Dean Hall talked about the reaction to his leaving Bohemia and DayZ during a live on-stage interview at EGX Rezzed this weekend passed. The archived live-streamed footage is on Twitch now.
"I was starving, and I started to get really desperate.
"One of the guys who was with me had a packet of two-minute noodles that had got punctured while we were moving around, and all your stuff gets wet all the time in the jungle. And it was sopping wet, and it had been sopping wet for about a week, so it had gone rancid. And he was like, 'I was thinking about eating them but I tried to eat a little bit and I couldn't. You can try if you want?'
"It makes me gag just thinking about it."
But he did. Dean Hall ate them. He boiled those "week old, rotting noodles" with half-a-sachet of soup powder and forced half of them down. Two fish he caught later he didn't even have the energy to cook. They'd gone off in three days of heat and humidity and he ate them raw.
"It got really grim." And it got worse, he tells me, sitting in the DayZ office in Prague, Czech Republic.
"I got really badly constipated, and when I got back, they gave me an oral laxative, and basically my whole insides stopped working. My fingernails had turned yellow, my hair had started to fall out, I'd lost 20kgs. I looked like a [prisoner of war], and when they gave me oral laxatives it just tore a whole bunch."
Surgery saved him but the injury plagues him still.
"That experience fundamentally changed me."
Survival had been drummed into him for months as part of Singaporean army training. He'd survived for two weeks on 48 hours' worth of rations before; he'd been in the top 10 per cent of recruits. He wanted to go on to do paratrooper training, commando training. But when he was deployed to Brunei he misjudged how hungry he'd already be when the survival phase begun, and he "wolfed" his rations sooner than he should. The only reason he didn't steal food from a starving friend was because he didn't have the energy to.
"The emotional experience I'd gone through, even though it was only training - I found that really compelling. Some of the dilemmas I'd faced, some of the things I'd thought about..." It was there, in the jungle of Brunei, that survival became a fascination for Hall.
"My fingernails had turned yellow, my hair had started to fall out, I'd lost 20kgs. I looked like a [prisoner of war]"
The idea of making games came far earlier, back in small-town Oamaru, New Zealand, where he grew up. Computers were rare and expensive in the 80s, so gaming meant playing with toys, which he hung onto longer than his friends did. Those very elaborate worlds he conjured were effective little sister babysitting tools. "I think that's where my interest and imagination with games came from," he ponders.
His first encounter with a computer, his cousin's C64, is written in family history - Hall got sick because he stared at the screen for 10 hours straight. "I actually vomited everywhere and had to go to bed." It was the refresh rate, he insists.
The first computer his family got was an Amiga 500, and Hall learned it upside down and inside out, much to his father's silent horror one evening, when the expensive machine had been carefully de-constructed all over the floor. When Hall grasped the PEEK and POKE commands in programming language BASIC, a little lightbulb illuminated. "That was the moment when I realised computers were the way I could do anything with my imagination."
As a teenager he'd embark on a game project that would take him three years to finish. His masterpiece was a submarine role-playing game. "You were a submarine and you had all your little dudes on the submarine, and you were a mercenary submarine and you had to sail around and you'd encounter different things. And as you went along you'd upgrade your submarine.
"It was a little bit like Faster Than Light," he says, "but crappier."
Alas the world would never see it, because three weeks after completion, the computer's hard-disk drive "totally crapped out". All is not lost, however, as his parents still have the drive, and one rainy day in the future Hall may salvage what's on it. He still likes the game, he says - he put a lot of work into the graphics.
Making games played second fiddle to the boyhood dream of being an astronaut, or second best, a pilot. "I watched a bit too much Top Gun," he grins. That dream he followed into the air force, where he discovered he and planes didn't get on. That led him to university, paid by the air force, where he discovered he and books also didn't get on.
"I can't believe I did this," he recites, "but I found all the text books really boring." Instead of writing a paper based on an accredited theory of artificial intelligence, then, he decided to make his own up, and not, it turns out, with much success. "I must find that paper because the professor was so angry that he threatened to kick me out.
