Earlier this week I sat down with Day Z creator Dean Hall to talk about the new standalone game. Read on for information on why the mod version of the game will now "open up", how dogs work, how original Op Flash developers came back to work on the new title, how "underground construction" might work, and for an explanation of why there won't be a military simulator mod of Day Z. At least not yet.
RPS: So how tired and stressed are you now, Dean?
Hall: Oh! There's a huge weight off my shoulders now that the negotiations about the standalone are done, and I know that it's happening and how it's happening. So I feel much better.
RPS: Those would be the negotiations between you and BIS to turn this into a full, standalone game?
Hall: Yes. I was only a contractor, so obviously they really wanted to do it, but at the same time I wanted to make sure that it would go forward in such a way that I would be happy.
RPS: And you are happy because you are the lead developer? How did BIS feel about that?
Hall: I am the lead yes. Marek [BIS owner and Arma series director] has given me almost complete creative control over the project, and he's been hugely supportive of the idea. The people we've got involved include Ondra Spanel, Marek's brother, who was the lead programmer on BIS games back when the made Operation Flashpoint and Arma, so he's the guy who made that engine. He and other original members of the Flashpoint team are actually returning to full-time development for Day Z. That's a huge win for the project, and it means that the people who are working directly on the project are the most talented guys who could be working on it.
RPS: So what do the next six months mean for you, then?
Hall: Well, the next six months… we have to get the standalone, at least the initial version of the standalone, out. That has to be out very soon. So the idea is to get that available with a low price point, Minecraft style, ideally in October, but realistically I think we're talking end of November. It'll have all the features that Day Z has now, but with more polish, and we'll cut down all the things that Arma 2 has in it that Day Z does not need. So it'll be a tighter, more locked down product right away. It'll be locked down to prevent hacking. We also want to implement a simplified ragdoll for performance, redo the UI for a new inventory system, things like that!
RPS: Is this game still an experiment? When we first talked you were very insistent that the mod constituted an experiment, but can it still be said to be that if you are releasing a "polished standalone"? (Although I suppose there's an argument for ANY game being an experiment in some form… anyway.)
Hall: Yeah I think it is and I think the experiment has now got a little more ambitious. Right now we want to get Day Z working as a standalone project with the features we've already got. Once it's established we can do some more experimental stuff. I suppose the experimenting is on pause at the moment while we take the mod and make it work as a standalone game, but we've still got scope for experimentation in the mod while we do that, and more experimentation to come as we develop the game. If you look outside [the booth where we were interviewing] you can see that the build that we have on the public stands here at Gamescom actually has dogs in it. We're still actively experimenting on that front, but we also need to push things up a notch. When we look at the standalone game we're going to have to think about what in-game content there is in Day Z, so there's going to be underground construction, group infection mechanics, stuff like that, and that represents the next big zone of experimentation for Day Z.
RPS: So just to be clear, you are putting dogs in the mod as well as the standalone game?
Hall: Oh, yes, that's the mod running out there.
RPS: How do dogs work? In the game, I mean...
Hall: Well, you find a dog then you can give it meat - yes! remind your Minecraft at all? - and then the dog will follow you around. The longer the dog follows you around, the better it gets at doing stuff. You can tell it to stay, and depending on how long it's been with you, it'll stay for longer periods of time, before it says "where are you?" and comes to find you. You can use dogs for tracking, too, both with people and animals, and you can have it warn you of danger, growling when people are nearby and so on.
RPS: Can you tell me a bit more about that plan for underground building?
Hall: Yeah, well, building was not really working above ground. That said, I think there will always be some limited ways that players can build above ground, but possibly - and this isn't set in stone at the moment - is to approach it from the point of view of underground construction. One option is something like Skyrim. So in Skyrim you walk up to a dungeon entrance, you look at the door, hit the button, and it transports you to that instance, that's kind of what we are looking at for underground construction. So you would go up to the grate in the ground, go up to this hole, and you'd dig out that hole yourself. That instanced-style construction offers us maximum flexibility without too many strings. Also, having the construction occur in a separate world to the battleground is a good idea because it allows us to be a lot more creative. You could dig things out, Red Faction style, and expand that structure over time, maybe build a hydroponics lab, have a generator, air conditioning, concrete it, have it collapse, those kinds of things.
RPS: You mentioned that you were going to "lock down" the multiplayer to combat hacking, but can you also use that to address the log out trap stuff?
Hall: We have a pretty good knowledge of how to deal with the log in/out trap stuff, but that solution will come with the standalone. We've got a massive data problem at the moment, because we have one million users now, and 170,000 to 180,000 people play on any one day, up to 200,000 over the weekend. What that brings is a heck of a lot of data, and we log that and analyse it. That will allow us to see where players are using logging tactics and we'll be able to warn them that what they are doing is wrong, and administer punishment if they keep doing it. We can go through with that, because we are logging all that data at the moment. But it's a problem for our architecture and for the mod, and that's something we can deal with a lot better with the standalone game. The mod was only designed for a couple of servers, maybe a hundred players, and now it's supporting a million players. With hacking, we lock down the data. You can hack the mod fairly easily, but we'll change that for the standalone. We'll turn off options for using any hack exploits at all.
RPS: So you are saying that you will be able to identify log in exploiters and ban them?
