An Interview With Day Z Creator Dean “Rocket” Hall
Imagine waking up on a beach, with nothing but a flashlight, a bandage, and a syrette of morphine. Being thrust, disoriented, onto a giant land mass, 225 kilometers square, with only one goal: to survive. In your way stand the infected: dull-witted and near-sighted but with a keen sense of hearing and a taste for human flesh. There are also your fellow survivors — will they help you gather food, water, and weapons, or will they kill you and strip your corpse to slake their own thirsts?
Day Z emerged seemingly out of nowhere to become one of the most talked-about games of the spring. Developed as a mod for military sim Arma II by Bohemia Interactive employee Dean “Rocket” Hall, the game takes the conventions of the zombie shooter and throws them right out the window. Players must be cautious, clever, and ever-vigilant to stay alive, creeping slowly forward to avoid unwanted attention. Realistic mechanics require players to eat and drink at regular intervals, and use morphine and bandages to cure damaged limbs and gaping wounds. Die, and you wake back up on the beach and start again.
With no narrative or structure, Day Z is an engine for creating player-generated stories — of ambush, of triumph, of sudden betrayal. We caught up with Rocket at E3 2012 so he could tell a little of his own tale.
Game Front: What has been the most surprising thing that’s happened in the game, in terms of player behavior, or emergent gameplay?
DH: I think it’s the really intricate stories that happen to people, and then their reactions to them. Not all players experience this, but some players get these really interesting moral dilemmas happening. They’ve run out of food or something like that, and they think of themselves as good, helpful players, who are trying to group up with someone, but they end up doing this really bad thing and killing someone for their food.
That’s really awesome to see, and it happens to a lot of people, and they’ll really reflect on it. I know I’ve had a couple of those moments myself. It’s pretty intense.
GF: Along those same lines, do you think that a mod like Day Z can teach us about human behavior, in a post-apocalyptic scenario?
DH: It’s the same with Arma [the military shooter upon which Day Z is based]. You can say its realistic, but realistic is really hard to achieve – the consequence of dying is actually dying.
I think that there’s some interesting stuff that can be pulled out of it. There are some authentic elements to it. I think that’s what’s cool about it, is that some people experience these moral dilemmas that we’re exposed to in series like The Walking Dead. But the players actually get to live out and feel the tension of those decisions.
GF: Do you think players are more or less ruthless than they would be in a real zombie apocalypse?
DH: If you actually look at the statistics, most people aren’t actually super-ruthless. The thing is that there are a few players who are really ruthless, and they’re accounting for a large proportion of the murders. So the average person is just running around trying to do OK, trying to avoid conflict, but every now and then going up and killing someone. There are some players who seem to want to kill everyone.
GF: I’m interested in that division – between bandits and survivors. You said in another interview that I read that you didn’t want to judge or punish people for their decisions. But isn’t that how it works in real life, that you are judged for your choices? If you kill someone, even in extenuating circumstances, you can be branded a killer. Is that division, between bandits and survivors too simple for your liking, or is it maybe just simple enough?
DH: We had the bandit-survivor system for humanity, but it wasn’t really working. People were being branded as bandits that we knew were defending themselves. And because they were bandits, everyone was killing them, so they had to to carry on killing people. It actually had the unintended consequence of driving people to banditry.
It seemed like it was working – you’d see a bandit, and you’d say “ooh, I’m going to kill that guy.” But it wasn’t working quite right. One of the tenets of the whole project has been “if it’s not working, be honest about it, get rid of it, and try something else. Keep trying something until the right thing comes along.” So I think that’s something we’ll do. There are other options, such as having blood on your clothes, after you kill someone, and it takes a while to disappear, and maybe your face changes somehow. We need too look at those subtleties that we can add.
I think we do something, but what we had was too simplistic, and it was having unintended consequences.
GF: I’m also interested in how trust plays out, in the world of Day Z, and how there are these differences between what people say they’re going to do, and what they actually do. Could you comment at all on how you see trust working between players?
DH: I watch a lot of livestreams – it’s one of the main ways I can experience it, sometimes. Or I actually go on the game and put myself in the camera view and fly around and watch people. In studying the data, as well, the people who are really succeeding are the people who know each other in real life. So they’re grouping up. But you still see a lot of random trust happening. That trust is what creates that tension – do I trust that person, do I not – and in some random encounters, people get into situations in which they do trust. It’s pretty cool.
The trust tension is always there. Even after you speak to someone, and you say, “hi, let’s group up, and do something,” always in the back of your mind you’re thinking “is that guy going to kill me?” “If one of us runs out of ammo, who’s going to shoot first?”