Dying Light 2 Interview: Techland's Lead Designer on Real-World Influences & the Importance of Community

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Recently, I was invited to take part in an extended preview of Dying Light 2, and after some time with the upcoming sequel, I had a chat with Tymon Smektala, Techland's Lead Game Designer, about what I'd played and how the game had changed in the almost 2 and a half years since I'd last spoken to him at E3 2019.

After a brief catch up and chat about how he was finding London and the current travel restrictions, we moved onto talk about how Dying Light 2's world is influenced by the real-world. My questions (TH) will be in bold below, with Smektala's answers following them.

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Tom Hopkins (RealSport 101) - Are there any real-world cities that Dying Light 2's world was modelled after or influenced by?

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Tymon Smektala (Techland) - Nothing too direct. When we started working on the game, we wanted it to be a world that was foreign, but at the same time known to you. We didn't want to alienate players. We decided that we wanted to make a fictional city that resembled a European city.

Also, because for Americans there's this 'I'm going to Europe' thing, we wanted to give them this opportunity to go to Europe in this specific post-apocalyptic context. So, of course, we were looking at Paris, we were looking at a lot of German cities, especially cities from the northern part of Germany, like Hamburg, but I don't think there's any specific reference to any city, except for our city, which is Wrocław in the south-western part of Poland.

There is a quest which revolves around a water tower, which you can assign to one of the factions and make some narrative choices there. And the water tower that's used there, it's basically a 1:1 copy of similar water towers that we have in our city.

There was a funny story, at some point about 3 years ago, we hired a game director from Ubisoft, a great guy named Marc Albinet, who has a very long history. He was working on old school games, artifact games, like Little Big Adventure. There was this series, actually two titles - it's a metric adventure game - he was working on that, he was working on a lot of old games which I loved as a kid, so it was a real pleasure to meet him.

But when he came in he started playing the game [Dying Light 2] and he saw the water tower and he said "what's this? there are no buildings like this in the world." Okay so let's see, we have one here, like one kilometer from our office, so we can go there and actually see it. It's not a building that you usually see - he's from Lyon, but he spent a lot of time in Montreal, so you don't have that kind of building there. It is a little unique, so if there's one very specific, direct reference or inspiration it's Wrocław, our home city.

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TH: I noticed there were also a lot of characters from around the world. I ran into some Italians, some Americans, some Brits. Was diversity something that was important?

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TS: Yes, I think so. It all comes back to this idea that we wanted it to be a European place. Fictional, but European, so we had to mix different cultures and different European things.

TH: Since we last spoke at E3 2019, how much has Dying Light 2 changed? How different is the game now to how it was 30 months ago?

TS: For me, it's kind of the same. Of course, it has been developed, but not much has changed. I think, if you were to look at our pre-production documents, if you look at the first target gameplay video we created (we called it the player experience video) using some assets from the first game, which explained to the team what we wanted to achieve, then it is still basically the same game.

Of course, it gets better in terms of visuals, in terms of animation of enemies, in reactions, it's better in terms of UI, it's better in terms of direction of dialogue and editing of cutscenes, but thankfully we are delivering on the vision that we had at the very, very early stages of development. So right, we ended pre-production hoping and wanting to make a game like this, so this is an object of pride for everyone involved.

TH: I remember, when I first saw the game, that the world changing events which, for example, saw whole sections of the map go underwater, are those events still big parts of the game?

TS: Of course, yes, so even in the build that you're playing there is a moment. They are usually connected to huge story choices, so they happen along the main story line. There are different complications and twists in the storyline, you make a decision and they affect the whole world, that's how these events work.

Even in this build, there's actually a moment where you - again, it revolves around the water tower - you decide to give it to one faction or another, then the story changes because the city allies system interacts with the story, the story changes and then there are two quests that you can play.

Depending on the choice you make, you just see one of those, so you're not even aware that the other one is possible. And during one of those quests - sorry this is a little spoiler - you get to blow up this huge windmill on the horizon, a huge, huge windmill, so you can actually remove this from the map, if you make one choice here and you follow that branch of the storyline, it will disappear.

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TH: I guess that will be great for friends to talk about. How their experiences differ.

TS: Exactly. We really bet on it to support and help with co-op because, in co-op you always play in the host's world, so you make decisions and you change the world and you can invite other players to join you.

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We really hope this will be the most popular way of experiencing the other versions of the story and of the world. That's why we also always wanted to make your decisions change the world, because then when you visit your friend's world you see they are different because you've played it differently, because you have access to different mechanics, so hopefully, and this is our huge bet, hopefully, it'll work as we intended it to. Hopefully, this will really make people play the game a lot, especially in co-op.

This is actually one of the things that we wanted to do, and we said this explicitly in our pre-production documents, that we wanted to get more people playing co-op. Actually, Dying Light 1 had a very huge percentage of people playing co-op, it was more than 30%, which for games which offer you a single-player experience with the ability to play it in co-op, it's actually quite a lot. But we wanted to get that number to an even higher and bigger level, so hopefully we will achieve that.

TH: Yes, I imagine it'll be complimentary to have a playthrough of your own and a playthrough with a friend.

TS: Yes, exactly, that's the idea. Like, if you don't like co-op you don't need to do that. You can start the game again and see the different outcomes, but yes, it really is a different experience when you play it in co-op.

