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An Unexpected Journey: The Life And Dead Of DayZ's Chernarus

Lawn Of The Dead

This is the latest in a series of articles about the art technology of games, in collaboration with the particularly handsome Dead End Thrills.

An irony of Chernarus, the fictional-yet-you-can-somehow-cosplay-there home of DayZ, is that the older the game gets, the younger the map should grow. The awesome ArmA machines for which it was built - planes, helicopters, tanks, boats, guns, the Lada - will fall into disrepair. Some survivors might have the specialist tools to fix them, but more will have the skills to steal them. Those bandits maybe won't fix them, and this post-Soviet state will suddenly start to look very pre-Soviet indeed. Though this natural outcome seems unlikely for a mere computer game, it's what's so exciting about DayZ being Early Access. We get to watch its apocalypse unfold.

This must be a rather strange prospect for Ivan Buchta, the Bohemia Interactive designer who grew up in the northern area of the Czech Republic the map so closely resembles. To the current DayZ Standalone team he's the "Ambassador Of The Republic Of Chernarus", which makes plotting the death of his birthplace an unlikely part of his job description. But then that's the other thing about DayZ going Early Access: it's a job he seems to share with just about everyone, from his workmates to the players who think they should ratify the game's every move.

DET: How involved was the preproduction phase of turning 'real Chernarus' into a game map?

Ivan Buchta: We invested a lot in, not preproduction, but resource-gathering research. Creating a lifelike landscape like this is just different than building a level. For me, of course, it was also a personal thing because I grew up in those parts; I actually enjoyed the field trips and showing my colleagues what’s around. So, we were trying to capture something more than just a playground for tanks and helicopters. We went on plenty of trips, most of them in the autumn. ArmA 2 was developed for three years so we actually had three autumns with some shorter visits in between. There we realised how variegated and colourful the terrain actually is.

Once we overcame the frustration that we couldn’t replicate it exactly, we started to figure out the important things. We started to get acquainted with the internal logic of the landscape. And of course there were some design intentions which allowed us to make some changes. For example, the area we’re working with is in reality connected to its surroundings, but we had to make it a lot more independent, especially on the boundaries of the north and the west. We just needed some generic hills to hide the generic terrain behind them. But even the playable area had to depict some remote, half-abandoned places instead of big roads with several big villages, plenty of traffic, and factories (which are now being recreated equally creatively by the DayZ map team).

Also, as we were trying to create a fictional post-Soviet country, it meant that we wanted to change the architecture to give it a slightly exotic flavour. We were doing lots of research on the Russian, Ukrainian and general Carpathian architecture: village structure, details like road signs... We made compromises so it’s not Czech, it’s not Russian, it’s not Ukrainian; it’s Chernorussian.

DET: How realistic - and how unrealistic - does such a peculiar military campaign map have to be?

Buchta: It’s obvious that when you are trying to replicate real life terrain in a computer game, you need to make lots of compromises. You need to make sure that the terrain on which you spent three or four years of development is working as you intend. For the sake of the impact on the player and the appearance or function, the realism is very important in terms of landscape structure. The scale of the map allows for a lifelike recreation of combined military operations combat: you can fly someone behind enemy lines in a helicopter, you can perform mechanised infantry attacks, you can have fire support from a distance. For a military game like ArmA it was very important to keep the scale as realistic as possible, 1:1. Keeping the real-life structure of the landscape while only changing the insides of the villages means it retains a certain quality that’s very hard to do from scratch. It’s the appearance of the landscape and stuff you can do in there.

If we were doing a completely fake landscape, you probably wouldn’t be able to use some of the lifelike considerations and knowledge - and it would look a lot worse. I’ve already mentioned that we’ve changed the internal structure of the villages, the urban terrain. We do need to keep some things very unrealistic because our artificial intelligence-- There are some constraints and simple rules you need to follow to make sure the AI’s able, for example, to fight in urbanised areas. Of course we don’t have as many object types as the real life Chernarus area offers. So, instead of using 300 unique houses to build a village, we're using 20. But we need to do it in a clever fashion so it looks authentic. That’s what good design is about: you realise what the constraints are and use what you have to the greatest impact you can achieve. We had performance limitations, we had object count limitations, we had AI-based limitations, and still we had to create authentic-looking Central European terrain in which lifelike military operations wouldn’t look totally dumb.

DET: Do you pander at all to the tastes and stereotypes of the wider global audience? That idea of such regions being almost supernaturally bleak and mysterious.

