Date: April 19, 2021
I’ve always been an RPG and RTS guy. I’ve dabbled in FPS games from time to time (and played the heck out of CS 1.6 as a kid), but otherwise pretty much stuck to what I knew. Add to that the fact that I’d always chickened out when trying horror games, and there was pretty much no way I was going to play a game like Dead by Daylight. Yet it was dropped in my lap, in a way, and I’m so very grateful that it was. It’s slowly but surely become one of my favorite games of all time, and I’d like to explain why. Take a seat around the campfire, and don’t mind that feeling that you’re being watched — you are.
I was introduced to Dead By Daylight by a friend, who I watched play a match on her laptop in my living room. At first it seemed like a simple, fun little horror game, and it was entertaining seeing her get stalked and chased by the killer from the movie Scream. As she played another match — this time as some kind of barfing zombie in a dress – I began to see that this wasn’t just some casual game designed to sell microtransactions. As she explained the strategy she used with her chosen killer, and how the survivors were responding to it, I was intrigued by the complexity of decision making I saw.
After my brief introduction to the game, I resolved to learn how to play Dead by Daylight. At first, I only played with my friend and her team, but found I was always the lowest rank in their game, and was often the reason that we all died. I decided it would be better if I learned the game on my own, and rejoined my friends once I was half-way competent.
I quit Dead by Daylight the second time my team left me on the hook to die. What a stupid game, I decided, if I have to rely on my teammates in order to win. So logically I went back to playing League of Legends, and forgot all about Dead by Daylight. Over a year later, finally tired of my League of Legends teammates, I once again booted up Dead by Daylight (henceforth referred to as DBD) out of desperation for a new PvP game that wasn’t Fortnite. At least my teammates can’t say horrible things to me until the post-game chat, I told myself.
This time, however, I wasn’t going to give up so easily. I watched a few YouTube videos and discovered I’d pretty much been playing incorrectly the whole time. My friends, though well-intentioned and decent players, hadn’t imparted much wisdom to me when I’d first tried the game. This time, I also learned how to play as the killer, in order to better understand the whole game (it turned out to be pretty fun, too). After learning to play properly, I found that my teammates could be total fodder and I could still succeed, as long as I did my job. I wouldn’t always escape, but I would always rank up, if I played smart. I slowly began to understand the intricacies of the game, and I was hooked.
It’s been a year since then, and I’m now convinced that DBD is a fantastic game. Before we dive further into why Dead by Daylight is so great, you’ll need a brief explanation of the game:
There is a killer, and 4 survivors. Killer needs to find, catch, and kill the survivors by hurting them twice, at which point they can put the survivor on a hook, where they will eventually die if no one rescues them. The survivors try to avoid the killer while completing 5 generators that then power the exit gates, allowing the survivors to escape. Survivors and killers can both choose up to 4 perks to equip that provide various advantages during the match.
At its core, the game is simple: the killer kills, the survivors survive. It’s an easy game to pick up and play: when playing as a survivor, it’s very clear that you want to run away from the horrible man or monster, just as it’s obvious as a killer that you want to whack survivors with your weapon. Not only is it straightforward to learn the basics, but it is immediately apparent just from watching the game what’s going on. DBD’s core mechanics, because they revolve around interactions that are intuitive (run away from the murderer, fix the broken generator), are easy to understand at a glance. Compare this to other PvP games like DOTA or CS:GO, where someone who hasn’t played the game would find the average match incomprehensible.
Because it’s so simple to parse the game’s visual information, it’s very accessible considering its somewhat competitive nature. However, this ease of access belies DBD’s hidden depths. Underneath it’s simple premise lies a complex system of game mechanics that most players won’t master even after thousands of hours of gameplay. The complexity comes not from any one element, but instead from the way the various items, addons, maps, killers, and perks can interact, as well as the variety of tactical and strategic decisions players can make during the game.
DBD Is a Strategy Game…
I’m a big fan of board games, and something that struck me after I had played for a while was how much the overall strategy of a DBD match can be likened to a board game.
There are only 5 player controlled pieces — each survivor and the killer — but there are also 7 pseudo-randomly placed major objectives pieces, 8 minor objective pieces, and dozens of obstacles the survivors can use to evade the killer. While it’s obviously played in real time, the way the players move around the map reminds me more of a board game than an RTS game, simply because exactly where you are on the playing space matters so much. Note: If anyone from BHVR wants me to make the DBD board game, just reach out.
