Dean Hall is all enthusiasm. He lacks any of the jaded demeanor you sometimes associate with experienced developers. He doesn’t caveat his development promises. Every other sentence he speaks is a solution to another issue in Day Z or the Arma engine itself: to the respawn system, to server architecture, to shadow distances, to VON, to pesky survivor groups that aren't dying.
The creator of Day Z has ordered the carbonara. We've walked to an Italian restaurant down the street from E3—Hall's first—and our table is circled by variously-famished Arma royalty: both of Bohemia Interactive’s Creative Directors, Jay Crowe (lasagna) and Ivan Buchta (pizza) are here. So is community star Dslyecxi (a calzone), who wrote the book on pro Arma. Hall's wearing white DC sneakers, beat-up jeans, and a black t-shirt that asks “Anyone in Cherno?” in homemade, screen-printed letters.
For the next two hours, we talk about Day Z and Arma. This is the most exciting time in the history of both games. As thousands of new players surge into a spin-off of the sim, Bohemia is preparing Arma 3. There’s too much to talk about.
PCG: There's this cross-pollination between your games that's really interesting to me. Features from VBS—the military training tool made in your engine—trickle down into Arma. Day Z is driving new patches to Arma 2 and making you think critically about Arma 3’s design. From the outside it almost seems like there's this conflux of military and "civilian," or commercial concepts overlapping.
Dslyecxi: Well, it's interesting to see what the military considers a desirable feature and what they'll actually fund. You get a lot of stuff that way that you would never really think to make for a civilian market, but if you already have it there and you can port it over...
Dean Hall: Day Z was my suggestion to the New Zealand army for training soldiers. I thought it could save them millions of dollars.
Are you serious?
Hall: Deadly serious, this was last year. And they were like, some of them were like... “Holy crap.”
So was this a pitch you made to them as a video game training simulation, or...?
Hall: Well, I was suggesting... I built it in Arma 2 because that was what I was most familiar with. And I enjoyed it and it had better visuals. When I did my training, I actually re-created the whole of Waiouru, the military training area, in Arma 2. When you're doing your officer training, you have to lead a platoon. So I would do all my missions out in there first. And then I created my own persistent database so I could... like, track my progress through the exercise and run it out of the days, and actually get my platoon to go on, and have them run out of ammunition and stuff like that. And then, yeah, a couple of them I showed it to and they were like, “Holy crap.” But the problem is that it's really hard to get momentum in the military. But yeah, that's where it came from. I couldn't get that much interest with it, and that's when I thought I wanted to do something a bit more mainstream.
"Day Z was my suggestion to the New Zealand Army for training soldiers."
Hall: I honestly think, though, it's the way forward for training. Because the military in New Zealand was trying to train with... They train you to do stuff, they were constantly using military simulation to train you in little bits and pieces. I was like, but you need to do the authentic thinking processes, you know? They were like, ah, you don't need medical systems, we've got medics to do medical systems. I was like, but when you're doing your officer training, you need to realize that when your dude is shot, you can't just leave him! All the guys in our military simulation scenarios, they were just ditching their guys. You can't do that, you need to have some kind of system of, “Oh, my guy's shot, I need to do something...”
Are you talking about having intrinsic motivation as a player?
Hall: Yeah, sort of. I thought about authenticity. You have to go through those authentic thought processes. You know? That was the idea behind Day Z having the layers. Like, it's raining, I need to watch out. I need food, but I can't carry too much, I need to carry some ammunition. You have all of these different things to consider, and suddenly it's all going on up in here instead of you just watching and reacting.
Hall: Thanks, man.
Waiter: Two lasagnas?
Hall: One for me.
Waiter: That's very hot, so be careful... Your pizza's coming.
So, Chernarus is satellite-modeled after a portion of the Czech Republic. What’s it like to play a zombie survival game set in what’s essentially your backyard?
Buchta:: Even I, as the author of the map, can tell you... in Day Z, I've visited some places I've never seen before.
Dslyecxi: We've become very intimate with the map. We've been playing Chernarus since Arma 2 came out, and we'll get to an area where even though we've played dozens of missions in this before, we identify it with Day Z, because Day Z has you very intimately moving through buildings, it makes more of an impact on you in the long term.