Buchta: Yeah, we have a history of making exotic landscapes. If you look back at Operation Flashpoint, it contained parts of the landscape that Czech people are quite familiar with, but it felt exotic. Ever since this worked for me when I was just a young student playing Operation Flashpoint at night and trying out the first mods, I always try to think about it when making Chernarus. It wasn’t that we calculated impact or did market research; the design arises purely from personal preferences and excitement about certain things. Independent intentions. But in the background, of course, I was thinking: ‘If we do this, will people get it? How will they react?’ Sometimes it was fun to leave something there, a riddle for the westerner - but it would have to be completely acceptable or approved by eastern people. That’s what I find kind of flattering: westerners feel it exotic and they like it, and eastern people like it because it reminds them of home. That's kind of strange.

In the development of DayZ I’m trying to push a certain balance of western and eastern equipment, architecture and details. Especially with the player equipment because everybody likes to have the Gore-Tex jacket and tactical vest because, you know, they’re functional, the cream of the crop. What I’m trying to promote is that there are also work clothes that are a lot more common - or should be - in Chernarus. Instead of elaborate hiking shoes you’ll find work boots or wellies. I’d like to have these common civilian items in the game, and that should increase the value of these hi-tech western things. Four or five times you’ll find an AK Bandolier with limited capacity, and then you find the western tactical vest. That’s cool, why not? I like that balance.

We also realised that there are two distinct groups of western and eastern gamers, and they go after different items. I can imagine there’ll be people role-playing, and that’s another cool aspect DayZ can provide to them once we have different factions of those origins. Of course I’m into more eastern stuff, but maybe that’s because I’m trying to keep a certain vision of how the country of Chernarus worked before the days of DayZ: what should be common and what should be rare. The variety it provides, the interesting mixture, is what’s attracting a lot of people.

DET: How do you address the differences between those two player groups?

Buchta: For me it’s more about feeling than knowledge. I have a lot of friends from both regions, and I think it’s comparable to the ArmA community. There’s a very big Russian-speaking community with its own servers and modding scene. They communicate and share outside that, obviously, but I’d say there’s a difference in taste and priorities.

I have to think about what effect things would have upon the eastern or western people. Some people want it to be a perfect 50/50 balance, but we just do what we do. There are always people on the team with an inclination towards one or the other, so we make sure both types of people have their voice and can add stuff to the game that’s welcomed. And there’s always a part of western people that likes eastern stuff and vice-versa, especially when it comes to equipment. Of course, with Chernarus I think that the perception is different. Eastern people are probably culturally closer to the Czech people who are behind most of the graphics and design - only now the core development team for Chernarus is composed of Russians and Americans, and I’m representing the Czech part to try and unify it for our external artists who are Czech. I’m sure Chernarus will end up very polished and satisfying for everyone.

DET: Why do you think Dean Hall chose Chernarus for DayZ, versus whatever other options he would have had?

Buchta: He felt it quite natural to pick Chernarus for a ‘zombie survival’ game. It felt gloomy enough to him to start the modification in there. He also had a working version on Takistan, the Middle East terrain from Operation Arrowhead. But Takistan and zombies aren’t as compatible. I would even dare to say that once he started to work on Chernarus, the balancing throughout development became dependent on a lot of what Chernarus offered. If the map was even slightly different then the balancing would be slightly different because we have certain average distances between settlements, certain average sizes, certain amounts of accessible buildings. All this probably played a role in creating DayZ’s game mechanisms. And of course Chernarus is good terrain by itself, you can do plenty of stuff in there.

DET: DayZ Standalone gives us 'Chernarus Plus', of course. What was top of the to-do list when refurbishing the landscape?

Buchta: I suppose that nobody will be surprised when I say that the priority was to fix bugs. During ArmA II we didn’t fulfil all the plans and expectations, and managed to create a lot of bugs in the process. We could say a lot of bad things about Chernarus, but fortunately everyone keeps seeing the good. I’m very grateful for that. But there were some issues the players might not have realised but we knew about them, and I felt the urge to start the revision of Chernarus by removing those old burdens.

In 2012, as the work on DayZ Standalone started, the ArmA III map design team helped get rid of the major issues. They went to the community feedback tracker to see what was wrong. There were some floating trees we knew about; some discrepancies in the long distance surface masks; we tried to optimise the grass a little so there’d be better FPS. Along with these changes we’d already projected some additions. The first focus was to keep the map more balanced, or even unbalanced in the way we want it. And to offer a few more interesting locations because we felt that people are getting this map again, so it should be as flawless as possible, and they need to find something new in there.

