DayZ Preview – Interview With Dean ‘rocket’ Hall

DayZ, Dean “rocket” Hall’s zombie survival mod for Bohemia Interactive’s Arma II, has exploded over the face of the internet’s games community. This is not just ‘some zombie game’ to add to the pile of industry’s most ubiquitous theme – it’s what everyone, from the word go, has been asking for from a zombie game: open-world realistic survival.

Still in alpha, as its creator is eager to stress, DayZ is drawing an inordinate amount of gamers into its harsh world simply by providing a large open island filled with villages and towns, Chernarus, a selection of scavengable weapons, medical supplies and food, scattered throughout the empty buildings and 30-50 other players, who may or may not be willing to try to survive alongside each other. With 1:1 time, food, drink and blood meters along with the occasional need for realistic first aid treatment and full-on unrestricted PvP, DayZ’s vision of the zombie apocalypse is bleak and satisfyingly simple in its realism.

I jumped into the mod just as it began to blow up a month or two ago, when 5 or 6 struggling servers were the only way to play, and getting into them was a matter of watching for the number 50 (out of 50) to momentarily switch to 49 and slamming down the space bar as quickly as possible. Since then, the dev team at DayZ have been working restlessly to keep up with the burgeoning demand that stemmed from the graduation of the mod’s exposure from a few message and image boards to mainstream gaming outlets such as PC Gamer and Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Currently, there are about 800 servers, almost equally rammed, and it shows no sign of stopping. Clearly people out there want this kind of thing on offer, and a £25 price tag (on Steam), whether they play the vanilla game or not, is not going to stop them from getting it.

DayZ is what PC gaming and the world of modding is all about, allowing for player-driven stories and emergent gameplay. I can already tally off ten to twenty stories from my adventures, involving friends, bandit characters, vehicles and a whole lot more, and I’m certainly not unique in that respect. Various image boards have already started to create and nurture their own inside jokes and meta-games, even if that is picking off newbies on the coastline. There’s no doubting it’s taken the hardcore communities and large parts of the mainstream by storm. With all this in mind, I was delighted to sit down with Dean Hall, a few weeks ago at E3, to ask him about the past and future of DayZ.

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Did you expect the huge response that DayZ has had?

Not really. I knew it was going to be big within the Arma community because it was the first time we had a persistent world and a packaged survival experience. So I expected that it would be quite popular there, but the mainstream crossover was a real surprise.

Yea, I can imagine. Has it been a struggle dealing with the huge influx of players on the technical side?

Yeah, I get pretty fractured with people and difficult, you know, working a lot of hours, often not sleeping at all, so it was really crazy. And because it was initially really only designed for a test capacity of like two servers, it was a matter of ‘Ok, suddenly we’ve got a lot of people playing this – we need to change everything’. So there was a lot of hacking and a lot of dirty code solutions to try make it work. There was a decision point early on [where we had to decide] whether we stop everything and take a hiatus for a few weeks and recode things, or whether we just try to carry on. And we opted for the carrying on.

So how are you looking to approach the future of DayZ in the long term?

Well I think the ‘long term’ is a bit open. I think the important thing is not to get too crazy and say ‘Wow I’ve come up with this amazing design, I must be some amazing designer’. I think it’s really a process of elimination. So I had this feeling that I wanted players to experience and this experiment that I wanted to do. And literally just tried again and again, and was really ruthless with the mechanic. If I felt that it wasn’t doing what I wanted it to, I cut it out and tried again. So I think, I realised I need to stay true to that, and say ok, it’s an experiment for the next month or two and follow that experiment through. Find what works and what doesn’t; make those mistakes. I personally think there’s a product in there – there’s a game in there that will make it a lot more easy for people to play and a lot more accessible. But growing from mod to game is a difficult path.

Do you have any specific features or changes you’re looking to implement over the coming months?

Yea, definitely. The biggest one for me personally, is developing the temperature system that’s roughly implemented at the moment. I want the player to feel a lot more connected with the environment in many ways – lots of subtle ways that are really intuitive. So that needs to be expanded and developed. And probably the other biggest thing is the meta-gaming, group-style stuff. So at the moment, there’s survival in DayZ, but after you’ve survived a couple days and figured out how to live in the world, there’s not really much else to do, so expanding that, I think is probably the biggest thing. [I want to] support many different play-styles – if you want to be a lone hunter or do you want to try takeover a town. Or do you wanna be a good group, going round helping people, getting a helicopter etcetera? So I want to support that, and that involves mixing it in with the website as well, having it seamless.