Do you think it's because Day Z puts this focus on really seeing and analyzing, reading the terrain? Whereas in Arma 2, you usually have some kind of waypoint... You always have a map to fall back on.
Crowe: And the waypoints in the 3D world as well, it's something that we've been considering making some choices about in Arma 3...
Buchta:: I was actually... I was saying that we should get rid of that.
Crowe: I know that Marek wants to. I think we can keep it for the lowest difficulty setting.
Buchta: It just doesn't make sense from a military standpoint. It's the same... It's a spot to which infantry is getting quite quickly, so they engage you at close range and you lose all advantages you had, the car and its weapon systems... If there wouldn't be a waypoint, at least five guys today would survive, because they would ride carefully, they would stop on the horizon, scan the terrain, and they would probably do a lot better.
Crowe: There's evidence there in the single-player campaign with Eagle Wing, the fact that... You give players some simple objective like "Move here with this amount of ammunition and maybe pick up some more along the way," people are willing to do it and they have a great experience with it. I think it's a perfect example of what's possible. And Day Z takes aspects of that and adds then some more elegant rules that work really well with persistent multiplayer.
Has Day Z sort of restored your faith in what players are willing to put up with? It's an incredibly brutal game, and it's unfinished, and people are just flocking to it.
Hall: And it's difficult to install. It's buggy as hell. The servers don't work properly. I mean, what else can you screw up? The graphics are a little bit dated in some ways. Yeah, I think so. The mainstream impact of it is obviously a big surprise.
Buchta:: Even for us as developers, and for me personally, it was like... Alright, that makes sense, I want to do that. That was my immediate reaction. Because Arma 2, Arrowhead, Arma 3, I'd be doing all the same stuff again...
Actually, even with stepping up the process of playing the campaign, what you've seen today, it's a productive idea... This new approach to campaign, it's something fresh. It'll be a pleasure. I'm really confident that the campaign can be interesting. But there will be some people, certainly, bitching about this... "It won't be the traditional... Nothing beats old-time Flashpoint..." It's bull*#&. Flashpoint is a terrible game. I've played it recently. I'm a bit sentimental about it...
Crowe: We need to quote that. Ivan Buchta: "Flashpoint is a terrible game!"
Buchta: But yeah, let's face it, it's a terrible game. Terribly inaccessible, hard, frustrating...
Hall: And people love it! I still get people saying, you know, when they found out I was working on Arma 3 multiplayer, friends of mine, one of my friends, he was like, are you going to make the campaign like Flashpoint? He's like, seriously, I still play the campaign in Flashpoint...
Dslyecxi: They so over-romanticize it.
"Flashpoint is a terrible game. I've played it recently. I'm a bit sentimental about it..."
Hall: It's like when, I was working at Sidhe Interactive, and we were like, “let's remake Desert Strike.” Remember the helicopter game on Amiga? We were like, let's do it, and we all got excited about it.
Buchta:: I was playing that before Take On...
Hall: We got the Amiga out, we put it on, and we were like... This is boring.
Crowe: Strike has aged well. That s*#*'s got an epic story...
Hall: It was awesome in its time, but things have changed. People had different expectations. And it's not all just graphics stuff. They want different stuff out of it. I think it just seems crazy to me that as a medium, video games haven't really explored a lot of the areas that movies and literature just constantly explore. You look at the zombie genre, in literature and movies they explore... You know, zombies aren't the terror. There's complex political stuff that happens when the world collapses. Games? Shoot zombies.
That was kind of my complaint about Left 4 Dead. I put a ton of time into it...
Hall: Yeah, I enjoyed it too, but...
But it’s a zombie-themed shooter, right? There's no...
Hall: It's an arcade thing.
Survival wasn’t necessarily a mechanic, I’d say.
Hall: Nope. And you don't need a story to make someone feel something. That's where games will win over movies. Hands down. Because you can't have the viewer of a movie experience it.
"Zombies aren't the terror. There's complex political stuff that happens when the world collapses."
