I don’t know what makes an “ordinary” game designer, but Dean “Rocket” Hall definitely doesn’t fit the bill.
He’s the one-man development team behind DayZ, the zombie survival mod that took the gaming world by storm a few months back, and put its parent game, ArmA II, on the Steam top selling list for multiple consecutive weeks. (In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s still holding strong to the number one spot.) Recently, DayZ hit 500,000 players, which is impressive, considering that the mod is still technically in alpha.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Hall at the Bohemia Interactive booth at E3. Bohemia’s the developer behind the ArmA series and Hall’s employer. The company was so pleased with the success of DayZ that Hall actually got an entire room to himself for interviews.
I first asked Hall the obvious question, “How did DayZ come to be?” I was curious to see what inspirations and technical work went on behind the mod to make it so drastically different from other zombie games. You see, DayZ isn’t your run-of-the-mill zombie action game where your character runs around being the sole badass survivor of the apocalypse. Think of DayZ as a survival simulator that just happens to have the post-apocalyptic motif and zombies sprinkled in.
The mod does its best to make characters as close to real life as possible. Characters must have their needs (food, water, shelter) sated or they’ll meet an untimely end. Once your character gives up the ghost, there’s no going back. And when you pair the threat of permadeath with ultra-strong, ultra-fast zombies, you start to get an idea of why the mod only has an average survival time of 37 minutes.
Hall’s inspiration for a zombie mod is a mixed bag consisting of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), his survival experience as an ex-military man, and discussions with his brother, virologist Dr. Richard Hall. Richard Hall was the one who helped create a realistic idea of how a zombie-causing virus might to spread across the world. The mod itself came into being after Hall moved to the Czech Republic, home base of Bohemia Interactive. As a native New Zealander, Hall obviously couldn’t speak or understand the language. So, he decided to spend most of his days indoors, coding what became DayZ. To get an idea of how many hours he dedicated to the mod, he only actually began working on it in December 2011. I was surprised at such a short development cycle, but Hall humbly stated that most of the groundwork had already been laid in ArmA II.
With a clear idea about the origins of the mod, I asked Hall his opinion on what set DayZ apart from other zombie games. He shrugged and explained that DayZ was different because of emergent narrative.
“It has no story, no typical design elements,” he said. “It’s just raw game design.”
It’s true. Unlike other games based on the zombie apocalypse, such as Dead Rising and Dead Island, DayZ doesn’t impose any kind of story on its players. There is no embedded narrative and no clear objective. Players are dropped into a world and left to their own machinations. If they’re able to get over the initial ennui of not having clear-cut “this is where you go” directions, players usually end up making up their own tasks to do. Some become lone wolf bandits who will shoot first, ask later, while others attempt to revive the relics of the pre-apocalyptic world. Players have been known to gather mechanical parts and fix cars or motorcycles.
The mod’s a testament to the power of emergent narrative. Generally, challenge and perma-death is enough for most players to turn their backs on a game. However, DayZ‘s ability to turn each character “life” into an unique story for a player is what keeps people coming back to the mod. Since each play through is different, the experience is fresh—almost like a new game entirely.
With DayZ already so popular despite only being in alpha, I was curious to know what Hall’s planned for the future. Although he’s got nothing locked down, he has mulled over putting down tapes, or some other form of memoir to give some context to a player’s time in the game without encroaching on a gamer’s unique story. He also hopes to add content to DayZ once players have gotten more used to the survival aspects. Besides expanding the world, he hopes to add a “now what?” phase for players that comes after learning to survive.
He doesn’t want to force players to do anything—again, that would ruin the rich environment for emergent narrative that the game has—but he’d really love to see the possibility of players expanding on the work they’re already doing to build cars and motorcycles and maybe carry that over to building societies.
On the business side, Hall has ambitious plans. I asked him about the possibility of DayZ being carried over to ArmA III and he responded that he wanted,
“DayZ for DayZ, eventually.”
DayZ as a standalone game would take money and time, but Hall’s also thought that through as well. In discussing pricing models, he poo-pooed free-to-play, believing that pricing “needs to be something good for the community.” I then brought up Kickstarter and the possibility of crowdfunding for DayZ, but he also shrugged that off. Hall had once worked as a producer on games and drawing on such experience, he didn’t think the funds generated via Kickstarter—yes, even the millions of dollars that Wasteland 2 and the Double Fine Adventure have raised—would be sufficient to power a stand-alone game. Considering that most AAA budgets are well over $20 million dollars, I’m inclined to agree with him, especially if he has his sights set on DayZ being a polished, stand-alone title. He actually has something like the pricing of Mojang’s Minecraft in mind, so that players aren’t forced to pay a hefty amount for a game, but enough capital is raised to keep the game and the developer running.
What’s the timeline for DayZ‘s transition from ArmA II mod to standalone game? Hall says he can’t give a definite or official answer, but also stated,
“Personally? Why not before the end of the year?”
Seeing how quickly he managed to whip out DayZ and how much success he’s had with it, I don’t doubt that if Hall has his sights set for the end of 2012 for a stand-alone launch that it’ll happen. I know I’d gladly fork over another $30 to support and keep playing the game.