DayZ blew up bigger than its creator, Dean Hall, ever expected. Now, he and a team at Arma developer Bohemia Interactive have taken on the task of radically reimagining the popular mod as a full-fledged standalone game, moving to MMO server technology and adding a great deal of new gameplay innovations.
He puts its success down to its player stories, and how the specific game design he came up with triggers innate psychological triggers people are born with regarding ownership and loss.
That is not all. In this eclectic interview, Hall discusses everything from the game's initial inspirations in his career as a soldier, to how his team has integrated Steam into the game's build process, and how he hopes to run a successful Minecraft-like alpha for the game.
What do you think made it so popular, now that you've had some time to reflect on it?
Dean Hall: I think the big thing was that it was this finely-crafted mix of permadeath -- which gave you a sense of value, because you could lose something -- and ownership. Because it's persistent, it means that it's going to be there tomorrow. I think those two things mixed together meant that you had these really valuable stories that came from it.
An example being... Let's say I give you my hat for 10 minutes. You react differently than if I say, "this is your hat, forever." Now, if it's "hat forever," you feel emotionally different about it. It's the same with DayZ -- it adds this persistence to it, so you know your character is going to be there tomorrow. And because you could lose it, you value it.
I think those are intrinsic human things. So it kind of hijacked in on that, and then it meant that players had these emotional experiences, these crazy stories, and because the stories were unique and not scripted, they talked about them on forums, and 4chan, and stuff like that.
Permadeath is pretty rare in games, and it's pretty controversial when it happens. Can you tell me what value it ads in general?
DH: Well, I think humans understand loss. It's a basic thing -- even children understand death. I think we intrinsically value stuff that we might lose. If we know that we're not going to lose it, we don't look at it the same way and feel about it the same way. So I think that whole tension -- when tied with ownership -- it means that the player approaches the game in a totally different way.
Playing Hotline Miami, if you knew that there was going to be a delay before you could play the new mission, you wouldn't just rush through it and try something, try something, try something. It changes the player's whole behavior. It primes them for these experiences, where they have these really good stories.
The origin of DayZ was as a tool for training soldiers. And so that was what I felt was very important -- this emotional context with the experience. That comes from hijacking in on what I think are basic human instinctual emotions: the understanding of loss and the understanding of ownership.
I think there's just something wired in our brains to accept that. So when they accept that, they go into these situations, and they have their heart pounding because they know that if it goes wrong, they lose all their progress. It's an element of risk that adds that to it.
When you say tool for training soldiers, you mean Arma as a serious game?
DH: Yeah. Arma is sold as a serious game called Virtual Battlespace, but I was actually working with the army, as a soldier, when I took the contract with Bohemia. I was actually experimenting in my own time with using it as a tool to train soldiers. Traditionally in Arma, when you do a mission, you get shot, you die, and everyone carries on. But that doesn't reflect the reality of my training. So it seemed like I wanted to create these systems where the people in the mission had to create these other things. The army wasn't interested, so I sort of played with the idea myself, with zombies in it.
Your experience as a soldier influenced the direction you took the game?
DH: Yes, very much, actually. I'd had the idea for a while -- as I think has pretty much anyone in the video game industry who knows anything about zombies. This is not an original idea. It was when I was on my survival training -- I did an exchange program with Singapore and I did their survival training in Brunei. It was very hard, and I got badly injured. That was when I gestated and realized the emotional factors that I wanted to put into it.
So where did the zombies come from, then? You're taking this real experience you had, and then adding zombies.
DH: Well, they're a cheap antagonist. It could be a long time between human interactions. They're an antagonist that people understand. I guess people get upset because zombies are this staple thing we keep farming out, but they're quite easy to do, they're easy to understand, and they're easy to accept. So I think they just made a good antagonist.
You talked about the advantageous nature of zombies and the fact that they're easy to work with, for game developers, and we all know why. How did you balance that with what you wanted to achieve in terms of this realistic stuff?
DH: Well, I really just wanted the zombies to represent a threat for looting. And it was kind of a low-level threat. DayZ is all about these subtle tensions. Some of them are very, very subtle, and certainly with the standalone, that's the direction they're going.
So an example being, you have to think about hunger and thirst for your character. They're not a prime consideration; it's something that happens over quite a long period of time. The more you run, the more you'll need food. If it's colder, you'll need more food; if it's warmer, you'll need more water. This is subtle but it's always in the back of your mind.
Because there are these added tensions, it really heightens the player's horror experience. If you look at DayZ, there's really not anything in-your-face scary about it. But because it has all these little tensions... For example, you come across loot. You only have so many slots in your backpack, so you can only take so much of it. So again, these subtle tensions come to mind: "Do I drop the food? Do I drop the water? Do I take the ammo?" And a lot of it's subconscious. I think that's why it resonated with people.
