Earlier today I sat in on DayZ creator Dean Hall's presentation at GDC, “Designing DayZ.” During his talk, Hall retraced the steps of turning a mod experiment into the 1.7-million-player success that it became. Along the way Hall laid out what he considered to be his core tenets in designing DayZ (the standalone version, especially), which include the notion that complexity isn't a design sin.
“The other design pillar is the idea that complexity is not bad," Hall said during his presentation. "This is something that has really stuck with us in the development of the standalone. So the approach we take, it's choosing things that the players know. People understand the need to eat. They understand the need to drink. They realize that if you get shot, you're gonna bleed. So these things, we don't have to really explain them. And because we don't have to explain them, it meant to figure out how to [play the game] properly, you needed to talk to people about it. And DayZ has this real thing where, you're talking to people, and you're experiencing it with other people. And even installing it was this incredible right of passage."
Hall cited Space Station 13 and Kerbal Space Program multiple times throughout his presentation as complex games that he draws inspiration from. He also explained what he considered to be the difference between realism and authenticity, and his preference for the latter:
“The idea with DayZ was to put the players in a situation. And this is something I delved a lot into when I was working with the army. So if we take the example of, if you broke your leg in DayZ, and you have to use morphine before you can walk--now that's absurd, that's not realistic at all. Unless you're like, I don't know, Chuck Norris or something. And then the morphine needle would break on his leg. So it's not realistic in that sense. But because the act of getting your leg broken causes a change in the situation that's quite dramatic, it has a sense of authenticity to the people involved."
Discussing the origin of this design tenet, Hall told an anecdote from his time spent modding Arma 2 for use in military training in New Zealand.
“What I found was, when soldiers would do a scenario, they'd get shot and die, but they'd carry on with the mission, which is ridiculous. In the army, if someone gets injured, everything stops. And your mission becomes then recovering that person--even if they die, recovering their body. So when I introduced this health system I noticed that the soldiers completely changed in the way they played the game. And some of the most compelling experiences I get out of that was when it went bad, and the team rallied, and actually started putting down covering fire and getting supplies in and evacuating people. And that translated through to DayZ. I think it's using those authentic experiences to generate the experience, rather than the realism. To be honest, there's a lot about DayZ that isn't realistic at all. But I think that it's that authenticity that provides an emotional context."
I recorded a video interview with Hall following the panel, which I'll put up as soon as it's ready.