Game Director at Dambuster Studios David Stenton explained the nuances of Dead Island 2, talked about the game's level design, and detailed the studio's level testing process.
I have been with the studio for 10 years, and have been in game development for over 20 years. When I joined the studio back in 2013, I actually relocated from Canada as I was working at BioWare on the Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises for several years. My own game development background is in game design and production.
One of my strongest memories of starting at this studio on a very rainy May day in Nottingham was how exceptionally friendly and welcoming the staff were, and this is still something that holds true today. We are a very open and transparent team, and we work hard to keep things that way.
Dead Island 2's Worldbuilding Goals
There were several goals that were really important to us. First of all, Los Angeles is such an iconic city, and we have a really strong and vibrant pulp tone in Dead Island 2. We wanted to take players on an exciting journey through the postcard locations within L.A. and present them in a vibrant and almost hyper-real manner. We wanted the city of Los Angeles to resonate almost as a character in its own right.
We also wanted to make sure players saw a broad range of locations within L.A. that there was a good amount of variety, and also that these locations either represented the aspirational paradise perception of L.A. or the hellish underbelly. We allow players to explore the mansions of the rich and famous in Bel Air and fight zombies on the sun-kissed Venice beach but also journey through the gore and filth within Brentwood Sewers. Having the contrast between light and dark is a key identifier of the Dead Island franchise and something that was important to encapsulate.
The Initial Vision
Very early in development, it is fair to say that the tone was not as vibrant and pulpy as we see in the final game now. Although we have always had a very high-quality bar and favored very detailed and high-quality visuals, there was a greater emphasis on destruction within the world earlier in development. The after-effects of earthquakes and detail through damage are featured more heavily in concepts and world design.
Over time, we paired this back in favor of elevating the aspirational qualities of environments. As the pulp tone developed, the fantasy of exploring these amazing postcard locations became clearer, as well as the dark and satirical humor that can be woven into the world. The humor comes from the passion and talent of the narrative and world-building teams – pouring this into the little fun details really brings the personality of the world to life.
We have a fantastic group of Writers, 2D Artists, and Environment artists that inject so many humorous and insightful touches into our game world. Establishing the lore and tone of our game world is key to setting direction, and once that is understood, it gives a great foundation for creatives to manifest their own stories and details.
This, of course, all takes time, and it was really important that we gave Dead Island 2 the time it needed to reach a really high level of polish. With that extra time, developers could continually add little flourishes that tie into our game lore, quests, characters, and other callbacks and references to pop culture.
Approach to Level Design
At the core of our level design is our game pillar of Brutal Melee Combat. Dead Island 2 is very much about players running into the fight – being down on the streets and looking for the next intense zombie slaying encounter. For this reason, we carefully crafted our postcard locations to cater for this intense close combat and made sure that during construction we also put in plenty of opportunities to engage in the combat sandbox mechanics. Pools of fuel, fire hydrants, car alarms, electric signs, and many more. We loved creating chaotic combinations of elements that players could utilize to get the upper hand.
Capturing the essence and personality of these iconic locations in L.A. was also extremely important. For the above reasons, we did not pursue a strict "real-world accurate" layout, but hopefully, players will agree that our districts do a fantastic job of feeling absolutely lifelike but also catering to the requirements of the gameplay.
Testing Out the Levels
All of our levels have extensive testing throughout development, and this testing takes many forms. Firstly the developers themselves – the designers and artists that craft these spaces continually playtest and refine layouts and encounters as they are being built. Secondly, we have leads that provide continual feedback to their staff so that the levels adhere to best practices. We have periodic "stage gate" full-level reviews with myself and discipline directors to review and feedback from a holistic perspective. We have a publisher-run public playtest team, Gameslab, that runs confidential playtests with members of the public, who then fill out surveys, and also their playtest telemetry is analyzed and lessons learned. Finally, we have our QA teams, both internal to Dambuster but also with partner studios, who play the levels extensively and file bugs and provide feedback.
In total, levels receive thousands of hours of playtime and continual refinement. As development continues, we aim to reduce the scale of changes that are allowed, as changes to final geometry and layouts can be very costly for all involved. We generally move from large-scale layout changes (terrain, building locations) to locking down hard surface geometry (buildings, interior walls, etc.). Dressing and placeable gameplay elements such as combat hazards and zombie encounters are usually the last to be locked in. Of course, not everything runs to the ideal scenario, and many elements are somewhat intertwined. We may need to make changes due to refinements in the story, quest design, and level flow in response to player feedback or to improve the aesthetic composition.
Sometimes difficult decisions need to be made, which can be costly but ultimately benefit the game quality in the long run.