When is DayZ coming out in full? How far down the road are discussions about getting the game on console? How serious is Dean Hall about putting horses in the game? And what does he really think about similar survival game Rust?
I explored each topic with Dean Hall while visiting Bohemia in the Czech Republic last week.
When will DayZ be out in full?
In all likelihood, not until spring/summer 2015. DayZ may have sold 1.5 million copies, but it's still only an alpha game - "alpha as f***", Hall quipped.
First, there needs to be a beta. When will that happen?
"The roadmap is end of the year," Hall said, "but we don't want to release the beta on, like, December 12th or whatever. The beta date would either be prior to the end of the year, so November or something, or it would be pushed to January or February with more QA."
The DayZ alpha launched in December 2013, so by the time the beta arrives it will have been roughly a year or more. Will the beta last as long?
"I don't think so," he answered. "It will be a real beta; it will be no new content, just bug fixing. There may be content drops but they won't be part of the beta - there will be no new functionality or something like that. I would be surprised if we go down that route because it will get it unstable. I would imagine it would take as long as it needs from then, which could be six months."
That's a long time - spring 2015 at the earliest, I'd say. Will DayZ be very different then?
"Even once I've left the leadership role, I'm required to be involved in DayZ's future anyway"
"I think it will be very different," said Hall. "It could even be fundamentally different. As some of these new features come on - even some of the things we introduce now - it suddenly changes the whole way the game's played. We finally got it so that ruined objects don't really work any more; that suddenly changed the way players were behaving. If you shoot someone and destroy their gear, it doesn't work any more. Even little things like that can have profound effects.
"Then you add things like barricading, vehicles, companions, much more advance disease and medical, suturing, all that kind of stuff. We just added heart attacks the other day; it starts to really change the whole nature of the game."
But will Dean Hall even be at developer Bohemia then, in 2015 (or later), to see the game's full release? Yesterday he revealed his intentions to leave the studio by the end of the year, which suggests not.
"I guess there are two sides to it," he told me in a follow-up email last night, retreading some of the points laid out in yesterday's news. "I miss home, miss my family. From that regard I've said that this year I'm full-time, fully committed. Next year I don't want to be in that capacity.
"At some point I believe I am no longer that valuable to the project. My cost needs to be considered with the value I bring. I personally believe that once we are feature complete, my value to the project is diminished and at that time my recommendation to Bohemia is that someone else lead the project.
"I'm flexible," he added, "but my 'plan' is to be back in New Zealand in 2015 and I really hope I achieve that."
He reiterated that DayZ is Bohemia's property - he sold the rights to them. It's not like Minecraft or Rust, which were made by people who own their own studios. DayZ was an off-shoot of the modern war-simulation series Arma, which Bohemia built and runs a business around.
"However," he said, "even once I've left the leadership role, I'm required to be involved in DayZ's future anyway."
Is DayZ coming to console?
"Boy, Sony and Microsoft love their meetings, eh? Seven or eight people sitting around a table talking about nothing."
Hall's had "a lot of meetings" with both companies about putting DayZ on console, apparently. "So we have been talking. A lot of it has been mainly meetings. I'd say that we'll be continuing to look into that, and stuff will definitely develop there.
"It's a natural thing to do if your title's this successful," he added, "you'd be stupid not to consider it."
I pressed him on whether something console related could happen this year. "Well," he grinned, "first I'll preface to say I've made that mistake before by making those guesses.
"I would be surprised if we hadn't made a decision by the end of the year. Whether that means it's being actively developed or released... I'd be surprised if any console port could be developed in 12 months; we haven't fully started developing anything yet for a console, so..."
There are technical issues such as DayZ using DirectX that would need overcoming, although once they are solved, Hall said the team was agile enough to pounce quickly.
There's also the obvious hurdle of publishing, and "finding the best way of doing that with Microsoft and Sony". DayZ is a self-published third-party title on Steam, and Hall seems keen for it to be the same on console.
"There were definitely some things [Microsoft] said that I'm not allowed to talk about that I was like, 'Wow! That's interesting. Why don't you tell people that?'"
Incidentally, it's not just PS4 and Xbox One being "actively considered" - there are platforms such as Steam Machines also under the big question mark.
But how would DayZ work on console? Would it need to be altered? Hall's answer suggested Microsoft had some interesting things planned for Xbox One that we don't know about yet.
"I don't know," he begun, talking about console changes. "I'm not sure how involved I'll be with that, to be honest, and I'm not sure whether I'd want to be.
"I care a lot about the PC, obviously, and I have nothing against consoles, and there's some really interesting and exciting things happening. That was one of the cool things about meeting with Microsoft," he said, "there were definitely some things they said that I'm not allowed to talk about that I was like, 'Wow! That's interesting. Why don't you tell people that?' But I guess they want to make sure everything all goes together and that.
"I've said it before, but it's a bit early for me to say whether I'm super-interested in consoles. I would imagine that, at the very least, there would be control and user-interface changes for the consoles, unless we could work out some deals to break their [terms and conditions] and certification requirements. There might need to be more of a help and tutorial - I would fight a tutorial as much as I could.
"There would be, naturally, some changes. I don't think they'd be super-huge, and I don't think Microsoft or Sony would want them to be different, because they would just want DayZ on their things. I legitimately think some of the people at Sony and Microsoft thought DayZ was cool. It's definitely clear for me that it wasn't just about money, but they legitimately want to see exciting, creative...
