Interview: The standalone future of DayZ, and what it means for players

Evan Lahti at

DayZ is following a path navigated by fellow former-mods Counter-Strike, Dota, Team Fortress and Killing Floor: it's being developed as a commercial, standalone game. I spoke with Dean Hall about what the decision to go standalone will mean for DayZ's design and for its more than 1.1 million citizens.

PCG: From a technical and design standpoint, what does being standalone free you up to do?

Dean "Rocket" Hall: The biggest thing, I guess, that's at the forefront for me—because my Facebook is literally flooded with messages about it—is being able to take on the hacking. It's something that you never completely solve, you just have to keep on at it. Arma, as you know, is a very trusting engine, because that's what it was designed to do. It was designed for a team of like-minded individuals to play. So that's the first thing that we'll be able to push forward with. I don't like to say that we'll lock it down, but we'll get the experience polished for PvP. We'll be able to start dealing with the hacking issues properly, and also lock down some of the key bugs. If we wanted to fix these right now, we'd have to mess with Arma too much. I think Arma deserves to be left alone to an extent, and not have DayZ putting in fixes that might cause it problems.

How big of a team do you think you're going to have at your disposal?

Hall: I think we'll have a very small core team of about six that actually make the game. Beyond that—and this is one of the cool things about Bohemia Interactive—is they have access to have all these different art resources and stuff like that. They've got a lot of experience with an internal outsourcing type of model, which is how they made Take On Helicopters and stuff like that. That's going to allow the generation of new content. It can almost happen independently of the core development. I think it's really exciting. I think that model's going to work really well for us. We'll have the core team, who are sort of locked away doing their own thing, and very collaboratively, without all the big-project types of problems. But they'll have access to resources that a big project would have outside of that.

In terms of the composition of that team, can you walk me through what you expect it to be?

Hall: It's very programmer-heavy. The project, I think... Building on the shoulders of Flashpoint and Arma and Take On Helicopters. That's what we're seeing. All that experience has come in. So it's going to be very programmer-heavy for a start. At the moment we've pretty much got the three programmers: Marek, me, and Matt. That's the core project element. Then beside that you have any artists who are available and so on. And I guess that what's really exciting about: it’s a different style of project. It feels exciting, because we're able to engage so much with people like yourself and people in the community as well. We can be honest about where it's at. It's a small project, a small team. So you don't have all those big problems with big scrums and stuff like that. It feels really collaborative. That's going to help us maintain that experiment, rather than being sort of locked away for three years and then we suddenly come out with a commercial product.

Keeping it small seems more true to the spirit of the project.

Hall: Yeah.

Do you have a target right now in terms of release?

Hall: I had a personal target of October. But I think that was really me just plucking a time out of my head, doing a back-of-the-napkin calculation. I would say this year, definitely. If we don't have something out, say, before Christmas, then something's gone wrong. But when I say "something," I mean a heavily discounted alpha. Minecraft-style. That's why we're so programmer-heavy now. The idea is, let's tackle all those problems and bugs and issues properly, that I've either been hacking through in the mod or just haven't dealt with at all. Let's clear those out of the way now and get that backlog tidied up. Then once we've got that, put a little bit of the extra content with credit in, when we have some people who aren't busy, and put that out there and see what people think. Then we can start getting crazy.

A lot of people have bought Arma 2: Combined Operations in order to play DayZ. Are you going to offer a discount directly to existing owners of Arma?

Hall: This is something I did a lot of soul-searching and thinking on. One of the fantastic things about working with Marek [Spanel, CEO of Bohemia Interactive] is he's really flexible. I think he just likes the project, because it's fun and exciting. We could make a lot of money going about it in a totally different way. But the project also needs to stand on its own two legs. I think that the idea is to run the mod in parallel with the game. That challenges the development of the game to reach a point where paying a few dollars for a heavily discounted game really becomes a no-brainer. So we just need to put enough into that initial release. It's not going to be the mod tidied-up around the edges. It's going to be a game. It really is... It's not starting from scratch, but a lot of elements are cleaned out and built up around the basic design that was built with DayZ.

Do you think you're going to be able to, and do you want to, make the standalone game moddable?

Hall: That's a definite end state. We've talked about that. It's hard, because you don't want to make something that came from being heavily moddable and then make it not like that. But the issue is, we're making a game that allows players to interact with each other in a competitive environment. So we need some rules. What we're going to start off with... Because it's a small team, because we want to focus the development as we lock it down, the moddability will come later once we've solved that problem. We need to say, “Okay, this problem is effectively solved.” You're never going to completely clear out hacking, so solving that is not getting rid of it completely. But at the very least we should be able to detect it adequately and deal with it adequately and roll it back and such. Once we've reached that point and pushed the game through, that's when we can start doing it. And maybe we can get a little bit creative and make sure it fits within the world. We're going to be able to do a lot more creative stuff with the mod itself. The idea is maybe to open up that a little bit more, to allow quite a bit more experimentation while the game itself gets locked down more. There could be some real synergy there.

