Dean Hall has only killed once in his own video game.
The world of DayZ, a multiplayer zombie apocalypse survival mod for Bohemia Interactive’s military sim ARMA II, is cutthroat. Stories of being taken hostage by other gun-toting players, ambushed by bandits and picked off by camping snipers are rampant, more so than tales of zombie-related mayhem.
Graver still is that, unlike most games, when you die in DayZ you lose your character and your gear permanently; you wake up on the beach where you started, fresh and defenceless. Yet, despite the brutality and steep learning curve, DayZ has become a massive success, more talked about and played than ARMA II. It joins the likes of Minecraft, a small, odd endeavour becoming huge, but the rampancy and difficulty of the game is changing what we’ve come to know as a sure-shot game release.
“(The) first time you play DayZ, you could go at it for six hours, meet a lot of friends, assemble a lot of gear,” said Hall.“Then, bam — just get killed by a sniper. There’s a shock that you feel, that you’ve just lost everything.” The challenge of this dog-eat-dog domain is what has millions of players logging in, but Dean Hall himself has only killed another player a single time, and it still bothers him.
It started near Cherno (Chernogorsk), the biggest city on the Russia-inspired map and an infamous killing field. Hall spotted an ensemble of new arrivals. He’s fascinated by his players. “I would always play at night,” said Hall, “follow groups around and see what they did.”
The players neared a church, which they naturally didn’t recognize as a trap. Vets used the church’s implied sense of security to their advantage. One from the group spotted Hall. Via voice chat, Hall told them they needed to leave “or else you’re going to get slaughtered.” Hall escorted the troupe to the southern airfield to give them a better start. Along the way they were attacked by zombies. One member didn’t survive.
At the airfield, Hall spotted another new player cluelessly running around in the open. The troupe tried calling out to him, but, seeing the size of the group, the stranger tried to run away. “I started firing some warning shots,” said Hall. “and I just kept firing. I don’t know what compelled me. The next minute, I see him fall over.”
The interface alerted Hall that the player had died. One of the players in the group said, “Wow, you killed him.”
“I struggled, trying to understand why,” said Hall. “I did it out of morbid curiosity. I wouldn’t say I was revolted — at the end of the day it’s still a game, but it didn’t make sense to me.”
Hall had spent nearly a decade in the New Zealand military, and he admits he has an odd background for someone concerned with killing a virtual person. I met him in Toronto, where he presented the international keynote at Gamercamp last weekend. Given his training, could he imagine killing in reality?
“I’m not sure I could,” he said. “Now I honestly think that the non-violent solution is the best, even if it means getting hurt myself.”
“I’ve basically rejected just about everything I learned in the military,” continued Hall. “except for ‘make a decision and have some confidence.’” Hall seems to carry mixed feelings about his years in the forces, using crummy language to paint the administration and the hell they sent him through.
Hall’s very critical of the army. For that matter, he’s very critical of everything; from his bittersweet first ventures into gaming to more recent woeful tales of sleazeballs company suits and surprise IP feuds. He actually prefers it when people are critical of himself, and says even game designers should be as scrutinized as politicians. Dean Hall has a thick skin, and he wants it to thicken.
Hall is a glutton for punishment who’s addicted to challenges. Games he cherishes the most are the steepest, like the indie space travel sim Kerbal Space Program, the urban planning sim Open Transport Tycoon Deluxe, or the legendarily challenging X-COM for Amiga.
When he plays easier games, Hall doesn’t go easy on himself. In Skyrim, he’ll wear heavier furs when exploring colder terrain, and wishes the game would enforce temperature. A smile grows from ear to ear when he talks about Alien 3, a sequel he enjoys especially for an opening that kills off the majority of characters from the previous film. Another big ray of sunshine he adores is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. “Frustration is a dirty word,” said Hall, and he staunchly objects to babying players and piling on funds to less experimental, safer projects.
DayZ comes with no instructions. Everything you come to know in the game is learned from other players or by figuring it out yourself. It is an ant farm full of clueless and clued-in adventurers. Every death and encounter a lesson. Hall believes this works as long as the rules are anchored with logic.
“Complexity is fine when it mirrors reality,” said Hall. Zombies are attracted to loud noises. Gunshots and sprinting will catch their eye. Effects of injuries can be lessened with painkillers, and blood loss is harrowing. You can starve to death. The sound of flies means that, nearby, a corpse is rotting. It’s a difficult experience. The game isn’t even easy to install.