After playing the DayZ mod, for example, I knew that water pumps and resources should be more important. Also, based on the community maps, we realised that there are some areas that aren’t offering enough of the resources that would be logical to have there. On the other hand, when I was mentioning ‘unbalancing’ the map, there are plenty of buildings that offer ‘special’ loot, like hospitals. They were concentrated on just a few parts of the map, so ad-hoc we tried to add a supermarket here or hospital there basically to break the behaviour patterns of the players. “All right, so first I’ll go to the hospital and grab these things. Then I’ll go to this barn for this, then the military airfield in the north west to have some fun before retreating to the hills to make a tent.” It’s starting to get boring, so the changes we’re making are primarily focused on expansion of that gameplay.

DET: What’s your philosophy when it comes to major landmarks in such a realistic map?

Buchta: All of that is planned, and I’m constantly urging my colleagues to be careful with all of this because I feel the landscape should stay as normal-looking as possible. I would definitely like to avoid turning Chernarus into an unrealistic array of cool-looking locations, with you going from one to another. A big part of the improvements is involved in generic things, which is why we’ve now started improving the forests. They cover something like 40 per cent of the Chernarus map but most of them are, unfortunately, boring: tall trees, no terrain details, no brushes, no dense parts or clearings. Just by adding a few clearings you can make it a more interesting place should you want to travel through it.

Of course there are some ‘real’ landmarks being planned. Two kinds: the first being to make special 3D models. I suppose some people have already found the big shipwreck north of Berezino. That’s one example but you can do it only once, and the amount of work our artists put into that shipwreck was enormous. And it just improves one location, so we’re also doing things a more generic way. For example, you can think of some great composition and use the objects you already have to make it special. This way we’re building some rocky areas: mazes where you can hide, build your tent, or play against other players in some deathmatch arena.

We can also focus on the generic things like the police stations and healthcare centres: two kinds of functional buildings with special loot that would make sense in bigger villages and small towns. These will be new locations, something fresh, and it won’t be completely overwhelming. And there’s something I privately call ‘storytelling locations’: we assume that something happened before Chernarus became infested by zombies, and especially during the outbreak. We don’t want to explain these things, but people would behave in a quite non-standard fashion. Military convoys would go through the land, civil protection aid stations would be established, and people would try and move from dangerous places or barricade themselves.

I would like to see these little things in the game. Purposefully we keep the DayZ development team pretty small, so I can’t just make a huge list and see everything in-game in a month, but we know what we can achieve and have a really big wish-list. I hope that soon people will start finding unusual locations and ask, ‘What the hell was happening here?’ I think it’s our duty to make the tourist simulator ordeal for people a little more special. But again, I don’t really want to overdo it. We tried to place some fortifications in the villages but it didn’t really work. Same with too many wrecks around the place.

DET: You could use the opposing game worlds that the Avalanche studios make - Just Cause versus theHunter - to explain this concept to people. One’s the action movie theme park and the other’s the authentic game reserve, which is what DayZ ultimately is.

Buchta: Exactly. Depending on how much or how often you want people to stay in your environment, you need to be careful how much you add. The less spectacular approach is what suits Bohemia’s games. On the other hand you have plenty of great examples of the theme park approach. The most successful for me is GTA IV and their depiction of New York. I was amazed. They were tossing all those copies of well-known locations in there but it worked really well from the first minutes of the game.

But the fact that you like something shouldn’t mean that you put it into your game. It’s much easier to study the history of a place, and how the people moulded the face of the land, in an urban terrain than in the country. In the country you have ecological factors, biological factors, geology, and of course all the human activities. It’s bigger and with more dimensions than when you describe a city.

DET: Weather is obviously a huge factor in setting the tone of a place. DayZ inherits ArmA’s unswerving naturalism, but should it be bleaker? Are you happy with how it looks in terms of post processing, colour correction, etc?

Buchta: I’m never happy enough. The truth is that DayZ is being built on the Take On Helicopters branch of the Real Virtuality engine, because at the time it was more suitable and much more stable compared to the ArmA III branch which was undergoing substantial changes. The weather part and lighting part of Take On was retained, and while a lot of cool stuff was going into ArmA III, the priorities for DayZ lay elsewhere. It was a good decision because currently the game’s look is acceptable. But we feel in the team that we can add lots of cool things to really distinguish between sunny, really nice weather and a more gloomy, foggy atmosphere. It’s something I’d love to see in the game as soon as possible.

We won’t resort to colour correction because it’s treacherous, let’s say. Unless you design it very well you can have some conflicts in the addition of layers. But it’s doable, and actually I’m not saying we won’t use it. But I think we’ll aim for something slightly more robust with some new features. We know what we’d love achieve, it’s just finding ways to achieve it. I suppose this will be most likely addressed in one of the future engine updates, and unfortunately I can’t tell you what the plans are because I don’t know them.