Certainly. I was personally quite surprised when you took out the bandit skins, and I know that’s because you wanted to get different skins in the game, but do you have any plans to work the humanity system in again, so players can somehow tell who they’re dealing with?

Yea, absolutely. I took it out because, I have to be ruthless, it wasn’t working. What was happening was, it was kind of a false economy – occasionally, people would shoot someone out of self-defense quite legitimately and turn into a bandit. Now they were only maybe -300 humanity, only just a bandit. And everybody else would shoot them, so they were forced into banditry. So that wasn’t working, even though people thought it was working, because it gave them legitimate targets. So we needed to get rid of it and we need to come up with something better. And that’s been the philosophy all the way along and there’s time likes the tents, where I was having all these real technical problems, and I just constantly came up with mechanic after mechanic until we got one that worked. And I think we need to stick with that philosophy, because it’s really important.

So there are options: things like maybe you get a blood texture, blood on your clothes, things like that or maybe there’s some facial changes, expression-wise – subtle things we can add. There’s definitely a mechanic that’s needed there.

Yea, it must be really tough to plan out how that’s going to work, especially with people killing in self-defense. Would you consider changing the way it’s calculated? For instance, and I don’t want to tell you what to do (laughs), if people are killing a certain frequency of people within a time period, they retain their bandit status.

Yea absolutely. And to take a little tangent with it, a lot of really good ideas are coming straight from the community and it’s really important that I stay grounded, because my role is to facilitate things and hold the vision. Everybody has good ideas – It’s about finding those good ideas and nurturing them.

So to get back to what you were saying, yes absolutely. I think there’s a lot of potential exploration there. It’s a huge important mechanic, so settling for what we had is not in the spirit of the project. It’s a really ambitious project, and it achieved some good, early success, but now’s not the time to sit back and go ‘Ok, good enough, let’s leave it at that’. We need a bandit/humanity mechanic that works. Maybe it’s like you say – some kind of statistical amalgamation. Maybe it’s a mixture of that with some kind of blood after you’ve killed someone. But you know, some of those mechanics don’t make much sense because what if you shot someone from miles away then you have blood on you? Maybe it’s when you loot a body, you end up with blood on your hands. There’s lots of options and there’s more discussion needed. The answer to this isn’t me sitting down and coming up with an amazing mechanic. The answer is talking about it, listening on the forums and all the different community websites, trying stuff and finding out if it works.

That kind of leads on to my next question. You seem to have pretty strong convictions about what this mod should be. Do you think that’s important for mod and game design?

I do think it’s important for modding and really for everything. You’ve got your project and your project skeleton is really important. And it’s the job of whoever’s leading, to hold the vision. The meat that goes on it – that can take many different forms, but the spine is really important. That’s the scope of the project. People say ‘We want PvE servers, we want co-op servers…this,hat and the next thing’, and they’re not within the scope of the project. Maybe they’re in the scope of another project, but if we start doing all this other crazy stuff, it’ll become a jumble and it’ll lose the sense of itself.

So I think holding that vision really tightly, is really important. And that’s where I think a lot game projects fall under, because for a variety of reasons: marketing, money, stuff like that. I saw a brilliant quote on 4chan, this was a long time ago and I can’t remember the exact context of it, but someone said “Why is it that this better than all the other stuff that’s come out from professional studios in 2012”, then the post below it said “Because it’s not the product of bazillion marketing meetings and rubbish”. And I think there’s some truth to that. For me it’s easier, because it’s just my thing, so I can control it and shape it how I want. If you’re in EA and you’re trying to do that, it’s harder. The game designers are awesome guys, and probably having smarter ideas than me, but they have to make so many people happy. That’s what’s cool about modding.

I think that’s the big thing, because singular visions do get compromised. Although it’s a completely different thing – people like Hideo Kojima – He’s making an entire game, and that’s why that’s so popular.

