The gaming industry is an unpredictable beast; each and every year giant publishers and developers spend millions of dollars on research, creation and marketing to deliver the latest blockbusters into the hands of gamers. Then out of nowhere, a single man working from his basement can swing in with his nifty game idea, capture the hearts and minds of gamers, get a lot of media exposure and come out on top with a game that is not only known across the world, but is actually profitable. Moral to the story - a bigger team doesn't always mean a better game.
We've seen Super Meat Boy do it, we've all jumped on board with Minecraft during various stages of development, and this year it's all about DayZ, a zombie survival mod running off the back of ARMA II.
Launched as an Alpha in April this year, DayZ has accumulated over 900,000 unique players, killed over 181 million zombies and has been the backdrop for over 3.2 million murders in-game. It has captured the media by storm, with daily blogs springing up left, right and centre to share their unique stories within the confines of DayZ, and that's the beauty of it, every single player has their own story to share.
With such success and adoration, one has to image that creator Dean "Rocket" Hall is under a lot of pressure to deliver the goods. Each flaw is carefully dissected by thousands of internet critics, and the future of the mod is rather uncertain moving forward. A certain level of fatigue could be heard in Hall's voice as I asked how he felt about the overnight success and rise to fame of his little mod that started out as nothing more than a tech demo.
"It has been quite a quick rise up in terms of player numbers and stuff like that. It was released in April, originally I just put a link to the download and a server name and people would see that download link, download the mod and then join the server. Then they would post their stories on their blogs, social media, reddit and other places and from there it just really exploded."
Almost a million players, I think it's safe to say that DayZ has exploded since its humble beginnings just a few months ago. As we talk more about the reasons for creating the mod, we soon learn that Hall's passion is completely invested in the future of his creation.
"I was really interested in the concept of persistent worlds, I'd felt that games like this needed to be created and I was quite keen on them using the real virtuality engine, which is what ARMA II is based on. So it was kind of developed as a technology demo with that in mind, but I never expected it to have the mainstream, crossover success that it has with normal ARMA players and out into other people who have never played it before."
I was just acknowledging at Rezzed that free-to-play is really profitable, so when a company is saying, and I saw an article earlier saying customers really want free-to-play, what they saying is that companies are making a tremendous amount of money from free-to-play"
A quick Google search on DayZ will instantly reveal a laundry list of blogs from players sharing their unique experiences when out in the field. Permanent deaths and gangs of human bandits are guaranteed to keep people guessing as to what will happen next, however that can only take the mod so far. Hall has some plans for the future, plans that will ensure players are continually entertained in the vast world of DayZ.
"I guess one of the big issues that we've got is that the game is reliant on ARMA II. It's just doing so many things that the engine wasn't designed to do, so it is really a credit to the engine itself, that it's even able to handle what's going on. So that means it's really outgrown where it's at now, it needs to push beyond that. That's why since the start of it I've been keen to see it become a standalone game, so that's something that we'd obviously like to pursue."
That's the million dollar question for current DayZ aficionados - will the game be ported across to ARMA 3 or will it be released as a standalone title. It's a topic that has been widely debated across several social networks, but Hall is keen to share with us what little information he is currently allowed to speak about.
"There are plans, nothing is really confirmed just yet so I can't confirm or deny anything until it's all sorted, but I'm confident that we'll be coming our very, very soon and saying this is the way forward."
What about free-to-play? Another debatable issue that arose from comments Hall made at the Rezzed conference recently in the UK.
"My comments around free-to-play were more directed at consumers. I was just acknowledging at Rezzed that free-to-play is really profitable, so when a company is saying, and I saw an article earlier saying customers really want free-to-play, what they saying is that companies are making a tremendous amount of money from free-to-play. I don't think it's necessarily good news for consumers, and I don't think consumers necessarily want it, because it changes the way your pricing and everything in the game is structured. So I'm not a fan of it, not for where DayZ is at now, if you want free-to-play to work, your product has to be really awesome. I'm far more interested in the Minecraft model, having it so people can buy into the concept very early."
With such a huge success swelling around DayZ a number of gamers have jumped up and down about the recently announced MMO, The War Z, claiming that it steals the ideas and principles behind Hall's own project. I asked him if he had any thoughts, and without any malice he immediately said he is open to the concept.
"Well there's not really too much to say at the moment. I think it's best to reserve judgement until you see products, I think there's been far too much stock put into press releases and screenshots over the years, so I think the safer option is to just wait and see what comes out really."
What about the future of DayZ? I had some great questions suggested by our community members, and I pitched them at Rocket to see if we could get any inside scoops as to what we can expect from the game in the future. First of all are there plans to bring new maps to the world of DayZ, or will players spend all of their time on the current map that is in play?
"That is an area of content that is really good to expand, and let's imagine for a moment that we were in a standalone game. I think that would be a really good way of, say a year or so down the track after the standalone has been out for a while, that would be a good way to give some additional money. You could go out to people and say here's a whole new island to explore, so I think it's a really good way to expand the product and future without having to do a whole bunch of extra stuff. Right off the bat, that's the cool thing about the real virtuality engine is that you can create new islands, new worlds, give players access to them, and DayZ as it is at the moment supports that approach also. I think we'll definitely want to see the world expanding with new islands and the ability to travel between them."
Sounds promising, how about the ability to create bases, camps or hideouts in the game world.
"Yeah, absolutely. I think that is one of the strongest areas of development and the game design."
I asked Hall if he was at all concerned about the trust issues currently instilled by the game community with so many people shooting first and asking questions later?
"I think there's obviously a lot of player killing going on, but the numbers just don't really support everyone is killing everyone else. There is a lot of player killing going on, but I also think there's a lot of teamwork going on too. I think what has to happen is the game needs to grow and expand, and give players more options and things to do. I definitely think that is the biggest thing that needs to happen, and when that happens that will give players additional activities. At the moment the only really challenge after you master everything is the players themselves, so we need to change that."
Want to know why it takes so long for patches, fixes and reports to come through? I was astounded to hear how many people are working full-time on the project.
"Well really the only development is just me, the end-game project. There's an army of volunteers who help out with server management, website, all those aspects."
As my time came to an end with Hall, I asked if he had any advice for aspiring developers or modders.
"For people who don't really have any experience I think modding is a good place to start because you get to look at how someone else approached a problem and maybe the things they did well, and the things they didn't do so well. I think that sort of gives you your framework and structure rather than installing Visual Studio, looking at blank project and trying to write some C ++. I've used Unity before as well, and I really liked that because it allowed me to get straight into the design and not think about the architecture too much. I think at the end of the day, you've just got to find something that you're happy and comfortable with. I think the most important thing is to be really agile, because that's important and having a couple of people who are really interested in the project with you is really important with you as it helps you maintain interest."
If you're still sitting on the fence as to whether you should play DayZ, we emplore you to check out our discussion thread.
By Stephen Heller