It’s been six years since Polish team Techland made a name for themselves with their exciting zombie title Dying Light. Apart from the release of DLC The Following, the studio remained silent for the following years, halting the development of all its projects, including the hotly anticipated Hellraid by fans.
Now, when the sequel Dying Light 2 Stay Human is less than a month away, it’s time to remember how the developers, who already have almost four dozen titles in their portfolio, managed to finally turn the tide of their history by releasing their first real hit.
The Techland studio was founded in Wroclaw by Pavel Markhivka while he was still at school. Although the year of birth of the company is considered to be 1991, it started releasing games only eight years later. And until that moment, Markhivka successfully acted as a distributor of video games, since the laws of that time allowed him not to wait for permission from developers.
When it became clear that Techland would focus entirely on the development of video games, Markhivka hired several programmers, and the studio began to try its hand at different genres. Between 1999 and 2006, Techland released roughly nineteen games, including everything from racing and strategy simulators to shooters and platformers.
«We played all the popular new games, and then offered our improved versions of trending titles,» Markhivka said.
The first serious project of the studio turned out to be a first-person action game on the theme of the Wild West Call of Juarez. Although the game received mixed reviews, it did not stop Techland from developing the title into a four-part series.
However, Techland really caught the eye in 2011 with the open-world zombie action game Dead Island. Shortly before the release of the title, a trailer was released, which gained millions of views and for a while made the entire industry talk only about the upcoming zombie slasher. And although conceptually the trailer and the game were very different, and in Dead Island itself there were quite a few technical problems, at that moment the Poles still managed to offer the public something memorable.
However, when it came to making a sequel, it became clear that Techland saw the future of the series in a different light than its publisher Deep Silver.
Sometimes the interaction with the publisher seriously harms the flexibility of the development. A major publisher requires working on a schedule, even if certain moments aren’t polished to the desired gloss. The same thing happened with Dead island. During the development process, the project managed to grow seriously, but the established deadlines did not allow us to finalize some aspects. One of the reasons why there were so many bugs in the final version,» Markhivka explained.
Unfortunately for Techland, it had to sell the rights to Dead Island to a publisher due to a lack of funding early on. Realizing that when discussing the sequel, they and Deep Silver were talking about different projects, the developers decided to leave the series and start creating a new intellectual property in the form of the future Dying Light.
«To explain the gameplay of Dead Island in a few words, the title is essentially a first-person slasher. If we talk about the mechanics of Dying Light, then the description of the concept of the game will take all day,» said the producer of the title, Timon Smektala.
Actually, due to the presence of a zombie-themed title in Techland’s portfolio, the public immediately dubbed the game «Dead Island with parkour» when they first saw Dying Light. The developers themselves did not agree with such a simplification, believing that they offer something unique to the industry.
“I hope it’s clear to everyone that we’re trying to build something completely different than a Dead Island clone. Zombies is a large-scale genre not only in the sense of popularity, but also in terms of flexibility, — explained the manager of Techland Blazey Krakowiak at the time. — Dead Island came out at the right time, when the industry was not yet flooded with projects like The Walking Dead. Now the situation has changed, but the genre has not lost its potential.»
Development of Dying Light began in 2012 with the team responsible for Dead Island. It is worth noting that Dead Island was the studio’s first project in the open world, and at the time of the start of the development of Dying Light Techland managed to fill a lot of cones. In addition, the teams responsible for level design and quality control managed to grow three times.
«This time we’re putting a lot of effort into playtesting to make sure players get a AAA-quality product,» Markhivka assured.
The two main pillars on which they decided to build the concept of Dying Light were first-person parkour and the cycle of changing day and night.
The developers consulted with professional tracers and studied a huge number of references in films and games, choosing the necessary movements. In addition, they arranged tracer races with GoPro cameras attached to them to understand how things should look from a first-person perspective.
«We turned to David Bell, who is considered the founder of the parkour movement, for help. He helped us hone the look and feel of the character’s interaction with the setting,» said project designer Bartosz Coulon.
One of the main problems in the creation of parkour gameplay was player stuttering. The developers had to experiment for a long time to minimize the unwanted effect by manipulating the size of the HUD, the speed of the animation and the level of image blur.
The developers wanted to achieve a system that would motivate playing through the game in survival mode, so that the player would feel vulnerable.
«Parkour in our eyes is a survival mechanism. The characters in the game are not doing this to impress anyone. They are obliged to move in such a way as not to fall on the food of zombies,» said Coulon.
According to the plot, the player assumes the role of Kyle Crane, an agent of the organization «World Humanitarian Mission», who must understand the causes of an unexpected outbreak of the virus in the Middle Eastern city of Harran. To prevent the next dictator from developing a biological weapon, Crane goes to the scene, where the virus has already turned most of the inhabitants into bloodthirsty dead.
