Day Z interview -- how zombies + Arma 2 created gaming's best story machine

Evan Lahti

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day z interview

Day Z will be one of the most important things to happen in gaming this year. It's an open-world, persistent, PvP and PvE zombie survival mod built atop a hardcore military simulator. And despite its harsh mechanics, permadeath, and absence of instruction, it's spreading like wildfire. More than 48,000 unique players are in the alpha, and the thing you need to play it, Arma 2: Combined Operations , hovered at the top of Steam top sellers this week.

I spoke the mod's creator, Dean "Rocket" Hall, over Skype. We chatted for an hour about player emotions, AI programming, Minecraft, and what features to expect next in Day Z—like dog companions. Hall joined Bohemia Interactive in January as a Game Designer on Arma 3.

For easy reading, I've specified below which topics are covered per page.

Page 1

Inspiration, difficulty, backpacks, the value of unbalanced gameplay, the Arma community

Page 2

Dean's best story, optimization, adding a narrative to Day Z, direct chat

Page 3

New features, Day Z dog companions, increased sales of Arma 2, Day Z in Arma 3, Kickstarter


dean hall day z
Dean Hall is the creator of Day Z. He does his own stunts.

PCG: When zombie games were emerging a few years ago, you'd see people daydreaming about a game like Day Z on forums and in comment threads: “What if Left 4 Dead had a barricading system?” or “What if Dead Island was 50 players instead of four?” I think I'm just amazed that Day Z exists; I feel like you've made a wonderful proof-of-concept or prototype for a game that wasn't supposed to happen for several more years.

Dean “Rocket” Hall: I wasn't sure it would have the broad appeal as a proof of concept. I just didn't really get a lot from games. I really enjoyed games like Dead Island and Left 4 Dead. But it wasn't giving me what I wanted. I wanted context. I wanted to feel moved, I wanted to be angry. I wanted to give up on the game in disgust only to come back to it in two days. Anything, you know? If I was going to be spending my time I wanted to feel some emotion out of it. And I think that was the important thing.

I didn't really talk about mechanics, as in “I wish it had barricading,” or “I wish it had this.” I talked about it with my friends and said “what kind of situations do I want to put people in?” And, what decisions do I want them to make? The classic one is: I've only got so much room in my pack, am I going to take those beans, or am I going to take their ammunition? Because I need to eat, but I need to shoot zombies. So, all those little tensions in someone's head, and then the funny thing is, people can be running around for an hour and have nothing happen. Yet their heart's pumping, and the adrenaline's going, because they just don't know what's going on.

Backpacks are actually an instance of really good design to me in Day Z, because they fold into other concepts pretty elegantly. You don't need a separate mechanic for something like... well, think of it this way. I can pose as a rookie player by carrying around certain equipment, right? By picking up an ALICE Pack, I look a little bit more experienced, I'm a little bit more of a target, right?

Hall: Yup. Yeah, exactly.

That's really interesting. There's not some big indicator over someone's head about their level, or something. The trade-off for having a bigger backpack is that it literally become a kind of target on your back. How do you restrain yourself from building a bunch of HUD to explain design like that?

Hall: I was actually very reluctant even about the HUD, but it's very difficult to describe whether someone is hungry or whether they're bleeding. I have quite a bizarre looking bleeding mechanic, but it gets the message across. But, it was like I didn't even want to have that stuff on the HUD, but kind of need to have some of those elements.

Even for an experienced Arma player, Day Z can be brutal. I mean, I mostly play Day Z at night, and Arma is one of the only games that has this opaque, almost unplayably-dark night. Why do you think players are okay with enduring that? Why is the mod becoming popular in spite of its, like...malevolence?

Hall: When I play a game like Company of Heroes with my friends, we always ramp the difficulty up to expert, and we'll get smashed for like ten times or whatever. I've always liked playing some bit of a challenge and I'm sure that's what your attraction is with Arma as well. It's the lack of balance that actually provides you with quite a compelling experience. So I made a deliberate decision with it to follow where Arma was going and just provide that context around it and just use Arma to generate emotions in people. In a way it almost becomes an “anti-game” because you're not sitting there going “OK, well we've got this weapon that needs this balance” or “these people are starting in this way, we need to balance it for when they go into the cities.”

"...I can explain." If you kill players in Day Z, you'll appear as a bandit to everyone.

