Whenever I write anything about DayZ, the conversation is dominated by two things: DayZ not being finished and Dean Hall not finishing it. There are legitimate concerns tied around misinformed ones. I have tried to put all of these to the game's creative director Brian Hicks.
But first an update on DayZ console, because it was more than two years ago now that Dean Hall was on Sony's Gamescom stage and that whole journey officially began. And with all the complications holding up the PC version of DayZ, I don't think it's unreasonable to assume DayZ console could be dead.
"No it's not dead at all," Brian Hicks assures me. "It's not dead at all.
"The PC is our flagship platform for DayZ. That is where 99 per cent of our development resources are focused. And while there was a lot of push from Sony and Microsoft to get up on their stages and say 'yes, we're coming', our focus has been exclusively (I want to say exclusively because there's about a one per cent development resource trying to keep those platforms at a point at which, once we get to our beta and our bug fixing, we can start pushing forward on that) on the PC. We can't really move DayZ over to these platforms, at least on a playable level for consumers, until the base engine, Enfusion, is complete. Or if not complete, feature-complete so to speak - the core tech is there."
Given that, and for reasons Hicks goes into later, console DayZ development probably won't begin properly until - if all things go well - early 2017. And in all likelihood the game will appear first on Xbox One owing to Microsoft supporting early access releases via the Xbox Game Preview programme.
"Microsoft has been very eager - I'll say this much - for us to get it on their platform, the Xbox Game Preview programme," says Hicks. "We do keep a small group of programmers on making sure that our PS4 and our Xbox One version are at least, tech wise, it's running on those platforms. But we're not going to be releasing any announcements on dates for those and I don't think we ever have.
"Once we get to a point with the PC that we're comfortable and we can start dedicating a little resources into catching up those [console] platforms then we'll look at doing some announcements and talk about the Xbox Game Preview programme, which is what I would imagine is the first place we'll get to since Sony doesn't have something similar."
Hasn't the boat sailed on DayZ?
The DayZ boom happened years ago; it's important to remember that. DayZ Mod erupted in 2012, so by the time DayZ Standalone arrived in December 2013, people had already been hyped for a year. I remember feeling then like the boat may have already sailed - but it hadn't. DayZ Standalone sales were great: 1m sales in a month and 2m sales in four months, then they slowed and reached 3m sales in 13 months. That was in January 2015, so what are they today, a year-and-a-half later? Hicks estimates around 3.7m - apparently SteamSpy is off by "a couple of hundred thousand".
A quick look at Steam & Game Stats, where games are listed by current popularity, shows DayZ just outside of the top 50 most-played games - a list it used to feature very highly on. Rust, by comparison, currently sits 10th.
But Hicks tells me DayZ still attracts a significant amount of monthly active users. "I do have numbers I can share from about a month ago that would be valid," he says. "The months following [update 0.60] we saw I believe a peak of unique IDs cycling through in a month of about 650,000. Even at our low peaks we still see something like 250,000 to 300,000 people cycling through."
Does Dean Hall do anything at all on DayZ now?
To be clear: Dean Hall does not work on DayZ any more. He left in December 2014 to head home to New Zealand and open his own development studio there called RocketWerkz.
The effect Dean Hall has on DayZ day-to-day now is this:
"Dean and I, we hang out in my TeamSpeak. We have a mutual group of friends who play video games. So every few weeks Dean and I will quickly talk about DayZ and what he thinks is cool," says Hicks. "He's been very excited about [us] making these strides that he set out at the beginning of the project - finally knocking some of the big walls down.
"Dean will hop on and give feedback like 'this is amazing', 'great job'. Sometimes I'll ping Dean and ask his opinion on a question we might have with the design team, like whether or not we should even bother doing something. 'We should ask what Dean's thoughts are.' And he'll chime in on that."
He is, I suggest, a kind of informal consultant.
"Yeah, yeah, exactly," says Hicks. "He's an informal consultant. The door's always open if Dean ever saw something that he was upset about; he's got an instant line of communication to the entire team."
But there's no responsibility on him.
"Oh no, no. He doesn't have an official contract or employment with Bohemia; this is very informal. I think Dean is 100 per cent into his new company. He's really excited about RocketWerkz."
Whatever you feel about Hall leaving, he absolutely has. That he "chimes in" is a happy coincidence of Hicks and Hall being friends.
If you want to know why Dean Hall left DayZ then there's an explanation in an interview from early 2014. And months later the topic dominated an on-stage Q&A I did with Dean Hall at EGX Rezzed 2014. I'm linking rather then elaborating because we've more to get through.
When will DayZ be finished?
By 'finished' I mean be released out of Steam Early Access - a place DayZ has been for three years come December.
This is a long answer so bear with it.
"We haven't committed to a physical date yet," says Brian Hicks. "We did release a press release saying that our goal was to hit beta in 2016, and release in 2017. Now it remains to be seen if that's the case; it's a goal we've continued to work for since we set it but ... it's very difficult to predict what is going to break and how severe the change is going to be when we're moving these massive new engine changes in. It's like taking the spine out of a game and putting a new one in: you can't be 100 per cent sure if the immune system is going to reject it initially.