Maybe a little less focused, maybe you don't focus on the story that much because you don't make choices and you always do stupid things when playing co-op. So the story is kind of mature and it has some serious moments and then your friend just jumps around or does something crazy, so it kind of takes away the immersion. But it's also a lot of fun, so hopefully people will also experience that, and this is one of the ways we try to encourage them.

TH: I noticed the world is a lot more built up, a lot busier, providing a lot more ways to climb. How has that element of the game changed since development on Dying Light 2 began?

TS: There are a couple of things that have impacted this. First of all, of course we have experiences from the first game and wanted to improve on them.

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There is a guy on our team, a Senior Gameplay Programmer, the funny thing his nickname is 'Głowa' which is 'head' in English, because he has a head full of crazy ideas, but he also has a huge head. And he's really the master of parkour, and he leads the team that makes it. So he sees small things that we can improve to make the experience better.

But since the first game was have also been working with David Bell, who's known as the inventor of parkour. Of course, parkour dates back to the 19th century as a form of physical activity, but he's the guy that made it popular. We were working with him and he was giving us insight and ideas on how we can improve that.

The next thing, the third thing, is that Dying Light 2 is Dying Light TWO, it is a sequel to the first game, so we knew we had to take it higher, and we are literally doing this by taking the gameplay higher.

In the first game there was basically one moment at the very beginning of the game where you were climbing a skyscraper from one building to another and you could look down and get this sense of the vertical. In this game, we have this huge district which is full of skyscrapers. Even if you look at how the first game began, it was the slums map, with buildings with two floors. Maybe three floors maximum. Here we start with a district that has buildings with five floors, so basically it means we are taking the whole experience those two or three floors higher and I think all of those things connected, our willingness or will to develop the experience, co-operation with David Bell, and our experience from the first game, which we could use as a platform to make it even better.

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TH: Considering the increased vertically, I'm sure there's some Mirror's Edge influence in there.

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TS: Of course, of course, when you play football, even if you are Messi, I think you watch what Ronaldo is doing when he plays football, so when you're making a game about parkour you play Assassin's Creed, you play Mirror's Edge, and those are great games.

And of course, we were inspired by some of the solutions in those games and I also hope that makers of those games were a little inspired by ours.

TH: From what I played, there were some flashback moments. Is psychological horror something there's more of in Dying Light 2?

TS: I'm not sure that's the best way to describe it, it's not so much about psychological horror, but for sure it's about mystery and what we want you to discover. There's something very powerful about peoples' curiosity.

We humans have this great sense of curiosity that makes us go further than we would. We discovered, and this is out bet, that if we create a story which is kind of like a mystery you wanted to solve, it will take you further into the experience. So, it's more about that. We show you things that you can't really make much sense of at the beginning, but then they start clicking and then you start understanding 'okay, so maybe this is connected to that, so I really want to know what happens later.' So, yes, I hope that a lot of people will actually finish Dying Light 2 because there's this huge mystery that you uncover at the end.

Actually, we had this with the first game. People in the industry are saying that maybe only 20% of players actually finish the games that they buy. So for the first one, we had a completion rate of, I think, between 50 and 60%, which is actually quite a lot. We were really surprised by this result, so I hope that we will repeat it with the second game, that we will see 50, 60, maybe 70 percent of people actually reaching the finish line and discovering the story to the end.

TH: Did you also have a lot of people come back for The Following?

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TS: Of course, as you probably know have been supporting the game since its release and the community is extremely active and we basically millions of people still playing this long after the release. So we saw a tremendous boost of people playing the game after The Following and after most of the DLCs that we were doing.

But of course, The Following was a very strong moment for the game because a) it was this completely new, very big expansion with new story and a new mechanic which evolves around driving a car and b) it was also released as part of the Enhanced edition, which basically allowed us to improve most of the systems in the game so yes, absolutely, The Following was a huge thing that drew people back to Dying Light.

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TH: I know it's early, but do you have similar DLC/support plans for Dying Light 2?

TS: I can't say, to be honest, but we feel that our community has given us a lot. Maybe everyone says that, but in our case it's the truest of truths that without our community I don't think we would have been able to release that game because they really gave us confidence to follow what we think is good for Dying Light.

We really want those guys to be happy and we want to repay everyone in our community with support and everything. For now, for sure we are focusing on the game's release, this is the most important thing we need to do for the community, to deliver the game, because we know they have been waiting for it for a very long time, but this won't be the end of us giving back to the community.

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TH: While playing, I also noticed that there wasn't a traditional mini-map that showed restricted areas and helped locate items, with there being a compass like design instead. Was there a reason for that decision?

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TS: Yes, absolutely there was a reason for that. Of course, we were play testing Dying Light 1 a lot and we were also looking at how people were experiencing the game after the game was released and we realised, even using things like eye-trackers, that a lot of people were playing the game on the mini-map. They weren't really looking in the 3D world, they were just looking at the mini-map to see where they should go and where the enemies were. So we said "okay, this is wrong."

Our new engine allows us to create this beautiful world full of details, so we don't want people to look at the mini-map in the corner, we just want them to get immersed into the world. So definitely, that was a conscious decision made with hopes of increasing the immersion of players.

TH: I'm sure that helps with exploration too. Are there lots of secrets to find?

TS: Yes, I think so. It's an open-world, so there are lots of 'behind the world' places you can look at to find something interesting, and yes there are collectibles and other things you can find there.

Dying Light 2 is due to release on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Nintendo Switch on February 4, 2022.

For more on what we played of the game during the preview event, you can check out my full thoughts.