So is that freeing for you as a designer to be in a situation where you're just focusing on creating player feelings, and not worrying about whether or not this gun is dealing more damage per second than another gun or if this zombie is a little too fast?

Hall: I think it's exciting because you really do feel out of your comfort zone. But I also think it's quite scary for designers, because you're almost putting your heart on your sleeve, because you're choosing a mechanic but you don't often have a basis for how that mechanic works unless you say it is realistic or it's authentic. So people will turn around and criticize that and say “it's not balanced at all, it's terrible, I hate it, I'm dying.” So it really does open you up for some strong criticism.

Sure.

Hall: I've found it freeing because it's the sort of game that I want to play. When I play a game, I want to be moved. It's like you read a good book or a good movie: you want to feel something. Or at least I do, I want to feel something compelling and real out of the experience. And I think that games, now more than any medium, now offer you the ability to actually create your own story rather than follow someone else's.

But not everyone takes advantage of that. Modders do, though.

Hall: Yeah. Obviously, you know Bohemia supports all the modding communities that come out. I think that's one of the fantastic things about the studio. And then there's been just a huge response from the community as well, you know all the servers provided, there's more email than we can read through. Even as I'm sitting here now I can see that email box ticking up with people offering me support, and very skilled people as well. People coming from inside the industry saying that they may be a bit jaded by things as well and they want to see this emergent gameplay style grow out as well. That was really surprising. The amount of people who want to get involved and play something with all the rubbish of the industry removed from it.

When you say “rubbish” what are you referring to?

Hall: I guess I've always been really passionate about this whole idea of creating persistent worlds, and real, true emergent gameplay. And letting the players come up with the stories. Storytelling is ancient, you know? Storytelling is almost the origin of our language—how people used to pass on information. So I think that we kind of have an innate ability to tell stories and I think somewhere along the way we kind of lost that, in terms of our media and we started manufacturing these stories. Day Z got promoted through people's stories, people were posting them on forums and telling them to each other. The guys on 4Chan were creating these amazing stories and they have their own language that they use to tell these stories. You can compare them with NeoGAF or Facepunch , or any of the other forums. They each have their own unique language for telling their stories. It was just amazing to see these fascinating interactions, these amazing tensions happening with people, and real emotions.

Depending on your playing style, a compass could be more valuable than a machinegun.

PCG: So what's your best story?

Hall: I had this amazing moment—I was helping a couple of new guys, they were in Cherno as all the new guys go, and I said “look you guys need to leave here, I'll take you to the southern airfield to get some good weaponry.” I was taking them along there and we saw this guy, it was night, he'd thrown some flares and I told the guys to get down, and we called out to him and we said “Are you friendly? Are you friendly?” He didn't reply, he just looked at us and then started running away, and as he was running up the hills out the back I thought “Oh, I'll just fire some warning shots.” And so, I fired a couple of warning shots, just to keep him away. And he started rolling, and I don't know why. Maybe it was curiosity, maybe it was just because I could. I'm not sure what compelled me, but I carried on shooting and the next minute I saw “such and such is killed.”

One of the new guys goes “Wow, you killed him,” and I just remember, it actually had a profound impact on me. I suddenly thought—that guy could've been playing for six hours or a day, you know. And I killed him, and for what? For almost this morbid curiosity. I was still thinking about it two days later and I think that's quite a powerful thing, when something compels you think “well, what was my motivation?” Because if I had killed someone in say, Battlefield 3 or something like that, I still wouldn't be thinking about it the next day.

That's permadeath, right? But I think it's also just the general brutality of Day Z and how simple things are made significant. I was on last night with my friend and we were walking along the train tracks along the southern coast. and he's like “Stop!” I thought he heard gunfire. And he's like, “Do you hear that?” “Hear what?” “Dude, there's a helicopter.” I go prone, and I can hear it faintly in the distance. I woke up today, and I'm still thinking of that: somebody built a helicopter ; where was it? Who did that? How close was it, how can I get to it? I'm emotionally caught up in a sound file, essentially, because there's this mysterious history behind it.

Hall: Exactly. And that's actually amazing, what people have been able to achieve as groups. That's where these amazing stories come out. I read through the forums and I was just beside myself, I couldn't believe the situations that happened. People posting and comments on the articles, just these unbelievable coincidences and camaraderie and also these terrible tragedies.

