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

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.

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.

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.

Evan Lahti
Global Editor-in-Chief

Evan's a hardcore FPS enthusiast who joined PC Gamer in 2008. After an era spent publishing reviews, news, and cover features, he now oversees editorial operations for PC Gamer worldwide, including setting policy, training, and editing stories written by the wider team. His most-played FPSes are CS:GO, Team Fortress 2, Team Fortress Classic, Rainbow Six Siege, and Arma 2. His first multiplayer FPS was Quake 2, played on serial LAN in his uncle's basement, the ideal conditions for instilling a lifelong fondness for fragging. Evan also leads production of the PC Gaming Show, the annual E3 showcase event dedicated to PC gaming.