The Secret Behind The Success Of DayZ, The Most Interesting PC "Game" Of 2012

You can keep your Diablos, the most interesting thing to happen to PC gaming this year has easily been DayZ, a zombie survival mod for military shooter ArmA II.

What's even more impressive than the experience itself, though, is the fact it was created by a single man, New Zealander Dean Hall. So earlier this week we had a little chat to discuss the past, present and future of the mod.

Before we start, though, let's clear something up: this isn't strictly a fan-made mod. One of the reasons DayZ is running so well so early in its life (it's still in alpha) is that Hall actually works for Bohemia Interactive, the developers of ArmA II, where he's been since January after Skype chats with BI's creative director Ivan Buchta turned into a job offer.

"It is definitely an advantage because you can learn about how the engine works, and how you can work with the engine to achieve what you want", Hall says. "In a way, DayZ was a chance for me to really consolidate what I was learning during the day, in the weekends and at night. This allowed me to quickly refine and consolidate my knowledge in the engine."

"The base mechanics had to work because there was nothing else to pull it through."

Don't go calling this an official mod, though. Work on DayZ began long before Hall flew to the Czech Republic. "Much of the actual tech underneath I actually developed prior to turning up, in things I had been developing that was more like a persistent world battlefield (i.e. no infected people). But being at the heart of the development allowed me to learn how to work with the engine in what I was trying to achieve."

When I spoke with ArmA II devs Bohemia Interactive last week, they told me that sales of the game had shot up fivefold since DayZ's release, with the ageing shooter even occasionally topping Steam's sales charts ahead of brand new, AAA blockbusters.

Has this caused any problems for Hall as far as development of the mod goes? You bet it has. "In many ways, it slowed development to a crawl. I had to focus nearly all my time on performance issues associated with the drastically increased numbers."

"But it allow allowed the concept to be proven in a mass-scale environment. I really didn't have time to think about anything for the first few weeks, it was one problem to the next. Luckily there were members from the community to help me at every turn."

Getting a little deeper than his immediate responses to the flood of people rushing to try the mod, I ask Hall for his thoughts on the game's real hook: its emotional effect on the player, and how the game's lack of design, for want of a better term, was part of its appeal.

"Well I guess it depends what you mean by design", he says. "I think that's the core problem in the game industry at the moment, many people think design largely means story, progression, mechanics. I think as an industry we got stuck on repeat with that and designers started to devote more and more time to that. I spent far more time on design that I did on really anything else within DayZ, but that design was entirely focused on developing and refining how the game would effect the players thinking and develop their emotions, how the mechanics in game with affect the player and what situations the player would be faced with. Because I didn't allow for anything else, I couldn't take the easy way out. The base mechanics had to work because there was nothing else to pull it through."

While DayZ's terrifying appeal is built on keeping things to a relative minimum - an irony given the complexity of ArmA II itself - that doesn't mean the mod is going to simply stay at "man vs zombies vs other men" level. Hall is committed to adding new and more immersive features to DayZ as he and the community see fit.

"I just added the temperature system, I am really passionate about having the game world have a key effect on the players thinking. I think this will make the players feel more engaged with the game. I loved Skyrim's visuals, they made me dreamy, but I always felt disconnected from the world because it had no effect on my character. I didn't have to factor in the rain or the snow, or being in water. I want to explore this concept with the DayZ players and see how this can be refined to add a whole dimension to the gameplay."

Looking at DayZ's success, even given the mod's early development stage and rough code, it's clear that Hall has struck a nerve, giving PC gamers an experience they weren't getting elsewhere, but which they were clearly hanging out for. Which begs the question: rather than simply exist as a mod, could DayZ, or something similar, work as a standalone, dedicated product?

"I think that DayZ has proven that such a concept would not only be a critical success, but a financial one as well. I think it's really just a question of who, on what, and when before this kind of gameplay mode becomes an actual game. I think that's great news for gamers, they have hit directly into the bottom line - and that is what will make studios take notice."

Before we wind up, I have to ask: given the mod can be very difficult for newcomers, what advice does Hall have for those taking their first steps in DayZ?

"Probably the same advice for any natural disaster: Have a plan and don't do anything stupid."


    DayZ sucks. The only "interesting" thing about it, is that it made a ton of people who would otherwise shun ARMA 2 realize how good a game it actually was.

    The concept of DayZ is cool, the execution however leaves a lot to be desired, even considering its Alpha status.

      Are they caring about the original game, or are they just enjoying the unique new experience of this mod?

      It's fantastic to see a success based on concept not execution, the focus put on execution read:polish instead of concept is a huge problem in the games industry. I'll take an interesting idea with some rough edges any day!

      Not your type of game we get it. No need to trash it though.
      So far i have thought its awesome. I would suggest that others take a look at it.
      check out this series of streams. long but worth it

        Yeah, I have seen all those episodes, really great survival adventure! I really recommend people to watch Link's, urm, link!

      Unfortunate reality for you is that they probably won't enjoy the game and are in fact only there for the mod.

      As for the status of the mod it is updated every couple of days so I would love to see it in a couple of weeks.

      haha, How many times did you die on the coast before you came up with your opinion?

      Good article Luke!

      Dayz is awesome, and I still "shun" Arma II, it's a horrible war game compared to things like say BF3, but DayZ, not THAT is something. Very awesome, it's the only reason people are buying Arma II now.

        Well to be fair Arma II isnt supposed to be a game like BF3, its supposed to be a simulator. Running around in the open, having your wounds suddenly heal on the spot and being able to quickly aim in a scope of a sniper rifle as fast as they do in BF3 isnt realistic..

        "Arma II, it’s a horrible war game compared to things like say BF3" ok for one, its a fucking simulation... bf3 is an arcade shooter, nothing about it is realistic, "OMFG IT HAS BULLET DROP THOUGH O_O" yeah, but its scaled with the maps, that bullet drop is unreal. to go ahead and trash a game like arma 2, which is the most accurate war simulation out there, it like saying cod is like real war. it isnt a GAME, its a SIMULATION. DayZ is a game however and is very very fun to play, but ARMA 2 is a full on military simulation, not unlike FALCON 3.0 flight simulations or Janes Flight Simulator.

    I asked this during "Ask Kotaku" yesterday, but can we get a Kotaku Day Z Community going, if there isn't one already?

      yeah im keen steam user is gernie8668

    That's some damn fine article you got here in Twin Peaks. And damn good cherry pie.

    Nice piece Luke. There are a also bunch of other more that also make this game awesome, not just DayZ. Stock arma2, kind of boring.

      Lies. Stock ArmA 2 is great..

      You can do stuff like this:

      or this:

    Arma II is a great game and the add ons make it even better.

    I've been messing around with DayZ for a little while now. I haven't had a lot of luck spawning anywhere except the wilderness (way off map/ no man's land ) or the same damn patch of forest in the south western corner.

    The mod itself is fantastic. I would play a lot more if I could work out how to fix the spawn issue. It's a real pain in the arse having to make the same hour+ long journey to Cherno (East) every time I spawn in that same patch of forest. Loot seems scarce on the inland roads heading north, and it's a long way to the major northern cities.

    The amount of problems I've faced getting it to run should have been enough to deter me but that is only a testament to the lure of DayZ. I've never experienced anything quite like it. And I plan to play a lot more.

    Great article . Day z is a great game who's ultimate objective is to just survive. I love the fact that they are constantly tweaking it to keep new players and veteran players balanced. The realism of having it all one moment then back to nothing is great. The psychological choices you make in this game in regards to other players are like no other game on the market. Only started playing 2 weeks ago and have to say I'm hooked.
    Snake_EyesF on nz server

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