Dslyecxi: It's a fun shooter. It's extremely well-designed. But it's not survival at all. And survival is a really compelling thing that everyone thinks about sometime in their life. Making the Day Z experience out of it...
The mechanics in Left 4 Dead are all driven by reaction, right? Identify threat, solve threat. And for its own reasons, Valve goes out of its way to send all these signals that you’re in danger. Every special infected has a specific set of sound files. The color of zombies is desaturated to stand out from players. But that's what I admire about Day Z, the way that needs naturally drive my goals. I need this, I need that, and it drives me out of my comfort zone. I need blood. I need to go to this terrifying city to retrieve it, and on top of that, I need to make friends with another survivor to do the transfusion.
Hall: Just before I came to work at BIS, I did an army exchange to Singapore, and I did their officer training. And as part of that I had to go to Brunei and do this survival training. So I'm the only white guy, trying to do this 30-day survival course with the Singaporeans, they're not the best communicators, and it was just awful. I ran out of food, I ended up getting badly injured and had to have surgery and stuff. It was terrible. But as part of that whole experience, that was just what you were saying... You have to balance all this basic little stuff, and the effect that had, the way that I felt, the emotions I felt, that was when I was like... Why don't video games try to create those emotions? Because even though some of them are terrible, the way they come together is really amazing, if that makes sense. You get all these stories out of them, you really want to tell people about them, because you went through this crazy thing. Why don't we do that in games? It seems a bit crazy to me.
I think it's because manufactured stories in games seem safe. It's like you can make your mark as a designer with it. You can say, “Oh, they're playing my story, they're figuring it out, I did this really clever thing in it.” But it's so much harder to say, I added this level of subtlety into the mechanics, it's so clever. And it's so clever that nobody notices it. You know? You're kind of a bit naked there.
Day Z wouldn’t have escaped focus-testing, I'd imagine.
Hall: Yeah. Actually, we were talking before... This sums up the Arma community. So I've been working on Day Z and I've got maybe five or so guys to help me check it out. And me and Dslyecxi, we hadn’t really talked before, and I think we just... We added each other on Skype and got to talking. He said, "I'd like to see that persistent world stuff sometime." And I was like, well, actually, I've been working on this zombie thing, and I really need someone to capacity test. And he said, okay, well, I've got 40 guys, and they just walked up, that was when the CHKilroy videos were made, and there was no briefing, no nothing, it was just...
"Why don't video games try to create those emotions?"
Dslyecxi: Everyone standing there in that one gas station.
Hall: And it was just so Arma. Casual but not casual. Really friendly.
I get that in our co-op sessions, yeah. Everybody's facilitating the other person's fun, they're respecting it. It isn't about you necessarily.
Dslyecxi: It took me a lot of playing Day Z to psych myself up to kill another player. Because I'm so used to playing with that mentality of, I don't ever want to spoil anyone in ShackTac's fun. We go a long way to prevent that from happening. To get into this environment where there's all these random people trying to kill you, and where you may get the jump on them and you may have a chance to unfairly kill them, making that mental leap is really tough.
Hall: Because we didn't find out about a lot of the exploits... We tested it all and we were like, sweet! We did a couple of rounds with ShackTac and then a few public people, no issue.
Crowe: And then the EVE players came in.
Hall: And then EVE players came in. And suddenly, wham, there are all these massive exploits. I just shut down Europe, all the Europe servers, you remember? While we fixed that. It was only New Zealand that we could keep running.
Crowe: Yeah, you were saying, there was no such concept as bandits while you were in New Zealand. Then these Europeans came in and started killing each other.
Hall: They did. It got so bad. Because there was a bug where everyone was spawning on the beach. No problem in New Zealand.
Buchta:: People started helping each other, right?
Hall: Yeah, they started helping each other.
Buchta:: While the Russians...
Hall: There was a guy who would wait there and he would help the new players when they spawned in. And then on the Europe server, it just became a bloodbath. It was so bad we had to shut the server down until I fixed the mechanic.
Buchta:: I'm usually playing in the morning, the European morning, because the servers are full and I have family to take care of in the evenings. It's always like I'm somewhere in the hills, and I'm always so glad I'm away, because the Russians are all chatting about how they killed people in Chernarus.
