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Once upon a wasteland – the never ending story of DayZ

As DayZ creeps closer to 1 million unique players, VG247 spends some harrowing time in Chernarus and speaks to Dean “Rocket” Hall about why so many people are playing a game that cannot be won.

When death came for me, as I knew it eventually must, it was neither terrifying nor painful. It was not visited upon me by rotting hands and ragged teeth; it was not a slow, inexorable descent into starvation.

No, when the end came, it was clean and instantaneous; delivered from afar by a coward with a sniper rifle. I was shot in the back by a murderous bandit, a fellow survivor who will have picked my pack clean before my corpse had cooled on the damp earth of the forest.

This particular end is just one of many that I've suffered. Some have come after just a few minutes of spawning a new character by the coast; others have been the result of an ill-advised and impatient raid on a seemingly abandoned farmstead.

This end was by far the most affecting, however, because of everything that had gone before it: countless forays into outlying villages and fraught, crouched runs into dead cities to scavenge for small caches of food and drink; the lucky, one-off find of a map, a compass, or a larger backpack, which further raised my chances of eking out a hard-won existence and pulling back from the brink after feral, snarling assailants had left me shaking and vision impaired, perilously close death. My killer knew nothing of what I’d gone through to arrive in that seemingly empty forest and it left me aghast and angry that someone could so casually take away what I worked hard to earn.

It’s fair to say that DayZ’s perma-death can be an emotional experience, but beyond death are the stories that endure. Often these are tales of survival, but DayZ’s status as a free mod in the alpha phase of its life lends it to other, more quirky stories too: like the time my avatar spawned, not in water but on it and I walked, messiah-like, to the shore; or the very special time that my character model was replaced by a goat and I was chased across a field by a ravenous undead freak before leaving the server to find one more stable and less unpredictable.

“People are naturally story-tellers, and that’s been a big part of the appeal of DayZ,” creator of the mod, Dean “Rocket” Hall says. “I think what’s happened is that people would have these really crazy experiences and they'd go out and tell people about them or post them on social media. Social media is really causing this silent revolution, in the way that it helped Minecraft and it how it appears to be able to help modding now, too.”

DayZ players all have their own stories, but perhaps the most interesting of them all is the mod’s own incredible tale. DayZ recently passed 800,000 unique players (in the time it took me to write this article, it gained 4,000 new players). Between them, those players have racked up over 17 million survival attempts and with an average life expectancy of a little under an hour, that’s approximately 15 hours of play per survivor since the mod’s release in April.

Social media might have helped spread the word about DayZ, but it’s the intriguing proposition of open world survival across the 225 km2 region of post-Soviet, post-apocalyptic Chernarus that keeps people invested and is prompting new players to buy copies of 2009’s ArmA II in order to experience it for themselves. It’s also what makes it worth repeatedly braving the issues faced by an alpha-mod, built on ArmA II’s quirky engine by Hall and maintained by the team at Bohemia Interactive.

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Sam's been keeping a DayZ diary. This is the
second day. People die.

“To be honest, I'm surprised that there's so much replayability from what is just the core husk of the design,” Hall says. “The fact that it’s built on an older engine and has no in-game narrative; the fact that it really is just bare bones design at this stage, means that there’s nothing to hide behind, but I guess that’s why the design has been able to be refined the way that it is.

“People really seem to want this open gameplay and the ability to organise themselves and decide what they want to do and where they want to go ... because it's a persistent world and your character is going to be there tomorrow, it makes you think about your character in a different way. There's a whole level of different subtleties with having to deal with thirst and hunger and it just serves to draw people in.”

And draw you in, it does. After I was gunned down, it occurred to me not to go back; I wondered if I’d be able to recreate the experience I’d just been through. But I did go back, several times, and while I’ve not yet had another session that has matched that one golden run, I continue to have varied and rewarding experiences, along with hundreds of thousands of other players enjoying DayZ for free.

Borrowed time

The question, then, is where can it go from here to prevent it losing its momentum and, crucially, start generating a return on the investment of time and effort that Hall has poured into it. Hall admits that the mod’s current gestation period, along with the ad hoc work being done to accommodate DayZ’s growing community, has a finite lifespan.

“We're really on borrowed time,” Hall says. “I want to see it become a standalone game, following the Minecraft model of a low price point, but that will only work if we say that everyone is going to pay, and in order for people to not feel ripped off we need to have a load of new content; so, things like base-building, tidying and cleaning up animations and add ragdoll physics as the like.”

“We're really on borrowed time,” Hall says. “I want to see it become a standalone game, following the Minecraft model of a low price point, but that will only work if we say that everyone is going to pay, and in order for people to not feel ripped off we need to have a load of new content; so, things like base-building, tidying and cleaning up animations and add ragdoll physics as the like.”

Hall’s optimistic that the work necessary to make that happen could be achieved in the next few months and “certainly before Christmas” provided that an agreement can be reached, either with Bohemia Interactive or another company. Talks continue apace and Hall says he’s already had some genuine offers of investment but that they’ve been based on DayZ’s impressive numbers, rather than an understanding of its mechanics; mechanics that Hall knows must be maintained and built upon if it’s to retain its unique appeal.

Free of expectation of traditional game design, Hall has created something unique in DayZ; a fascinating experience that provides very personal stories and provokes an emotional response to its freeform tale of survival. I can only commend him for what he’s achieved and admire Bohemia Interactive’s support of the mod to this point.

Whatever happens next, I’m pleased to have been able to experience DayZ in its alpha form; it’s not always a smooth experience but the initial teething problems and occasionally frustrating (sometimes comical) bugs contribute to the stories that I’ve taken away from my time with it.

I hope that Hall is able to harness and maintain the good will of the community that his free mod has engendered and take DayZ forward beyond alpha and onto the launch that standalone title. Until that point, I and hundreds of thousands of other players will continue to forge our stories over and over, learning new things about the topography of Chernarus and the skills and strategies required to survive it.

Death will come for me again someday, I don’t doubt it, and when it does it will mark the end of another unique story; the best I can hope for is that it’s interesting and very long.

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