“This is probably the most exciting thing I’ve had to say, and this is the first time I’m ever talking about it, so I’m a little nervous. You’ll have to forgive me.” Mathieu Cote, the producer of Dead by Daylight, has just returned from Twitchcon in San Diego, where he has spent several days meeting and chatting with some of the biggest fans and most popular streamers of their hugely successful multiplayer slasher sim, all while sitting on the most significant piece of news about the game since its launch. “I met a lot of really cool people and everybody was very excited about the game and I was unable to tell them anything that was upcoming.”
Now Cote is finally able to unveil his big surprise for the first time. “We had talked at the very beginning about licensed killers [and] survivors, because obviously we’re so inspired by general culture and popular culture and things like that. A lot of people were screaming for all their favourite movies and franchises to be folded into our game,” he explains. Thus far developers Behaviour Interactive have avoided this, on account of wanting to establish their own world and horror fiction. But the next update will change that, seeing the first licensed content to arrive in Dead by Daylight’s grisly world. “We are visiting Halloween for Hallowe’en.”.
For its Hallowe’en update, Dead by Daylight will let players assume the role of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode from John Carpenter’s groundbreaking film, while also introducing a new, suburban themed map (which, as with all of Dead by Daylights new maps, will be freely available to all players). “We wanted to make sure the first one we put in, would be a critical one,” We wanted to go for one of the more iconic and impressive figures of horror. I mean, I think Michael Myers is one of the most recognisable villains in movie history,” says Cote.
If you're not familiar with it, Dead By Daylight is an asymmetrical multiplayer game where four teenage survivors attempt to evade the murderous clutches of a player-controlled serial killer. It has proved massively popular, selling over a million copies within two months of launch. With the game firmly established, I spoke to Dead by Daylight’s producer Mathieu Cote about both the game's development and their move towards including licensed horror characters.
The story so far
Licensing characters from cinema is a gimmick a lot of games have employed before. We’ve seen Star Wars characters turn up randomly in the Soul Calibur series, while Predator and Alien’s xenomorph have ripped each other to shreds in Mortal Kombat. But the situation isn’t quite the same for Dead by Daylight. To see why, it’s necessary to first understand how this game first sloped out into the light, dripping machete in-hand, and the ways in which its developers are planning to incorporate such icons of horror into its world.
Dead by Daylight may have launched only a few months ago, but the idea has been kicking around the studio of Behaviour Interactive for over a decade. In its 25 years as a company, most of Behaviour’s output has been contract work for other people’s licenses, spinoffs for the likes of Spongebob Squarepants, and a bevy of Disney and Pixar films. Prior to Dead by Daylight, their best-known work was probably Naughty Bear, which received mostly middling reviews.
In that time Behaviour have built various prototypes for a slasher-film inspired game, but only started to get somewhere with the concept about three years ago. “The day we hit upon something that we really liked, it was really when we nailed down a pure hide and seek mechanic,” says Cote. “There was one versus one and it was just a helpless person trying to accomplish a very simple goal, and an absolutely powerful person that was in control, trying to prevent them. And it was SO much fun.”
Fun, but the game was vastly in favour of the all-powerful killer. So to try to balance it out, Behaviour added another three survivors to the game, all of whom are trying to flee from a location inspired by classic slasher films (such as a junkyard or a farm surrounded by cornfields), by repairing a series of generators to open a gate and make good their escape. All the while, the player-controlled killer stalks the map, following footprints left by survivors when they run, and homing in on generators as they growl and pop and light up. A survivor who is caught by a killer receives a nasty bludgeoning, before being carried over to several-meathooks where they are slowly sacrificed to an unseen, malevolent force.
Grisly as it may sound, what makes Dead by Daylight interesting is how it tries to evoke fear in its Survivors through doubling down on uncertainty. The maps, for example, aren’t fixed environments, but a set of horror themes which the game procedurally generates for each match. It also has no voice-chat, because Behaviour don’t want players communicating with each other in a way that breaks the immersion of the game.
At the commencement of a match, players don’t even know who, or more precisely what, is hunting them, as there are multiple killers such as the Trapper, who can immobilise players with carefully placed bear-traps, or the Wraith, who can turn invisible and ambush unsuspecting survivors. All the killers are played in first-person as opposed to the survivors’ third-person perspective, and have important objects highlighted in their vision so they can get a handle on the procedurally generated maps at a glance. The idea is that the survivors have a heightened awareness to their surroundings, while the killer has an advantage in knowledge. “You should never know who you’re up against, who you’re paired with to help you or hinder you. You don’t know where you’re gonna be sent, what powers the killer is going to have. The idea is that unknown, that uncertainty, that need to discover and explore, is part of what creates those very strong emotions every time,” Cote explains.