"I was really bored," he goes on. "I wanted things to move faster. I was a generation Y, you know, I wanted to be a General, and it looked like it was going to take 30 years! 30 years seemed like forever."
He left the air force sooner than was normal and struggled to find a job because employers wanted to know why. That's how he ended up building prisons in New Zealand with a project management company, and how he ended up making a "complete disaster" of a Defence Force database project. But all the time he was learning, and in the background inching closer to DayZ.
"I was really bored. I wanted things to move faster"
It all started with a virtual airline he and his friends set up for the Flight Simulator community. People would log their flights in a database and eventually receive awards for their hard work. The game wasn't important: the community was. "Gaming with context", he calls it, and the roots of a tree that would blossom into DayZ.
Hall ran the virtual airline for 10 years. He made his first video game buck from it - a weekly $5 cheque from an American called John ("I couldn't believe it!") - and landed his first video game job off the back of it. Sidhe Interactive hired him as an associate producer on a Wii adaptation of the Wachowski Brothers' Speed Racer film, and it was all going swimmingly well until his blunt honesty caused a situation.
Sidhe had been helping Australian studio Krome out of a development pickle by taking on the PSP version of Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Republic Heroes. Publisher LucasArts didn't know, and the project was a mess, which Hall made no bones about telling Krome. When LucasArts eventually found out, it decided those reports were a far more accurate and honest portrayal of development, and wanted Hall to send them its way first.
"Two weeks before it gold-mastered, Krome Studios asked for me to be fired from the project." Sidhe, a work for hire studio, couldn't decline, and although Hall was offered a role on another project, the damage had been done. "I remember thinking it wasn't why I'd gotten into the industry. It just wasn't fun at all."
That was when his life would change forever, when the army - not the air force - came knocking with an officer candidacy position and an exchange to Singapore.
"It was suddenly like home wasn't home any more"
"It sounds all very traumatic, but actually, the whole experience was 'a before and after'. After that I viewed everything differently; I stopped caring about what other people thought, I stopped caring about things that didn't seem to matter. I kind of just accepted everything and I stopped worrying so much about stuff, and I found I became very content with - I guess kind of Zen. It's hard to describe."
He had five weeks in Singapore recovering, then was forced back into training or he'd jeopardise graduating. "I'd still bleed a lot," he says, but he completed another hard exercise in Thailand and graduated, albeit without the top honours he'd been on course for.
His parents came to the graduation and it was the first time they'd seen or spoken to him in a year-and-a-half, to hear him tell it. He was a lean, tanned "machine", and they didn't recognise him, the only white soldier there. "They were assigned a liaison officer and he had to tell them which one I was when I was lined up on the parade."
He'd changed, physically and mentally, and when he returned home, "I got massive reverse culture shock."
He was posted to Christchurch in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake of 2011, and although he set battalion records in fitness - against soldiers 10 years younger than him - his colleagues found it hard to understand him. He smiles at this. "I'd developed Singlish, so I was talking like a Singaporean. My soldiers were like, 'Who the hell is this?!'
"It was suddenly like home wasn't home any more. I decided then I wanted to make, eventually, games."
"I'd already made most of DayZ, but I hadn't told anyone"
The virtual airline evolved into something different while Hall was at Sidhe. It became USEC Revolution, and it involved flying supplies in Flight Simulator that would turn up in, to begin with, Battlefield 2, before moving to Arma 1 and then Arma 2. Laid up in Singapore, it was this mod Hall returned to and revised for survival - a persistent military survival mod. It would become DayZ.
A LinkedIn contact request with Ivan Buchta from Bohemia was accepted not long after and the two got to talking; about soldiering, about a space shuttle mod. "I made a whole space shuttle, fully interactable, with cockpit, opening cargo bay doors, fully operating Canadarm. I made astronauts you could float around in space with, and it was all multiplayer, so the idea was you would actually simulate deploying satellites and manage your oxygen. So it was kind of like survival in space." (He'd later recreate it for Kerbal Space Program.)
