DayZ started life as an Arma 2 mod, but now it's grown into something bigger. VG247's Dave Cook spoke with creator Dean Hall about where the game goes from here.
You don't have to look very far to see why right now, as you read these words, the games industry has never been in a healthier state if you're an independent creator.
While the triple-a market may be awash with rote design, committee-led development and cookie-cutter experiences, the indie scene is gearing up for an explosion. It's a genuinely thrilling playing field.
If you have an idea, you must act now, before the big corporations, publishers and studios muscle in on this flourishing market and wrench control away from those trying to make it big off their own back.
Someone who knows this first hand - both by working in the big business side of the industry, and through his own work - is DayZ creator Dean Hall. He's gearing up to launch the standalone version of his survival horror mod, and he's got much to say during these volatile times.
VG247: You've gone from a modder to an icon in the eyes of many gamers, thanks to the success of DayZ. How does it feel to have shot to fame and prominence so suddenly?
Dean Hall: You only really realise it when you look back, so when I think about it, and about how you've changed - how you think and react differently - some of it's not positive.
I think sometimes I'm much less inclined to accept, say, a team member submitting poor quality work, I'm probably less patient and things like that. So some of it's quite negative, and I think it's because of all the pressure and things like that.
Because so many eyes are on you now and people want to hear what you have to say?
Yeah, and it's really hard to keep a sense of perspective and the vision as well. That's why it's been really good to talk to people like Notch, Valve or the guys from CCP.
They helped me by saying, 'nope, you're on the right track, keep doing this or that.' So it's been really useful to have that, but I haven't really reflected on the - as you say - fame side of it.
“I think we’ve got a winner here, but it’s been challenging. It’s a slower development than I’d like.”
It's because I just haven't had time. When there's a lull - say when we've done the alpha standalone release of DayZ - then maybe it will sink in a little bit more, But at the moment it's literally like I go somewhere, I do a talk, I leave, I go back to work.
It's just planes, planes, getting grumpy, and you really don't think of the awesomeness of it. I'm jet-lagged, on another plane, my hotel room's not ready yet, and all of that other stuff.
You got advice from Notch though. What was that like? Was his input useful?
Well he's pretty busy. Basically he had wanted to play DayZ, but he had great difficulty installing it, and also I think he was a bit worried that it would soak up a lot of his time. So I think he's waiting for the standalone.
Can you give us a status update on the standalone version's development?
Yeah sure. It's been a real challenge to move all the data, because it's a mixture of Arma 2, Take On Helicopters and bits of Arma 3, so it's a real smorgasbord of Bohemia Interactive products lumped together.
That's awesome but it also creates a real data challenge, as there's just vast quantities of data that has to be moved. In many ways it's a new product, because we've come up with a unique way of distributing it through DayZ, and a unique way of pushing out updates very quickly thanks to working with awesome people like Valve.
I think we've got a winner here, but it's been challenging. It's a slower development than I'd like, and while that's not going to affect the release date, it is going to affect how ambitious we can be with the actual content.
So it will be chopped down a bit over the existing version?
Well you know, I guess I never really thought we'd get things like construction into the standalone at launch. I'd prefer things to go faster, but that's just game development.
Tight development cycles and such?
Yeah, and I think the most important thing is we deal with hacking, bugs, duping, new content, tidy up some of the features and expand them a bit. I think if we can get that base - by the end of November or December - then that means January and February will be really happy, fun times.
Launch day will mark the start of an iterative development process for you and your team. How will you look to expand the game from that point, and how closely will fan feedback dictate where you go next?
We have to get that initial alpha out, and whenever we want to push out a build we can pretty much push that. We've been talking about having three builds. First is an internal build - one that is just available for the development team.
Then a recommended build - like a beta testing build that's available for the community, where they can try new updates before they come out. Then the final build, so that's how we're going to be taking things forward.
”I think modding the DayZ standalone is something that would come much, much later. Bohemia Interactive loves to have its products modded, and it’s the first thing the studio wants people to do, as many of them come from a modding background.”
