Interview with Dean Hall on the DayZ development process

Original author: Christian Nutt
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The popularity of DayZ far exceeded the expectations of its creator, Dean Hall. Now he, together with the ARMA development team from Bohemia Interactive, is engaged in a radical transformation of the popular mod into an independent game, the transition to server technology from MMO and the addition of a large number of innovations to the gameplay. He connects his success with the personal stories of the players and the way the specific design of the game touches people's innate instincts regarding losses and gains. In an eclectic interview, Hall talks about a variety of things: from how the career in the army inspired him to create the game, to the integration of Steam into the development process within the team and the hope for the successful release of the Minecraft-like alpha version (after this interview, taken in May 2013, Steam was sold early on.million copies of the alpha version four weeks after release ).

Now that you have time to reflect on this, what do you think about the reasons for this popularity of your game?

It seems to me that the main reason was a carefully thought-out mixture of constant death - giving you a sense of value, since you really can lose something - and a sense of ownership. Consistency means it will be there tomorrow. These two feelings mixed together and gave rise to a lot of really interesting stories happening to the players.

For example ... imagine that I gave you my hat for 10 minutes. You will react completely differently than if I said "this hat is yours forever." In the case of the “hat forever” you have very different feelings. The same thing with DayZ - we add a sense of consistency, you know that your character will be waiting for you tomorrow. And since you can lose it, you value it.

I think this is an integral part of human nature. We hurt her and people experience very strong emotions, crazy stories happen to them, and since they are unique and not scripted, people talk about them in forums, 4chan and similar places.

Permanent death is very rare in games and causes a lot of controversy. Can you tell me a bit about its value ?

It seems to me that all people very well understand the loss. This is the basis of the foundations - even children understand death. It seems to me that it’s in our nature to value what we can lose. If we know that we cannot lose something, we look at it differently and experience other feelings in relation to it. Thus, the resulting stress - when a sense of ownership is added to the above - makes people feel completely different about the game.

If you play Hotline Miami and know that before you can start a new mission there will be a certain delay, you won’t rush forward and try different things. All the player’s behavior changes and more interesting stories happen to him.

It seems to me that our brain is tuned to such things. Having accepted this, the players fall into different situations and hear the beat of their heart, as they know that if something goes wrong, they will lose everything. It is the element of risk that adds such sensations.

When you talked about training a soldier, did you mean ARMA as a serious game?

Yeah. ARMA is being sold as a serious Virtual Battlespace game, but I really worked as a soldier in the army when I was offered a contract with Bohemia. In my free time, I tried to use the game to train soldiers. In ARMA, you usually carry out a mission, and if you are shot, you die, and the rest continue. But this did not reflect the reality of my training. So I wanted to create a system in which people on the mission would experience slightly different sensations. The army was not interested in this, so in a sense I was playing with this idea myself, adding zombies.

So where did the zombies come from? After all, you took real feelings and added zombies to them, right?

These are easily accessible opponents. It may take a long time before you meet other people. And such opponents are well understood by people. It seems to me that people are annoyed that zombies are such an easy target for hunting, but they can be easily dealt with, they are easy to understand and accept, so it seems to me that they turned out to be good opponents.

You mentioned the profitability of zombies, which is easy for all developers to work with - and we all understand the reasons for this state of affairs. But how do you combine this with your goals for realism?

I just wanted the zombies to be a threat when hunting for prey. Not a very strong threat. DayZ is all built on such unobvious stresses. Some of them are very, very subtle and we will definitely continue to move in this direction in an independent version of the game.

For example, you must remember the hunger and thirst of your character. This is not the main concern, but it is becoming increasingly important over time. The more you run, the more you need food. The colder the more you need food, the hotter the more water you need. All this is subtle, but constantly affects your consciousness.

All this accumulating tension sharply enhances the player’s sense of horror. At first glance, there is nothing particularly terrible in DayZ. But all these subtle tensions ... For example, you have found a prey. You do not have much space in your backpack, so you can only take part. And again these subtle tensions arise: “Should I take food? Or water? Or ammo? ”A lot of this works on a subconscious level. And that is why it makes such a strong impression.

A whole generation of people watched how high-budget games became easier and more continuous - autosave every five seconds. But in the past few years, we have seen games like Dark Souls and even Spelunky, aggressively complex games that have gained some popularity, at least in their niche.