The way the players choose to move their player “piece” around the board is a huge part of DBD; while there are mechanical challenges involved in the actual chase-and-catch aspect of the game, where and when you end up in those chases is determined by your strategic decision making skills, as well as those of your opponent(s). The chance to make interesting choices as the killer like “Can I continue chasing this survivor, or do I need to go scare her friends off of the nearby generator” are engaging on a strategic level, and are one of my favorite parts of DBD, in large part because they are usually made with imperfect information.
Like most good strategy games, being familiar with what your teammates and your opponent can do in a match gives you a big advantage. There are currently 83 survivor perks and 78 killer perks to choose from, and many of the perks can fundamentally alter the way you play the game. Figuring out which perks your opponent(s) are using is an important aspect of the game, and then knowing how to respond to those perks is a whole world of strategy unto itself. Some perks can only be used in specific situations, and so a knowledgeable player can know when to expect a perk to be used. Different perks also have different cooldowns, and tracking those cooldowns is an essential part of high-level play.
All of the killers have unique powers, and so learning what each of them can do is another layer of knowledge that can affect the way you play the game. If you’re playing survivor against the frequently-invisible Wraith, for example, you’ll need to know that he doesn’t give the usual proximity cues. Against the bear-trap setting Trapper, you’ll have to remember to keep an eye out for his traps as you make your way around the map.
Learning the maps is another massive undertaking: there are currently 15 realms (each realm has a distinct set of visual assets) and 35 maps spread throughout those realms. The maps are semi-random; while the overall shape and the main building of the map are consistent, the rest of the terrain, obstacles and objectives spawn in different locations each match. Despite their semi-random nature, learning their general layout — and especially becoming familiar with the main building — can be key to success in DBD.
…And an Action Game
After the strategy aspect of the game comes the action element, the “chase”, or what the community calls “looping”. In this part of the game, the survivor can use pallets and windows to avoid the killer, while the killer tries to damage the survivor with their weapon or their special power. These chases are akin to a fighting game or to poker — there are options both parties have, and assuming both sides are aware of these options, there are guessing games, some 50/50s, and the ole “you think I’ll go that way but I know you know I know you know so I’ll actually go that way anyway”. The chases, assuming they don’t end too quickly, tend to be exciting for both sides. Rarely while gaming have I cackled with delight the way I do when I narrowly avoid the killer’s grasp (or when I bonk a survivor right before they drop a pallet on me).
You can also be stealthy, and try to avoid the killer, which is a sort of combination of strategy and action gameplay — it can sometimes require quick thinking and clever movement to evade the killer, but it’s also a lot about knowing where the best place to hide is, and where the killer is likely to look. While the reddit community is very against this style of play, it can certainly be effective.
In my humble opinion, “easy to learn, hard to master” is a hallmark of good game design. Not only does it make it easier to get people to actually play your game, but I would argue that any game that requires a 2-hour manual reading session in order to start playing could stand to have its core mechanics improved upon. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Paradox games are awesome, but I never play them simply because they demand so much work before you can have fun with them. A well designed game lets you engage with it on whatever level of complexity you want — in Starcraft II you can do multiple drops at once while macroing from 5 bases, but you can also just select your whole army and A-move it into your opponent’s base if that’s the kind of mood you’re in.
DBD nails easy to learn, hard to master with its gameplay. Anyone comfortable with 3rd person action games can play survivor without too much struggle or confusion, and anyone who has played an FPS can competently play killer after just a couple of games. You could have hours of fun in DBD without ever scratching the surface of the game’s complexity. If you pay attention and dig deeper, however, there’s a world to discover beneath the simple cat-and-mouse horror game veneer.
Fair warning: I’m going to go into some depth now about the games systems and how they combine to create a compelling gameplay loop, so while you can read this without having played DBD, you might need to look up a few things.
I think it was the perk ‘Tinkerer’ that made me realize how complex DBD can be if you want it to be. For those who aren’t familiar, Tinkerer gives the killer a loud noise notification once a generator is 70% finished (it also hides the killer’s Terror Radius for 16 seconds). First of all, there’s a layer of game knowledge required here in that you can figure out that the killer has Tinkerer if you’re paying attention and you know how it works. If you do this as a survivor, you can then:
- Decide to hide immediately after the gen gets to 70%, and try to waste the killer’s time.