Yeah, and he’s particular about what it should be. Absolutely.

You released a recording on YouTube. In line with that, are you looking to expand the story more and give DayZ more of a background?

Early on, maybe about a quarter of the way through, when I was first developing it, I suddenly wanted to give it a story. But I think that’s a natural thing that designers try and do, because you want to stamp it. Story is me expressing myself as a designer and all the designers want to do that. But I slapped myself on the hand and said no. This is DayZ, this is your story. I think that’s really important. But I think narrative and context are very important – I think this is a chance to take a serious look at the zombie genre. My brother, Dr Richard Hall is a virologist for the New Zealand equivalent of the CDC and he studies things like the influenza virus. So I really want to bring him on board and get him in to help me a bit with the story – real, authentic stuff, like with the zombie life-cycle and an authentic context, but not a story. With the story, we set it up until DayZ begins, and from there, it’s the player’s. We’ll just provide the context of the world and try to resist all those designer instincts to get in and control the player.

So you might have tapes or notes that give a little bit of the context. Would they ever hint to places where there might be good loot or something like that?

Yea, there’s options. I don’t know how much you know about the Real Virtuality engine, but it can do really cool stuff. I actually think it’s a diamond in the rough. Obviously with a military simulator like Arma, you can’t explore it too much – there’s not a lot of exploration that can happen. But there’s a lot of cool things that can be done with the engine like underground structures and things like that, and they help with some technical problems. I think that’s definitely a potential idea.

Again, with every new element we put in, we need to be careful with how it affects things. Anything that takes away from it being your story is not good – I really don’t want to break the connection that this is your avatar, because I think that’s what’s special about it. You know that your character will be there if he stays alive and you know that if your character dies, that’s it . So it should all be about your character doing what you want. So I do have reservations about these sorts of things. It’s similar with my reservations with Free to Play. I’ve maybe ruffled up some people in the industry about it, but I’m not saying I’m against it totally, I just have reservations. I’m sure the guys who set up World of Warcraft probably had reservations about their pricing model as well. I’ve got reservations about adding side-missions and stuff like that. But we can look at it and see how it fits, just carefully.

Persistence is a large part of the game. The way it works with being able to go onto any server with your gear and change around easily – is that how you envisioned it? Is that how it would be in a perfect world or would it be more MMO-style or something like that?

Well I saw some interesting discussion last night, because there were all sorts of rumours flying around and I like to see what people are saying, and maybe there’s something there. I’m really interested in a mixture of peer-to-peer and central servers. So at the moment, the zombies are peer-to-peer, and that’s one of the reasons it works with so many. With an optimised Real Virtuality engine, we can do even more. So I think there’s a lot that can be done with these sorts of ideas. There are a lot of problems with it and a lot of potential pitfalls, but I think there’s something potential there that could be looked at.

There’s certain things like tents and how they are tied to a specific server, and if that server goes down, the tent is not accessible. Is that something that concerns you or something you’d like to look at addressing?

Yea, there’s options with that, we played with a few early on in development. There’s a scale with this where you have a relatively easy fix and then at the other end you have a crazy fix, like instead of the terrain being a loaded island, let’s do it like a chunk-database type thing. So there’s a scale with how we solve those issues and I think to start, we go with the simpler model. For instance, with vehicles, I want to experiment with it, so if you find a bicycle, you can take it to any other server, and then we’ll see if we can do kind of the same thing with tents. So I think that’s what the next couple of months are about – experimentation.

You’ve talked about the transition to Arma 3, and that it would be quite easy to port the mod over. When and if that happens, will it be a full move over? Because Arma 3 looks like it can do a lot more.

Well, the cool thing about the way Bohemia Interactive does things is, and people don’t realise this and other studios aren’t really doing it, they don’t go out and say ‘Right, let’s make a new engine’. The way the engine is designed means that they can just module-ise and pull stuff in. You can pull out different components, so you can take rag-doll out of Arma 3 and put it in Arma 2 and all these kinds of things. So that’s really useful. But because it’s been announced that Arma 3 has been delayed until 2013, I think waiting that long is probably a bad idea, so there needs to be some thought on that later on.

Well it’s been fantastic hearing what you’ve had to say. Thanks very much, and all the best! 

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