The ArmA II zombie mod has taken the industry by storm, we talk with the creators on how it happened and what's next
How did this project come about?
Matt Lightfoot: It originally came about because Dean was influenced by his time in the military where he worked on simulators with the New Zealand armed forces and he wanted to make something based around survival with infection and such.
Dean Hall: Like Matt said, that was kind of the origin of it. It sort of grew out of some other mod developments I’d been doing, looking at experimenting with pure design and emotion generation in a game rather than just excitement all the time.
It sound like you were going for a unique game rather than based on the core source-work if you like?
Hall: Yes and I think a strength of modding is that you can go for those things like that. I mean it looks creative now, but sometimes when you’re trying lots of stuff, there are lots of ideas I’ve tried that just don’t work out or are just no good.
I think that’s the advantage of modding. You can try very different things and see if they stick or hold and see what is good and what’s not.
Is the community always understanding of what you’re trying to set up?
Hall: That’s one of the curious things about DayZ is that it started out as part of the ArmA II community and then quite quickly became its own community, which has caused problems in itself.
The DayZ community being nearer and being in a developmental phase meant a lot of argument. Then you’ve got the ArmA 2 community, which almost feels like its lost part of itself because suddenly DayZ is huge and eclipsing it. That’s been quite complex, that whole development.
What kind of problems?
Hall: If you look at DayZ, its current players represent, at a peak, about 20,000 players at any one time. If you look at ArmA II, you’re looking at maybe 1,000. So that makes it difficult for practical reasons, on things like in-game or in-game browsers all you see is DayZ and it’s very difficult to see anything else. For more non-practical stuff, I guess in many ways users would feel it’s a bit like being invaded and so I think that’s a challenge as well.
How has Bohemia Interactive taken to this?
Hall: They’re very happy. The sales have been huge, just massive. By our calculations based on player IDs, you’re looking at 300,000 in sales, which is a very significant chunk of total ArmA 2’s sales. So they’re obviously very happy about that and it’s a validation for their strategy and focus with modding.
Marek Španěl, the CEO, he’s always been interested in these type of survival games and he really loved how challenging Operation Flashpoint was and how it wasn’t just go to this way point, go to that way point. He always hoped the ArmA series would go back in that direction rather than helping the player along too much.
Do you think that this success is proof that the mod community is important to a game’s longevity?
Hall: It can be. I think that people saying that modding is a declining trend is a little bit of wishful thinking. I actually think that given the rise of social media, we’re almost looking at another mini-revolution in the games industry.
We’ve seen that revolution towards indie developed games over the last couple of years with social media, Kickstarter and all that kind of stuff. I think we’re starting to see social media get into and inside mods and maybe changing the way that mods develop and change the way that they affect the industry as a whole.
I think that’s the most curious thing about DayZ is how it basically exploded through social media. It completely surprised everybody. Basically the customer’s find a mod they like and bang! It just goes crazy.
It could be really good for console games if they could open themselves up like that. Could you see another development boom in that sense?
Hall: I think it’s definitely something they’re going to have to deal with. A lot of people’s attention is diverted to free-to-play at the moment and obviously that’s been very profitable for some people. But I wonder whether we might see more Minecraft style development, and that’s where I really want to take this, that kind of model.
I think that there’s some ways to explore that and see how that develops, how that fits in with mods and how the mods are growing through the use of social media. It’ll certainly be interesting to see what happens.
Where do you plan on taking DayZ now? Are you keeping it as a mod or talking to Bohemia to make it into a paid-for full game?
Hall: I’ve made no secret since the start; I want to see into in a full game. There are a couple of reasons for that obviously, I think it’s a really exciting area and I want to see it properly explored. The second reason, which has cropped up very recently, is now it’s got so much momentum and such a large size, it’s becoming impractical to run it as a mod.
It just wears the people out that are involved with it. Here’s an example, we have over 100,000 players play the game in any 24-hour period. We have a peak load of about 22,000 players online at any moment and there’s 400,000 players overall that play it. So 25 per cent of the player base is playing it in any 24-hour period, and that’s huge.
That rivals many other numbers. I think Diablo III is only doing 50 or 60,000 concurrent users at the moment so we’re hitting right towards that. That presents a massive capacity issue for us and the only way to solve that is by getting more people involved and getting more people involved means you can easily get some bad apples in there and hacking becomes a problem.
All these kind of things really need to be solved by a proper, correctly done project. So that’s what I’m very keen on and obviously I’ve been talking to a lot of people who have been approaching us to see where that best fits.
How do you plan on doing that? Working with Bohemia or with someone else?
Hall: The natural choice would obviously be Bohemia. Not only are they a fantastic studio, Merrick and the guys there share the vision for a DayZ style game. That’s obviously a natural choice but there’s nothing confirmed or decided there.
If you can make it into a full game, you’ll be charging for that?
Hall: Any structure would depend on who it was developed with but I see it working with a Minecraft style model. There would need to be enough new content, enough new assets, really cool new features, a reasonably low price point to buy into the stand-alone game, and I think that’s reasonable.