Crowe: If there was a real zombie apocalypse, I hope to God I'm in New Zealand. Anywhere near Russia, just end it now.
Hall: I love the passion the Russian players have, though. That's why I love participating... I've done a few interviews with the live streams...
"If there was a real zombie apocalypse, I hope to God I'm in New Zealand."
They've got that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. background...
Hall: They get it, they so get it. I love watching their live streams. They're crazy. They're all bandits. All bandits. They're just ruthless, they don't care if they get killed. And they're not PvP... They're not player killers. Or they are, but they care about their gear, they care about staying alive. They're just cutthroat. It's great.
Buchta:: They form small groups and...
Dslyecxi: Set a honey trap.
Hall: I just think they're really good. I just think it's great. The amazing things that people start doing, you just have no idea what they'll do. There's a dude who's being set up... He set himself up as like a surgeon, a doctor, and he'll go on to servers to help people out.
Hall: Yeah! And he has a whole team of supporters, and he has a bunch of people who will spawn in as an escort.
And protect him? Wow.
Hall: And what he did was, he actually, in character... He went in and figured out all the scripts that I've written, what all the medical values are that you need to get sick and how transmission happens. And he wrote up a massive guide, in-game, in-world, explaining it. Not just listing the stats, but actually explaining, okay, if you get sick then people close to you have a high chance of getting sick as well. It was just amazing. He put a lot of effort into that.
Do you know if he's US-based?
Hall: I don't know. He hops around a lot of the servers. But it's just awesome, just totally spontaneously getting into that.
Crowe: It's nice that you didn't have to make a medic class. It just emerged.
I like the way Day Z rejects those concepts. I was talking about this in our podcast last week. I encountered a guy, I was at Balota airfield, and I was like, “It’s night. There aren’t too many people on the server, I'll be fine, I'll be fine...”
Hall: Immortal last words.
Pretty much. Inevitably a zombie trickles down from the top of the control tower I’m in. I have to fire my revolver. And a bandit comes in, kills my friend, I kill him, and I was explaining in the podcast... In any other game, I would have leveled up or something. But I feel like I learned something. I learned not to do something. I put my hand on that stove and I got burned. The game didn’t have to flash a bunch of numbers in front of me to communicate some extrinsic benefit of that interaction.
Hall: Unlock achieved!
Yeah, exactly. It was nice to just consider that on my own terms.
Hall: Yeah. And that was what we were talking about with Marek. That was what he really took away from Day Z. He wanted it to be like... If you're good at reading the stars, in real life, then you're good in-game. If you're good at shooting, at moving the mouse around, then you're good in-game. And he wanted to stay really true to that.
Crowe: Have you played any of the ACR missions yet?
Hall: No, no I haven't.
Crowe: Because I noticed something you were saying about being in the forest and flashing the flashlight, there's a couple of... A few designers worked on it, it's a bit of a mish-mash of different concepts, but I would suggest trying to play a couple of runs, there's man's best friend, with the dog. You're at night, you have a flashlight on the weapon, and the dog goes ahead and hunts for some war criminal or whatever it is. The atmosphere of that, following the dog and then... I think you should definitely check it out. It's scripted, it's really, really scripted, the mechanics of it that is, but...
Hall: Yeah, because I've been having some trouble with the dogs. I haven't got them implemented yet for Day Z...
Crowe: No, when I saw the screenshots and the ideas, I was like, does he know how difficult dogs are...?
"If you're good at reading the stars, in real life, then you're good in-game. If you're good at shooting, at moving the mouse around, then you're good in-game."
Hall: If I make them a person and not a dog, it works.
Crowe: Yeah, exactly.
So, in the game logic, your zombies are animals and dogs are people.
Hall: Yeah, how's that work?
Dslyecxi: Hey, what about zombie dogs?
Hall: Actually, I want to make the players animals as well. I want to make the players using Create Agent, because at the moment, they're a unit. They have a group and they do a bunch of other crazy stuff. But if I actually tried it, using Create Agent works fine, the only problem is, you can't use the inventory system. The inventory system doesn't work with the current way Agent works. When you push G, nothing shows up. I want to rewrite the whole inventory system anyway.