Code-wise, the updates will be quite well planned - like Minecraft updates ended up being with update Fridays and all that. I think with content, the content will come out as it's done.
I think if it's done and it's tested, we'll roll it out. We have an art cell as well, and we say to them, 'we want this done'. So they go away and they are very agile, they decide how they're going to do it. They manage themselves and produce the content.
DayZ was a mod of Arma 2, so in turn will people be able to mod DayZ standalone?
I think modding the DayZ standalone is something that would come much, much later. Bohemia Interactive loves to have its products modded, and it's the first thing the studio wants people to do, as many of them come from a modding background.
But we're realistic. If we don't first control hacking, duping and bugs, than that's a very serious issue.
So again, you have to have that solid base first?
Yes exactly. But we talk about things, like it would be lovely to have things like APIs and things like that. Arma already supports high command extensions and other things that have helped make DayZ possible.
There's a lot of support already out there for how the engine works, but that would all be stuff that comes after we've got that solid base, and we can say, 'yes we have dealt with the problems as much as we can - we will never remove it completely - but we've given it a killer blow.'
Let's move to how you got to this point in the first place. I mean, when you were making the mod, did you ever envision a standalone DayZ game happening?
Well I want to see more games that I want to play. That was why I started making games, and I think that's the case for many people. I think as people get older, and they have kids they have different desires.
The whole reason I make games is I want to play them, and that's maybe why I don't like single-player campaign console games, because if you make that, then you're probably sick of it by the time it launches.
Whereas with an open world multiplayer game, well you know, I'm still exploring the world as much as the player is once it was made. Perhaps that's selfish because there's a selfish reason why I like that game.
It's also probably - I think - one of the more challenging game styles to design, because if you miss, you miss big. Your success is based on the players and how they use it.
But when you have something like Mass Effect, where you have a good story, great graphics, good cinematics, you're more likely to see that success come through. I've kind of gone off topic here a little.
No, that's fine. I guess from our end looking in, we've seen many people playing DayZ and then writing journals as the character, telling these awesome stories of survival and betrayal. How did it feel to start seeing that?
It was fantastic. That made it in my mind. I mean just sign it, seal it and say 'done'. I don't think there's any greater thing you can do than to make something that other people pick up and run with.
So yeah that's really awesome, but it does present some problems like people making their own t-shirts, selling things and stuff like that. You almost don't want to jump on them because it's cool, but these days you have to protect trademark and more.
”I believe the next six months will decide whether we’ve screwed it up, and how good we make the product. That will dictate how far it goes. So really, it’s on us.”
In a way one of the annoying things that's come out is that things start to get serious. It got big, people start seeing you as a target, and a whole lot of bullshit comes out.
I don't like that, that's why I think our next games after DayZ won't be as widely successful. I look at projects like Kerbal Space Program which is still incredibly popular, and I think it's hit a sweet spot of awesome community, great number of players, but it's not swamped to the point of destruction.
When you say 'next games', I mean, would you ever want to run a massive triple-a studio, or do you still want to function as an indie?
I think that eventually I want to go back to New Zealand, as I think it's a great place to start a studio. With DayZ, I think it would be awesome to see it go in the direction of something like EvE Online.
I believe the next six months will decide whether we've screwed it up, and how good we make the product. That will dictate how far it goes. So really, it's on us. The games industry very supportive of DayZ, the community is very supportive of it, other developers are kind to it - with a few exceptions.
I think it's such a cherished IP, basically because it's a success story. Does that tell you that anyone can do this if they have the right idea?
I definitely think they should get into it. The most important thing - and this also applies to big projects - is that the biggest problem is a lack of single vision. You need someone like Apple.
As much as people like to rip on what Steve Jobs did, and how he could be a bit of a dick sometimes, he knew what was needed. Sometimes I'm like that. I'm sure if you talk to some of the team, they would say I'm not always a nice person to be around.
But I think that, with mods, the reason a lot of them don't get released is because they were team efforts. I think one person has to sit down ant take the responsibility like I did. I did the art, the code, production, I paid for things, so at the end of the day the buck stopped with me.
