An Interview With Day Z Creator Dean “Rocket” Hall
GF: Considering that the people who know each other in real life are the most successful, do you think that there’s a direct correlation between trust and success – staying alive?
DH: Definitely. Absolutely, there is, and it applies to bandits as well as survivors. Some of the criticism I’ve read from people on the forums are people saying “I run around and I trust this guy and and he shoots me.” The bandits, they know this, and that’s why they’re grouping up. They’re grouping up quite strongly – these guys are organized – and people say they’re griefers, but I don’t think they are. These guys are really serious about the game, they’re grouping together, and they’re being very serious, and very deliberate, and there’s a lot of planning involved.
I think that some of the survivors who are used to games that drive particular types of gameplay need to realize that this game doesn’t. And that they need to apply those methods that the bandits are.
GF: One of the things that I love about zombie fiction, that’s been a staple of zombie fiction since the beginning, since The Night of the Living Dead, is that there’s this aspect of social commentary. Did you intend any particular kind of social commentary when you were designing the mod? Did you have anything like that in mind?
DH: Yeah! There was something that really frustrated me about a lot of games: they don’t delve into this area. If you look into movies and zombie literature, they do – it’s almost a staple of it. Games are very simplistic – they always just say “let’s go kill some zombies.” My brother’s a virologist, and we often talked about the subject, and he actually helped me with the development. Going forward I want to get him really intimately involved in developing authenticity around the fiction.
We’ve talked a lot about what happens to society when things break down, and the sources of danger. I really liked the movie Contagion. I thought it demonstrated it really well, and that’s what I wanted to get into with this – the infection’s terrible, but really it’s the elements of society. I like how the character of Dale on The Walking Dead puts it: civilization’s ended, but we choose whether or not to have our humanity. Even if you do something bad, if you feel bad about it, you’re still retaining some humanity.
GF: It seems like a lot of moments in the mod sort of respond to what games today aren’t doing very well. One thing that I’ve noticed is that a lot of games tend to reward being impulsive, whereas Day Z is the opposite. Was that a conscious response?
DH: That was pretty much the whole of it, really. I was just really frustrated. I’d pitched the idea before, and people had told me “gamers say they want things, but if you actually give them to them, they don’t want them.” I found it really frustrating, and I’m not the only one – there’s a lot of people in the industry who think that [i.e., feel frustated – ed.]. You get guys from a lot of the big studios who come here and turn their badges around and say “we experience that. We’re really annoyed with how it’s going.”
A lot of movies, some of the greatest movies I’ve watched, really make me angry as I watch them, because they made me feel really angry about what happened. Games haven’t really delved into that emotional territory. When I was designing Day Z, I abandoned all story and said “right, I’m just going to focus on feelings.” What feelings can I push the player into? Not even mechanics, but just the sensations. If you want to do that, you have to be not frightened to push the player into anger.
GF: Why are game designers so frightened to do that? It seems like there’s so much evidence, at this point – and Day Z’s the perfect example, that unpredictability, lack of structure, these emotional moments are so powerful – even arguably more powerful than emotions created by careful scripting or cutscenes. Why don’t more developers realize what you’ve realized? Why don’t they try to do what you do?
DH: The key thing is risk. What you’re talking about is so different from what we’ve been doing. Game development is huge money. Make a Kickstarter – even if you raise $500,000, you can’t really do a lot with it. Game development is very expensive. If it comes down to risk, people will always take the safer option. The bigger the studio is, the bigger the risk, and the safer they have to make it.
Criticising EA or Ubisoft is bad, because they’re dealing with huge risk, and these people have jobs and kids and stuff. With a mod, I can delve into this territory.
It’s grown out of the movie industry. The movie obviously, is not really interactive, so it has to be a packaged, defined experience. Games are emulating the movies. Which is retarded, because games can do so much more than that. You can actually put your player – take The Road, for example. You can actually put your player in as that character, and say “what do you do?” That’s something that movies or books – they just can’t do. It’s just really frustrating that we’re not exploring that as a medium.
It also means that as a designer, you lose a lot of expression when you do it [create a game like Day Z -ed.]. You want to say how cool you are, because you’ve developed this awesome story, and you can go on interviews, and talk about how cool the story is, and how cool this mechanic is, but if your design is just bare-bones simple, and there is really no story, you can’t explain it!
I can talk about the subtlety of having to have food and that sort of stuff, but it doesn’t have the same impact.
GF: So you’re surrendering authorial control…
Yeah. You put yourself out quite nakedly to criticism of your mechanics, because you can hide a bad mechanic with a cool story or a cool cutscene.