Day Z – Interview with Dean ‘Rocket’ Hall, the Game’s Creator
Shambling hordes of zombies
Dark. It’s pitch black dark. I can barely see my hand in front of my face. On my back is a tactical pack, filled with two cans of beans and some bandages. On my hip rides a dowdy Makarov and a few extra magazines. The moon comes out from behind some low clouds. Behind me I can hear the surf, and in front of me a stand of tall pines marches up a steep hill. There’s a light on the road, moving quickly from the west. I drop to the ground and scuttle under the brush as another man runs past, a road flare clutched in his hands like a sprinter’s baton, casting a surreal, flickering red glow around him.
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Hot on his heels come the groaning cadavers; I can feel the footfalls of the dozen or more of the beasts chasing him. He turns, fires his own pistol dry, but it’s no use. They’re on him before he can reload, pushing him down again and again, devouring him to the bone. My gun is drawn but I’m panicking, my screen shaking with my avatar’s fear, ears filled with horrified gasps. When he is no more, the zombies calm and begin to drift away. After a long while I crawl forward to take his beans.
So begins my time in Chernarus, an eastern European land filled with the living Zed …
The ferociousness with which Day Z has gripped the gamer zeitgeist is incredible. The game’s player base soared from several hundred to over 75,000 in a matter of just a few weeks. Its core, a two-year-old military simulation called ArmA 2, is now the top-selling game on Steam. It’s exceeding the previous month’s sales by over 500%, and Amazon has been forced to temporarily suspend sales to wait for more activation codes from the publisher, Bohemia Interactive (BI). Many outlets have written about the game, but few have thoroughly grilled the man behind it all. I cornered Dean "Rocket" Hall in Elektrozavodsk, held him at gunpoint, and made him talk.
Polygon, Rock Paper Shotgun, PCGamer, Gamasutra, even the BBC have recently done pieces on Day Z. But Dean could feel the momentum building months ago. "Social media has enabled this to happen with incredible speed, despite no advertising and several weeks before the gaming media started to pick up on the trend." The success of the title has bewildered reviewers if for no other reason than its existence. Nearly everyone who has written about it has asked why hasn’t this game been made before? The elements, persistent worlds, large open maps, military gun porn, and cooperative gameplay have existed for years now. Why did it take so long for Day Z to emerge, and why now?
Using practical military tactics will help you survive. Some weapons have attached lights, and these are highly sought-after.
"Money," says Dean. "Authenticity is not for everyone. Call of Duty and Medal of Honor offer packaged experiences. Such experiences are easier to explain to the customer, and if you can’t explain the product people don’t know about it. ArmA spent a long time largely ignored by reviewers because they didn’t understand the product." Dean understands the product more intimately than most, and not just because he works for BI. Dean is a soldier who has had the uncanny ability to use computing power to refine his craft.
"When I left school, I joined the [New Zealand] Air Force as an officer. I left after five years and did some project jobs before becoming a Producer with Sidhe Interactive. I left that when I got jaded/bored with the industry and re-enlisted, as an [New Zealand] Army officer this time.
"I started making simulation product for the things I needed. On my own officer training, I made a detailed model of the Waiouru Military Training Area in New Zealand. My first ‘field’ test was for my navigation exercise, completed alone. I made a detailed rendering of all the main features from several angles so that I had a complete terrain appreciation. Then I started to use my simulation to actually practice what I was going to be doing with my squad when I was in command … I realized … that most training is completely ineffective. I learnt best when I had the chance to develop the correct mental processes prior to conducting an activity. If I was able to conduct that activity, to a certain level of authenticity, prior to encountering it in the physical world, the results were much better."
Hey, buddy, didn’t your mother ever teach you to use a napkin? This was an entry in the Day Z forums photo contest.
ArmA prides itself on modeling the minutia of weapons and contains a complex ballistics model that tracks gravitational and environmental forces on projectiles. It expands on those principles to model tanks, jeeps and Humvees, even helicopters and C-130s. It is a rich, diverse experience that demands rigorous command and control from player leaders. But to Dean, that’s not the point of computer simulations: only so much reality can be achieved through a keyboard, mouse, or controller.
"You don’t need realism, but you need to model the situation, the emotions, and the processes inside people’s minds if you want them to gain a significant training result out of the system … You need to flick a switch in people’s brain, to get them to realize that their results in the scenario matter."
To flick that switch Dean has made the unusual decision to add persistence across all of Day Z‘s servers, a strategy that had lead to all manner of development complications. All players’ avatars and inventory, and especially their location on the 225-km2 Chernarus map, are saved on a central server. Anyone playing on any of the many hundreds of servers that have sprung up must phone home to this server to get critical continuity information. The benefit is that a player can log out of a server in Chicago, say, and then back into a server in Norway the next day and be in the same place in the game, with the same gear. But when they die, they end up on the beach with everyone else, with just a tin of beans and a pistol in their pack.
The road less traveled … well, now it is, anyway. This was an entry on the Day Z forums photo contest.
Players have to eat, drink, and stay warm to survive. To do so you must live off the land, either killing other players or local fauna for sustenance. This mirrors Dean’s own survival training, deep in the jungles of Brunei.
"I was completing jungle training as part of my exchange with the Singaporean Armed Forces. I wasn’t used to their diet, so after about six months of training I was already struggling as the only white guy and never having eaten so little on training. The New Zealand Army really gets huge meals. So when I arrived for the jungle training I was struggling. The course was pretty tough, a heavy infantry package, and I was the platoon commander. It was some serious bush there, and trying to do a platoon attack was comical at times. I suffered a lot from local water–induced stomach problems, and during the main survival component I ran out of food very rapidly during the movement phase. I caught two tiny fish but didn’t have the energy to light a fire at that stage. Three days later I was so hungry I ate the rotting fish whole. I tried to eat ferns for a while. Eventually I gave up and just lay down waiting for it to be over. It was pretty grim. I lost about 25 kilograms within a very short space of time, my hair started falling out, and my nails turned yellow." His body was shutting down, consuming itself to keep him alive. But he hung on until extraction.
"On the way out, when we linked up with the rest of the platoon, someone gave me a biscuit and I think I cried for about an hour. I don’t think anyone has ever done something as nice as that. I felt pure elation over a biscuit.
"Looking back … it just doesn’t really seem to describe it, but it is sort of hard to describe all the stuff in between, the friendships I made. And I mean really, it’s the stuff in between that really matters. Maybe that’s what helped me with Day Z … the things you can’t put your finger on … that stuff matters. A lot. The friendships, they are the kind of friendships that can only be made in a very desperate situation. When you are starving, in the middle of a fly-infested jungle … covered with leaches. You learn who your real friends are. And you don’t ever forget."
Day Z‘s development continues. The latest patch, 1.5.8, removes a mechanic that re-skinned player killers as bandits. Bandits are "not what Day Z needs right now," Dean tells players on the official forums. A humanity meter, which falls when you kill your fellow man, has been reserved for "another purpose," he says. Story elements are in the works, rumors of scripted events without context appearing in some of the larger settlements. There is much more to Day Z that Dean isn’t talking about right now. But the community of players is growing, and while it’s harder than ever to know who your friends are, those you do find are invaluable. Good luck out there. You’re going to need it.
About the Author
By night Charlie Hall is a writer for Gamers With Jobs (www.GamersWithJobs.com). His relevant interests range from pen-and-paper role playing games, to board games and electronic games of all types. By day he is a writer for CDW Government LLC. Follow him on Twitter @TheWanderer14, or send him hate mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He, his wife, and daughter make their home in far northern Illinois.