When Hall launched DayZ, he assumed it would only attract his friends and a few stragglers. Its server title was “DayZ Zombie RPG,” and it had one player in its first live day. That vanguard player died after 15 minutes. “There weren’t any other players,” said Hall. “Maybe he fell off a building.”
Dean Hall enlisted in the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 2000. He was 18. His role was on the ground, working on databasing and contracts. He got bored. When his tenure finished he returned to New Zealand to enter the gaming biz.
Hall liked the people at Sidhe, the studio where he would become a producer. He had plenty of experience with game design and grew up with programming, having cooked up homebrew submarine sims for his Amiga. (The computer was a gift from his parents, after they saw him glued to his cousin’s Commodore 64.)
Sidhe was an introduction to the studio environment. Hall feels he resided there during their golden age, whereas now they focus on mobile games, but the experience left him with a poor, “unprofessional” taste.
A collaboration between Sidhe and Krome Studios resulted in what Hall calls “a bad falling out.” He was coy, not wanting to name the project because it was “a terrible game,” but went on to reveal that it was Star Wars: The Clone Wars Republic Heroes. “I was the producer on the PSP version. I only bring that up because they removed my name from the credits.”
Hall said he was targeted for being upfront with publisher LucasArts about delays with the project. Krome was more comfortable with keeping a positive spin. “Those bastards,” Hall joked. He understood why Sidhe cast him out of the project, but he was still disappointed, and bitter ever since.
Disenfranchised with industry “bullshit,” Hall decided to return to the military, this time aiming to make it into special forces. “At least the bullshit you have in the military is very obvious,” said Hall. “Yes, your senior officers are idiots, and you have to do all this stupid stuff, but it’s a known quantity and you can plan for it.”
Hall didn’t find his re-enlistment much more enchanting than the sour game industry. Multiple times he brought up that even after his absence, in which two major wars broke out, not much had changed. The process was the same, the tech eerily similar, and despite having already completed training in a higher rank in the air force, he had to start from scratch. “It’s hard to just whiz through army training,” said Hall. “It’s so physical and I was almost 10 years older.”
Dean Hall was selected for an exchange in Singapore, where soldiers are younger and the regiment was designed for a younger army. A major part of this program was a survival exercise where soldiers would spend a month in the jungle in an tiered, Amazing Race-style mission: find your way to an extraction point, set up camp, survive.
The three months of training leading up to the exercise had misled Hall into believing he would have extra food. For the exercise itself, Hall consumed his rations in the first leg of marching to the camping site. While he made it there the fastest, Hall was without food for the rest of the month.
Soon, Hall was starving to death. He tried to go without food and water, spending most of his time laying on his butt in the shelter, not talking. Eventually, he convinced himself to chow on some rotting fish and noodles, but it was hard to swallow through his reflexive gagging. He even contemplated stealing his exercise partner’s food, which he finds ridiculous today.
When the rest of the platoon linked up for extraction, Hall was flushed with emotion. “One guy, I don’t know how, but he managed to finish this exercise with some food left over,” says Hall, “He gave me a biscuit, and I swear that, at that time, no one had ever done anything that nice to me. I started crying. Because someone gave me a biscuit.”
When he returned to his home country, things were obviously heading in a different direction. While his diet during the Singapore exercise was bad, trying to eat normally afterwards was devastating on his digestive system. It was so bad that Hall needed surgery, and he spent seven weeks recovering.
Before the crash, he was in the ninetieth percentile, and now he was losing his standing. It was unlikely he would be able to make the special forces. By 2011, he was posted back in New Zealand, in Waiouru, babysitting the Singaporeans on the other end of exchange. “I was a single military officer locked in a tiny area, with nobody for miles,” recalled Hall.
He began gaming again, after having no time to play in Singapore, and started programming — specifically modding Bohemia Interactive’s ARMA II.
The Singapore exercise made Hall realize how emotional these training missions can be, and he thought the could whip up a mod of ARMA II, already a challenging experience, to be a survival sim.
“I felt there had to be a better way,” said Hall. “Nearly killing your soldiers is not a good way of training them.”
Hall created a mod that outfitted ARMA with harsh survival mechanics and floated the idea of using it as a training method to his superiors. When the army feigned interest, Hall decided to add zombies.
