We speak to the Dying Light development director Pawel Zawodny

A killer year for Techland

Polish developer Techland has had a busy twelve months.

Following the success of Dead Island and the Call of Juarez games, the studio branched out with Dying Light: a new survival horror game that mixes the zombie-maiming antics of Dead Island with the frantic pace of parkour. Launched in January 2015, the game broke records for first month sales of a new survival horror IP – and that was just the start of Dying Light’s success.

The popularity of the game has been so consistent that Techland has dedicated itself to its ongoing development, placing dark adventure Hellraid on hold and releasing free modding tools to enlist the community’s help in exploring Dying Light’s full potential.

With the first expansion – Dying Light: The Following – on the horizon, we caught up with development director and COO Pawel Zawodny (pictured) to discuss the biggest changes and the next steps.

What has been the biggest development for Techland in 2015?
Definitely the launch of Dying Light and then the subsequent success the game garnered. We reached 4.5m players in the first 100 days and it just kept growing from there. Thanks to this we’re now in a place where the future of our studio feels firmly in our hands alone.

Why do you think Dying Light has been even more successful than your previous games?
I think it’s mainly because Dying Light is a collection of all the lessons we learnt from those previous games. Dying Light was our first proper chance to apply all our collective knowledge and efforts into one vision which we had full creative control over.

A lot of the ideas applied in Dying Light had been floating around with our designers for ages: total freedom of movement in first-person parkour, a dynamic day/night cycle that changes the way you play and a truly open world. Dying Light let us actually take the time to figure how to implement these ideas.

Dying Light was our first proper chance to apply all our collective knowledge and efforts into one vision which we had full creative control over.

How has the release of modding tools helped maintain interest in the game? 
The modding tools have been an amazing success. With things like the Dying Light Dev Tools, we’re reaching a very core group of involved and creative gamers who are then able to engage the rest of community in a totally different way.

And I’ll happily admit some of those creations even inspire our internal teams. When we see what’s being created, it shines a new light on what is possible or what people love doing within our game. The dream would be that one day such tools are just as accessible to console users.

Even internally the tools have even proved extremely useful beyond what you’d normally think. It’s the primary platform for the multiple game jams we host around the country and it’s also now become one of our main tools to test prospective design hires.

How close are these to the tools the team used to build the game in the first place?
What gamers have in their hands right now is almost exact same toolset we use internally to create our in-game worlds. So if someone is really clued up on using the Dying Light Developer Tools, they could easily work side-by-side with our level designers.

What support have you offered to modders and anyone else experimenting with these tools?
First of all, we made sure anyone who wants to create content for Dying Light can do that. Our developers prepared over 20 detailed video tutorials to help even people with no prior experience in modding start creating content.

To foster the community, we also ran two contests for the best custom map, which spawned over 80 maps for anyone to play. Our level designers and artists were active on our Steam community page and we also had an ongoing beta of all the upcoming updates, so we could work on them together with the community.

The most recent example is our PvP/co-op update to the dev tools – a member of our community, RabidSquirrel, was given early access to the version of the dev tools and whipped out an awesome map ‘Don’t Drown’, which was the flagship map for the update.

The modding tools that gamers have in their hands right now is almost exact same toolset we use internally to create our in-game worlds.

What role has fan feedback played in the game’s ongoing development? 
It was a huge factor. As you know, the initial release was an overwhelming success, mostly due to just how many people played and enjoyed the game. And they kept giving us new ideas, or simply asking for new content to keep them playing after they’d completed the game. So we did: new weapons, skins, the entire ‘hard mode’ update to add both replayability and difficulty.

We also improved and developed Be the Zombie mode according to player feedback, to help balance it out and add more depth to it. This is just a few of the things we’ve already added into the game based on pure fan feedback.

Why is it important to listen to fan feedback?
Simply because these are the people playing our game and giving us their support. We build games for them so their feedback helps us make the game even better. And we see that this type of engagement is really appreciated by the fans. They see we are listening and so they get more attached involved with our game and that carries over when they then recommend our game to friends or on public forums.

How do you balance between giving the fans everything they want and maintaining your original creative vision?
It’s definitely a tough balance. The more engaged your fans are, the more ideas they send your way so you need to be ready to invest a lot of time and effort into these initiatives.

The first step is filtering out what you can see immediate won’t work in our game as a whole. These are cool ideas but they simply don’t factor in the technical details. But we always look at suggestions, and if they strike the right tone, and if they are in any way feasible, we start thinking on how to get them into the game in a way that adds to the experience, without outright changing it to something else.

The more engaged your fans are, the more ideas they send your way so you need to be ready to invest a lot of time and effort into these initiatives.

Looking at all the things we added so far, and the upcoming Enhanced Edition, you can see that we mostly added more content that is inline with what is already in the game, or new gameplay mechanics that are used in conjunction, or on top of existing gameplay, without significantly changing the formula that proved fun and engaging. Even the vehicle, which is probably the most substantially ‘different’ element to the core formula is designed to work parallel to parkour, not replace it.

How has fan feedback influenced the upcoming expansion?
There’s a lot of community driven content in Dying Light: The Following – Enhanced Edition. To name a few, there’s an entire late-game progression system, in the form of Legend levels, where you can keep progressing and get new stuff even after you maxed out base skill trees, which adds much of the replayability to the game.

Then there are bounties which are updated regularly on our side. These are additional objectives and rewards for people who finished all the base content from the game and are looking for more. As for the expansion, the biggest inputs are more ranged weapons, drivable vehicles and the fact that the expansion pack is a story driven add-on.

What are the biggest changes, from a development perspective, for the new expansion?
The biggest change is that the team has grown since the release of Dying Light. New talented people have joined us so it was essential we let them add to the expansion. We’ve created something really huge here in quite a condensed period of time so the extra hands and a fresh perspective were essential.

We also had quite a few people really shine on the production of Dying Light so for Dying Light: The Following we gave them more leading roles which we’ve had to accommodate. As we all know, an open democracy is great in theory but a bit tougher in practice.

Design-wise, we two major changes that had to tackle head on. Firstly we had to really focus on implementing parkour into the levels in creative ways that didn’t come across as forced or out of place. Previously this came very naturally in our level design, simply because we were in an urban environment. In the countryside it’s more open and varied. But the team really came through on this when you look at where and how they designed certain missions and areas in the map.

We’re an independent studio that’s privately owned so the only people we have to make happy is our fans and ourselves.

The other change was the creation and integration of a dedicated dirt buggy team. They had the challenge of designing, programing, implementing and testing our driving model from A to Z. We couldn’t just design an awesome looking machine and drop it into the game. We had to carefully work out how the dirt buggy will influence everything – the environment, the existing enemy types, the players experience as well as mapping out and designing all the upgrades, progression system etc.

Most of the new content free will be free to established players – why choose to do this?
It’s important to us that we treat our core fans fairly. These are the players who supported us from the start and have helped put us in this amazing position where we can expand and add to our original vision. And in return we’re creating even stronger brand ambassadors for Dying Light who will help us bring more people into our game once the Enhanced Edition is out. It’s really a win-win.

Is this a business strategy you think more developers should adopt?
I can’t speak for other developers because every situation is different. It’s a strategy we’ve applied that has worked amazingly for us and we plan to stick to it. We’re an independent studio that’s privately owned so the only people we have to make happy is our fans and ourselves and this strategy does exactly that.

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