Dean Hall on Redefining the Survival Genre: ‘DayZ’ at 10

Zombie survival grandfather 'DayZ' turns ten. Here, creator Dean Hall talks about making the mod that started it all

What were you doing in the balmy summer of 2012? Bopping to ‘Call Me Maybe‘, Carly Rae Jepson’s memeworthy hit? Thinking the superhero fad was done now it had hit its climax with The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises? (Clue: it hadn’t) Well, if you were a certain type PC gamer you likely didn’t care about any of those things: 2012 was the summer of DayZ.

DayZ was a zombie survival mod for the 2009 military simulation game Arma 2 – these are all over the place now but DayZ was the first, and it was all anyone into PC video games could talk about. You could play across a huge map, there were buildings you could loot, it featured hardcore survival mechanics and was set in the fictional post-Soviet Republic of Chernarus, where a mysterious plague has turned most into zombies. But just like the zombie movies, it’s not the undead that’s the real threat. Hell is other people, and the other players here were completely merciless. As a survivor, you traveled across the world for food, water, weapons, and medicine, remaining vigilant of zombies and the other humans surviving the outbreak.

DayZ’s creator Dean Hall tells me; “During my training in the [New Zealand] army, I was making mods for Arma, and I got selected to go on an exchange program between the New Zealand army and the Singapore army. During that training they had a survival exercise. It was really tough, but it got me thinking about how computers could be used to train some of the emotional responses that you get in that situation without actually having to go in them.”

After an injury landed Hall in the hospital, he suddenly had a lot more free time as he was recuperating, and it was then that he began work on what would become DayZ. When designing DayZ, Hall knew what he wanted. “I wanted a short name. Short names work really well for mods. Whether they’re an acronym or a made-up short word, they always work better.” Evidently so, as DayZ remains as unforgettable as GMod or Dota. “I was trapped away in a place called Wairua, which is an alpine desert army training place. This is where I started creating the key parts that would become DayZ.”

Dayz. Credit: Bohemia Interactive.
Dayz. Credit: Bohemia Interactive.

Hall was deeply entrenched in the modding community online. “A lot of the popular mods, like the ACR mod for example, had 3 or 4 leaders that kind of identified them. I can also remember a group called ShackTac, who were famous in the community, and I’d been talking with the guy who runs that.”

But it would be his ongoing difficulties within the army that would be the impetus for the release of DayZ. “I was getting ready to finish up in the army and they wouldn’t change my medical classification, which frustrated me. I was fine, but they kept insisting the injury I had gotten was going to cause me problems, so they were just being overly cautious.

Prior to the army, Hall had already amassed experience in the video game industry, working on the likes of Speed Racer for the Nintendo Wii, as well as various other games for the PS2, PSP and iPhone. So it was no surprise he went straight back to video games. “In a few months I was on a plane flying to Prague to meet Bohemia Interactive to work on Arma 3” says Hall. His role was to focus on the mass multiplayer side of the game, which admittedly wasn’t going well, and so he began to showcase his mod with other modders in the community, such as ShackTac. At first his boss didn’t have time to take a look at DayZ, but with his permission, Hall posted it on the official Arma 2 forums.

Dayz. Credit: Bohemia Interactive.
Dayz. Credit: Bohemia Interactive.

“It went bonkers pretty fast. Every time I’d tell myself, that’s the peak. And it wasn’t. Everything changed within a very, very short space of time. In a few months, I was in Los Angeles at E3 and everybody wanted to talk to me. I was going to all these parties and meeting various CEOs, like the CCP guys who make EVE [Online].”

The mod drove Arma 2 into the top of the Steam charts, and subsequently became a bestseller for over 5 years after it was released. “I went to my boss and I said, you know, that mod I told you about? I really think you should play it. Like now.” After discovering just how big the mod had become, he called Bohemia CEO, Mark Spanel. “He said he wanted to see me, so we hopped in a car and drove like 4 hours into the middle of the beautiful Prague countryside. He wanted me to bring a two-pager on what I thought DayZ could be. He was very onboard with it.” And you can see why. Speaking to Kotaku in 2012, Spaniel stated that “Sales have increased almost fivefold from how they were before Day Z’s Alpha release!”