I think it just conveys that players are really smart and they'll surprise you if you give them agency.

Hall: Yeah, exactly. And things evolve and they change, and that's been a really interesting aspect of the system. And because it's all centralized in a database, we're able to look at that and see where people are dying and what they're doing. And its really giving a fascinating insight into really what is a big sort of anti-game experiment. To see how people cope with these changes. Like for example: we just fixed some bugs, and now we have thousands of zombies spawning in where we used to have hundreds. So, watching how players react to that situation, how it affects our player interactions and whether or not they're teaming up.

Is Arma's engine is the only one that could support a game like this?

Hall: Well, I think that this specific type of game, yes. The engine itself is brutal, the world is huge, and it's underused by nearly all sort of [normal Arma] missions. Chernarus didn't receive the attention that it deserved. I know when Arma came out for me, I couldn't run it very well on my computer. I think that the engine lends itself very well to this kind of experience, because it's got that large open world, it's got some basic mechanics and ballistic mechanics in it as well. So it really does plop you in a very realistic, non-stylized environment.

Tin cans hold precious, life-restoring beans and pasta in Day Z. There's also a hunting system.

I've spent so much time there and in Takistan, and the other maps of course, but I find myself developing these new connections with Chernarus. Partly because I'm in a new position: I have to learn new things about the world. I really need to know which landmarks are where because I'm usually operating without a map. But even just little experiences, like running through the woods and seeing a pond and trying to fill up my water bottle... I dunno, having spent dozens of hours in that place, Day Z has created this new emotional connection to the terrain that I can't really explain.

Hall: I guess that was the intention, and I was very ruthless when I approached the mod, at making sure I only put things in that were meeting my design tenants, and that's where other mods have sometimes gone off the rails a bit. They try and continually add stuff on top of or maybe in spite of the engine and you end up with quite a bloated product.

I think that's where being a producer actually came in handy, because I was just really ruthless and I developed it, essentially, in secret and that removes a lot of ego, it removes a lot of promises and drip-feeding. I was just really ruthless. If something wasn't working, if something wasn't optimized, it was cut out, and I think actually as a good experience, as more about what you don't put in... well just as much about what you don't put in as much as what you do put in. So, I ripped a lot out.

zombie flowchart
A peek at Hall's zombie AI, inside a "Finite State Machine," which Hall describes as "a form of code used by the engine for AI routines" that's more efficient than a standard script.

Arma's performance doesn't typically scale well when you add a bunch of stuff to a mission. How the hell did you get Arma to accommodate hundreds of zombies and 50 players?

Hall: Well, the zombies themselves aren't even units. They're actually ambient animals that have no targeting ability. And its based almost on a form of distributed computing. So the server itself does all the things a normal server does and sync you to the database, but it doesn't do any fancy stuff with the zombies at all. That's all done client side, and it also reduces some of the desync you experience. Because, even if you're desyncing, chances are the zombies to you are controlled by your computer, so they won't be desyncing. So that was a way to... to work within the parameters that the Real Virtuality Engine gives. That kind of went against the grain of what a lot of conventional wisdom with Arma, which is that you should do everything on the server. I actually kind of went in the opposite direction and said “no, I'm going to do everything on the clients,” because they've got powerful computers and they want to deal with the local experience.

That's really clever. So even though the zombie AI operates that way, your zombies manage to have this really scary personality. They're really unpredictable; they're kind of inscrutible in the way they sound and move—sometimes they're erratic Olympic sprinters, sometimes they're hopping hunchbacks.

Hall: Yeah, I mean with more time, which hopefully I'll be doing in the mocap studio, I'll do a lot of work on that. But essentially, the background for the zombies came from my brother who is a virologist in New Zealand, and he studies influenza vaccines. So he actually sat down with me and we came up with a context behind the virus, and why things are the way they are in a fairly believable fashion. Obviously, none of it is in game, but that was the idea behind it.

Are you planning to integrate some of that context into the game? Is that the case?

Hall: Well, obviously people have a lot of questions, you know: “Why do they run?” The idea was that kind of like how players have to learn about the environment, the players will actually have to learn about the context in the game as well. Probably through items they find. So, it won't be learning a story, but they will be able to, if they want, learn about the environment as they're exploring around, discovering tapes or files, or even just finding stuff out about the zombies' bodies as well.