And they talked about the persistent world military survival mod, and it won him a job at Bohemia building an ambitious multiplayer prototype for Arma 3. At the same time, the army, which he was still enlisted with - and feverishly volunteering for as many exercises as he could, while he still could - announced it would be posting him to the middle of nowhere in New Zealand, to a place called Waioru. It was here, with nothing to do for 90 per cent of the time, he added the final ingredient to the mod that would make it DayZ: zombies. His brother is a virologist - an expert in viruses - and you'd be terrified by the things he knows. Hall needed a threat, and his brother gave him one.
When he returned after his short army sabbatical to start work at Bohemia, "I'd already made most of DayZ," he says. "But I hadn't told anyone, certainly not Ivan, because if you work on zombies in Arma, it's not really Arma." War, for Bohemia, is serious business.
"I'll never forget the first guy to connect. He played for 30 minutes and then we saw a 'such and such is dead'. It was awesome!"
"All I did was post a download link to DayZ, the mod, and the server name, so when you go to the Arma 2 server browser you'd see 'DayZ zombie mod RPG'.
"I'll never forget the first guy to connect. He played for 30 minutes and then we saw a 'such and such is dead'. It was awesome! I wonder who that guy was. He would have heard nothing about that game. He would have known nothing about it, and he played for 30 minutes!"
Still no one knows how he died. It was 13th April 2012.
"I knew then that it had got a bit crazy. It was just the feeling you got from it. I hadn't had that feeling doing other stuff, and it was so much more powerful than I had thought it was going to be."
Hall had been building DayZ in the evenings and at weekends, sacrificing any spare time because he only believed he'd be at Bohemia for six months. Online friends helped him test it, but it was only after that almost imperceptible launch he told Ivan Buchta about DayZ. "You know that thing I said I was releasing?" he remembers saying. "I think you might need to take a look at that."
Buchta was busy making Arma 3 so he put it, initially, to one side, until his curiosity got the better of him a day or two later. "And he was like, 'Whoa!' And I think that's when he contacted Marek [Spanel, CEO]."
"I knew I didn't want to own this. It was bigger than me"
I first met Dean Hall at the inaugural EGX Rezzed show in Brighton, in the summer of 2012. DayZ was blowing up, and I was tipped off that Hall wasn't happy. He wanted to capitalise on the mod's success, and build it quickly into a standalone game that didn't require Arma 2. But for whatever reason, Bohemia wasn't backing him, and I heard he was thinking about taking the game elsewhere.
"I seriously looked at other things," he tells me now. "Even Marek said I would have been stupid not to do that - you should always consider all options." Two companies went as far as the Czech Republic to meet Hall personally, and at E3 2012 the hunt intensified. "People wanted to buy it - they wanted it," Hall recalls. "They smelled money.
"The problem is that any other option, any other one at all, you're tacking a couple of years onto development," because DayZ is built on Arma tech. "We were natural bedfellows anyway. The issue was, Bohemia was full on, deep into developing Arma 3, and every time we would make a plan, the plan would be based on what it looked like then. Nobody guessed, and nobody could have guessed, that it would have reached the ridiculous heights that it did."
As the numbers changed, so did the offers, from working full-time on the mod to working with a couple of other people and building it into paid DLC. By July there were half-a-million players, and by August more than 1 million. Arma 2 was one of the best-selling games on Steam, and Hall was negotiating from a position of power.
"I knew I didn't want to own this," my eyebrows arch as I hear it. "It was bigger than me.
"Bohemia approached me - Marek approached me. They approached me about buying the whole concept, so I actually assigned the whole rights to them, tied in with royalties and all that kind of stuff." The other deal he signed that day was the deal governing his ongoing role on the project.
They signified something more than contractual obligations, too - they were Hall giving himself over to the whirlwind of DayZ, something he couldn't hope to control.
"You don't have your life any more. DayZ obliterated that life - like, just gone. It's totally different," he says, "and my whole life is tied to this one thing. The relationships with my friends, family: all different. From that moment on, never the same again."
"When War Z came out ... that was just like being hit in the face with a bit of wood and someone pulling your teeth out"
When Dean Hall took to the EGX London stage in September 2012, to talk about the now signed standalone version of DayZ, he was excited. He had ideas coming out of his ears - brilliantly wacky but realistic ideas such as disease spreading through players' vomit and faeces. Then he said something he'd go on to regret: "It has to be out before the end of the year."
