I have a theory: eventually all games will just become EVE Online. This stems partially from the spacefaring MMO's remarkably forward-thinking focus on player interactions and player-powered corporate empires that make EA look like The Most Comparatively Decent Company In America, but mostly from the fact that developers are literally saying that it's their goal. PlanetSide 2, EverQuest Next, Age of Wushu, countless indies, etc. And now we can add DayZ to that list, based on a conversation I recently had with Dean “Rocket” Hall.
The original version of DayZ lured in countless zombo-obsessed hordes, but - beloved as it initially was - failed to keep them for long. In hindsight, you can chalk that up to all sorts of different factors (for instance rampant cheating, which Rocket has already addressed), but the elephant in the room is – as is the way of the majestic Room-Dwelling Elephant – pretty obvious: DayZ began life as a mod. A shambling, unpolished husk of its full potential. Its original incarnation simply lacked longevity, and Rocket knew that from day one. Naturally, he's doing his damndest to fix that in DayZ standalone, but he doesn't deny that he has a long road ahead of him.
“I guess that's where the whole open alpha approach comes in,” he told RPS. “Because we've got base-building planned, and I think we're going to add in a lot of clan stuff and group dynamics. So we've talked about something like a clan tattoo. I think a lot of it's going to be about in-game [user-oriented] content – kind of like EVE.”
Which is all well and good, but you rarely find much interest-sustaining substance in style. Rocket assured me, however, that inevitably regrettable flesh drawings are only the beginning. I asked him why those particular options were worth an EVE comparison in the first place, and he replied:
“Well, I think the base-building will be. Like, you walk up to a sort of dungeon and go into a separate instance. There's two ways we're considering on the technical side. One is you go inside the area, and it's Red-Faction-style destructive terrain, so you can use explosives or a pick axe or something. That may present bandwidth problems or restrict the size that we can make those areas. I mean, I envision this being an underground city. You dig out this city, lining the walls with palm trees and that kind of stuff.”
And if that doesn't work? Well then, we might see DayZ quickly expand into other genres – something Rocket claims his engine is already fully capable of.
“If that becomes an issue, we go with a more Evil-Genius-style interface,” he explained. “You can still run around in it, but you construct from a top-down view. And Arma actually has language built into its engine. We don't use it in DayZ, but we could use it for building security systems, programming your own computers in-game. So you can actually create a security system for your underground base and program it in. So I think that's gonna be more like EVE's capital ships.”
But to make a truly living, EVE-style world actually work, Rocket and the DayZ team have to paint in slow, calculated strokes. Slapping together a second sputtering shotgun of ideas will just leave them right back where they started. It's quite an about-face from Rocket's previous stance on the matter, which drove him to spend much of last year rushing to get something – anything – out the door. Fortunately, a shining paragon of selfless heroism averted that disaster: er, The War Z. Rocket explained:
“Our worst fears came true [in The War Z] – and they weren't that bad.”
“So we were like 'Fuck it'. We may as well make this a good game. The best way to hate on haters is deliver on your promises. So the idea is, we want it to be a good game, and we're not there yet. But I like to think we've addressed some of the elements that were the worst problems of the lot. We've attacked them. We might not necessarily have solved them completely, but we've made good progress.”
As for when we'll be able to dig through pudding for delicious, delicious proof, DayZ's closed alpha is apparently almost at an end. A (top secret shhhhhhhhhhh) date has been set for an open-ish, buy-in variation on the theme, so we've upgraded the official RPS DayZ watch alert level from “Soon” Green to “No, Maybe Actually For Real This Time” Neon Hyper-Plaid. But even if the long-awaited game of moral decay doesn't do it for sandbox lovers, it's not like it'll be unceremoniously hurled into an early grave. Taking another page from EVE's playbook, the DayZ team is hoping to start small and listen to its most dedicated players. "Wider audiences" might not find a particularly warm welcome here. At least, not at first.
“We only need a reasonably small group of players for DayZ to remain profitable and for us to continue development,” he said. “If we achieve that, I think we might even bring back the players who were disenfranchised by the mod or development of the game.”
Rocket's ambitions are an odd mix of down-to-earth and almost astoundingly sky-high, but there's no telling which mark his game will actually hit. It certainly sounds intriguing, but then, so can anything when somebody's drunk on the drug that is enthusiasm. For now, though, all we can do is keep our eyes open and choose our allegiances carefully. We'll need all the friends we can get when the Goonswarm invariably takes over.