ll try to give you an example. One is that the combat is at the heart of the game because you could say that 98% of the time, that’s what you do, you know, you run around and hack at enemies and collect stuff and kill zombies, basically. So, the very first thing we did was we actually built a combat prototype which is very unusual in development, so the first thing we did was build a playable version where people could experience our idea of the combat. We developed that together over I think 4 or 5 months on pre-production, before we even had a game. It was even on a different engine. Back then it was on ‘Unreal 3’ before we made the engine switch. This was something that we played for days and days and days and made little changes and everything. And once everybody said “This is it”, we said “okay now we have the heart of the game”. It’s beating, it’s fun, it’s cool and it’s cohesive because that’s super, super, super important that you don’t just stick in stuff just because it’s cool because that’s what designers tend to do. They throw in everything and the kitchen sink just because they can. Some changes we did, we were sorry that we had to do that. Dead Island 1 had this analogue combat control where you could direct your hand and a lot of people in the community loved that, but when we switched engine, we had the opportunity to have, instead of 5 or 6 zombies on the screen as your threat, you could have 30 or 40. Then we looked at this combat system which is very intricate and you think carefully “Where do I take this one zombie”? In our combat demo, there were already 39 other zombies gnawing at your feet, so we had to let that go. That is one of the examples where we made a change where I am convinced that it is for the better.
Last Question: Dying Light… That’s a game that’s in development by the original team. Are you scared, and how do you feel about how Dead Island 2 is going to be compared to the original team’s next game, which is Dying Light, which is also in the zombie genre?
Bernd: I think we’re very different. They’re two very different games. I haven’t played it myself. I know it’s on the show floor, but I haven’t had the time yet. I watched all of the trailers and I think it’s going to be a really good game, but I also think there’s enough room for us too because we’re very different. You know, we have a different tone. We have a different way of doing things…
Jan: You know, if you look at Dying Light… you can see [that] they focus a lot on the more dark setting. They [Techland] have this day and night cycle where at night zombies get stronger and you have to run away, and they have lots of parkour elements as well. When you look at Dead Island 2, it focuses more on embracing the apocalypse, you know… We celebrate the whole idea that a zombie apocalypse means a second chance in life. We focus more on the fun aspect of an apocalypse… People playing together in zombie California and slaughtering zombies, so I think both titles can exist together.
Okay, that’s all I wanted to know. Thank you.