"People rip on Microsoft and Sony but actually, when meeting with them, they're definitely legitimately interested in DayZ."
Horses, dogs and donkeys?
The man in charge of Bohemia's motion capture studio, Stepan Kment, told me about the torrid time he had motion-capturing a real horse. The lights were intensely bright and agitating the horse, making it hard to keep the beast still, which meant attaching sensor-bobbles to its hind legs was, well, precarious.
Then the horse "defecated", Kment politely recalled. He tried to flush the manure down a toilet, which clogged, so he fished it out and slung it in some nearby trees. Mildly exasperated, he returned to the studio. And then the horse urinated. A lot.
Whew, does he not want to do that again, he said, to which a cheeky voice from my left, in a strong New Zealand accent, asked, 'are you sure?' (or words to that effect). Kment barely registered Dean Hall's question, but I did.
"No I wasn't joking," Hall told me the next day. Marek Spanel, Bohemia CEO, is "quite keen" on the idea of horses in DayZ, and Hall is "very keen".
"I thought it was going to be really difficult for a start, like, impossibly difficult. Then we looked at it and it looked like it was going to be a lot easier - way, way, way easier than we thought. Since then, we've gone into the middle-ground: it's not impossible, it's high on the priority list.
"Certainly we want to make companions, so dogs, stuff like that. We'd like to look at doing horses, it's not outside the realm of possibility. In fact, I would say it's reasonably likely."
"Certainly we want to make companions, so dogs, stuff like that. We'd like to look at doing horses ... . In fact, I would say it's reasonably likely"
How would a player go about getting an animal to stick with them, though - tame it?
"There were some issues we thought about with dogs, and stuff like that, when we were going to put them in the mod," he said. "That's why they never made it in, because how do you get them? The mechanic for that becomes very difficult. We're looking at a reasonably simplified mechanic; so the dog will be a sick dog and you can come across it and give it food and help it get better, and then it gets better. So that's how we do it with the dogs. With the horse it'll just be a roaming thing.
"The idea is to have more passive [abilities] - same with how we don't want any kind of [active] skill to happen. It's this passive thing: your character gets fitter the more they run around - that kind of stuff. The same would apply to horses, dogs - any kind of companion."
Horses you'll probably ride bareback, he thought out loud, and perhaps you'll be able to attach bags to them to carry more equipment. Mules! What about actual donkeys being in the game? "Well if we've got horses in then donkeys is just a hop, skip and a jump!" he grinned. "And yaks!" I don't think he was entirely serious.
By now you'll have probably seen something of bow and arrows coming to DayZ, something the team was testing last week while I toured the studio. It's coming "really soon", Hall said. "We want to get hunting and cooking locked down as our next short-term priorities."
The bows are constructed from PVC pipes, Hall, an army man, relished telling me. "You can see some cool YouTube videos of how to make one in real life, with enough force coming out of it to actually break the skull of animals, including deer. They're a real thing.
"What we're struggling with at the moment is the balance between what's absolutely real, and what's expected - an example being quivers. Most people expect that you're pulling the quiver like Legolas from your back, but actually a quiver is down here [on your hip]."
Hall outlined more features coming to DayZ in the immediate future in a dev blog posted yesterday. Video below.
Rust and the survival game... fad?
Days before DayZ was alpha-released, Garry's Mod creator Garry Newman, and his studio Facepunch Studios, released Rust, a survival game heavily inspired by DayZ, among other games. The headlines charted DayZ's thunderous sales, but Rust wasn't far behind, totting up sales that today number more than 1m. (DayZ has sold 1.5m.)
"Honestly, that was really awesome," said Dean Hall of Rust. "It's not just even that: I heard CCP CEO Hilmar [Pétursson] talking about DayZ, and that's like 'holy s***!'. These people didn't even f***ing know who I was!"
Hall, you see, used to play Eve Online.
"And it's not just him: Cliff [Bleszinski] talking about DayZ, about his project, and talking with the Starbound guys - all these people of real high pedigree. And then to hear that Garry [Newman's] played DayZ and was like, 'Wow! This is cool. I want to do something kind of similar.' That, to me, is awesome.
"I only really play these games with context, with real emotion in. I kind of see it as gaming growing up"
"I actually got a bit defensive at people who were calling Rust a DayZ clone," he added, "because they're actually very different games. I guess you can see that Garry has played DayZ and then gone 'I like some of the experiences that players get', and that really feels to me what he did. He didn't just go 'ooh this could make a lot of money', he just said 'wow I got some cool experiences here, I want to experiment with this kind of stuff'. To me, it's awesome, and it deserves all the success it got, too."
DayZ and Rust aren't the only survival games out there, but they've made the genre popular - very popular. But is it a fad, something that will expire?
"I need to put a strong point of view warning on this because these are the games that I play," he said. "I only really play these games with context, with real emotion in. I kind of see it as gaming growing up. For me, it's not just about fun. Gaming isn't about fun for me, it's about the challenge and trying to solve these mental problems. It's like me playing Banished: I loved it, it was so difficult. I had to try and figure out how to win at it, and that was what I really enjoyed about it. So no I don't think it is a fad. People like the emotion, it's a human thing.
"I also think, going back to the Rust thing, the fact that Rust has been so successful has only strengthened the message that 'this isn't only DayZ we're talking about' - a lot of other games can do this. That makes the message even more loud and clear-cut to publishers."
Did you hear that, publishers? Did you?
DayZ is out on Steam in alpha now. It's a work in progress.