Dean Hall's ArmA II mod DayZ has amassed more than 600,000 players in a matter of months, propelling Bohemia Interactive's ageing game to the summit of the Steam charts – we take a detailed look at the mod in issue 244 of Edge, out August 1. Players start out empty-handed, and death is permanent; once they spawn on the coast of a zombie-ravaged post-Soviet state they find themselves in a true open world, the setting for a game whose narrative is inspired by its passionate community. Yet this is only the beginning, and below, Hall reveals his ambitious plans for the future of DayZ – even if, as he admits, the game's real direction is entirely out of his hands.
Did your military background inspire the reality of DayZ?
I guess so – a designer can research that military stuff quite easily and quite effectively. What the military background really resulted in was the desire to explore, putting players in situations where they had to make a decision, rather than that focus on mechanics or story. I guess that’s where I became really interested in it, because my training was more focused on process and that kind of stuff. Whereas I actually found the situations where I got to deal with, even an inoculation of the emotions, was much more effective. So I wanted to explore that more in videogames.
So you’d presumably steer away from quests and other narrative elements?
Yeah, I guess it interests me, but it’s not really part of the experiment. There’s plenty of games out there that have done that kind of thing well. Dead Island, for better and worse, has some really enjoyable parts to it. Even Left 4 Dead: exciting and fun and something to engage yourself. And Project Zomboid’s fantastic from a singleplayer perspective. I wanted to focus on the pure design, the layers of tension and how those would affect the player. I think the ability to explore the world more would be good, and that involves interacting with the world more to find out about it, about the infection and stuff. That allows the player to grow their knowledge of the narrative, but it would stop short of anything you could call a quest.
DayZ seems to really recognise the misanthropy engendered by playing multiplayer with strangers. Is that a conscious thing?
Yeah, I think so. I would get annoyed when I heard people talk about PVP or PVE and singleplayer, and how they couldn’t coexist. But if you look at DayZ it takes all those and says, ‘You’re all going to share the same world, so you’ll just have to decide amongst yourselves where the balance is.’ And at the moment, obviously, the balance is that people are attacking each other. But there are definitely examples of people banding together. Maybe now that DayZ has a large number of players that’s something that can really develop. And that’s not something that’s in the designer’s control, necessarily, and I think that’s really good. Maybe that’s the attraction to some people – that it’s trying to be a real open world in that sense.
Do you look at other notoriously ruthless games for inspiration? STALKER? Eve Online?
I have to start this with a confession: I’ve not actually played STALKER, which I know is just terrible. But I’ve obviously read up on it a lot. I was very busy at the time and just never ended up playing it. I did play Eve but I invested my money early on in an IPO and made a bunch of money, which was kind of difficult. But there’s a lot I really liked about it. I guess the direction of DayZ was a bit more towards simplicity, rather than Eve’s complexity on many levels. So that was the aim with DayZ: that it would be all about subtle tensions, so that people have this natural awareness: I need to eat, I need to drink. And sometimes it hits the mark and sometimes it doesn’t. Obviously it’s a mod and there’s more to do there. But when it hits, it hits hard. There’s been a lot of inspirations, from movies and books as well. The Road was a specific instance.
Eve Online was devised by players of Ultima Online as a way to explore good versus evil in multiplayer. It lets player killers and ‘care bears’ coexist thanks to regional policing and is seldom more exciting than when the barriers are crossed. Could DayZ support such an ecosystem or should the whole environment be hostile?
To use an example, I played Fallout 3 and I really liked it. But what I didn’t like was that the safe areas, I wondered why they were safe. It really disconnected me from the game. So if there are safe areas in DayZ then they need to be created and maintained by the players. Because the only way to keep players really involved in the development of the world themselves is if they’re one with it. So I see the development of safe areas as being compromise to the core design of the project. It would represent almost a failure of the experiment itself. I’m hoping we’ll be able to get the balance right such that we don’t need to do that. There’ll be enough tools for players to use to encourage players that want to do the co-operative stuff to do so.