What don't you like about the inventory system right now?
Hall: Everything. I'm pretty picky. Inventory is the key to Day Z, it is the leveling, it's everything. It's a resource in itself, because you only have so much space, and I think... You get a better backpack like we were saying in our first interview, suddenly you become more of a target. It's this whole thing in itself.
Dslyecxi: Have you seen Brigade E5? You know Jagged Alliance? It's like a 3D sequel to Jagged Alliance.
Hall: I liked Jagged Alliance.
Dslyecxi: The E5 inventory is probably the best inventory I've seen in any game like that. I've got an article on my site that has some pictures of it. They just have it to where... What you're wearing determines what your inventory is.
Hall: That's what I really want, clothing, I'm really big on it. It's going to be a little bit of work, but... When I played Skyrim, there was this amazing moment for me, I remember starting up at like three o'clock in the morning, I told my boss, my commanding officer in the army, that when Skyrim came out, that was it, I wasn't coming to work for seven days. I didn’t care if they arrested me or something. But then I was like, the visuals are amazing, I'm standing in a river, I'm running up in the snow, and then I was like... It means nothing.
Why does it mean nothing?
Dslyecxi: It's freezing cold out and it doesn't matter.
Hall: And I just instantly felt completely disconnected from my character. We've made a lame attempt with Day Z so far, to start trying with it. It's a good rough start, but I just think there's so much potential there.
"I told my boss, my commanding officer in the army, that when Skyrim came out, that was it, I wasn't coming to work for seven days. I didn’t care if they arrested me or something."
Dslyecxi: Back in, if you remember, No One Lives Forever, the sequel to that, there's a scene in that where you fall underwater in the winter. And the mechanics from that point forward, you have to go from position to position and warm yourself so you don't die. That was the most authentic winter scene at that point, easily, because it meant something. Whereas in Skyrim, you could jump into a frigid stream in the middle of winter with a blizzard going on, hop right back out, no big deal.
Buchta:: If you've been on a trip to the mountains, it can be quite a dangerous affair. Developers simply don't want people to leave the computer shaking, which you do after you play a game of Day Z.
Hall: And actually there's an amazing forum post on the Day Z forums, I need to hunt it down. This guy is like, “Why, after I've played it, am I shaking?” And someone who's obviously some kind of psychologist or something comes into the thread and says “It's a psychosomatic response.” He's like, “It means that your body believes that what has happened is real.” I felt a bit bad, actually. The guy was describing what happened, he couldn't go out for like an hour or something, is someone going to sue me?
Buchta:: Even we get that. After hours of hunting some zombies with Dean, we had just finished something, and he was like, “No, no, I'm so exhausted. I just need to rest. I need to take a walk, go see something nice,” because it was so harsh.
Dslyecxi: Have you played Invasion 44?
Dslyecxi: Are you familiar with Vostok, or any of the winter maps in Arma 2?
Hall: I wouldn't know any of them by name, no... Oh, Vostok, yeah, I love snow maps, so...
Dslyecxi: It's a good one, we've played dozens and dozens of missions on Vostok. We did an Invasion 44 session on a new version we hadn't played before, it was winter, the Vostok winter, and there was only one difference. It was that everyone, every character, breathed. You could see it.
Dslyecxi: That is the only time I've ever felt cold. Just that one little subtle effect, it's totally remarkable what little things like that can do.
Hall: Yeah, yeah. Those little subtleties and they all add together and piece it together. Getting the environmental ones right is going to be really tough. Because when I first released the patch , there was a bit of a bug that didn't come out where basically people got cold very fast. And then I watched it. I should print out the map of how it spread. It started on Chicago One because Chicago One was one of the first that we released. And Chicago One was raining and it was night. That meant that about 60 people, because it was the two Chicago servers, suddenly come down infected. Now, what do they do? They instantly disconnected from Chicago to move to a daytime or non-raining server. They carried the infection with them! The infection just spread like wildfire, and before we knew it we had 1,000 people infected.
So at that point it's almost become an epidemiological experiment.
