Emergent Gameplay and Persistent Worlds: The Day Z Interview
In this day and age it only takes one good idea to get your indie title or mod noticed by the gaming community at large. It needs to be something that the big studios aren’t doing but everyone clamors for. The team behind the Arma 2 mod Day Z managed to find their zeitgeist by transforming Arma 2′s 225 km squared landscape into an open-world zombie survival sandbox. When the world is covered by zombies and you’re stuggling to survive, the gloves come off and that’s exactly what this mod encapsulates.
Players live an average of four hours, just to give you an idea of how tough it is to survive out there. You start off with meager supplies and you need to keep yourself fed, watered and breathing all while contending not only with hordes of roaming undead but also other players. It’s safe to assume in Day Z that everyone is out for themselves and the game features a humanity meter to chart your interactions with other survivors. Malevolent players can earn a “Bandit” ranking that changes their outward appearance and makes them a target for frontier justice. There are a ton of player guides to help you out, but the true genius of Day Z is the moment to moment gameplay and what emerges out of that.
A video chronicling some of what happens in Day Z by YouTube user SideStrafe.
Day Z requires both Arma 2 and its expansion Operation Arrowhead, and the Combined Operations package has cracked the top five sales on Steam, surpassing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Here’s a handy installation guide for Day Z to get you started on your journey, including some tips for living longer than a few minutes.
Since Day Z has taken off in such a huge way, we decided to get in touch with the developers behind the mod and ask them a few questions. Dean “Rocket” Hall was kind enough to provide us with some answers about how the mod came about, what sort of reaction they’ve seen from Bohemia Interactive, and what’s next for Day Z.
What is the background of the Day Z team? How did this all come about?
For the last ten years I run a small gaming group (usecforce.com) which was a group of like minded, mainly ex or current military personnel who are military simulation enthusiasts. My background is fairly diverse, so I used that ground to foster my interest in modding, programming, computer art, website design, and so on. Recently I decided to take some of the concepts I developed and tested with these guys a little more mainstream. My real passion has always been persistent worlds, putting some context into gaming, and I felt that was an area games needed to make more of an effort to explore. Those guys there, I’ve know them so long, have been a huge support putting this project together.
I called in some favors from friends and colleagues, for example getting some motion capture animations, with the dream of putting them together and trying out some of my concepts for the idea of persistent worlds. Development started mainly in January and then I was very focused on that through to the Alpha release in April. There are about five other guys in the project, who help answering emails, planning, designing environment layouts, and things like that. We also have a team of about ten server administrators, a very demanding job particularly when it is time to roll updates.
The project was developed in secret because I think it’s the best way to avoid complications of egos, and keep the focus on a consistent vision. It also keeps development focused on that final output, because until then you haven’t released anything out to the community. When you do finally release, people can try what you have done straight away, and hopefully they see a consistent project with a clear vision – rather than something drip fed that might end up disappointing.
This is the kind of game people have been wanting forever. Are you kind of surprised that it took the mod community to step up and deliver as opposed to big publishers and studios taking this on?
I’ve been very passionate about persistent worlds and true emergent gameplay for some time, and I felt that games need to grow up with their audience. Gamer’s have matured, and I don’t just mean in age. I mean the expectations we have on games now are different and I don’t think studios have filled that need. People want real emotions, they want something they can feel immersed in and interact with other people. They want experiences. The technology is there to do this, and it’s been very frustrating for me trying to convince people in the industry that this is something we should be trying.
During development I believed that it was going to have an impact on the ArmA2 modding community, as persistence was something that was still in its infancy within that community. So I knew it would have an impact there. But what happened was that people in that community started telling there stories, and they were amazing stories. It spread from there and I think that’s the real revolution – its not that the mod itself is that great, its the way people approached it and developed their own stories. That’s not territory that the big studios have really explored. But that’s what the community did, they took it and made it something themselves. Those stories belong to the community and they are the reason it has been so successful.
I’m not surprised the studios haven’t taken it on, it’s a big risk and its a completely different paradigm to what the video game industry has been manufacturing – very compartmentalized experiences that can be carefully defined, developed, and tested. I don’t really think the recipe for developing these games has changed much in the last twenty years, its the scale, the technology, and the length of the development pipeline that has. It’s a brutal industry and development is big money. I figured out pretty quickly that nobody was going to take me seriously unless someone actually tried to do something. That is very frustraiting, I know many gamers feel this, but that’s business.
Have you had any response from Bohemia Interactive? Their game is now outselling Skyrim on Steam thanks to your mod, so has there been any word from them?
It’s not my place to speak for Bohemia Interactive themselves, and I am sure they’d be more than happy to answer any questions. But I can talk about how I feel about them. I think they’re one of the great studios, because they have really valued and invested in the community. I read on a forum somewhere someone saying that there is one thing that always makes a company take notice and that’s changes to the bottom line. Obviously that’s happened and I don’t think BIS are the only ones to notice that. I think this is an example of “if you look after the community, they will look after you”. Hopefully it challenges some other studio’s to follow this example. I think this is a direct vindication of their business strategy and approach. I can’t think of a studio that deserves a little bottom line increase more than them.
There are a lot of crazy stories coming out of this mod, like players giving advice on how to survive when everyone is your enemy or cases of players building mass transit systems. Does this kind of ingenuity surprise you, or being from a modding background did you expect these things to start appearing once people got their hands on the mod?
I’ve never been so moved as when I read some of the stories that were coming out. To me, that was exactly what I wanted. I felt like games should be supporting that kind of experience for a long time, and I was sure I wasn’t the only one. So to see people in the community actually getting out there, developing their own characters and exploring and then sharing that with each other – the good and the bad, the highs and the lows – that was the best I could hope for. Like I said earlier, I think games need to mature a bit with their audience and meet the more complex demands that gamers have on them today. Every keeps talking about casual games, obviously a big market. But I think the mature gaming front has largely been forgotten. These gamers want to experience things in their games, they want to be moved, maybe even angered. They want the highs and the lows like you get in a good movie or a good book – except games actually allow you to experience this for yourself.
I started copying the best stories to a document that I would read, but it became so large I had to stop. It seemed that everyone had their own amazing story. What was really interesting that often the content of those stories, might not have sounded fun in the traditional sense, they often involved loss, betrayal, adversity, and nearly always didn’t have a happy ending. But through those experiences so many amazing things happened, the intersection of different player’s stories added a whole new dynamic to the experience. I hope we see more of this and the complexity of player ingenuity and organization expanding.
Where do you plan to take Day Z in the future? Any tantalizing hints you can give our readers?
Right not the focus is on meeting the demand, fixing the crippling bugs, and ensuring the project is structured and sustainable. Those are some very big tasks to fill. What has come as a big shock as how popular it is in its current state, this really did catch me off guard. It was only released so I could do some capacity testing and see how the server performed under load, I haven’t really had any focus on replayability or gameplay aspects – it’s really been more about the technology. My goal here is to prove the concept that if you build a world for gamers, the gamers will make that world their own. If you get rid of all that marketing and the hype, and actually focus on mechanics and not being afraid to generate real human emotions, that the product takes on a life of its own. I think we’ve made a good start on that so far. The focus for development needs to be on making the world with the players deciding its fate.
What do you guys think about Day Z? Have any of you played it, or will you after reading this? What do you think about the mature gamer being largely forgotten by the industry, or the drip feeding that occurs? Go!
Big thanks to Dean “Rocket” Hall of Day Z for answering our questions! Would you guys like to see more features like this in the future?