- Be ready to run when the killer comes, and give yourself line of sight since their terror radius will be gone
- Let the gen sit below 70% until someone else’s gen gets to 70, because you’re afraid of the killer (non-optimal unless maybe you’re on death hook, but certainly a choice once you know there’s Tinkerer)
What’s so interesting to me is that these are all strategic choices that provide depth of decision making, but none of them exist unless you figure out the killer has Tinkerer. If you don’t figure it out, you can still win — it might not even matter that you know he has it, depending on the match and the skill level of the game. Herein lies the beauty of DBD to me: you can always play better, or smarter, but you won’t even know it until you can do it. Contrast that with a game like Crusader Kings 3, where a single menu might require a thirty minute YouTube video to learn how to use.
Earlier in this article I talked about the body of knowledge that exists for players to take advantage of in securing victory, and you can see it in action in the gameplay surrounding the Tinkerer perk. What I didn’t address, however, was the other form of knowledge you need when playing DBD: knowing what’s going on across the map at any point in the game. In addition to tracking perks and their cooldowns, you can also track what everyone else is doing in the game… kind of. Herein lies one of the most fascinating aspects of DBD to me: the need to play with imperfect information.
As the killer, or even as a survivor (assuming you aren’t on Discord with friends), you can’t make the right decision about what to do next unless you have some idea of what everyone else on the map is doing — but you can’t see everyone else on the map except under certain conditions using certain perks. Instead, you have to be paying attention to where people ran to, where generators are, and what each person is most likely to be doing at any given time (healing, rescuing another survivor, doing generators, hiding, etc). You can then extrapolate from the information you have, and what you can expect people to do, to make assumptions about what’s going on elsewhere. Only then can you make a decision about what you should do.
It’s a brilliant system, and it leans into the horror aspect of the game well; you are tempted to play selfishly as a survivor, because hiding and playing safe is natural when someone is trying to kill you. However, your best chance of escape comes when you play aggressively and cooperatively. That can be a challenge when your only form of communication is to point or a “come here” gesture (of course, this tense cooperative guessing game among survivors falls apart when 3rd party VOIP software is used, but playing with friends is just too much fun not to).
Further complexity comes in the form of the resources on the map that are available to survivors in the form of windows and pallets. The spawn locations of these killer-stoppers are fixed, but there are far more spawn locations than there are pallets and windows, so you can never know exactly where you’ll find them when you need them (unless you use the perk Windows of Opportunity to see them through walls like I do). The windows don’t have a ton of strategic depth, you just use them when you can, but the pallets are balanced in a very interesting way. Once you drop a pallet, you can’t pick it up without a specific perk, and killers will usually break useful pallets immediately if you drop them. This means that each pallet has essentially one use — drop it, and it’s gone.
This leads to a strategic decision — in addition to a tactical decision — each time you approach a pallet as a survivor. Not only do you have to take into account the killer’s speed and special abilities to decide whether or not you can drop the pallet before the killer catches you, but you also have to decide if it’s worth dropping the pallet instead of taking a hit. When a survivor is damaged by the killer, they get a significant burst of speed, so there are times where it would be better in the long run to save a well positioned pallet and simply let the killer hit you instead, taking advantage of the speed boost to make it to another pallet or window. These sorts of decisions are critical to high-level gameplay, as how and when you use the map’s resources can greatly influence the outcome of the game.
I haven’t even mentioned chests, totems, or lockers, and I’ve also neglected to mention items, or how sound plays an important role both tactically and aesthetically. That being said, I could write an entire article on when you should open chests and break totems, so for now, suffice it to say that chests, totems, items, and the game’s sounds all add strategic and tactical decisions to DBD.
Despite all its potential complexity, DBD remains a casual game. Many, many players will never read a single wiki entry or strategy guide, and you can find lots of killers with over 1,000 hours still hanging out in the game’s lowest ranks. In fact, you’ll probably find yourself frustrated with your teammates if you go grab DBD after reading this article and expect the other survivors to be master strategists. They’ll probably act more like minor characters in a horror movie, at least until you move up in the ranks a fair bit. But, if you keep playing, you might find yourself drawn into the Entity’s realm like I was.