Dead Island was slammed by some critics and reviewers as a hideously broken game. Yet, as I’m writing this, the PS3 and XBOX versions have both outsold the original Deus Ex, a game that critics fell in love with; and the PC version topped Steam‘s sales charts multiple weeks running. What should this tell us? One conclusion would be that there are a great deal of people who are not listening to critics or reading reviews.
But what about the games themselves? I played Deus Ex for 25 hours, completing every side quest I found, and trying to play with at least some degree of stealth. Dead Island I played for 28 hours, and consciously skipped side quests because the game was starting to frustrate the hell out of me.
So, a game panned by critics has more content and sells better than a game that will certainly be a Game of The Year contender. What did developer Techland do right, and how could the company have fixed the things it did wrong?
First off, and most people’s introduction to the game – that amazing cinematic trailer. With Dead Space 2 emphasising all the different ways the Player can die, and Rockstar trying to create action packed movie trailers from in-game footage, a slow motion, reversed, animated film clip of a little girl falling out a hotel window isn’t what we’ve come to expect. But damn did it work: That trailer, quickly adding up a few reposts on YouTube, has over ten million views. The most viewed Deus Ex trailer I found only has about three million. I think it’s safe to say we’re seeing incredibly successful advertising paying off: It isn’t negative reviews driving people to buy the game.
Another good decision, especially for PC gamers, and especially in Australia (I can’t talk for other markets), was their pricing. On Steam, Dead Island costs $49.99 USD for one copy, or $149.97 USD for four. Given the game is designed as a co-operative experience, this is genius. Also, as most blockbusters (such as Modern Warfare 3 and RAGE) are priced at $99 USD for a single copy, gamers strapped for cash, or groups of friends, are going to get much more bang for their buck with Dead Island. Deus Ex is on the right track here too, only priced at $69.99 USD – another bargain for Australian gamers, so used to being short-changed by publishers.
Of course, neither of these positives relate to the game itself. While I agree with nearly every criticism I’ve read and while, at times, I did have to force myself to continue playing, I found Dead Island to be innovative in its own way, and it does do a lot of things very well.
The best design decision Techland made is in their Stamina Bar. We’re more used to seeing this in a hardcore game like Dark Souls, but given Dead Island was originally dated for release in 2008, I think it would be unfair to say they simply copied it.
The stamina bar completely changes the way the Player needs to think about how they play the game. Suddenly everything we do is metered – we can’t run continuously, we can’t swing wildly with weapons, and once our stamina is depleted, we’re not going anywhere – enemy attacks knock us to the ground. Admittedly, this does get frustrating, and as Yahtzee pointed out, the inclusion of a kick attack that doesn’t use any stamina is a little ridiculous. Regardless, the decision to create a system where every move counts was a great choice in a game where the Player needs to feel surrounded and overwhelmed.
Balance that with a decidedly less hardcore decision – every time you hit an enemy, they spew numbers in the air showing just how much damage you’re dealing. Break a limb, the game will tell you that too. Throw a Molotov cocktail, and red numbers fly from every zombie hit for each tick of flame damage. Suddenly you’re in a casual gamer’s paradise, filled with strong visual feedback. This is the Reward to the stamina bar’s Risk. It also affected how I played – when against a “Tough” zombie, I’d dart in for a quick hit with a baseball bat, always going for the arms, waiting for the “BREAK” to appear on screen as I snapped one, leaving him to flail at me uselessly.
The inventory system sees this same marriage of the hardcore and the casual. Split into two categories, weapons and health take up space in a limited inventory, while any crafting material, loot and quest items are deposited in a separate, unlimited section.
This keeps the survival mechanic in the game relatively simple – inventory management isn’t a huge amount of fun, and by minimising it, you still need to consider whether you need another weapon or a health pack, but you don’t need to be forever worrying about space as you scavenge from another conveniently discarded suitcase.
Allowing the Player to equip multiple weapons at once is not only a nice touch, but necessary – a game has finally managed to make weapon durability a statistic worth taking notice of – keeping repair locations to a minimum ensures that any long foray into the zombie infested world will see Players burning through multiple weapons.
But this is where Dead Island runs into problems. Everything in this world – everything – re-spawns: from basic enemies to boss enemies to health, ammo, and loot: everything. This makes the concept of ‘survival’ seem moot, and becomes increasingly frustrating, especially as the zombies level up with you, meaning there is never an ‘easy’ moment. You’ll never return to town to heal up and sell loot without having to fight your way there. By the same token, you’re never really worried about scrounging parts for your upgrades, because that same bin is going to have a new part in it when you come back in a minute’s time.
Simply stopping everything re-spawning here is not the solution – but changing what does and what doesn’t would have been a good start. Stopping boss enemies returning makes life easier for the Player – but this can be balanced by stopping every damn chocolate bar and energy drink in the world reappearing infinitely too. Balancing the difficulty would have made the game more rewarding and far less frustrating.
For a good portion of my play-through I told friends and colleagues that with another six months’ development time, Dead Island would have been phenomenal. Having now finished the game, and having discovered that it was in development for some seven years, I’ve changed my mind.
Six months would have fixed the crashes, the art bugs, the broken quests and maybe even some balance issues, but it would not have fixed the game. My biggest complaint here, and one I can’t leave out, is that, having picked the ‘gun’ specialist class, it was twelve hours before I even saw a gun and eighteen before I had guns decent enough to reliably kill zombies. That’s pretty unforgivable, and can really only be attributed to bad design.
At the end of the day, though, I’ll remember Dead Island for the things it did well and the things it tried to do more than I’ll remember it for any frustration I felt while playing. I haven’t seen another game deal with the rape of a central character – or even try to. I have never been called a ‘drongo’ or a ‘wanker’ in a game before; hell, I’ve never spotted an Australian accent (even a bad one) and I cherished that. I think Techland made some excellent choices in developing Dead Island: Their decision to combine elements from hardcore games with more casual mechanics created a hybrid zombie-survival game that was very nearly phenomenal.
A small post script: since I originally wrote this article, it has been discovered that Techland trademarked the name “Dead World”. They haven’t officially announced it as a sequel, but that has been the interpretation of the gaming community. I hope this is the case, and that they get a chance to develop it. The money Techland earned with the success of Dead Island may even mean they can afford that six months’ extra development time that was so desperately needed. However, without looking at the deeper problems in their Design and learning from their mistakes, gamers might not be so open-minded or forgiving next time.