That's really interesting. So, there's the "study body" mechanic in there right now, will learning more help the player survive?

Hall: Well, I guess that kind of comes back to another one of the tenants of it, that I didn't want to cast any judgment at all on the player's behavior. So, I really did just want to create a world where the player could play how they wanted, and that there wouldn't be some kind of mechanic that is forcing you to play in a particular way.

On that—it's weird, like...wanting to be in the dark as I'm playing. Being ignorant is actually part of the fun I have. I want to discover things by actually encountering them in the game world. I don't want to play with a Wiki, you know? I like hearing rumors in side chat about where NVGs are that may not be true. Part of the value of it for me is just figuring things out on your own while being in this incredibly harsh environment.

Hall: Exactly. I think that is one of the reasons that people have perhaps, identified with it, as you know. There was an attempt for at least some of the stuff to be fairly intuitive, and then there's the social part of having to actually learn about some of that stuff by yourself. And certainly, once the direct chat gets fixed, which is a very high priority, we'll be able to turn off the global chat. And so, the immersion will be increased by an order of magnitude. But, I mean it's been amazing how, you know there's no manual at all, really. There's just a couple of notes that come with it, and yet players have been able to figure out, and teach each other how to live in the world. And you see that through the average life expectancy, when it first came out it was about an hour, and now it is at around four hours.

A three-step process to surviving Day Z, courtesy dayzmod.com.

PCG: Are there any secrets that you've hidden around Chernarus that haven't been discovered yet?

Hall: Uh, there's a few. I mean, it's quite limited at the moment—obviously being in Alpha. So there's really been very little attention on content at all. It wasn't even supposed to have any replayability at all. I just came up with the very cool basic mechanics and then I made a very small minor post on the BI forums asking for people to help with capacity testing. And then everything sort of went from there. So there hasn't been much effort in that regard, yet.

Right now I know you're focused on meeting demand and making sure the game is stable and quashing bugs. Beyond that, what does your road map look like for changes and features?

Hall: I think that the immediate short term goal is that I want to round out the decision-making process. There's one area that I didn't get to finish and it's just started to appear in 1.5.7, which is that you're not only battling, potentially, the other players, you're battling the zombies, but you're also battling the environment. So you have to deal with you getting cold, maybe getting an infection. So I want to have the environment play a greater role. So that if it is raining outside, that has a decision-making impact on your behavior. If it is sunny, if you have to swim, all those things will have an impact on your player. Not huge, but they're just another thing that you'll have to juggle to really keep that tension up and to really keep that connection with that beautiful map.

And I guess the other part of it is the wider game world, the wider environment. So that's the ability to clear areas. You know, you can already construct the fortifications, but provide a little bit more option around that, and I guess develop the world a little bit more so that its actually inhabitable as a player beyond just surviving.

Also, there's a thing that I've been working on—being able to have a companion, a dog. It's very useful for hunting food and all the normal things a dog is useful for. I haven't quite got it working yet.

Dogs, whoa. That seems like it would be really valuable. I assume they follow you—will dogs also fight on your behalf? Can other players take your dog if you're killed?

Hall: I'm still working on their mechanics, it's such a new feature that it needs to be very carefully crafted so it fits within the world well. Currently the dogs can be used to benefit the player, mainly for tracking and finding things which depends on the skill of the dog (which increases over time through training). If the dog gets killed you obviously lose the dog, and when you get killed the dog will run away and despawn. The mechanic itself is currently subject to change though, as it is quite new. It actually came from an idea of a listener while doing an interview on a livestream with the Russian website MMORPG.SU.

Coming to Day Z: helpful hounds.

What's the safest place in Day Z?

Hall: [laughs] Well, probably the player lobby and the loading screens. They spend a lot of time and I don't know why they're complaining because it's the safest part! [laughter] Although, it's probably not very safe for your computer because you'll probably end up throwing something at the screen when you're stuck at a loading screen for 30 minutes.

Yeah, that does happen.

Hall: It breaks my heart, every time I go to watch one of a stream there's just this moment of incredible tenseness when I see them sitting at “waiting for host” and I'm like “ugh, is it going to load through?!”

Most people seem willing to put up with it. How many copies of Combined Operations has Day Z sold?

Hall: I'm not actually sure of exact numbers. I'd say there is probably only a couple of people on the earth that could tell you. Probably one would be Marek [Spanel], I think. But, obviously it has sold a lot because it is doing pretty well on Steam. I see it as a validation of BIS' philosophy.

