We like Day Z. A lot. You may have heard. Sadly, I couldn't play it during E3 because, well, E3. So instead, I had to settle for chatting with creator Dean "Rocket" Hall - all the while wondering if he had simply lured me into his tiny booth cubicle to catch me off-guard and steal my ammo. Happily, however, I came away with a recording that was more than just 17 minutes of scuffling sounds and people getting walloped with a Metro: Last Light themed gas mask. Rocket told me all about his plans to bring Day Z to ARMA III, why modding doesn't get the credit or attention it deserves, what keeps the zombie fad from finally becoming worm food, and tons more. And then he killed me and took my things.
RPS: Most obviously, given what's on display here, do you have plans to bring Day Z to ARMA III once that's out?
Hall: Well, I think that – given the commercial and critical success of Day Z – personally I want to see it develop almost as its own entity. And so, given the amount of sales it's made, it's really just a question of when. And the cool thing about ARMA III is that so many new features come with it that'll be really good for Day Z.
RPS: I have to imagine you could use the new night lighting to pretty amazing effect.
Hall: The night lighting is just fantastic. And it's definitely something ARMA has struggled with before. There's also a different approach to structures – like underground structures. That kind of stuff would be great for Day Z. Just perfect for it. The visual improvements are obviously huge as well. The improvements to vehicles, physics, and ragdoll animations – all those kinds of things – make a big difference. Those things really bring it to life.
But the beauty of the approach Bohemia takes to its products is that it's actually pretty easy to integrate different elements between the different engines. So you can pull one thing out of ARMA III and plop it over here. So it's a great way of developing.
RPS: Day Z rocketed [retrospective look of sheer horror as I see what I did there] ARMA II back to the top of the charts. How much crossover have you seen between the Day Z and ARMA communities, though? Through Day Z, have people realized that ARMA II's pretty great as a standalone as well?
Hall: I think so. Maybe a little bit less than I'd like. I think that maybe some of the original ARMA II players seem to have not liked it so much, but then others have really embraced it. Like, I don't know if you know Dslyecxi, who runs Shack Tactics, but that group of ARMA II players really got behind the whole concept. Their numbers have increased, and interest in the group has increased a lot – which is great to see.
I think is really good to see the gaming media put a spotlight on Bohemia Interactive and their approach to modding as well. I think that modding is a very viable mechanism for designers. Even people who are already working in the industry can use it to test out their ideas.
RPS: Seems sort of silly that even companies like id Software seem convinced that modding's heyday is over and done.
Hall: I think that's more a reflection of what they want. For a variety of different reasons – especially on consoles – everything does come down to money. People have to put food on the table and put their kids through college and whatnot.
But I do think that, if you can cross off a few specific problems, then mods are a really fantastic way of dealing with your product. Like, I'd tried to pitch this concept to other studios before, and people just weren't interested in it. I'm sure [Bohemia Interactive CEO] Marek Spanel wouldn't mind me saying that, if I came to him with the concept and without these kind of numbers, he probably would've thought I was a bit crazy as well. So modding allows you to do this kind of exploration.
So, by solving the issue of piracy – because you can't pirate Day Z [due to persistent servers] – that means everybody who wants to play it has to legitimately buy the product. So the sales are actually a reflection of the number of people playing it. That's why our numbers have been so good. And if you want to make the game industry notice something, you affect the bottom line. You know, I didn't go out and buy 100,000 copies of ARMA II. People did that. And that sends a really strong message.
RPS: When people turned down the Day Z concept, what specifically did they say? That it sounded too much like “daisy”?
Hall: Mainly, that people can't handle it. The biggest one was that gamers say they want this stuff, but they don't actually want it. They say they want permadeath or this or that, but if you actually give it to them, they'll reject it. And I don't know – I'm a gamer. I know what I want. My friends and I have talked about it. And who hasn't talked about what they would do in a zombie apocalypse? Even at parties and stuff after a few drinks.
So I thought [those publishers] were wrong. And I'm fortunate enough to have been put in a situation where I can probably say there was at least some truth to what I was claiming.
RPS: It's been wonderful to watch, too. It almost seems like – between Kickstarter really catching on, indies of all shapes and sizes, and mods like Day Z – 2012 has been the rise of the niche audience. Like, given a reasonable budget and whatnot, you don't need half of the earth's population to buy your game in order to turn a profit.
Hall: I think a lot of it comes down to social media. Social media has really come of age. Like, you look at all the protests going on all over the world. I think the same thing's kind of happening with games. It's certainly why Day Z was successful. There was no promotion. I made one little tiny post in the Bohemia Interactive forums asking people to help me with testing. And then, all of a sudden, people began having these experiences.
Initially, all I put up was the download for the mod and the server name. That's how it started. So people would have these very authentic, very real emotional experiences. And because, as humans, I believe we're natural story-tellers, people wanted to tell their stories. The way they do it is through forums – NeoGAF and, well, Rock Paper Shotgun. You know, Jim wanted to tell his story as well. So people see these stories, and they're like “Well, I want stories too.”
RPS: Definitely. And it has, once again, made zombies cool. We seem to have this cultural cycle going, like “Ugh, zombies are played out” followed repeatedly by “Oh wait, here's this new thing that does them really differently!” Are we actually nearing a saturation point, do you think?
Hall: Well, I think it's not so much about the zombies. It's about people being infected and stuff like that. People are scared about losing their humanity – and about what would happen if everything changed in the world. That's why we're fascinated by it. Like, the movie Contagion and how scared people get about things like swine flu. That reflects a real fear, and fear is a great platform on which to build a survival game.
RPS: And certainly, there's the element of glorification as well. Paradoxically, I think each and every one of us has, at some point, thought “I would be the only survivor.” And then we fantasize about how we could do whatever we wanted without being beholden to work, social obligations, etc.
Hall: Yeah, and I think maybe people are frustrated with some of the other zombie games – which, incidentally, I like a lot. Like, I love Left 4 Dead. But it wasn't giving me what I wanted in terms of answering the question you just raised – sitting around with a group of friends saying, “Well, I'd so survive the zombie apocalypse” followed by “And what would you do?” Well, I'd go here and get a gun, or go into the hills or go into a town and snipe people or whatever.
RPS: Those possibilities in mind, what's next for ARMA II Day Z? Are more varied locations and new assets on the way?
Hall: Well, first we need to lock down what's there and make sure it's working properly. I think following a Minecraft model is a good way to go. So I think we need to provide something quite clean and packaged – just moving toward that more mature Minecraft product. You know, emphasis on survival. I think that's a really strong area gamers want. Another kind of experience – like you said, maybe the growth of a whole new niche market.
RPS: Would you ever consider making Day Z: Walmart Edition? Yes, it sounds incredibly silly, but I've always felt like the first game to replicate this type of scenario in a location everyone – at least, in America, in this case – visits frequently would stand a chance of creating something horrifyingly resonant.
Hall: Yeah. And I think that if the concept gets bigger, we'll be able to expand it a lot more.
RPS: Thank you for your time.