This focus on creating an immersive multiplayer horror experience led to some interesting design decisions. For example, Behaviour deliberately chose to shy away from the eSports scene, as they didn’t want the design to be dictated by balance. “The hard-fast rule for creating a new power set for the killer, it’s not, ‘Is it equal to the other killers’? It’s, ‘Will it create an amazing experience for the survivors and when you’re playing it as a killer’?
The game’s aesthetic, too, plays its slasher concept very straight-faced, lacking the tongue-in cheek playfulness of other multiplayer horror games such as Left4Dead. At the same time, the game’s approach to violence is more Hallowe’en than Nightmare on Elm Street, minimising blood and gore and avoiding things like ragdoll corpses and limb dismemberments which could turn the game into an accidental comedy vehicle. “We wanted to put our energy in the build-up, the tension, the chase. These moments of being afraid, and being stressed out,” says Cote. “Some games have a meter that tells you if you’re character is scared or not. And we really don’t give a crap about that. All we wanted to know is if you’re scared, if your heart-rate is going up, if your palms are getting sweaty.”
Behaviour’s efforts to create a genuine, player-driven scare-fest seems to have paid off. It is particularly popular amongst streamers, whose livelihood is so heavily reliant on games that provoke a visible reaction. But even amongst normal players, Cote states that Dead By Daylight usually has ten to twenty thousand players online at any given moment. “If we had done half of what we have done, I would be on my chair screaming from joy,” says Cote. “We were aiming for about half of what we got in the first week, of release. It was a tremendous success.”
This success has also ensured the longevity of the game. Behaviour have released two updates so far. The first, the Asylum, transposes the game’s outdoor hide-and-seek into a single, procedurally generated building, and introduces a new killer, the Nurse. The second was a cosmetics pack labelled The 80s Suitcase, a more lighthearted gesture which nevertheless raised some concerns about the direction of the game. “Because we’re associated with Starbreeze, we got a lot of flak at first, people were talking about the [Payday 2] microtransaction debacle from all this. And the first thing we said, we stated very clearly, we’re not going to do pay to win,” says Cote. “The funny bit is, I was discussing that earlier with some people at Twitchcon. Most of these outfits are, since they’re from the 80s, they’re SUPER bright, they’re shiny pink pants. So we did not do pay to win, we did pay to lose, because they’re essentially horrible outfits to try to hide in. But people love them, and in a sense, it’s also bragging rights.”
Introducing Michael Myers
It’s Dead by Daylight’s dedication to recreating the feel of slasher movies, and its approach to player generated horror, which makes its shift from its own fiction into licensed content so intriguing. Behaviour don’t want to just have Michael Myers in their game, they want the player to be able to embody that character and to evoke the feeling of being hunted by Myers through the game’s systems. To that end, they’ve built a mechanic around Myers so that he builds up power by stalking the survivors and watching them from the shadows. The longer he waits to strike, the more lethal he will be when he eventually does.
“We’ve had moments here internally, where as a survivor you’re doing what you’re doing normally. You’re running around the map. You’re trying to be quiet. You find a generator and you start repairing it, and you look around, and you just see him, and he’s over there watching you,” says Cote. “And it’s the creepiest thing ever because you don’t know what to do. You don’t know how to react. You can’t run away because he’s not coming for you, and it’s gonna require people to find new ways to play the game.”
Behaviour are saving specific details about the perks for both Myers and Laurie for a later announcement, although they explain that Laurie’s abilities will revolve around her being the last survivor standing. But the Hallowe’en update also introduces a new mechanic called obsession, whereby the killer fixates on a particular survivor in a unique way, perhaps wanting to kill them first or save them for last. The Survivors, of course, won’t know about the killer’s obsession, and will have to try to fathom it out based on the killer’s play style.
And this, ultimately, is what Behaviour want from Dead by Daylight, for players to constantly be having to adjust their play-styles, to be facing down a new terror in an unknown place every time a match begins. Expanding their roster of maps, and introducing these licensed killers alongside their own fiction, is all part of that. “We are getting closer and closer to that absolute unknown, that uncertainty that will create that discovery every time,” says Cote. “That moment of ‘I have no idea of what’s going to happen to me now’ which is at the core of the intensity of our experience.”