He kept in touch with Bohemia’s creative director, Ivan Buchta, and the company was interested in Hall’s military history, and set him up with an external contract. He also worked with Bohemia on-site in the Czech Republic as a multiplayer designer, as he wanted to get away from New Zealand for a while. Hall was gaining intimate experience with the ARMA engine from the inside, working on his own mods on the outside.
DayZ launched earlier this spring and grew rapidly, despite its difficulty. Hall alerted devoted ARMA communities about his mod, and even invited some for launch tests. These players, some real paramilitary, were prepped for serious realism in their gaming. One player, who on YouTube goes by CHKilroy, was an early adopter, and his video playthroughs garnered the right kind of attention.
Without instruction from any developer, players were jumping into the sandbox and creating their own game. Banding together. Killing each other. Hoarding. Surviving. Becoming legends. There exists some mythos on the map, like “the Black Widow,” a female player who calls for help over voice chat, then slays and loots the players who come to help her. Hall was once grilled by a gaming journalist who was positive that finding a can of Mountain Dew in-game is good luck, but carrying it is bad luck, even though Hall never programmed such an effect.
The reception delights Hall, and he mocks Battlefield 3’s producer Patrick Bach, who stuck a fork in mods as “a declining trend.” Bohemia likely isn’t complaining either, as the mod has caused a surge of new players to purchase the four-year-old root game, ARMA II. According to Hall, Bohemia has made around €26 million ($33 million Canadian) in profit since the spring. Hall became a project lead on DayZ.
The idea of making DayZ a commercial release came very early, though the form was changing rapidly. Bohemia first considered having it as downloadable content (DLC) for ARMA III, but as millions of players logged in the team decided to speed things up, changing it into DLC for ARMA II before becoming confident it could stand on its own.
There will be changes to the commercial version, though Hall is careful not to change what works. It’s becoming likely it will have a slightly different engine (built on the same basic framework), but Hall doubts players will even notice unless they introduce new shaders. He also wants a story — not a narrative that guides players, but a backdrop to contextualize the world.
Hall’s brother, a virologist, “geeked out” and wrote a 20-page manuscript for the zombie virus. Deciding that something rabies-based would be too easy, the two investigated Toxoplasmosis, a neurological infection that causes mice to be sexually attracted to cats. It’s also theorized to have an effect on humans, perhaps cat ladies. The Hall brothers have decided on a name for the virus, but consider it one of the surprises for the game’s launch.
Even with a story, Hall wants the player to be in control. One of the biggest alterations is the degree to which players will be able to effect the world of DayZ. In the new version, some players can gather the proper equipment to set up a lab and attempt to cure the virus. “I think that the most important thing,” said Hall, “is to add more interactive ways for the player to explore the world. That will drive player behaviour.”
Player behaviour is the most intriguing part of DayZ. Some are victims, others survivors. There is no moral compass to guide you. Hall admits that recorded server data proves certain stereotypes to be real: Russians are rather blood-thirsty, Canadians are helpful and Kiwis rarely get too far from the beach as they enjoy talking to each other.
Academics have contacted Hall for help with social science dissertations. The murdering in the game, is over-proportionalized by web-talk. “Everyone thinks that everyone goes in and just kills other players,” said Hall, “That is not the case.” Murder only accounts for around 10% of player deaths. Most deaths are zombie-related or suicide, and suicide is skewed by the fact some players will kill themselves to respawn anew.
DayZ lore is self-perpetuated. Hall loves playing DayZ because he has done so little to define it. He just set up the world, brutal as it may be, but the players made the game and the characters. He imagines developers who make linear, narrative games must get so bored playing what they already know. DayZ has no goals — it is an ongoing campfire story, where players fight to define their own legacy.
Still, Hall isn’t a big fan of all the killing. Hall isn’t even huge on zombies, he just found it a catchy setting for the emotions of horror. In the next game he makes, which will likely be funded by DayZ, Hall imagines the murdering aspects will be moot, but survival will be key.
Hall wants to make a competitive tycoon sim. He’s interested in the economy, and is currently reading Tim Harford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. Hall also loves mountaineering, and when meeting me for a root beer in Toronto, he wore a blue and yellow hiking jacket. He would love to make a game about mountaineering, and has arranged to climb Everest next year “for research.” He also wants to survive the North Pole in 2013, survive the South Pole in 2014, and survive TIFF when he gets the chance. Dean Hall would also volunteer to be on the first shuttle to Mars.
Whatever comes after that surely won’t be easy.