A pretty low price point for the start like Minecraft and then as the development goes on it can go upwards and upwards but I don’t need to see it go into a full retail price. I don’t think it needs to. I think it’ll always be priced pretty low kind of like Minecraft. I think it’s a good model.
Is there a concern that it could split the community?
Hall: I think so but that’s more a challenge for whichever development team is doing it. I think that’s where you have to sit down and say, what features would someone really want to see in this? And then put those in.
Then, instead of people being upset about having to pay to get it, I think they’ll be excited because they’ll be like, okay I’m paying €10 or €15 or whatever and I’m getting a hell of a lot.
I think that rather than that being an issue, I think that’s just really a call to arms for the development team to say, in order for this to work, we have to put enough in it so that people are excited about it.
How many people are on the project?
Hall: In terms of core development, I’m still the only one working on end-game code. We have a couple of guys who helping out that are able to work on the architecture and the development of that.
Beyond that there is an army of server administrators, that’s largely, almost entirely community run now so we just gave them access to a few systems and so the community sort of manages itself and so I think that’s another strength.
It’s hard to put an exact figure on it because potentially, anyone playing DayZ, if they want to get involved, they can get involved very quickly.
It’s interesting that anyone can come aboard if they’ve got something to offer.
Hall: Yes, well a lot of what happened in the early days was I did a lot of the initial art and stuff like that. I can get by as a 3D artist but I’m certainly not going to win any awards. But we had some very talented people come out say ‘hey, I want to help with this’.
We had talented Russian artists and people would donate whatever they could. They’d say ‘Okay I’m going to do this model or that model’ and they lifted it through so I could put better art assets into it.
It was a very fluid experience in that regard and it was the same with the zombie sound effects. The guy doing that has been really great, so when he’s got time, he’ll put stuff through, same with the website stuff.
It’s been a very ad-hoc development and I think that’s one of it’s strengths but I think it could also potentially become one of its weaknesses.
It’s so big now that that’s where it’s got to get organised and I know people get really frustrated with it and I can feel their frustration because we feel it too. That’s why I think it’s got a finite life on it as a mod before it just implodes in on itself.
Would you recommend modding for aspiring developers?
Hall: Yes, I think modding is really good because you go along someone else’s footsteps and you can learn a lot about how someone else has done something. It’s kind of like reverse engineering things. You figure out what they’ve done, how their data structure works, how their engine works and all these other things.
I think it is a really good place to start because you’re using someone else’s framework. If you want to cut your teeth straight in there with C++ I think that’s a lot to chew off and you can end up not getting exposure to all those issues that if you knew them would make a lot more sense when building your engine from scratch or using someone’s toolkit engine from scratch.
How would you advise people to go about making it successfully?
Hall: I think the important thing is to find a small group of people who are really likeminded. Not everybody needs to have a development skill and it’s really good to have a couple of people who you can sound ideas off and that’s where Matt and the guys have been really useful.
Matt’s got heavily involved in the organisation of it, which has really helped. So having people who specialise like that is important. The most important thing is, like I was saying before, is to keep it secret and not to get into this whole ‘games have all this marketing hype so let’s knock up the marketing hype more’.
The most disappointing trend I’ve seen in Modding is the moders that do that. If you look at those mods, I think they’re not very successful because of it. They’re trying to mirror what I see is a failed aspect of game development so don’t do that. Keep it to yourself and use that as motivation to finish it.
There’s a number of other little mods that I thought were awesome that haven’t been released because they’re not finished yet and I think, for me, that’s really been a good motivation to get it finished and then, okay, when I’ve got the alpha done, that’s when I’ll tell people about it.
Share the same vision as well, and make sure ego is not coming into it and you’re not receiving all this miscellaneous information. That’s really hard for me at the moment just to sort through the different information, lot of valid feedback, lot of feed that I can implement and still try to maintain that initial vision I had.
How has this helped people that have been on the project? Has it helped anyone get a job in the industry?
Hall: Yes, I think it definitely will.
Has it done so, so far?
Hall: I’ve been so focused on the mod that I haven’t had a chance to talk shop with too many people but yes I think so. One of the interesting things is that there’s a lot of people coming from inside the industry who have senior positions and wanted to get involved or help out just because they saw it as a bit of a breath fresh air.
Have Bohemia helped you out with any money so you can work on it?
Hall: I’ve been very, very careful to not take money from anyone. That’s been a little bit annoying, I know, for Matt and the guys at the start of the project because it has made things difficult. But I think in many ways it’s made it a lot easier.
It also gives me a lot more negotiation room as well to make sure I can say ‘no, it’s mine, and I’ve developed it with these guys and we haven’t taken money from outside.’
So, certainly not through lack of offers but Bohemia’s support has been tremendous, but in the areas that are really important like helping with the server stability, helping with the patches, and that’s stuff they do for all mods, not just DayZ. A
Ace Mod and Acre, they’re very interested in all those mods. But I’m been very careful and that’s why we don’t have a Kickstarter and that’s why we don’t have donations. It’s not about the money. Money is not necessarily going to make things easier at this point.
It will become relevant reasonably soon during a transition but that’s the point it should become relevant. The most important thing is that we get a sustainable project structure. One that sustains the development and one that is not priced in a ridiculous way. I think we’ll get there.