Dean Hall is a voyeur. He’s been skulking around DayZ’s ditches and bushes for almost a year now, watching, listening and taking notes on what people do when they think they’re alone in the post-apocalypse.
Hall, or ‘Rocket’ as his fans (and mother) know him these days, is the creator of this world, a free-to-download mod for the 2009 military shooter Arma II which drops players into a bleak and grimy Eastern European country overrun by zombies.
But Hall’s routine visits to Chernarus carry no messianic purpose. The newbies continue in their failure to thrive, capricious acts of villainy unfold unfettered, and matters of charity and vengeance are left to the mere mortals. Hall just wants to see it up close and personal so he doesn’t lose track of what makes DayZ special.
You’d think that for a man who has served in the military, Hall would have a little more respect for authority. He’s aware of the rules of contemporary game design, but in the process of flouting and subverting its key edicts, he has created a phenomenon. So far, DayZ has been linked to at least 1.3 million sales of its host game, Arma II, and has vindicated the value of mods as a way to enrich game experiences and prolong shelf-life.
Addressing the crowd at Gamercamp, the annual two-day Toronto gaming symposium, Hall rattles through the common-sense pillars of design he’s ignored. Number one: “Keep it simple.” DayZ’s challenge stems not only from the zombie aggressors, but also the physiological needs of your character, like hunger, thirst and warmth. It requires spinning a lot of plates and thinking on your feet, but Hall reckons that because these complexities draw on elements from the natural world that “mirror your past experience,” they’re immediately graspable.
The second rule: “Don’t frustrate the player.” Hall’s favourite example is how DayZ allows the player to break both legs and immobilize themselves, but he ventures that this kind of frustration is a pathway for the game to tap into common human emotions, and promote that all-important feeling of immersion.
Number three: “Control the experience.” Know what your players will do and see in the world. That’s just not the way DayZ was built – “there’s no narrative, there’s no control, we developed the world and plop the player in there,” Hall says. He considers Minecraft as a “powerful style of gameplay,” since the player is forced to think and make choices, giving them a sense of investment in the game that can’t be achieved by funnelling them down linear paths, or framing their exploits within a specific story beat.
Even things like omitting a tutorial afford players a sense of discovery that would otherwise be stolen by priming them for every situation they’ll encounter. As Hall says, “When DayZ first started, if you knew how to use morphine to fix a broken leg, you were special.”
This freeform design might not make it newcomer friendly, particularly when players’ proclivities towards cruelty is seen as “really a part of the game,” one that “players will have to adapt to.” The numbers show that on average, players tend to stop logging back in after ten deaths (regardless of lifespan.) Which is understandable, considering the tangible sense of loss associated with losing a successful survivor.
Despite the fact that the upcoming DayZ standalone title will have its own price of admission, Hall has no interest in introducing any obstacles to player freedom to entice newbies. He believes that players torment one another “because they get bored in the game and don’t know what to do.” He believes he can tackle this by delivering deeper mechanics, and providing reasons for players to want to cooperate.
The revisions in the pipeline to scavenging will make it a more rewarding experience, offering a vast number of enterable buildings, where loot spawns trigger. Hall hopes it will become an analogue to “grinding” in World of Warcraft, offering tangible measures of progress. But rather than levelling up characters, he means getting a hold of guns; “the great equalizer”.
The durability of the items in the game will also become paramount, and while specifics are still being mapped out, Hall points towards the Cormac McCarthy novel (and its subsequent film adaptation) The Road, and its characters’ obsession with footwear: “Boots that haven’t suffered durability loss will be one of the most important items in DayZ,” he promises. Coupled with a new sickness system, the environment will become a “significant antagonist, presenting a good reason for players to band together.”
Each addition and tweak to the formula is engineered to deepen the well of human experience that DayZ’s interlocking systems invariably draw from. One of Hall’s favourite tales is about a father and son. “The son went the wrong direction when they were storming a barn, and the father shot him. The father’s reaction was heart-breaking – the boy wasn’t dead yet; he was mortally wounded.” Moreover, some other people had heard the shot, and were running towards the barn to investigate, leading to a terrifying thought process for the would-be manslaughterer – could they be convinced to help? Should he abandon his son to save his own skin? “It was such a terrible, compelling story!”
Even in aggregate, Hall watches the player interactions with fascination. He noticed that the player-on-player violence is much higher in the European servers, which is like “hell on earth” compared to the American server, a difference he attributes to the obvious language-barriers. Meanwhile, he gets a laugh out of players from his native New Zealand, who have a habit of congregating around the spawn point, not to haze the newbies, but greet them with rambling conversations. “A New Zealand tradition,” Hall chuckles.
One of the unique aspects of DayZ is the regularity with which it places players in moral quandaries. A video making the rounds on YouTube shows three friends fleeing a rapidly gaining group of zombies, until one shoots the weakest in the leg, ensuring his death, and facilitating the survival of the others. One deliberate murder for a net gain of two lives seems rational in the merciless context of the game, and Hall notes that these topics are rich enough that college theses are already being written on them, but he wants to push these dynamics further.
“I get really uncomfortable when video games – or any media – say ‘you can’t do that’ with taboo subjects. Originally, we were going to have an option where you could right click on your weapon, and commit suicide.” He later felt like he “copped out” for backing down from something because it was a touchy subject: “A game like DayZ, where you’ve got an end of the world situation, should be exploring themes that are relevant. Issues like suicide, and killing your friends: they’re kind of important. Isn’t that what we want to do in games?”
That DayZ is responsible for more breathlessly relayed stories than any other video game this year is no mere fluke, but Hall has clearly devoted much of the past year to getting a handle on that je ne sais quoi, and is in the process of making it even more potent so he can bottle and sell it.