Hall: Well, we are collecting data. In the future we will be able to review that data and look for the patterns of behaviour that give away the log in log out activity. We'll make it a time-out, so that players have a cool off time before they can log in again. So yes, we have the data, we have to work out how to use the data, and exactly what we do about it.
RPS: Are you going to make the game any harsher than it is already? Can you pile any more problems on players?
Hall: I think it will get more complex. But we have to have a list of priorities. One of the reasons zombies can be challenging is that they are glitchy at the moment, they are challenging because of the glitchiness, and that's true of some elements of the game, such as getting stuck on stuff, or dying for no reason and so on. We're looking at changing the complexity of some of the key areas, like the injury system. Right now you have to take some morphine to fix a broken leg, but maybe in the future you will need to do more permanent, perhaps use a splint, or have to find someone with medical expertise.
RPS: Are you saying you want this to creep into RPG territory, where you're fleshing out characters with different skill sets?
Hall: Well... We're very carefully thinking about how to expand the reasons players have to interact positively with each other, because there are lots of reasons in the real world, and so we need to find similar reasons that give players reasons not to shoot each other in the game. One idea we passed around was a sort of social-learning, and, well, we don't want a point-based system because one of the things that works well in Day Z is that if you are good at some things in real life then you are also good at it in the game. For example, if you can read the stars in real life, then you can read the stars in the game, but perhaps there are socially learned skills that we could introduce, such as your player learning some medical skills because they learned them from someone else. That's one idea.
RPS: So with the standalone eventually taking its own course, what's the future for the mod?
Hall: I think the mod will just continue. For a very long time. What we're going to do with the Day Z mod is open it up. People are going to be able to run their own live server, their own private server, they can run a server just for four of them, that sort of thing. And so that will, I think, foster real creativity within the mod, and I think that creativity will feed the standalone game. The standalone will have a limit on customisation, so we're able to counter that with the mod opening up. With the game we've got the codebase mostly sorted, and we're putting in the changes we need to put in, it's a matter of sorting out the data. The key programming and design areas we have to deal with are still there, such as central server integration and dealing with hacking, but once we have that up we're ready to go. We'll be able to go out a very low price point and say to people "this is what we've got" and they can kick off that way.
RPS: How did Marek [Bohemia boss] respond to the success of the mod?
Hall: Well initially he was very positive, and was like "wow, we've seen a spike in sales". I talked to Marek then and we came up with a plan, and that wasn't too ambitious, but then the mod grew more, and he said "perhaps you should stop work on Arma 3", and I said that was a good idea. Which was a shame because what I was doing there was interesting, but we can deal with that. But then every time we made a plan, things got crazier. A suddenly there were three hundred thousand users, so we said "okay, perhaps we need to get a bit more serious", and then we thought perhaps it needed to be a DLC. Then when we started planning that, it got bigger again. Every time we thought we had a plan for how to deal with it, then it got bigger and bigger and bigger!
RPS: Has that curve levelled off yet?
Hall: Well from out point of view, we've decided on a direction. We know what we're doing, regardless, and that's decided. But bizarrely enough there was actually a spike of downloads of the mod during the announcement of the standalone, so people are still coming in that way. I guess they have now dropped off a bit, but we were hoping they would drop off a bit, because we have a lot of work to do keeping the mod maintained while also working on the game.
RPS: So now Day Z is a standalone... will it have mods?
Hall: A military sim mod of Day Z!
RPS: Could that happen?
Hall: Initially, no. We have to lock it down to start with, and that will disappoint some people. It disappoints me, in a way, because Day Z came from modding, but to allow user content in we have to define those rules and structures, and we don't have the time to do that right now. We need to make sure we can deal with hacking, at least to an extent, so initially we focus on that, and we deal with everything else later. We've got to just get it established before we look at user-content.
RPS: Are you going to use the same map?
Hall: Day Z will release with "Chernarus Plus" which is basically down to Ivan, who went around it adding a lot more enterable buildings, a whole bunch of terrain tweaks, and even some new areas. So Chernarus Plus is basically that original Chernarus map revisited, which will be quite a bit of extra content for the new game. But maps are a bit part of the future for this game, and I think we will see a mix of community maps and officially supported maps. It could be a part of the revenue stream. It feels to me that it's better to ask five or ten Euros to access this new map, than to charge for hats. It's a reasonable way of doing things. If we hit the numbers that we're hoping to get, that should be fine.
RPS: Is the standalone more Arma 2 or more Arma 3?
Hall: It's more like Arma 2.5, and there's a very important reason for that. Arma 2 has reached a certain level of maturity, and that's important for Day Z. We want to do things like support a simple ragdoll, rather than the complex ragdoll that Arma 3 has, because we're multiplayer and PvP focused. So yeah it's more like Arma 2.5, but because we've got the guys who created the engine working directly on this game, we could soon see Day Z codebase looking very different. It's actually based more on the Take On Helicopters architecture than what we've done with Arma 3.
RPS: And are you going to be able to address any of the other issues, like lighting, weather effects and so on?
Hall: Yes, I think we will. Many of those issues, though, are on the back burner for now. Just how many will make it into our alpha release remains to be seen. But I'm hopeful. The first thing on the list of for me to expand the survival aspects of the game. We want it to be more complex, without being harder to learn. There should be a lot more options in that area, because that is what Day Z is really all about.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
A standalone version of Day Z will appear before the end of the year.