Dean Hall talks about DayZ as a scientist would a Petri dish gone grotesque. He knows perhaps what the game's strengths and appeal might be, knows why it hosts over 1.7 million players. Still, he meets the success with some bemusement, especially considering how notoriously difficult the mod is to install. Now Hall is working with Bohemia Interactive on a standalone DayZ title (to be released, he apologizes, "when it's ready").
In Hall's "Designing DayZ" lecture at GDC this week, the focus was on his philosophy in shaping the game.
Emotion over reason
Hall told his audience about his experience in the New Zealand Army and survival training in Brunei. It was there that he wondered about video games' potential to train soldiers, especially on an emotional level. When the army wasn't interested in giving him leverage to explore that, he felt he had free rein to add zombies into his programming efforts.
Though players often lament DayZ's strict "hardcore mode," it's the last thing Hall would consider changing. "This potential of loss is probably the most powerful vector of DayZ because when your character dies, you lose everything. It means you value it." Loss helps create what he sees as the game's universal language. "Players inherently understand that," he argues. "They understand the notion of risk, and it helps with suspension of disbelief."
It's also the reason he'll never consider adding micro-transactions to the game: "DayZ is about survival. If you can buy your way into that, you're hijacking it."
The players know
After his days in Prague working on the standalone game, Hall scours the forums of 4chan, Steam, and DayZ itself for hours, reading complaints and feedback with an eye toward applying them to the game. Collectively, he asserts, these players know more about the game than he does. The best ideas aren't his but the community's.
Even if the ideas aren't concrete, Hall sees which of DayZ's moments have the most impact based on the emotion exposed in certain forum posts. He seems to collect confessions like these from his players: "I didn't need anything. I had killed him purely because he was there... I had an intense feeling of regret, I mean, to the point that I felt sick to my stomach" and "I am literally shaking after playing the past three hours."
The prime directive
For all his scientist's bemusement at DayZ's success, Hall is adamant that one key pillar of design is to not to mess with the Petri dish of the game. When forum-goers ask devs to nerf bandits and other "unethical" playstyles, he invokes what he calls the prime directive -- that is, "no interference with the player's playstyle."
Reinforcing this laissez-faire mantra is his belief that "any story you write will not be as compelling as an unscripted happening between human players." It's a bold claim, one that places a smartly prepared multiplayer experience above any single-player game's narrative.
We'll have to wait and see whether the standalone DayZ experience lends it any weight.
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GDC 2013: Dean Hall on the pillars of DayZ's design
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