I think there is a real valid business philosophy in supporting modding. Because the experimentation that you can make, the experimentation that we're taking with Day Z, is far in excess of what a normal studio can do. We're trying things that are really, potentially upsetting and annoying people. And that you'd just never be able to do if you were at a studio. And so, that is quite powerful. I think that's very powerful.

Yeah, I love that you call it validation. I think the Arma community is so committed, they build their own experiences, that's what they're all about. I've gone on missions with United Operations and some of those guys, it's pretty inspiring. As long as you give them the tools, they're going to figure out a way.

Hall: I think maybe that some of the core, some of the core Arma guys have been a little bit bemused by the interest [in Day Z] because for them, the experience is quite similar, obviously, to Arma 2 and they've been running their own groups and their very detailed operations for some time. Other groups have really got on board with it, like the ShackTac guys who are just hugely helpful and you know, CHKilroy 's videos... That's an example of this whole experience. I literally talked to Dslyecxi on Skype one day and we hadn't really talked before and he was like “Oh I heard you've done some persistence databasing stuff,” and I was like “Oh, well actually I've been working on this little mod and I could do with some capacity testing.” And he was like “Oh, well we're kind of looking for something to do.” I didn't realize he was bringing in forty guys. They just went to it like ducks to water. They just got right into the spirit of it and that was just fantastic. And after that I just think it was a done deal, really.

A vacant church in Chernogorsk, the biggest city in Chernarus.

That's terrific.

Hall: That's the spirit of the community. And really, this whole thing is really the community's reaction to it rather than the actual mod itself. People are just stepping up and saying “Hey I want to be a part of this, I want to do something for it.”

Don't let me make you commit to another ambitious project, but: will you make Day Z for Arma 3 as well? I know it's probably hard to look that far ahead.

Hall: Well, obviously the Real Virtuality Engine is owned by BIS, so I can't really speak for BIS, but you know that they've made Iron Front. And it's a fantastic engine, and from my perspective, I think that the concept has reached a point of no return. Where it's really just a matter of who, when, and on what engine. From my perspective, and I know that BIS is very supportive of us, the mod goes on. This is an experiment and I don't think it's worthwhile to end the experiment here. It's important to keep the experiment going. This is what modding is about—pushing the boundaries. So, we can take those risks whereas a company can't.

I can get behind that attitude.

Hall: A lot of people talk about Kickstarters. “Oh, you should put up a Kickstarter.” Close friends as well saying “Why don't you? You're insane.” But maybe we'd raise $100,000, maybe even $200,000. Let's even say that in some amazing fantasy land we raise $500,000. You can't really actually buy a lot for that for a game. Not when you're talking about a non-stylized game. It's based on real-life, with advanced ballistics in it. Even if you got access to the Real Virtuality engine for free and just got royalties, your money is not going to go very far.

And also, what would people be buying with it? The mod has only been around for a few weeks. People don't know who I am. So, that makes me very uncomfortable. Even donations. And I think that in some ways there's a lot of problems that I think money can't necessarily solve. And a lot of the problems this project has are those problems. So we really just need time and people's patience, and a sense of adventure and a bit of freedom to explore. And maybe leave some of their conventional game paradigms at the door and think about something new.

I admire that you have that response to it. Still, the player growth has to be sweeping you off your feet.

Hall: Yeah, I probably need to get a bit more sleep. [laughter] But that's what it's all about. I mean you've got to have fun. This is an experiment. This is what we should be doing as gamers, you know? We shouldn't be frightened to throw away our preconceived notions about this is how this works or this is how that works. And that's what I liked about Minecraft, you know? It was fun, it was different. It was something else and maybe it's not for everybody but you learn something out of it and maybe you change a few ideas.

Absolutely, Minecraft is guilty of that. Well, thanks again. It's been a pleasure. It's always interesting to hear from designers who are working with emergent gameplay. It's a pretty nebulous animal. You have to design by putting some power into players' hands.

Hall: I've been talking about it for the past few years to anyone that would listen, pretty much, and it reached a point where I felt like I had to do something. Cause someone had to do something about it otherwise people were just not going to do anything about it at the studios I was at.

Well I'm glad you did, I think a lot of PC gamers are glad you did.

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