So, security is your number one concern right now. That's the thing you want to address foremost.

Hall: Yeah. Look, this whole project has been about sometimes making those hard decisions. Not necessarily ones you want to make. I'd like to be able to turn around and say, yep, we're going to carry on with all this modding and that kind of stuff, but... Every user out there who's played DayZ a bit knows how much of a problem the hacking is. I think even the hackers would say that themselves. So we need to deal with that. And the only way to deal with it is to go back to basics. So we'll go back there and then hopefully claw our way back.

A big, fundamental question for me is whether the standalone version going to use Chernarus, DayZ’s current world.

Hall: It will start off with Chernarus, but more. I guess that the whole approach the project takes is, it will expand on that quite significantly. We're going to try and release some details about what that will be on the Tumblr. But for the moment the only thing I can really give for sure is that we're going to expand the number of expandable buildings. That's really important. Critically important. We're going to knock off those things first. Like if we were to commit to, say, a new environment or something like that, it would take quite a long time. It takes quite a long time to do the environments. We need to get the design right and all that sort of stuff. So we'll definitely stick with Chernarus. But we'll fix Chernarus in terms of DayZ. We'll make something that works really well with DayZ.

In addition to Chernarus, what types of maps do you think will follow that, in terms of theme or feel? How do you feel about a more urban environment?

Hall: I think it was you who was telling me about the idea for the mall [at E3], right?

Yeah, yeah.

Hall: That hung with me. I couldn't stop thinking about it on the plane. That sort of ties into what I was thinking about instancing and stuff like that. The underground construction and such. I think being able to do some of that kind of stuff would be really cool. How we would fit it into the world and that sort of stuff. The only issue is that for the standalone game, I really am going back to basics, and saying, we have a really good idea of what the design needs to be. We're going to return to that before we jump in with the content. Let's get the design bombproof.

"Instead of us having to sell hats or something in the game, we could say, 'Okay, here, pay five or ten euros or whatever to access this island.' Something like that."

There's issues like... We've talked about the hacking and all that. The obvious bug fixes, a change in the way authentication happens and all that stuff. How the servers talk to each other. Then we address things like inventory. All those need to be addressed, and I haven't really thought about how the islands will work. Other than knowing that once we get to the point of a lot of users, instead of us having to sell hats or something in the game, we could say, "Okay, here, pay five or ten euros or whatever to access this island." Something like that. If, in a year or so, things are getting a bit stale, or we need to raise some more cash, why not do it that way? I think that additional map packs are something that we can look at later. But for the moment, the focus is on fixing DayZ and nailing that design experience.

I'm curious if you've played Lingor Island at all, which some people have independently modded DayZ into.

Hall: Yeah, I saw that! I wish I'd had a chance to play it. I've been talking with our server admin teams, because obviously we had a very hard line on people making changes to things previously. I think it's worth at least defending that stance. My rationale behind that was... Yes, I come from a military background, but I also worked for a couple of years in the console gaming market. I think anyone who works in the PC development market, they really don't know what a crappy life is until you're trying to make licensed movie games on a console. So I've dealt with game executives before, and a lot of those game executives, they don't care about games at all. They've gotten to their positions by being good businessmen, and that's what makes them keep their companies afloat. So if they saw that DayZ could be run as some kind of dumbed-down, maybe single-player or some other kind of experience, they would have latched on to that and said, let's attach a license to it.

"A lot of those game executives, they don't care about games at all. They've gotten to their positions by being good businessmen, and that's what makes them keep their companies afloat."

Maybe they'd have even offered me a lot of money, and maybe I would have sold out and gone that way. So I didn't want... I wanted the message to be very clear, very clear, that this is what the DayZ experience looks like, and this is the DayZ experience are going behind, so that we can see that. Well, that's happened now. So we don't need to keep doing that. I talk with our server team, and they were in agreement, so... We'll look at opening things up a bit more, and then you can get some creative stuff like that. Lingor Island and that sort of thing. And why not? I think that's why... It's not about "let's turn the mod off and do the game." Let's keep the mod going! Let's open it up. Maybe some really good ideas can come out of that, things that we can feed into the game. I think a lot of people have been a bit like... "Oh, well, I bought the game and now I can't play the mod." I think the mod is going to have a real element of creativity. It'll probably be a bit like the Wild West, maybe, when we open it up a little bit. But I don't know, I think it will be able to get to places that the standalone game development can't. At least initially.

Do you like the idea of community maps potentially becoming official maps?