It wasn't; expectations were set but not met. All the work under the hood wasn't amounting to anything tangible. "We basically worked for six months and had nothing to show for it. That's just morale-debilitating." DayZ standalone took on a perpetual state of delay, or at least that was the perception, and Hall's enthusiasm turned to exasperation. It was getting to him.
The paranoia of a copycat beating him to the punch almost turned to reality. "When War Z came out that was really tough, especially when friends/family would mistake the two." He struggles for a moment thinking of how to describe the feeling. "That was just like being hit in the face with a bit of wood and someone pulling your teeth out."
Every passing month the DayZ standalone wasn't released, the pressure mounted. He'd tell his Reddit community he was sorry and that it was his fault, and he'd blame himself and heap yet more pressure on. "I think I was unhappy with my performance in some ways," he thinks back. "I struggled with relationships internally, I clashed a lot, because I wanted things done fast, I wanted them done to an exacting standard, and I wanted them done in a way I was familiar with. I didn't care how Arma was done: this is how we were going to do it. That was hard for everyone."
Did he ever think f*** it, I've had enough? "Definitely," he answers. "Yeah. Yip. 2013 was an unhappy year."
"This guy, presumably a Sherpa, was passing me, and he takes his mask off and says, 'Where's DayZ Standalone?'"
Hall took a break from it all in his own style, taking a two-month sabbatical to climb the dangerous and iconic Mount Everest in April 2013.
"The idea of Everest I'd had ever since I was a kid," so it was written, he tells me, into the DayZ contract he signed with Bohemia. Even so, when DayZ standalone missed that original December deadline, he began to have second thoughts.
"Look, maybe I should not go," Hall confided in Marek Spanel. "And he said to me: 'There's never a good time for these things, you've just got to do them. Sure, it's bad for the project, but you've got to live your life, otherwise there's no point in doing it.' It was good advice."
His way of dealing with it was by not thinking about it, so he didn't train, didn't prepare, and he bought all his equipment days before leaving for Kathmandu, while attending the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. After that, it was a plane back to the Czech Republic, wait 20 hours then out to Kathmandu. One member of the DayZ team, a climber, was genuinely convinced Hall would die up there.
When the world found out about the Everest sabbatical there was backlash. DayZ was already late - was it also in trouble? Hall packed a satellite modem so he could work on the game from base camp, costing him a fortune (as did the trip, incidentally), and DayZ dominated his thoughts always.
He thought he was hallucinating one day during a rare hold-up on the mountain, high enough to be wearing oxygen masks. "This guy, presumably a Sherpa, was passing me, and he takes his mask off and says, 'Where's DayZ Standalone?'
"Not only is that surreal enough, but he carried on walking. Not only did he say that and recognise me, but he didn't even stop to talk! He just took his mask off long enough to make some smart comment, the kind of thing you get on Twitter or Reddit, but he actually did it!"
It wasn't all fun and games. Hall passed a climber hanging, "dead or dying", from his rope, on the way to the summit. "His position and posture symbolised absolute desperation and sadness," Hall wrote on his personal blog. "He was utterly beyond rescue."
Hall himself started bleeding from his old Singapore injury on his ascent to the summit. His toes numbed and he feared frostbite and, in all honesty, he imparts, he was prepared to sacrifice them. Had it been his hands, however, he would have turned back.
He finally reached the summit in the early morning, at 4.30am, when the rising sun was at such an angle as to make the curvature of Earth visible. "That was really cool," he concedes, "that was beautiful." This coming from a man who openly dislikes the beautiful historic architecture in Prague, where he works, and who dismisses sightseeing holidays and picture taking because it's all there already on Google image search.
But where better to get fresh perspective than on top of the world? "It was almost like another life again," he remarks. "I'd got a bit lost before Everest - I got a bit caught up in it all. I felt like I was more about the message than the result, because the message was easier to deal with than the result. I needed to refocus my priorities. I realised that I needed to just get it done, to not be so scared of failing with it."