Smektala claims that the team immediately decided to treat the plot part with due attention. At the same time, they understood that it would not be easy to create a story capable of captivating a Western audience, and called several American authors, known primarily for their work in the DC comics universe.
The most interesting thing is that after the release, it is the plot of the game that will be most attacked by critics. Despite the efforts of the screenwriters, the public found the characters of the title rather banal and clichéd, which, by the way, cannot be said about the voice of the main character by actor Roger Craig Smith (Resident Evil, Assassin’s Creed), which caused an exceptionally positive reaction from the public.
As for the change of day and night, this mechanic allowed the developers to present two games in one. If during the day the player acts as a researcher, completes quests, searches for crafting resources and has the opportunity to carefully calculate his every step, then at night the picture unfolds 180 degrees. As the sun sets, Crane becomes a victim, surrounded by a large number of zombies that have increased strength and speed. In addition, at night, volatiles come out to hunt the main character, from whom you have to desperately run away.
When creating Harran, the developers studied various interesting places around the world. At the very beginning of development, they realized that they wanted to develop the events of the game in the Middle East, without recreating real cities. Jula Arent, a Techland artist and architect, is largely responsible for the design of the city.
“Being an architect, she managed to work on six dozen houses, so you can imagine the level of her skills. In many ways, it is thanks to her that Harran looks as realistic as possible,» said Smektala.
Initially, Dying Light was supposed to be released on all current consoles, but later the developers canceled the versions for Xbox 360 and PS3. The reason was the technical limits, due to which there were problems with the map and the AI of the enemies.
“In a zombie game, it’s very important to make the dead, if not the smartest, at least purposeful. This especially applies to those species that move with the dexterity and speed of the main character,» said Smektala.
This decision could seriously affect sales, however, according to Markhevka, the developers wanted to present to players a product that would show Techland as a studio capable of competing with industry leaders.
It is difficult to argue about competition at the highest level, but after the release on January 27, 2015, it definitely did not go unnoticed. In addition to the criticisms mentioned above, Dying Light was praised by the public, noting the controls, the character progression system, the scary night-time gameplay sequences, and the interesting multiplayer. Already in half a year, Techland announced that five million copies of the title were sold.
During the development of Dying Light, the studio found that it had many more ideas than it had the resources to implement. They decided to postpone some of the fruits of the brainstorming for the future and implemented it only a year after the release of the main game in the form of an independent supplement The Following.
The DLC offered an additional ten hours of gameplay, in addition to new modes and difficulty levels, as well as new weapons and ammo, including the long-awaited crossbow.
This time the plot revolves around a mysterious cult located outside of Harran and rumored to have found a cure for the virus. Crane has no choice but to go to his territory and start rubbing into trust to find out the truth.
Initially, they wanted to imagine only one city in the application, but later the developers grew it to a whole open world, which is twice the size of the Dying Light map.
One of the key innovations was the availability of a buggy car at the disposal of the player. Fans have been asking the developers for this since the very release, but adding driving mechanics was not so easy. Theoretically, the ability to move on city streets by transport could become a stick in the wheel of the main game mechanic — parkour.
«Very quickly we realized that we were going against the basic mechanics. However, we thought that if we do this element properly, we will not destroy it, but on the contrary, we will enrich the gameplay,» said Smektala.
In order to implement the idea, the developers presented a more «flat» map, which can be used to move less on foot. At the same time, the developers made sure that there were enough parkour tracks leading to a safe zone. At first, you could push zombies left and right, but later the developers balanced the gameplay, making it so that any collision with the dead causes damage to the car.
After the release, the developers realized that the risk was not in vain. Many critics emphasized that Techland managed to refresh and even rethink the gameplay formula of the main part, adding fresh elements, thereby returning interest to the title.
If we talk about the future of Dying Light 2, then, judging by the demonstrated material, we are waiting for an almost full-fledged role-playing game with a developed plot and an upgrade of everything that was liked in the first part. In addition, according to the lead designer of the title, Timon Smektala, when considering the locations and gameplay of Stay Human, the studio placed a special emphasis on realism.
«I wanted to do everything so that the setting of the game did not look ridiculous. That’s why you won’t find any Uzis, machine guns, or sniper rifles in Stay Human. Instead, players will be waiting for bows and crossbows. In the first part, shooting attracted a lot of monsters. Now it will not cause so many problems, and silent weapons will add variability to the passage,» said Smektala.
Almost nothing is known about the company’s other projects, but recently the developers promised that they will try to turn Stay Human into a journey of at least five years, during which Techland intends to supplement the game with new stories, locations and in-game events.