Disclosure: The organizers of the Slush game conference paid my way Iceland, where I was the master of ceremonies. Our coverage remains objective.
People can stand losing things, and they find cruelty unfair, but the guy responsible for DayZ thinks that humans want both in their games.
Dean Hall, the chief executive officer of developer Rocketwerkz, is well known for creating a difficult zombie-survival game where you can lose everything at any moment if you come across the wrong people. It’s something that doesn’t sound fun because it doesn’t mesh with other games that make us feel like super heroes. But millions of people have bought DayZ, and millions more play tough games like Eve Online, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne.
And that’s something that Hall wants to see more of.
“I don’t care what the market is doing,” Hall told a crowd of developers and industry people at the SlushPlay gaming conference in Iceland this past week. “I don’t care what the competitors are doing. I don’t care what the numbers show. I just care about what I want to play.”
But even at his own studio, Hall often finds it difficult to get what he wants. He says that making games can be very frustrating because development already has so many preconceived notions.
“I’ll give you an example from the game we’re working on in London,” said Hall. “I sat down with one of our artists who [used to work at Skyrim developer Bethesda]. And I was explaining how I wanted darkness to work.”
Hall said he told the artist that he wanted the game to be “dark — really dark.”
“So I go away, and when I came back to look at it, I could still see,” said Hall.
Instead of going for “really” dark — where “really” means “as it is in reality” — Hall’s artist went for “game dark.” This was for a number of reasons, but primarily it’s because that’s just how darkness works in games. And that’s a problem for Hall.
He went on to use Grand Theft Auto: Online as an example.
“It’s really exciting to play something like GTA: Online because there are people and cars and it looks amazing,” said Hall. “But when you start to push against its ‘paper walls,’ you start to notice that nothing changes. And that’s always really bothered me. When I’m gaming, I want to feel like what I’m doing matters.”
Making a gamer care about what they’re doing in a virtual world is difficult, but Hall thinks he has a clear way of doing things.
He said that he learned from making DayZ that humans naturally understand the concept of loss and cruelty. He built that game as training software for his fellow soldiers in the New Zealand armed forces, and they didn’t really take it seriously at first.
“It was when I added simulated loss to DayZ that the soldiers started having an emotional response,” said Hall. “Normally, you go into a simulation and people are dying and you just carry on. But that’s not what happens in real life. So I think people just intrinsically understand cruelty and loss.”
And while that makes the game difficult, and blows up the notion that the player is “special,” Hall thinks that’s what people want.
“And it’s something I’m exploring in my next game,” said Hall. “I’m even looking at the concept of madness. If you haven’t spent any time around another player in a while, you’ll start to get some cabin fever going.”
He thinks that it’s layers like this that really enthrall players, and he wants to just keep adding to it. Hall says these things are some of the best ways to achieve immersion, and other developers can take advantage of that as well
“I don’t know if any of this is a trend,” he said. “But I want it to be.”