Hall: Yeah! I guess what I really want to see DayZ become is a non-standard franchise. The thing that excites me most about it is that... You take things like Star Wars or Star Trek, anything like that. The lore and the world behind that is generated by a team of writers. It's generated by that company. What's happening with DayZ is that the lore, the stories, and these player legions... They're being generated by the players. Like the Black Widow and Dr. Wasteland. The Mountain Dew. It's lucky to find it but unlucky to hold onto it or drink it. So all this stuff is coming out. I want to find ways of supporting that. I think growing that element, that initial little genesis of this entirely player-driven story world, is something I really want to see. I guess I see community maps as possibly filling in there. The more DayZ can break out of a traditional model the better. We can try things and see what works.

When you're talking about supporting the way the lore is player-created and those sorts of surrounding concepts, I remember the concept of in-game diaries that you brought up previously. I like the idea of everyone having what’s essentially a giant dog tag that can be sifted through or taken when you find someone’s corpse.

Hall: Yeah. I've got even bigger plans behind that, but I've got to go out and find the people who have the ability to do some of these things. I’m quite keen to go to PAX, to see if I can find some of the people, particularly a whole bunch of artists and things like that. I really want to connect with them. I'm going to try and find these people and give them my ideas and say, can you be part of this? I want to take where DayZ is at now and add more tools, more complexity to it, but every piece of complexity that's added should be intuitive. We might come up with some...for want of a better word, crafting. The ability to build things that make sense. Even things as simple as, okay, to make a torch you need to get some batteries. But whatever that is, it should be intuitive, so that you don't need to look up a manual or look up this page on the internet or something like that. You say, “Okay, I've got this item that doesn't work, what do I do?”

The whole experience of doing that is a discovery in itself. So any element of complexity that we're adding, I think, is going to add more depth to the game. Maybe instead of putting morphine into your leg... You can do that, but you go into a limping animation tree. Or maybe we can give you a splint. Maybe you have to craft a splint. Maybe you have to find someone who's got a doctor skill to help you heal it. I think adding those tools to the world like that, as well as construction, will give players more options. Which, I'm hoping, will mean that less people will just go around killing players, because there will be more challenging stuff to do.

That was my next question. What’s your vision for DayZ’s endgame? What does that look like?

Hall: What I will do is add the caveat that programmers will be screaming at me, talking about... This is vision, so you have to make sure you spell it out. This is vision. We've talked before about EVE Online. The only reason I'll even talk about this with you is because we've talked about it before. I never talk about this stuff in other interviews, because people latch onto it... But I love the EVE Online model, and I would love to see us move towards that. That's a long way off. Short term, with what we're releasing, is going to be not too ambitious. It's going to focus on tidying things up. In the medium term, I'm really big on this idea of some of these elements of construction. Now, I'm assuming you've played Red Faction...

Yeah.

Hall: I love the way they did destructible terrain and stuff like that. I thought it was very visceral. I think we need to come up with some kind of visceral... And I like underground as a method of construction of these player bases. It fits in with the narrative I've been talking about with my brother, in terms of the setting and the virus and all that. I think my vision for where the players can go is, I want to see them building the world after the zombie apocalypse. So your first challenge in DayZ is surviving DayZ, and that's what everyone's experiencing now. It was never really intended to be more than a one- or two-day experience. It's something of a miracle that it's got the staying power that it does. The next stage from that is either banding together or deciding that you want to go off and be a lone wolf or whatever. But maybe you'll have to even visit these player cities are built. Maybe different factions take over these underground cities, and then someone else comes back and takes them over again. They may swap hands several times. But basically having to dig out your city and build it from the dirt is what I see happening.

Digging and underground structures would give you another parallel to Minecraft. Overall, how would you describe the reaction to the news that DayZ will be a standalone game?

Hall: It’s been staggering, really. I didn't think things could get any crazier. We thought things would die down, with the problems that the mod had been experiencing and stuff like that. Things would get quiet for a little bit. We'd do the announcement and then people would say, "oh, that's cool," but things would go quiet and then we'd come out with the product and things would start up. But that's certainly not what's happening now. [laughs]

That's what I would expect. People would say, “Okay, well, I played DayZ, and I liked it, but there are all these issues, so I'll just come back later when it's ready.” But that hasn't really been the experience?

Hall: No. And that’s great, but it does create a unique problem for us as well. We just have to cross these bridges. A lot of the decisions that I have to make... Sometimes you can end up second-guessing yourself. We just have to try and push forward and see where we’re going. I think the key is just trying to be honest with people, which is why it’s so easy to do these interviews, because you can just say what’s on your mind.

DayZTexas, a fan site, also has a terrific list of changes and ideas Bohemia plans to implement, based on a Reddit AMA.