What’s important to realise is that DayZ is a survival game in which we’re not waging a nuclear war, so it can definitely be sunny. For me it’s the dynamic that creates the really important part of the experience. You’re experiencing nice weather and suddenly you’re ambushed by a bunch of bandits and you die on a sunny day. Or it can spend the whole day raining and suddenly the rain stops, you find some dry wood and paper, and just enjoy the setting sun while drying your clothes by the fire, cooking something you’ve hunted. Enjoy it while it lasts. So we definitely need to have dynamics, not just STALKER-ish gloomy weather or some flamboyantly coloured Chernarussian autumn. We need everything in between plus storms, fog and whatever.

DET: There's always speculation as to what's possible in terms of draw distance in the game's client/server relationship, especially after the engine update. What are the facts?

Buchta: I’m not a network code programmer so couldn’t give you useful data for this. Again, though, it’s the Take On Helicopters branch which is basically Real Virtuality stripped of useless things like an editor, mission structures, rules for AI - but the renderer is the same. It’s rendering the same data, or even more data than ArmA II. We are talking about 20-60million triangles per second. Of course we could improve the draw distance, but we’d need to fit this into the number of triangles rendered per frame. There’s also the question of how to handle this with the server. Until we do some huge optimisations it’ll probably be what it is.

DayZ Standalone is in very early alpha stage and, as far as I remember from my discussions with the programmers, there’s the intention to revise performance: adding nicer weather, improving light rendering, and this. But I don’t want to make any promises because it’s none of my business. But currently you can’t really have greater draw distance than we have unless someone does something great with it.

DET: And grass? How do you avoid the thing where, if you hide in grass that’s only rendered so far, you can’t see your enemy but they can see you?

Buchta: Well, in the distance the grass is rendered as an additional layer into which you can sink. It’s not perfect but it’s working to some degree. All I can say is that we also play DayZ and we see these problems. These aren’t just rants on the forums but problems we also meet. Sometimes the solution is easy, sometimes it’s quite complex. Some people may get the impression we’re not doing anything with that but it’s not true. Usually, if it’s a major thing which has influence on many aspects of the technology but is tricky to change, it’s undergoing lots of discussion in the company. Then, when we’re ready and are sure the change will be beneficial, we do it.

We can’t just jump on everything that people don’t like and start working on it. We have our own development plans, and while people might rather we ‘fixed this first’ than implement some new feature, we’re aware of these reactions and aren’t trying to dodge these things. But we need some internal priorities for producing the game because there’s a bigger plan, and sometimes it’s easier to just let it be for now and make a more substantial change later on, and prepare the engine to fix a particular issue. It’s something people don’t always get.

DET: Zombie types are a bit thin on the ground in the alpha. Will we see the return of the work-clothed varieties from the mod? How many more?

Buchta: Ideally zombie types should match the demographic of a pre-DayZ Chernarus. You should have forest workers, railway workers, postmen, military zombies, civil protection zombies, hunter zombies, tractor driver zombies, paramedic zombies - all appearing around the locations you’d expect to find them. But it’s character art, and making every character takes some time. We’re expanding the amount of zombies available, and there’ll be enough zombie types in the future. Some might be lootable, and there was also an idea about survivor zombies; back when it wasn’t so obvious who was and wasn’t infected, some might have headed to the woods with a backpack and some outdoor clothing.

DET: People often joke that you don’t see many zombies in media for DayZ, but that's the idea, right? Will their role in Chernarus grow or diminish?

Buchta: Society is a lot more interesting than shooting zombies in the head. We all have our personal wishes, but one of mine is getting more into these sorts of interactions, this land use. If you clear a suburb of zombies you can establish a marketplace and a garage with a car. Then you can scout around to get remaining fuel and things from other villages. You can have guards, police, leaders, scavengers; a radio man inviting people in or looking for other communities... It’s very exciting, and I hope we go in this direction in the future.

DET: Vehicles must be a tough thing to introduce when scale is such a feature of the map. Wouldn't dropping in a helicopter make Chernarus a much smaller place? Would it damage it?

Buchta: I don’t think this would be damaging at all. We don’t have any blind spots on the map, and if people see it then they’ll realise there are no resources and save their helicopter time to do something better. ArmA is all about combined military operations - aircraft, land vehicles and infantry - so the worst thing you can do is to slam your newly repaired car into some wreck cluttering the road. We’ll allow as many vehicles as possible in terms of types of vehicle, though it’s hard to imagine there’ll be too many people in a world like this able to repair a car, find all the spare parts, and have a safe haven for doing so. It should be a rather rare thing to see a working car in DayZ, but it’s part of the future plans to have vehicles.

