By Jose Barbosa
An after-work project nurtured by the isolation of working in a foreign country has made one ex-pat New Zealander the talk of the online videogame press.
Day Z is possibly the most terrifying and bleak experience you’ll have on your PC this year (unless you use Auckland’s public transport website maxx.co.nz).
It drops the zombie videogame into a vat of Coca-Cola, burning away the buildup of enamel the genre has picked up over the decades. What’s left is already being described, by some, as the game of the year; and it was dreamt up by a former grunt in the New Zealand army.
Day Z is a mod of Arma II, a tactical military shooter, using design tools released by publisher Bohemia Interactive.
After downloading Day Z players log into servers using the huge (225km2) Eastern European Chernarus map from Arma II armed with a pistol and scant supplies.
The only directive they are given is to survive by scavenging the various cities and towns for food and equipment.
Complicating things are the hordes of zombies that mooch about build up areas and the other players on the map, who might help you or shoot you on sight and loot your corpse.
The range of experiences varies wildly. After two minutes in my first session I fell off a ladder and broke my legs.
In another I was trapped at night on a dock surrounded by zombies (the undead don’t like wharves and docks, apparently) with no ammo, fainting from blood loss every five minutes.
I was just about to respawn, albeit reluctantly, when a player I’d never seen before ran onto the dock, patched me up with bandages then took off yelling over the in game voice communications, “Run! I’ll draw them off!” I accepted his advice and sprinted for the nearest forest where I could thank my white knight with a silent prayer.
The mod has caught on, creating a community of gamers salivating from the intense situations this open and persistent game world throws at them.
The bloke behind it all is New Zealander Dean Hall (known by his online alias Rocket).
Hall produced Day Z during downtime from his day working as a designer for Bohemia on Arma III. His background is diverse, a former member of both the New Zealand Air Force and the Army and managing to slot in a stint working for Sidhe Interactive in Wellington.
On a crusty Skype connection from the Czech Republic he explains why his bosses are very, very happy with him.
“The CEO sent me a link and Arma II has topped Steam sales for the whole week (you can’t play Day Z on its own, you need to already have Arma II loaded). We’ve got 80,000 unique players signed up in two and a half weeks and the vast majority of those are new players,” he says, ”It’s really unprecedented to have a product that’s three or four years old to all of a sudden launch back up out of nowhere.”
Best estimates suggest Day Z has made Bohemia a couple of million dollars. His bosses are so happy they’re sending him to E3, one of the world’s most important video game conferences, but Hall reckons the popularity of Day Z is important for more than just his professional development.
He believes the industry has begun to write off mods as a way of selling games. The prevailing mood is the halcyon days when Counterstike mods and Defence of the Ancients (a mod for Warcraft III) were strong are over - though he’s quick to point out it’s still early days for his mod, Hall argues Day Z and its following proves them wrong and demonstrates PC gaming shouldn’t play second fiddle to consoles.
It’s a personal vindication too. He’d pitched a game very much like Day Z to several developers, but had no takers. The problem, it seems, was Day Z wasn’t actually a game.
“At times I’ve called it an anti-game because when I designed it I felt like I was breaking a lot of the things as a game designer you were told to you need to do. These were things like providing balance, for example, and I wanted to try something different,” he says.
“So I wanted to see what happened if I break the balance. What if I put the player in a situation that is essentially hopeless where every part of the world is out to get them and if they make one mistake that mistake could cost them their character’s life?“
The sense of genuine danger is a crucial element of Day Z.
Remember how I was stuck on the dock? I spent an hour weighing up the decision to respawn and lose all my gear.
What other game puts players in a situation where they’d rather sweat over a decision than just respawn and get back to the action?
It’s also a game which provokes strong reactions from players. There are pages of player’s stories recounting their experiences on the Day Z forums.
Blogs have started to appear chronicling day to day life in Day Z, one describes the emotional toll after a brief partnership with another player ends in tragedy:
“Only when I reached deep into the forest did I finally stop to breathe, and when I had all of it was on my mind in an instant. I dropped my pistol to the ground, collapsing into a heap with my head in my hands. Again I was alone.”
Not many gamers go through such an emotional experience in the likes of Grand Theft Auto. Again, it’s a fundamental strut in Hall’s design philosophy.
“Most of the game nothing really happens. So much of the game is about what’s going on inside the player’s head,” he says.
“Getting people to feel something other than basic emotions is what I wanted to experiment with. It was an experiment in not being afraid to make people upset, sad, angry or frustrated. Movies and books make us feel things and so do video games... That’s why the tagline for Day Z is ‘This is your story’.”
Hall’s riding high in the video game industry and the future of Day Z seems assured. He hints at some big announcements are potentially in the making and makes it clear his preference is to see Day Z as a stand alone game with a price tag worked out with the community, similar o Minecraft.
In the meantime the immediate job for Hall and his team of volunteers is fighting their own horde of game bugs, dutifully, although not always gracefully, reported by the players themselves.
Day Z is an Alpha build - a work in progress.
The development process has seen new features loaded, such as making the environment factor into survival and Hall hints at including companion animals such as dogs.
What Day Z’s final impact on the industry might look like is anyone’s guess. But Hall is leading a vanguard of young designers who seem ready to make their mark on a mainstream industry obsessed with filling molds instead of creating new experiences.
At the very least it seems the economic impact of Day Z has made enough initial noise to guarantee its survival in the bloodthirsty business-minded world of gaming.