Dean ‘Rocket’ Hall on what’s next for DayZ, the Early Access game that’s sold a million

DayZ

Bohemia Interactive’s survival game is a regular near the top of the Steam ‘most played’ charts, though its creator effectively warns against downloading it on its Early Access page.

“WARNING: THIS GAME IS EARLY ACCESS ALPHA. PLEASE DO NOT PURCHASE IT UNLESS YOU WANT TO ACTIVELY SUPPORT DEVELOPMENT OF THE GAME AND ARE PREPARED TO HANDLE WITH SERIOUS ISSUES AND POSSIBLE INTERRUPTIONS OF GAME FUNCTIONING.”

That over a million people have defied this stark, all-caps warning and bought into the alpha of Dean ‘Rocket’ Hall’s DayZ speaks of its irresistible draw. Hall has authoured a breakout survivalist sensation, a game which throws up player-created stories in which, like any good zombie romp, the undead aren’t the real danger. Below, Hall discusses stepping back from DayZ to hand it over to the community, the power of permadeath and why Chernarus is the game’s heart.

The alpha has sold a million copies, despite your personal warnings – and even warnings on the Steam store page – not to buy it. Are you surprised by this?

It was a real surprise. It was hard to estimate what we would actually sell. The mod had been successful, but it had been a while, and the standalone had been delayed. I guess we tried to avoid making predictions. I figured that if it did a quarter of a million sales in a quarter, then I would have considered it a success. Because then we would have had the financial investment to say that it’s worthwhile continuing.

Bohemia really wanted to ramp things up. We’ve moved into a new building, and we’ve been really active with bringing new people on. Of course, there’s a challenge to that, because all those new people require training and development, so we’ve been trying to balance that.

My role has been a little different from what I expected. We had a transitional programming team. The original architects of the engine did a lot of the development, then we started transitioning them to a new team at Bohemia that was formerly Black Element Software. So I was heavily involved in trying to shift their focus from the initial experimentation.

As for my role, sometimes I’ll have a technology-focused role, sometimes I’ll develop stuff directly in the engine myself, through to lead designer, to executive producer, and at times even lead artist. So it’s been a real ensemble, which at times has been bad, and at times has been good.

Developer Bohemia has expanded plenty in the wake of DayZ’s sales, moving into a new building and recruiting more staff.

Will DayZ ever reach a point where you consider it finished, or will it constantly evolve over time?For me there’ll be a time when my full-on involvement is finished, and I think a lot of the fans will agree with that. It’s dangerous, because I like to push for a lot of things that could become bad for the project. Development will need to transition through to someone who can maintain that, and can open it up to the community. There’s a lot of stuff the community would like to do in terms of modding, and I think I can be counterproductive to that.

There are some things, once they’re in, I’d consider finished in terms of my active change process. But I think that the project will have a lifetime far beyond that, and I’m okay with that. I think that’s a natural part of it.

To what degree does the community steer development of the game?
The community steers a lot of our approach. I really enjoy engaging with them, especially on Reddit. I wish I had more time to do that. I was reading a Jerry Seinfeld AMA recently, and it was just fantastic. It’s one thing to see someone doing an interview online, and quite another to watch them interfacing directly with people. That’s what’s so fascinating about social media to me. It’s just incredibly satisfying and so efficient. You can talk to many people and get many different perspectives and opinions in a very short space of time.

So it does have quite a big effect on me when it comes to development. But it can be hard sometimes to draw a line, and that’s why I took a break recently from social media. I had so much work to do, and I found it was so easy for me to get distracted. Not in a bad way, but just constantly liaising with people and I’d worry about that too much while developing. There’s a balance there, and the important thing is that I recognise the time to engage with and talk to people, and when to just muck in and get some work done.

DayZ has come a long way since it climbed to the top of the Steam charts as an ArmA II mod. We looked at the making of its first incarnation back in 2012.

What’s been the benefit of releasing on Steam Early Access? Is it useful having a million-strong QA team testing the game for you?
The massive amount of people playing DayZ isn’t so much for me about having a huge QA team. This is something that frustrates me sometimes where people will say that it’s terrible that we’re making people pay to be QA. We have our own testers, and we have a good idea of the bugs in the game. Obviously some slip through and that’s where the community is very useful, but we’d be getting that feedback from our small testing team eventually anyway.

What this release has done is proven the concept, both commercially and critically. That is very powerful. It sends a massive shock around video game publishers and everyone and says that this concept works. Before, when it was a mod, people could write it off as just this little thing. Then we took 12 months longer to get the standalone ready – and we were very honest about the problems we were having to the point of saying not to buy it – but still, people would come in, in massive amounts, and buy the game. I can’t often believe it when I look at the numbers.

I like that our quite radical design directions have been validated by people with their wallets. So the testing, and the fact that our central server has survived, is really awesome. But for me the most pleasing thing is that it’s validated this idea of not babysitting players in games, with complex gameplay and permadeath. That’s now, I think, a legitimate area of game design on a large scale, and it’s what I want to base my whole career on.

How do you strike that balance between simulation and fun?
This is something we discuss in the office a lot. How do we keep it sim-like? I know I can get quite frustrated about this. What I think is an obvious answer won’t be obvious to a lot of our other designers. For me, I don’t sit and think about balance. For me it just seems like common sense. It’s really about what I want to feel as I’m running around. What are the pressures I want to be facing? I want to be worrying about things I think I would be worrying about in real life. That’s why I play games, and what I want to see in more of in games.

You definitely get it wrong occasionally, and we have got it wrong. So that’s really what this part of the process is about. We’ve taken a common sense stab at a lot of mechanics and sometimes our designers will pitch ideas forward that are great and we’ll put those in too. But we’re having a shakedown now of what works and what doesn’t, and getting rid of the things that don’t.

We described the DayZ alpha as a buggy and brutal survivalist’s paradise when we spent some time with the game recently. You can read more here.

In the early days of the mod players would start with a gun. The starting gear has changed quite a bit since then. Do you have further plans to alter it?

In terms of starting gear, there’s a lot of debate internally in the team about it. When I first started the mod, my intention wasn’t to have pistols at all, but unfortunately there was no melee combat. At least initially. So I felt like I had to give people something. Then, when I implemented very rough melee combat, I was able to take that away, which was quite controversial.

How has Chernarus evolved since the original Arma 2 map?
The new map has been custom designed for what DayZ is all about. We’ve had one full-time map designer dedicated to this since before the standalone was announced. So we’re talking almost two years. We’ve also had a part-time map designer and now we have three more, so you’re talking about a huge amount of love and expense that’s gone into this.

Ivan Buchta, who I consider the father of Chernarus, is the spirit behind the map. He’s been overseeing the work done by our map designers, to really make sure that it comes to life. We have a guy from America who’s been working on the rivers and things like that, and we have plans to move onto other maps, but my heart is still in Chernarus.

It’s the little details. The little wooden things they put beside the roads so the snow doesn’t build up. It’s the changes of the road textures so that they’re much more blended in with the terrain. It’s the believable placement of the vehicle rigs, and the leaves on the ground. It makes you feel like this environment was lived in before something terrible happened.

There are a lot of new areas. New buildings, like the tenement blocks. They were a huge risk for us in development when we realised how long it was going to take. They involved a lot of resources. It’s funny looking back, because we made some terrifying decisions, but then we eventually managed to pull them off. The wrecked cargo ship is another cool thing. I think we’ve only begun to see the start of this. There are a few big projects that aren’t in yet.