Over the course of this generation, triple-A games tended to make things more and more seamless, and easier and easier for players -- checkpoint every five seconds. And we've seen in the past couple of years, games like Dark Souls and even Spelunky -- aggressively difficult games have sort of come into vogue, at least as a niche.
DH: Well, I think that people have always played them. I know, for me, it's trying to get back to the experiences playing on the Amiga, which is where I really cut my teeth as a kid. And I think back to the first time I played X-Com on the PC. My brother was looking after a computer for a friend of his at university while I was on study leave for my school. I was searching through it and I came across this .exe for X-Com.
I didn't know anything about it. And we didn't have the internet; it was the '90s. So I started playing it, and there was no manual or anything. I was discovering, really discovering it. And it had this huge emotional response for me. When I came across the Sectoids, I actually wanted to autopsy them because I had no idea what they were. It was just this amazing experience of difficulty and things like that, and I guess that I've always wanted to get back to that point in a game.
Even when I play something like Company of Heroes with my friends, we'll add a whole bunch of AI players on expert difficulty. Now, we might lose 99 percent of the time, but the emotion and the passion involved -- yelling at each other to support his area or that area -- that's, to me, gaming.
I go for this very specific experience when I play games. I've been playing a lot of Kerbal Space Program. I play it very crazy and take it very seriously.
Another example is FTL. Everyone tweets about "I'm playing it, but I can't get past X point, Y point, Z point." It does seem that it has come back. I personally feel that without challenge... Don't get me wrong. Ever hear the term "content tourist?" The idea that you play these games to see pretty things and go through them.
DH: Yeah, I'm totally not. It's like, I love Skyrim, but for me I felt like the more time I invested, the further I got on. Which I didn't want that. I wanted -- I really like Morrowind. Morrowind for me is a good Elder Scrolls. Visually, Skryim was amazing. I just loved looking at the rivers and stuff, and going round it.
But for me, what I need is context. I need to feel like there's a value to my game playing and the value in a lot of instances comes from risk. If you know there's a risk of an outcome, then you're gonna think about what your decision is more carefully. And that's gameplay to me -- is making decisions. If those decisions don't have a gameplay value associated to them then, why am I making decisions? I'm just making decisions for the sake of it.
Your mentality is paying off for you, with your game. Have you heard feedback from people saying, "I haven't played a game like this before"?
DH: Yeah, I get that a lot. It's a bit weird for me, because I guess I am always trying to play even normal games in this way. So for me, I always figured I was a bit weird in terms of what I liked. I guess I'm kind of lucky in that my whole life, and career path, and the games I've played has lead toward this particular kind of game that people right now were wanting to play.
But when I give my GDC talk, and I talk to people, I realize we're way over here. [Gestures far right of center] We are just way, way over here. And a lot of people are here [gestures center, chuckles]. So I guess we'll see what happens.
Dark Souls is another example -- the creator of that game has been making difficult games since the PlayStation 1 era, but it was the middle of the PlayStation 3 era before suddenly this became a triple-A smash hit. There's the zeitgeist theory, as well.
DH: Yeah, definitely. I think people want it. I think maybe social media plays a role in that. Certainly for DayZ, it did. People would go into DayZ and they would have these amazing stories. Now, it's not a story like what you're doing in Mass Effect 3, or whatever, because everybody else is doing that too. It's a story that no one else has experienced.
And I think as humans, we're natural storytellers. So you feel compelled to tell people about it. So they'd go on 4chan -- which is where DayZ really kicked off. And they'd post their little story. And people hear all these stories and they're like, "Wow, I have got to get into this game." Same with Reddit, and Facepunch, and 4chan. And it just went from there. I think the social media helped it happen -- I don't think it would have happened without it.
How do you design for player stores? Do you deliberately?
DH: I guess I don't really think about it. Like something we're bringing in soon with the standalone is radios. I play a game called Space Station 13. Have you played it? It's a PC game -- it's a real eclectic game. It's free. It's roguelike, top-down, multiplayer game with maybe about 50 other people. You're all playing a role on the space station -- there's intrigue and you can interact with anything. It's very complex.
You have radios, and you can turn the microphone on or off. So when we ere designing the radios that we're implementing in DayZ, we thought, "Well, we'll do that." So you can turn the microphone off, so that you can use it kind of like a baby monitor, or a bug.
We don't do that actively, because we want to create situations where the players can do intriguing or anything specific, we just are creating tools for the players to do stuff. Because they are going to do the craziest awesome stuff with it.
How do you design tools? You arrived at this idea for the radio, and I can see how that happened. Is that what you do: "I can think of an idea for a tool I can drop into this world"?
DH: We're actually mainly just designing tools, and then we see if we've got an idea for them later. In terms of art -- just for our crafting system, we're just designing all the tools we can think of, in terms of art-wise. And then from a design perspective we just look and say, "Well, what can you do with those tools? What will the players sit down and think that they might want to do with them?"
