First person Parkour
"Natural movement could become an industry standard."
Before Dying Light, Techland previously created fellow zombie title Dead Island for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC in 2011. While the titles share some similarities – the multitudes of brain-munchers the most evident – Dying Light’s transition to the new generation of console hardware and major gameplay alterations, including the presence of parkour, meant that the studio was essentially building from the ground up.
“When we started out, we were basically manually putting in invisible interactive points where the player could grab and pull themselves up, ” lead programmer Bartosz Kulon says.
“We called these ‘hooks’ and they were dotted across all our in-game assets. But to give the illusion of ‘go anywhere, climb anything’ we had to put a ton of these onto every wall, crate, street lamp, fence and so on. Pretty soon we had something like 50, 000 hooks on one segment of the map and any movement or change in the level design would bring this all tumbling down. Even in testing it felt like we were constantly playing catch up; players were going to places we hadn’t predicted, so after each round of playtesting we’d have more and more hooks to place on top of the existing ones.
“This was actually a major hurdle that could have derailed the whole project. Then, based on an idea that was proposed, our senior game programmer sat down on his own and prototyped a system that analyses the environment in front of you in real-time and, based on certain geometric conditions, decides if you can climb the object. If the conditions are met, then the climb animation is triggered. This was probably the biggest turning point for our entire development.”
Dubbed the ‘Natural Movement’ system, Techland’s dynamic approach to judging whether players could traverse a variety of obstacles provided a manageable method to allow movement across the studio’s biggest game world yet, which measures three to four times the size of Dead Island.
“We could now ditch all those pesky hooks and just focus on ensuring the assets met the set conditions when and where we wanted them to, ” Kulon continues. “Getting the first-person Natural Movement system to where it is now was still a lot of hard work, but the core idea from that early prototype was the seed that saved the game.”
Allowing buildings to be scaled was just the first foothold in Natural Movement’s integration. Techland then had to make sure that hero Kyle Crane was able to freely move around the environment, without breaking the reality of the experience – he may be a secret agent, but he’s not Stretch Armstrong.
“It was a mainly a combination of clever level design and keeping the experience realistic, ” Binkowski says of the solution. “Our Natural Movement system was meant to remove all those pesky artificial barriers we’d come to expect in first-person games, but that didn’t mean our character could all of a sudden know no limitations. We just had to make sure that all obstacles in the game made sense: where we placed them and why they were there in the first place.”
This was particularly critical when it came to considering where Crane should and shouldn’t be able to reach, even with his newfound powers of parkour. The same logic had to be applied to pursuing zombies, too, with variant forms of the undead exhibiting different levels of agility.