Rezzed: A Chat With Dean “Rocket” Hall (Part One)

So, I managed to get some time with Dean “Rocket” Hall, creator of hit Arma II mod ‘DayZ’. Unfortunately, my dictaphone broke during the interview, and I wasn’t able to transcribe any of it. So what follows is a merely a summary of our conversation. Read on to find out about the future direction of the mod, his plans for encouraging player-cooperation, and how he wants to give you a dog and then kill it.

Introducing new features to DayZ:

I asked Hall what single feature he most wants to introduce into the game. He gave me two answers – the first based on what would do well from a marketing standpoint, and the second based on what he thinks personally wants to see in the game. The first, he said, was ragdoll physics for both player characters and zombies. Right now, if a player of zombie dies their corpse falls to the ground in a pre-set way, and remains unmovable until it disappears. I never would have thought this would be seen as a big issue, but Hall told me that this was actually a major gripe for lots of players.

The second was the implementation of player-built structures into the game. Players can already set up tents and work towards repairing vehicles, but tents and vehicles tend to be short-lived and both are locked to a single server, meaning there’s relatively little permanence to them. Hall wants to implement player-built structures into the world, giving organised groups the ability to set up a permanent base of operations. These would, he said, hopefully be accessible from any server, but they would likely have to be instanced (cut off from the main game map) for technical and balance reasons.

He also told me about several  features he wanted to implement, but couldn’t make work. Chief among these was weapon degradation – the gradual breakdown of equipment quality through use over time. Due to the nature of Arma II’s engine and the sheer complexity of implementing such a feature, it was eventually abandoned.

Encouraging cooperation:

Hall explained how the player-base of DayZ is generally divided into two camps – those scrabbling around on their own, often along the map’s coast, and those teaming up and making organised raids deeper into the map, in search of better weapons and equipment. But as many players have noted, it’s hard to move from the first category into the second. Since the price of death is so high – having to respawn elsewhere, losing all the equipment you’ve collected – trusting someone you’ve just encountered is almost never worth the risk. People are very keen to shoot you in the back and take your stuff, and so trusting them, while potentially bringing big benefits, also carries huge risk. As such people generally either flee from fellow players, or open fire the second they make contact. I asked Hall if he wanted more players to cooperate, and if so, what he intended to do to make that happen.

He told me that he did indeed want people to feel more able to cooperate with strangers, and he intends to do this by introducing features that encourage players to team up, as well as features that allow people to have more of an impact on the world once they do. The team has recently added several features in an attempt to combat this problem. Removing the starting pistol was intended not just to make the game more threatening, but to give players the opportunity to build trust with others early on. As Hall says: if you don’t have a gun you’re absolutely no threat to anyone, and so people are more likely to avoid shooting you because they fear you’ll become violent. In the long run Hall hopes to encourage cooperation further by allowing players to build up transferable in-game skills. He gave the example of a player who’s character has developed medical skills. If they’re able to not only use this skill to benefit others, but actually teach the skill to other players then there’ll be greater incentive for others to trust them. The hope is that things like this will make the prospect of teaming up so tempting that people are willing to take the risk of betrayal.

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Building bases:

I asked Hall to elaborate on the concept of player-built structures in the game, which he said was his major plan to give advanced players end-game content. He said that their construction would require a large amount of resources, and the cooperation of multiple players. In other words, it’ll be tough to build bases, so only dedicated, organised groups of players will be able to manage it.

Bases will also be modular, allowing players to build different rooms as they see fit. He was somewhat vague on the details, possibly because it’s quite a way off yet, but he did mention things such as hydroponics rooms for growing food, generators for supplying electricity, and the production of concrete for reinforcing structures. This seems like the biggest change the team is planning on making to the current DayZ formula, and I’m excited to see where it’ll end up.

Musical cues and subtlety:

At one point I asked him about the music in the game. I had noticed that whilst the game would sometimes suddenly switch from peaceful, ambient sounds to fierce, threatening music, this didn’t seem to be in response to any real danger in the game world. In many games sound cues will trigger to warn you when danger is near, but DayZ seems to do it pretty much at random. He told me that this was a very conscious choice, and that he really didn’t like the idea of having musical cues act as warnings for the player. Originally the music in the game did act as a kind of indication of nearby danger, but he quickly noticed that it changed the way he played the game – he was relaxed when the music was relaxed and he became cautious only when the music told him there was danger around. Now, by making the player feel threatened with musical cues when there’s no danger around people are more likely to maintain a level of caution and fear at all times, and they’re more likely to immerse themselves in the experience of the game.

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Dog companions:

In his Rezzed developer session Hall talked briefly about his plans for introducing AI-controlled dogs into the game so that players could befriend them and keep them around for company. He said he’s preparing to see countless stories about the sudden and tragic death of their beloved canine companion. The team is apprently already working on implementing dogs into the game, but they’re having quite a lot of problem getting four-legged animals moving up and down sloping terrain, so it might take a while . There isn’t currently a target date for the introduction of dogs into the game, but Hall seemed confident that they’d be in the game before too long.

Stay tuned for part two, where we talk about the reasons for the game’s success, Hall’s thoughts on games journalism, and an imminent standalone DayZ.

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