It seems to me that people have always played them. For me, this attempt to return to the childhood sensations from Amiga, in which I met a truly furious difficulty, as a child. I recall the first time I played X-COM on a PC. My brother took a computer from a friend from the university for a while, and I was just on vacation. I just looked through all the directories in a row and accidentally stumbled upon .exe from X-COM.

I did not know anything about him. We did not have internet, it was the 90s. So I started playing it without manuals or anything like that. I made discoveries, real discoveries. It was an indescribable feeling. When I met the sectoids, I really wanted to perform an autopsy, because I did not understand at all who they were. This complexity brought amazing sensations, I always wanted to feel something like this in games again.

Even when my friends and I play something like Company of Heroes, we always add a bunch of AI at maximum difficulty. As a result, we lose in 99% of cases, but those feelings and passions - when we shout at each other demanding to protect this area or to cover one - this is for me a real game.

It is for the sake of these unique sensations that I play games. I play a lot in the Kerbal Space Program. I play it like crazy and take what is happening very seriously.

Another example is FTL. Everyone tweeted “I play it, but I can’t go beyond moment X, moment Z, moment Y.” It looks like these games are coming back. Personally, it seems to me that without difficulties ... Do not get me wrong. Have you ever heard the term “content tourism”? The idea is that you play games to look at various beautiful landscapes and travel around them.

This is completely foreign to me. I like Skyrim, but the longer I play it, the easier it gets. I don’t want that. I want to - I really liked Morrowind. Morrowind is the right Elder Scrolls for me. Visually Skryim is incredible. I liked just walking along the banks of the rivers and looking at the cliffs.

But I need an environment. I need to feel that my decisions are valuable, and in many cases value comes with risk. If you know that there is a risk of failure, you think more carefully about your decisions. And that’s exactly what the gameplay for me is in making decisions. If these decisions have no value for the gameplay, then why should I take them? I just make decisions for their own sake.

Your mindset helps you make games. Have you ever heard from people "I have never played such games"?

Yes, I have heard this many times. This is a little strange for me, as I try to play ordinary games in this spirit. It always seemed to me that I had very strange tastes. It seems to me that I was very lucky in my life and career and the games that I played led to this special type of game that people now like so much.

But speaking at the GDC and talking with people, I realized that we are here (gesturing something far to the right of the center), and most people are here (gesturing the center, smiling). So let's see what happens next.

Dark Souls is also interesting in this regard - its author made games back in the era of PlayStation 1, but only in the middle of the era of PlayStation 3 his games became high-budget hits. It is like the spirit of the times.

Yes, definitely. It seems to me that people want this. Perhaps a certain role is played by social media. In the case of DayZ, this is undeniable. People started to play DayZ and amazing stories happened to them. This is completely different from the stories from Mass Effect 3, as in the latter case they happen to everyone. These same stories only happen to you.

Being human beings, by our very nature, we love to tell stories. So people wanted to talk about what they experienced. They set off on 4chan - where DayZ was an amazing success - and posted their little story. Other people heard these stories and thought, “I should also try this game.” The same thing happened on Reddit and Facepunch. This is where it all began. Social media helped us a lot - we might not have succeeded without them.

How do you design a game for custom stories? Do you do it consciously?

I would not say that we deliberately think about them. Here is an example: we will soon add to the stand-alone version of the walkie-talkie. I play Space Station 13 now. Have you played it? This is a PC game - truly eclectic. She is free. This is a roguelike, with a top view, a multiplayer game in which approximately 50 people participate simultaneously. All of them play certain roles on the space station - with intrigue and the ability to interact with anything. She is very complicated.

You have a walkie-talkie and you can turn the microphone on and off. When we came up with a walkie-talkie for DayZ, we thought, “Okay, let's do it.” And so you can turn off the microphone and use the walkie-talkie as a spy bug.

We do not deliberately think about such things, do not plan situations in which players can do something special, we just create tools that players can use for various purposes.

How do you design tools? You cited the idea of ​​walkie-talkies as an example, and I can imagine how this happened. This is your way: “I come up with tools that can be added to this world”?

Yes, we really mostly come up with tools, and then see how they can be used. From the point of view of technology - let's take our craft system as an example, we just make a list of all the possible tools that we can think of and consider them from a design point of view: “What can you do with these tools? Will players think about what they can do with them? ”

Probably most important for the following question: what kind of feelings do we want to arouse among our players? What challenges do we want to offer them to the mind? This is very different from the “game tourism” or “cool gun” you described. It’s closer to us: “We want players to think about the resources they have - like food — we want them to think about their diet. So we need canned food, fresh food, meat ... ”That is what we are guided by, considering the game in terms of sensations.