Hall realized that while most of the gameplay elements that the mod is notorious for had existed prior to DayZ, he maintains that it was the fusion of them that helped with the mods immediate success. “I think if you look at any of the individual parts of it, most of them already existed. A good example would be the Chernarus map, which later became very synonymous with DayZ had already existed all the way through Arma 2. I think you can probably say that for the battle royale aspect of it also. It wasn’t that things were specifically novel and unique, but that they were stitched together in an interesting way.”

Dayz
DayZ. Credit: Bohemia Interactive

“Let’s say you borrow a car, right? You’re gonna drive around and have fun in it. But if I say, that’s your car forever, you treat it totally differently” says Hall, as he holds up a model of a blue Ferrari over a zoom call. “That’s what the DayZ experience was.” He explains that one of the reasons why he thinks it resonated so deeply with players was the fact that your character and that character’s life was persistent. You could be on any server and play as you. “That’s quite addictive because we innately understand the concept of permanence. You have a sense of loss when you lose it.” Hall came to think of this once again during his time in army training exercises. “When I was running an experiment with real soldiers, I would get them to play our simulation games, and they’d enact it virtually before they went to do it in real life. But they didn’t care. They were just mucking around and having fun. But when I said they would be playing the same character each time, they totally changed their behavior.”

“Additionally, if I made it so that when they got shot, they just died, nobody really cared. But if I made it that they got wounded, the mission would become about helping that person. With DayZ there was a very deliberate intention to make failure a little bit more elastic. When you’d get hit, your legs would get broken, you could take morphine to carry on which, while obviously not realistic, seems plausible. “There was a real emotional response from players because these things were familiar. People have a familiar understanding of being wounded and needing to be healed [to some extent].” Touching on the notion of authenticity, Hall postulated that people get “hung up on realism.” This molded their approach when creating the game, as they opted for authenticity over realism – “realism is not super useful in a video game because the parameters are totally different. But what is really useful is authenticity.”

Dayz
Dayz. Credit: Bohemia Interactive.

Edge called it ‘Mod of the Year’. PC Gamer named it “one of the most important PC games of the year”. Kotaku called it the “most interesting PC game of the year” and PowerPlay called it “the most important thing to happen to PC gaming in 2012.” The critics loved DayZ, but to Hall, this type of innovation was common in the PC gaming space. “This is what I love about the PC gaming industry. There is a lot of innovation that happens. We think we know something and then we realize we don’t. Something like Phasmophobia (2020), Valheim (2021) or PUBG (2018) comes along which turns everyone’s heads.” It’s apparent that this kind of innovation is more prominent on PC, because as Hall states, “while in the background, this giant arms race on graphics is going on between Call of Duty and Battlefield that people just sort of care less and less about as it goes on.”

DayZ led a survival revival, and while the fascination with zombies across pop culture and shooter games never really died down, DayZ certainly contributed to a renewed interest in them. Battle royale games also had tremendous success over the next decade, with titles like the aforementioned PUBG exploding. In an interview with the H3 Podcast, creator Brendan Green spoke of the influence of DayZ: “I created my own DayZ server for people to play on, messed with loot tables, created more weapons… After doing that for about six months, I decided I wanted to make a mod. I basically modded a mod.” Garry Newman, the CEO of Facepunch Studios, said “Rust (2013) started off as a DayZ clone.” This continues today, as the 2019 zombie game Days Gone was inspired by the toxicity between the places that the creator experienced while playing DayZ and 2021’s Amazon Games MMO New World was inspired also by DayZ.

Dayz. Credit: Bohemia Interactive.
Dayz. Credit: Bohemia Interactive.

Hall founded his own development company in 2014, Rocketwertz, and his experiences on DayZ are heavily imbued into the company ethos. “We’re trying to innovate in the survival genre and take it how far it can go. It’s a lot of work, and it’s extremely expensive. That’s what we found with Icarus” says Hall, detailing the studio’s newest survival game, set in a “savage alien wilderness in the aftermath of terraforming gone wrong.” Hall continues, “How do we get people playing the survival game over and over again? I think we made a pretty good stab at it, but it also shows how difficult it is to do. We’re relying on our experience with the DayZ community to help inform how we interact with the Icarus community. This has shown the importance of content maintenance. “Every week since we launched we’re doing updates, no matter what.” It’s clear that DayZ was a transformative project for Hall as well as the industry at large. “I think every part of Icarus was touched by experiences with DayZ.”

The standalone DayZ game is out now, as is Icarus. 

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