He returned, scrabbled something together for E3 two weeks later, and with the clarity of fresh eyes said, "It's not fun. We've still got a lot of work to do." He did the same again at Gamescom in August, this time mentally separating the solutions into 'possible now' and 'possible in a next game' piles. He had a plan at last, and in December, he says, "it was finally fun".
Only just, though.
"I was terrified no one would buy it."
"I was terrified no one would buy it"
There were a couple of false starts, first on 4th December - the original internal launch date - and then for 10 days after. "Finally we felt we had something, and I think Valve were very shocked." Valve wasn't the only one.
"You really are going to push the button?" Valve asked. "You're just going to do it? Right now?"
Hall had a phone call from Valve not long before I arrived telling him DayZ had been the only non-discounted game to dominate - "strongly" - the Steam chart during a winter sale. And to think that Hall had once hoped DayZ would manage 300,000 sales - to date, it's sold more than 1.5m copies, way in excess of his "wildest projections".
He hadn't missed the boat, hadn't messed it up - it was success at long last. "I remember when we broke a million sales," he casts his mind back. "I bought an ice-cream."
The success has transformed Bohemia, a somewhat sleepy company now thrust front and centre on the gaming map. The DayZ project, not long ago a one-man mod, today has a 30-40 person team - as well as a recently acquired 25 person studio (and counting) in Slovakia - most hired in the last year. Significant investment has gone into laying the foundations for a long future for DayZ, but the bloated size of the project bothers Hall.
"Look, it's tough," he levels with me. "That's why I look at a project like Banished, and I realise people feel like this seems crazy, but I get real envious, because I can just see that what he delivered was exactly what he wanted to do. And I'm obsessed with making a better game all the time.
"I don't think I have the capacity to be happy in a traditional sense. I always want... It's the natural human... Once you have something, you don't want it any more. I wanted to be better. But I already knew this. No matter what happens with DayZ - the Queen could come here right now and proclaim DayZ king of the universe, and I would still be unhappy with it."
His vision for DayZ has materialised twice. He doesn't have to convince anyone of the idea any more - it's out there, it's successful and it just needs tidying up, tweaking. Developing DayZ today isn't about forcing a vision into being, it's about picking which of the millions of features the vast audience want and implementing them.
"I'd quite like to do K2"
The news that Hall would leave Bohemia and his active role in charge of DayZ, by roughly the end of the year, caused quite a stir. The explanation he gave me, which I've already shared with you, was given during this same long interview.
I don't think he expected, to a degree, some of the backlash he received. In his head it was no big deal, he'd moved on, and after all, he just wanted to go home and set up his own studio there. He's not abandoning DayZ; he'll always be involved to some degree, although naturally over time, and as his new pursuits occupy his mind, I'm sure he'll begin to slip away.
It caused a stir because to many people, me included, Dean Hall is DayZ - an association he'd orchestrated from the beginning, making sure he was front and centre every time the game was mentioned. Look at how he bulldozed the standalone deal with Bohemia, and look at the position he's in now - his name is almost as recognisable as the game's. Financed and famous, there's an exciting future for Hall and the ideas he says he's already had for multiplayer, survival-themed video games.
"I thought I'd want to go out and buy a Lamborghini," he says at one point, "but the minute you can do that, you don't want to. It's almost like a sickness, some of the games you want to make, you want to make them so bad you can't stop thinking of them, and I have to distract myself. I really want to make those."
He's certainly a chaotic influence at Bohemia that I don't think the studio can live with, nor as successfully without. But is he the pocket-Rocket of chaos he's so readily painted as? I'm not so sure. I picture him as a man who's always had a plan - a blinkered horse with a course clear before him. A lonely horse, I sometimes think, but how could he run such an extraordinary race if he had life's little distractions in the way?
Marek Spanel once told a Wired reporter that "Dean is part crazy". "I think he's right," he tells me. "I am." His intense stare and ruff of untidy hair do nothing to dispel the illusion, nor do the many incredible places and situations he's found himself in in his surprisingly young 32 years.
But is he actually crazy? I'll leave you with this: "I'd quite like to do K2. But I'd probably only do that after I'd done a bunch of other things - so that if I died, I wouldn't be too bummed out."