If I understood everything correctly, you create many tools and reject less interesting ones or combine them with each other. How exactly do you get rid of unnecessary things?

They help us in many ways - and most of all this process will begin in the very near future when we release the alpha version, because at this moment we really need feedback from our players. It is at this time that developer diaries and events like PAX become important, because there we can directly interact with the players.

We get some feedback directly from the players on PAX. Then Reddit - they do detailed analyzes of the equipment projects I have posted there. This is an amazing source of user reviews. It seems to me that 90% of my ideas were terrible and it was social media that made it possible to get rid of them.

I always wondered if developers use information from online communities. I'm playing Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate right now and if you look at Wikia you will find incredible, crazy amounts of information. The monsters in this game are huge, they have many vulnerabilities and someone made a picture in which these monsters are disassembled in parts and an assessment of the degree of protection of each vulnerable zone is given. Of course, the people at Capcom know these numbers - but having such a resource at hand ... Even game designers could contact him.

It seems to me that sooner or later, players begin to understand the game better than its designers, especially in multiplayer modes. I am a little chauvinist regarding single player mode and totally focused on multiplayer. I played some singles, but they are very limited and tied to a certain style. It seems to me that in multiplayer games, players definitely begin to understand the game better than its creators and this is absolutely true in relation to DayZ.

I don’t like the phrase “community management” - we are more likely to engage in “community engagement”. It sounds a bit marketing-like (business-speaky), but we really do. We are not going to tell them any advertising tales (informational PR).

In order not to be unfounded, I will give an example. Right now we are developing a new management scheme. We say: "we have such a scheme, such and such." They discuss them. We read the discussion. This is not a vote, but it helps a lot. They give arguments, we study from and this gives us a starting point, "Well, to balance these points we will do this and that."

How will you attract players to alpha? How about Minecraft?

At the moment, we are giving out free keys to forum moderators, Reddit, to the people who helped us with the development and the like. This is approximately 30-100 people.

Having completed our client-server architecture - we are going to the MMO model and plan to finish this in June - we will launch the alpha version according to the Minecraft scheme. People pay X dollars and get early, cheap access, with the release of beta, the price will rise, for example, by 10 dollars, and after the release of the final version, the price will rise by another 10 dollars.

And when the owners of the keys that you have already issued will join the alpha?

They are already in it. They are already playing it. It's good. So far we have only one server running and we are constantly updating the content. The Steam model is very well suited for us. Valve staff contacted us and asked, “What would make your job easier?” And we said, “Well, we would like a delta patching.” Fortunately, they were almost ready. And now, when updating, we can download not the entire file, but only the changed part. "

And we have already integrated this into our development process. Artists download the game via Steam and we use it to update the game during development. So when players join the alpha, they see a small drop-down list with two assemblies - right before the start of the game - in which you can choose either stable or experimental. And people themselves choose which assembly they will play. If they want to see the version that developers are working on right now, they just choose an experimental build.

We do not always know how successful the innovations will be. Many of them are pure water experiments. But these are cool experiments and we are very lucky to be able to do them, because the success of DayZ and the sale of Arma 2 gave us a kind of carte blanche for experiments. Most likely we will make a lot of mistakes, and we make them, but that’s good. This is good for the game and good for us.

Does it bother you that because of errors you can lose the credit of trust of your users?

It seems to me that I should focus on being extremely transparent. Transparency is most important. It seems to me that everything will be all right, as long as we are transparent, I mean completely transparent - this is not a state in which it is possible to be partially. It's like cheating on your wife. Once we deceive users once and no one else will ever believe. So we are completely transparent.

It seems to me that people easily forgive us mistakes, because we honestly acknowledge them. After all, we made a lot of mistakes. Something not very pleasant can always happen, such as the situation with the release date, which we have changed extremely dramatically, so that it has gone into the uncertain future.

Of course, this was a very big disappointment for the mass of people. But we honestly admitted that we made a mistake in planning. Initially, we just wanted to release an independent version of the mod, for which we announced the release date, but in the middle of the development process, we realized that we really want to make a full-fledged game.

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