It would be great if you could customise them and fix them from various spare parts. And of course I keep thinking of better uses for them than just roaming around until you run out of fuel or get shot. I can imagine there’ll be stuff you can hold using the car. Imagine you’re building a house and can amass wood ten times faster than if you were walking to the nearby forest. It would be nice to give the vehicles a meaning.

If I would ever start an American map for DayZ then there’d have to be a motorway. There’s a car culture there and it’d feel natural to preserve this in a DayZ setting. It would be easier for you to get a ride working, and the distances between places would mean it made sense. Distance would be a game-changer. We have a little island called Skalisty on Chernarus that you currently can’t get to - so boats would be great, even just to travel safely along the coast. But, from a functional point of view, the map would then need to contain piers where could moor your boat, or places where you could hide.

You’ll remember the movie The Road. If they’d had a car rather than a supermarket trolley… But of course there’d be some dangers. One of my crazy ideas was to recreate the remaining parts of Chernarus, to have the whole country over time, with a road and highway network. If you wanted to go to a different map you’d need to have a boat and sail for some time, or take a car or helicopter.

DET: How great a factor does fuel become when vehicles get introduced?

Buchta: Well, we found out that without some additives common fuel simply couldn’t be used to power engines after about a year or a year and a half. If you’d hidden a barrel of fuel for that time, it would decompose. So we’re getting into the idea of horses. If you look at the ancient times and the Middle Ages, that’s where civilisation would get after people had defeated zombies are were just there on Chernarus. There’d be a few rifles, a thinning amount of ammunition, and that would be it. Stuff in the developed world these days is made in such a way that it breaks apart and you need to buy another one - so goodbye modern technology. Nothing has the endurance to survive decades of use. Your Gore-Tex jacket would be rags after five years, so then's the time to hunt deer and make a fur coat - or armour! I’m just trying to illustrate that we can go much further into the survival thing. If we added vehicles and reached the one-year anniversary of vehicles in DayZ, imagine if we announced that, 'Right, the fuel has stopped working. Drill some holes or get yourselves a horse.'

DET: Remind me to be on the forums if you do.

Buchta: Don’t be.

The question would be whether there wouldn’t be societies developing quite soon which would emulate the ancient societies at various levels of organisation, from Stone Age tribes to a medieval village depending on their starting equipment and skills. How would they change in terms of humanity? DayZ’s a big social experiment and I don’t think we’ll ever take it that far, but giving people the means to play as if they were in the Stone Age can be very interesting. There could be common survivors and people who’d found a new way to play. Imagine you’re going through some wooded area and are suddenly ambushed by a bunch of wild people dressed in furs, waving some stone axes at you.

These are just my personal musings. As a disclaimer, these things are not planned for DayZ as far as I know. Our development plans are lot more predictable and normal.

DET: Is there a roadmap for the game’s interiors? Would it be wrong to use the word ‘dungeons’ when anticipating the larger buildings?

Buchta: Part of it’s the work involved. Even giving all the important or frequent buildings an interior is quite a big task, a few months of intensive work. And we still have buildings like factories which have limited or no interior. We could go on expanding this.

Also there’s the problem of performance. Take a building where you’d expect a big amount of loot for it to appear realistic: that might put a strain on performance unless it was optimised or designed in a way where we wouldn’t need those optimisations. If we see a chance for improving this then it’ll probably happen, but the plans are really for the outdoor aspect of things. Instead of just slaving on the interior of a factory, we’re making new buildings with special loot for the smaller settlements, and we’ll just drop those into the map. The interiors of those buildings will be better in terms of graphics and structure because we’ve just learned a lot from making several dozen buildings. But yeah, we’re still thinking more in the capacity of making a landscape than making dungeons in it.

That said, having authentic buildings that you could explore authentically would be fantastic. Same goes for the underground. Sewerage systems or a collection of tunnels under big cities - these are locations that would be naturally used by survivors. Maybe in the future we could have something like that. That’s a big part of several people’s wish-lists.

DET: The wish-lists are pretty big themselves, aren't they.

Buchta: Even without the community contributions, it’s more than we could handle in the next 20 years.

DayZ is available on Steam Early Access and you can moan all you like, it's ace. More screenshots can be found here, but be advised that they're a bit experimental and artsy-fartsy, taken from both the original mod and some weird version of the Standalone I hammered with a dead man's soup tins until it worked offline. Always back up your Early Access builds, folks, they're juicier than you might think.

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Duncan Harris