Everybody knew that, so they would accept it if I said, 'nope, we're doing things that way'. I think that's really important, and I think a lot of mods or even big games do that.
They are games by committee, and I think those games depend on marketing. You need one person going, 'this is what we're doing'.
I guess the worst example of that is when you can tell a game has been focus-tested, and pandering to current trends. We're now looking at things like open platforms. Should triple-a studios be worried of that emergent space?
I think they should definitely be worried, particularly publishers. History does repeat itself, and if you look at the music industry - you know, the way publishers reacted to iTunes - there's a different thing going on in games.
If you look at something like DayZ or Minecraft - the cost of them is tiny compared to the amount of money they make. Then you look at something big - pretty much anything out there - they are very expensive propositions.
”Big budgets and big teams breed games by committee. But I guess it’s too early to really say much about the impact open platforms will have.”
They're very risky, and you can fail very easily. I think free-to-play could spell some very serious problems for the big developers.
So I like to think that it's a sunrise on an era of gaming that goes back to the David Brabens, to the type of games that are the ideas of a couple of people who stuck to it, who did what was right, and were pushed out to be reached by a lot of people.
Because big budgets and big teams breed games by committee. But I guess it's too early to really say much about the impact open platforms will have.
On top of that these developers also have the pressure of next-gen hardware being right around the corner.
Yes, and how they approach it. Because the next-gen - and I think it might - go and say, 'we want in on this innovation market', because innovation is all the rage at the moment.
That's why DayZ is successful, that's why Minecraft as successful. People pick it up, and they talk about it on Twitter, even if it's a bit crappy. If I were Sony or Microsoft, I would be sitting there saying, 'OK, we want this', because we've got all these console players bleating on YouTube comment threads asking, 'why aren't these games on consoles?'
They're going out and buying pretty reasonably priced PCs to play them, so I think there's a good chance we could see consoles manufacturers getting in on that.
They're going for innovation, and they'll have to re-think the way publishers work, and they'll have to re-think everything. I think if I was a publishers I'd be thinking, 'well, where am I going to be?'
It feels like we're truly on the cusp of a market that will allow new IP to thrive like never before. You can see it already starting to begin. Do you agree that this is a great time for new games to shine?
My only experience with that was, I was making the PS2 version of Speed Racer - you know the movie license game?
At the time Sony was saying, 'right, we're not going to do any more PS2 games, PS2 is gone.' But then what happened was, there was a big resurgence in PS2 sales because there was all these emerging markets picking up the console -Latin America and stuff like that.
”We don’t see our product at retail. We don’t need money. So then we don’t need marketing. People don’t want to see ‘DayZ: brought to you by x-brand.’ These publishers are in danger of being irrelevant.”
It was still selling. I mean, it may have been selling out of a bargain bin, but it was still selling, and I guess that changes your direction. Massive gaming publishers like EA have to take the safe ground, because they're investing tens - many more times - millions of dollars.
They have to take the safe ground, and that's not what people want. They want innovation. They're tired of FIFA 13, and they don't care that there's one or two new features because they want to see cool new stuff, because people have short attention spans as well.
You mentioned iTunes a few questions back. What's interesting is this notion that after the next console cycle, physical hardware will cease and the consoles as we know them will be less about a box you buy, but a service that you subscribe to. What's your take on that?
I don't really know enough about the technology behind it, but I look at it occasionally. All I know is that there will be more rapid, huge change. I think that everyone - developers, publishers and manufacturers - need to take a good hard look and say, 'we want that process'.
When we had a lot of publishers come to us with the DayZ project and say, 'we want to be involved', I had to say to them, 'well, what will you provide?' They said money, marketing, retail placement and all of that.
We don't see our product at retail. We don't need money. So then we don't need marketing. People don't want to see 'DayZ: brought to you by x-brand.' These publishers are in danger of being irrelevant, but at the same time they can provide a lot of specialist assistance, or technology assistance.
But I think everyone in the development side of it needs to take a good hard look, especially if Sony and Microsoft say, 'we want to focus on innovation'. If I were them I'd be looking at Steam going, 'woah'. Steam makes it oh-so-easy for developers.