DayZ blew up bigger than its creator, Dean Hall, ever expected. Now, he and a team at Arma developer Bohemia Interactive have taken on the task of radically reimagining the popular mod as a full-fledged standalone game, moving to MMO server technology and adding a great deal of new gameplay innovations.
He puts its success down to its player stories, and how the specific game design he came up with triggers innate psychological triggers people are born with regarding ownership and loss.
That is not all. In this eclectic interview, Hall discusses everything from the game's initial inspirations in his career as a soldier, to how his team has integrated Steam into the game's build process, and how he hopes to run a successful Minecraft-like alpha for the game.
What do you think made it so popular, now that you've had some time to reflect on it?
Dean Hall: I think the big thing was that it was this finely-crafted mix of permadeath -- which gave you a sense of value, because you could lose something -- and ownership. Because it's persistent, it means that it's going to be there tomorrow. I think those two things mixed together meant that you had these really valuable stories that came from it.
An example being... Let's say I give you my hat for 10 minutes. You react differently than if I say, "this is your hat, forever." Now, if it's "hat forever," you feel emotionally different about it. It's the same with DayZ -- it adds this persistence to it, so you know your character is going to be there tomorrow. And because you could lose it, you value it.
I think those are intrinsic human things. So it kind of hijacked in on that, and then it meant that players had these emotional experiences, these crazy stories, and because the stories were unique and not scripted, they talked about them on forums, and 4chan, and stuff like that.
Permadeath is pretty rare in games, and it's pretty controversial when it happens. Can you tell me what value it ads in general?
DH: Well, I think humans understand loss. It's a basic thing -- even children understand death. I think we intrinsically value stuff that we might lose. If we know that we're not going to lose it, we don't look at it the same way and feel about it the same way. So I think that whole tension -- when tied with ownership -- it means that the player approaches the game in a totally different way.
Playing Hotline Miami, if you knew that there was going to be a delay before you could play the new mission, you wouldn't just rush through it and try something, try something, try something. It changes the player's whole behavior. It primes them for these experiences, where they have these really good stories.
The origin of DayZ was as a tool for training soldiers. And so that was what I felt was very important -- this emotional context with the experience. That comes from hijacking in on what I think are basic human instinctual emotions: the understanding of loss and the understanding of ownership.
I think there's just something wired in our brains to accept that. So when they accept that, they go into these situations, and they have their heart pounding because they know that if it goes wrong, they lose all their progress. It's an element of risk that adds that to it.
When you say tool for training soldiers, you mean Arma as a serious game?
DH: Yeah. Arma is sold as a serious game called Virtual Battlespace, but I was actually working with the army, as a soldier, when I took the contract with Bohemia. I was actually experimenting in my own time with using it as a tool to train soldiers. Traditionally in Arma, when you do a mission, you get shot, you die, and everyone carries on. But that doesn't reflect the reality of my training. So it seemed like I wanted to create these systems where the people in the mission had to create these other things. The army wasn't interested, so I sort of played with the idea myself, with zombies in it.
Your experience as a soldier influenced the direction you took the game?
DH: Yes, very much, actually. I'd had the idea for a while -- as I think has pretty much anyone in the video game industry who knows anything about zombies. This is not an original idea. It was when I was on my survival training -- I did an exchange program with Singapore and I did their survival training in Brunei. It was very hard, and I got badly injured. That was when I gestated and realized the emotional factors that I wanted to put into it.
So where did the zombies come from, then? You're taking this real experience you had, and then adding zombies.
DH: Well, they're a cheap antagonist. It could be a long time between human interactions. They're an antagonist that people understand. I guess people get upset because zombies are this staple thing we keep farming out, but they're quite easy to do, they're easy to understand, and they're easy to accept. So I think they just made a good antagonist.