Dean "Rocket" Hall, the developer behind DayZ, admits that making updates to his zombie-infested ArmA II mod is "terrifying" because he can't be sure how the game's rabid community will react if things go wrong.
Hall's multiplayer mod drops players on the coastline of a fictional post-Soviet state whose population has been ravaged by an infectious virus. You spawn with no weaponry, and death is permanent; the game has been a stunning success, downloaded half a million times in a matter of months and propelling the three-year-old ArmA II to the summit of the Steam charts.
In an interview that forms part of an in-depth look at the DayZ phenomenon, Hall admits that the changes he has made since release have been reductive in nature. "It's almost a lumbering experiment now," he admits. "It's gone from being a little experiment in a lab to being in some particle collider in Europe somewhere. It's taken on a life of its own, which has impacted on the ability to do anything.
"It's scary and it's also fun at the same time. In a way, the project is basically about two or three hours away from complete disaster at any time. Every time we do an update it's just terrifying. And a lot of people get very frustrated when things go wrong."
DayZ has evolved in ways Hall didn't see coming, particularly in the way that your fellow survivors are every bit as dangerous as the AI infected. Gameplay changes are often divisive, with the community initially split on the decision to remove players' starting weapons. To ensure that he's on the right track, Hall keeps a watchful eye on forums and websites.
"There are almost two sides [to the community]," he says. "There's the side that will just support anything that happens in the project, and then there's the side that's very critical of things that happen but continues playing.
"And I think that's very important, because otherwise it'll lose direction and ego will come into it. For me, the importance is that the right community is involved in it, because if we don't have that then we can't push the experiment of having players create the world."
While DayZ's success to date has been largely driven by the strength of its basic premise, its future growth will be defined by the extent to which its community engages with the changes Hall makes, and it's quite the task for a single developer to correctly define his mod's future direction when such a wide variety of opinions exist.
Yet that Hall finds himself in such a position speaks volumes about how successful the game has been. Given such freedom in a hostile world, players express themselves in different ways: mugging fellow players for supplies, banding together with other survivors, playing the lone wolf – or filling a bus with survivors and driving it through a zombie-infested town with the horn blaring. With that in mind, we're not convinced there's even such a thing as the 'wrong' change; what alienates one player further engages another.
Our in-depth look at DayZ's success will feature in E244, out August 1, and we'll have more from Hall on Edge Online in the coming days.