Hall: Yeah, but it was terrifying for me, because at the time, there was no way to really heal those people. Antibiotics were a 0.11-percent spawn chance in a hospital only. I was like, what are we going to do? And in the end we just did nothing, because it was going to be too complex to reset the way the infection was recorded in the database. And so these people were walking around coughing and it was creating this whole dynamic. That was the intention, that you would be grouped with people, your friends, your buddies, and what if one of your buddies gets sick?
Yeah. Do you let him go? Do you come back...?
Hall: Do you let him go, do you ostracize him, do you kill him?
"The infection just spread like wildfire, and before we knew it we had 1,000 people infected."
Buchta:: That's a less than healthy way to support cooperative gameplay...
Hall: Well, that's why I introduced it, because there were a few groups that were getting way too cocky. I was like, haha, this is going to nail you. I went a bit overboard, people got too cold too quick.
Buchta:: It was deadlier than bandits.
Hall: Yeah. But it was so terrifying. It was three o'clock in the morning and I just had this sinking feeling when I realized what I did. I mean, I watched the Chicago... We saw it, literally, Chicago suddenly had ten people left in it. And then we realized, we tracked the player names using Sick Boy's system that he's given me access to, and I was like, oh no, they're infecting people. They’ve gone to other servers.
What does it feel like to kill players with a disease you created?
Hall: It's not good. Actually, I killed everyone except me once, reasonably early in development, in the database. I wrote a query wrong, did everyone else, and luckily was able to quickly reverse it, was good.
You're talking about infection almost as a way of breaking up really strong groups, who kind of get in their comfort zone. What's an example of some other behaviors in the game right now that you're hoping to sort of repress or get rid of or discourage?
Hall: Well, the big one is that... I think removing the global and side chat will have a positive and negative benefit. It will really ramp up the entry-level requirements, but it will probably, I'm hoping, sort of drive some really interesting player dynamic interactions. Because suddenly people will actually have to talk to each other, and they'll have to kinda get close to each other. We saw a little bit of that when ShackTac first used it, and I'm hoping we'll see a return to that. So I think that this will be a really interesting thing. You know, the new stuff that has come out with the beta patch the guys put in, we can disable global and side chat. Se there's only going to be direct chat.
Crowe: But then your t-shirt won't make any sense...
Hall: There'll still be guys running around, guaranteed, there'll be guys running around saying, "Anyone in Cherno?" It's never going to stop. And what a lot of people don't realize, at the moment, if you use VON, it actually attracts zombies.
Hall: And if you eat, it actually makes the zombies walk to your position, because I saw an interesting post on the forums... This guy's saying, “I'm sniping people in Cherno, is there an AFK zombie? Because when I'm sniping people in Cherno, after a while, it seems like the zombie will walk right up near me or see it at the last minute and get away, he'll walk right to where I'm sitting.” He didn't realize that there's this... I secretly put it in, and didn't put it in the build notes, that zombies will investigate a lot of sounds. Like drinking, eating, hunting and that, they'll walk to the location.
Buchta:: That's why I made the smelling animation...
"If you use VON, it actually attracts zombies."
Interesting. About global chat—I understand why it needs to be cut in Day Z, but there’s this charming aspect to it. It feels like truckers on the road, or an apocalyptic '90s chat room.
Hall: We'll bring back something in. I already had a rough sort of cell phone mechanic that was actually... You were able to send e-mail from inside Day Z, because what I wanted to have was, if you were having a problem, you could contact someone inside Day Z, the game. But there's some issues, I'm just concerned about hacking and misuse of it. We'll come up with something. I just think there's going to be some really interesting dynamics come out of it.
Yeah, I heard word of you guys working on a power grid or electricity mechanic...
Hall: Yeah, because all of these models are actually already in-game, and a lot of the mechanics, but they need a lot of refining. The generator thing's easy, you just fill it up and it runs a thing and then you can connect lights to it, it's pretty straightforward.
Read part two of the interview here. Dean, Ivan, Jay, and Dslyecxi discuss Arma 3 system requirements, Arma 3's map, radio systems in Day Z, VIP missions in Arma 3, and the prospect of bringing Day Z into Arma 3.