Back in September your intrepid reporter took a trip to the noisy, neon apocalypse of the EGX Expo in old London Town. In between playing the latest super realistic queuing simulators, the occasional demo for next years AAA releases (including Dead Island 2: brief preview – smacking zombies with a flaming sledgehammer is a metric shiton of fun) and a few rather nifty indie titles, I got the chance to talk to Yager’s Issac Ashdown. Ashdown is the Senior Programmer on Dead Island 2 and we chatted about about life after Spec Ops, Yager’s approach to mass zombie slaughter, and most importantly how he thinks he’d fare against a horse-sized duck.
How did you guys [Yager] come to be working on Dead Island 2?
During the down time, while making Spec Ops, they played a lot of Dead Island. I had really great co-op and it was great to play in the office. Then Yager were offered the chance to make a pitch for the sequel, they jumped at it and got the gig.
It’s a very different game to Spec Ops which was very cerebral and heavy, Dead Island 2 is almost cartoony in comparison. How do you approach the challenge of shifting gears from making something very sombre to something very silly?
I didn’t start working at Yager until Dead Island 2 was going into pre-production, but it’s something I often ask my colleagues. Everyone’s really proud of Spec Ops. I was really happy to get a job there after playing that game, and obviously it was in development for a long time. Coming out of that, I guess people like to have change, do something new and find a new challenge.
Dead Island has a very different approach from the first games, and the new direction we’re taking it in, what we’re doing with it and changing gears is something that people at Yager are really excited about. I guess, there’s definitely a lot of focus on maintaining what Yager has become known for in Spec Ops, namely delivering a very solid and interesting narrative experience, but the way we’re approaching Dead Island 2 is quite different and we’re trying to make it almost as nonlinear as possible.
Was it a conscious decision to make the game sillier than the last one, the original could be quite po faced at times, from the demo Dead Island 2 seems more cartoony and ridiculous in tone.
I think what we’re trying to do is embrace the way that people actually played the first game. It had a storyline which tried to be pretty serious at times, but the gameplay systems they built were a lot of fun and wacky. If you watch people playing it and watch Youtube videos, that’s why they’re playing the game. So we took a lot of those underlying systems and tried to make the tone of the game match them.
The visual tone is very fun and colourful, but there’s an interesting dichotomy between a paradise and a world gone to hell. But what it’s not is a horror game, it’s not trying to be super serious.
It’s its own little thing now.
Yeah, I guess so, but we’re not trying to be like super, I’m not sure how to put it exactly, but it’s not super insane. There’s nothing out of character happening. You’re not walking around with stupid costumes on. Instead you find all these awesome, outlandish and inventive weapons/mods for the weapons, all while crafting new weapons, so you can fight the zombies in a way that meets your play style and preferences, but reflects the outlandish nature of the apocalypse and what you can do in it.
The first games were set on these beautiful tropical islands, a trope deeply ingrained in popular culture as the perfect holiday destination. You take that holiday atmosphere and you put a zombie apocalypse in it and everything goes a bit crazy.
We wanted to set it somewhere different, but we wanted to keep that holiday atmosphere and keep the feeling that you’re somewhere really beautiful, really iconic but gone to hell.
California is a place which meets that. Everyone knows where it is, everyone knows about California, it’s been in movies for a century. California is a place steeped in mythos as ‘the land of opportunity’. So in game, we’ve reinforced this idea. It’s an island, in as much as the rest of the US has abandoned it, and the people that have remained are really embracing their opportunity to live the life that they have always wanted to.
How has being on the Xbox One and the PS4 helped to improve the game?
The new consoles are much more powerful and having that extra power allows us to do more. We can have a really open world which allows you to travel from one side to the other with no loading screens. This also allows for way more zombies and way more players as well. We have an eight player co-op now, as opposed to four player from the first game. A lot of the next gen improvements are behind the scene, back-end additions that may not be in the big lights, but do allow us a seamless multiplayer set up, where you can play with other people without any loading screens or little prompts. It just happens organically.
You’re going up against Techland’s Dying Light. Has there been any conscious effort to differentiate yourself from the competition, or was it just a case of we’re doing our thing and they’re doing theirs?
Dying Light looks like a lot of fun and I hope I get a chance to play it. They have certainly made the game they wanted to make. Our aim was always to make a sequel of Dead Island, so we’ve taken the real key features of Dead Island and expanded on some of them, reinforced others and that’s the game we have been trying to make.
What’s your favourite new weapon in Dead Island 2?
Hmmm. Favourite weapon… The modding system we have is pretty extensive so you can take whatever weapon you want and mod it. You can do some really classic things, if you’ve got a katana, you can put a mod on it that makes it super-fast and electrocute zombie. Then you can just run around like some kind of Uma Thurman wannabe and slice up California.
I think its fun to play with the mods. In Dead Island 2 you can mod a weapon and if you don’t like it you can replace it with another or have multiple mods, giving you a lot of opportunity to play around with the systems. It’s a lot of fun.
Was the streamlining of the modding system your main focus? In the original you had to walk up to a work bench, put everything together and eventually you’d get something cool, that may or may not work. While in the demo you just wandered up to things and slapped them on until you’d had enough…
The demo is a special case because it’s only a ten minute experience and we had taken out how crafting was going to work in the final game. In the finished product it’s very similar to the first; you find blue prints, ingredients and weapons. You can mix them all together to craft something new or mod your weapon in a way very similar to the first game.
We removed the workbench because we have this high level goal that nothing should prevent you playing with another player, we felt the workbench interfered with this. If you needed to mod or repair your weapon you would have to return to a workbench, maybe your buddy doesn’t need to or is in the middle of something. You don’t want to interrupt that asking him to wait for you. Maybe he wouldn’t and would carry on without you.
It’s amazing as it’s a relatively small change. In the grand scheme of things making it so that you can craft anywhere isn’t a big deal, but it does open up a lot of possibilities in how you interact with other players. That was how we came to that decision.
Yeah, [laughs] pretty much. It was our intention to have seamless multiplayer, that was the goal; to play in a world where people drop in and out and you don’t have to manage it. It kind of just happens and you can play with other people who are in your world or ignore them. One of the things we wanted was for our large open world to feel full. If there’s only four players you’re less likely to run into other people, eight players was a way to push it, so we did.
Would you rather fight one horse sized duck or a hundred duck sized horses.
It’s a fun game that. It depends, have you got your friends with you or not. Are you by yourself?
That’s a good question, no one’s ever asked that before. By yourself.
By yourself? Maybe a hundred duck-sized horses feels like you have a better chance of success. So I’d go for that one.
What about in eight player co-op?
Well in eight player co-op you might find that the challenge of a horse sized duck is such, that only with the teamwork you get with eight players can you possibly take it on.
I’d like to thank Isaac for his time, patience and a fantastic interview.
Check back soon to see what i thought of Dead Island 2 when I got my grubby, little mitts on it at EGX.