And I guess the overarching color is: What do we want the player to feel? What are the challenges in the player's mind, that we want them to experience? Rather than, like you say, content touristing, or "this is a cool gun." We're more like, "We want the player to be thinking about their resources -- like food -- and we want them to thinking about their diet. That means we need canned food, we need fresh food, we need meats..." It kind of drives it that way, more from a feeling standpoint.
It seems to me, if I'm understanding this correctly, that if you create a lot of tools you're going to end up culling some, or maybe merging some, or all kinds of different things. How do you do that weeding process?
DH: A lot of that's through -- the biggest time that's going to come is when we release our alpha. Because it's really at a point where it needs to get feedback from our players. So that's where the dev blogs become important, that's where things like PAX become important, because we actually engage direct with the community.
We get some feedback directly from the players at PAX. And then on Reddit, there's massive amounts of analysis of the inventory designs that I've posted. It's a tremendous conduit for getting feedback. I think 90 percent of my ideas are terrible, and the social media is proving to be a really good way of weeding those out.
I do wonder if developers ever refer to online communities. I'm playing Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate right now, and if you go to Wikia, there's crazy, crazy amounts of info. The monsters in that game are huge, and they have multiple damage zones on their bodies, and someone has made an image where they take the monster into parts and they rate the weakness of each damage zone. Of course the people at Capcom know those numbers -- but having that resource at your fingertips... Even other games' designers could refer to it.
DH: I think that the players end up knowing the game better than the designer, particular in multiplayer. I'm a bit of a single player chauvinist, so I really focus on multiplayer. There are a couple of single player games I play, but they're quite limited, and they're quite specific in their style. So for me, I think that in multiplayer the players end up knowing the game better than the designer, and that's certainly the case with DayZ.
I don't like to talk about "community management" -- we're more about "community engagement." I know that sounds kind of business-speaky, but it's really about how you approach the community. We don't go there and give them informational PR.
Okay, literally, at the moment, we're looking at new control schemes. We say, "We've got this control scheme, and this control scheme, and this control scheme." They discuss it. We then read the discussion. It's not a vote, but it helps. They have an argument amongst a bunch of them, and we study the argument, and it makes us go, "Okay, well. Balancing these things, we're going to do this."
How do you get people into the alpha? Is this a Minecraft scenario?
DH: So what we're doing at the moment is, we gave free keys as a gift to the forum moderators, the Reddit moderators, people who helped out with DayZ development, and stuff like that. I guess there's about 30-100 people involved with that.
From here, once we've finished our server/client architecture -- because we're moving it an MMO model -- we're reviewing the situation of that in June, and then we do an alpha, just like Minecraft. People pay X amount of dollars and they get early, cheap access to it, and then once it's beta, price goes up, maybe, say, $10, and once it goes retail, the price goes up $10.
So the keys you've already distributed, when do they join the alpha?
DH: They're already in. They're already playing it. It's good... We're only running one server. We are doing content updates all the time. The Steam model is really working well for us. Valve approached us and they said, "What do you guys want, to make things easier?" and we said, "Well, we want delta patching." Luckily they were just about to bring that out. That's where, instead of downloading the whole file when it updates, it just downloads the part [that has changed.]
And it's already built into our build process. So the artists, they download the game via Steam, and our internal development process uses Steam to patch their stuff. So when people join the alpha, we have a little dropdown box, which is two builds -- this is once we go paying -- you can choose the stable, or the experimental. The experimental one is literally what is on the developer's desktop. And so people will be able to choose which one they want to play on. If they want to see what the developers were working on today, they can choose the experimental build.
We don't necessarily know how it's going to go. A lot of this is an experiment. But I think it's a cool experiment, and we're lucky that we can do that, because of the success of DayZ and the sales of Arma 2, it's kind of given us carte blanche to experiment. And we're going to make a lot of mistakes, and we do, but I think that's good. It's good for the title and it's good for us to do.
Are you worried about making mistakes and spending the credit you've earned with the userbase?
DH: I think my aim is to really focus on being as transparent as possible. That transparency is the most important thing. I think as long as we're transparent, and I mean completely transparent -- it's not the kind of thing you can do a little bit. It's like cheating on your wife. Once we're not transparent once, no one will ever trust us again. So we're fully transparent.
I think that because we're honest about our mistakes, people are pretty forgiving. Because we've made plenty. There's always someone who goes on about it. Like the release date, for example. We've changed the release date DayZ was going to be dramatically, which means the release date just sailed on by.
So that was obviously a big disappointment for a lot of people. But we were honest about: we made a mistake in our planning. Our initial planning was just a release date [for] like a very simplified re-release of the mod, basically, just as a standalone. But we realized halfway through that that we actually wanted to make a proper game out of it.