"That said, our CEO and project lead have both begged me 'let's not talk hard dates'. Our focus right now is just the road between here and beta. And beta for us is the implementation of the base features, and then we can switch to bug fixing.
"I feel like we are... a lot of the hard work is behind us and we're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But it remains to be seen how severe the work is going to be once we start pulling those things in. All of our fingers are crossed that it will go smoothly."
He also explains that DayZ beta and 1.0 and are different things.
"Beta for DayZ means a big change in resource allocation," he adds. "Once we hit implementation of all of our base feature set, and Enfusion engine technology merges are complete - we switch from what we are right now (85 per cent feature and tech work, 15 per cent bug fixing) to 85 per cent bug fixing and 15 per cent feature work."
"1.0 means departing from Early Access and the launch of the final game proper. You could call it RTM (Release to Manufacturing) but we're 100 per cent digital, so I just use the term 1.0.
"It is also important to keep in mind that Bohemia Interactive has committed to continued development of DayZ for at least five years, which seems entirely plausible to me, given how even Arma 2 still receives updates.
"Personally, I expect things to pick up once beta is reached. A lot of the perceived 'slowness' of development for DayZ is entirely due to the heavy lifting the team has been doing with the Enfusion engine. It is no small order. Once the major Enfusion engine technologies have been successfully created and merged into DayZ, we should be able to iterate in a quicker fashion than before."
On meeting the targets laid out in a separate DayZ press release, Hicks adds: "There was a press release that went out that talked about our intended goals for beta and 1.0, which I don't think we're too far off from. We're more than likely going to skip a little bit on those but not much I don't think."
Yes, in general, DayZ is taking longer than both you expected and longer than Hall, Hicks and Bohemia expected (even bearing in mind the often overlooked two-point-five-to-three year estimation linked with delivering DayZ).
"I would definitely say it's taken a little bit longer than we expected, definitely," says Hicks. "I don't feel, myself, like it's going to take that much longer. I sit here looking at the work we have ahead and I don't feel overwhelmed at all, not at all - and I'm feeling very good about it."
A bad reputation
DayZ obviously has a reputation problem. You only have to look at the recent DayZ Steam reviews to see that. "983 dayZ later... still waiting," reads one. "Not going to lie, you've had three f**king years to sort your sh*t out, yet you fail to do so," reads another. And they're reviewers who've spent hundreds of hours playing the game. DayZ Steam reviews may be "mostly positive" overall but recently they've dropped to "mixed" - and Steam favours the recent.
The big sticking point has been the Enfusion engine - Bohemia's big new platform for the future. DayZ can't go forward without it but implementing it on the fly is like swapping out parts of a car while hurtling down a motorway. Bloody hard. (DayZ's Eugen Harton wrote a post on on the game's subreddit that highlights the complexity.)
"Back when we first started talking about [the engine], Dean and I both did not have any idea of the sheer scope of what that meant," says Hicks. "And we really couldn't. When you look at it, we've got 15 years of simulation based in the RV engine; we couldn't know all that was tied into that ourselves. That was a huge undertaking."
Perhaps it's because the majority of work on DayZ is being done under the hood that people don't notice all that's going on. DayZ recently implemented the DirectX 11 renderer, for instance, which is perhaps the most important development so far.
"When it comes to communicating things with Early Access development, and especially with such a large undertaking as we went into Early Access with - which is very unique and I think only maybe Rust, to the best of my knowledge, is similar - is that there's no playbook," says Hicks. "Developing something like this, your engine and your game from day-one... I mean, we hit Steam three months into principal development, effectively. Principal development for us started when the team went from just Dean and just two or three guys to a full team working on it full-time.
"For somebody to go into Early Access development three months in from their core development process: that's unprecedented. There was no guide to this, and it has been a learning experience for us."
Speaking of Rust, I've seen many people complain DayZ isn't updated as often, and I put that to Hicks.
"I mean, Rust has been in development longer than DayZ has," he says. "They were in development for a year before they hit Early Access. And they hit Early Access, I don't know, like a week [five days] before us.
"As Garry [Newman] himself said, it's easy for a consumer who doesn't understand the technical hurdles that are going on underneath to think that one's going faster than the other. And people could arguably say that Rust - and have said in the past before Rust moved forward from legacy Rust to what it is today - that they were not updating fast enough. One game's challenges can not be applied to another, especially when they're on completely different technology sets and engines."
People are angry because they care
To Brian Hicks it's the people not paying attention to the fortnightly dev posts that complain most loudly about DayZ not being finished. "And you can't fault them for it," he says. "Three-and-a-half million people: you've got assume a lot of them didn't... they saw some videos on YouTube, they heard some great things and they picked it up. They didn't realise how, to really stay tied into an Early Access game, you've got to read the dev posts and read the forums and such. They didn't realise the participation level that is there to remain informed and active in the development. So I don't fault at all."
To be fair, DayZ carries a clear Early Access warning that dissuades people from buying the game if they're not up for being part of development. Hicks and Hall have broadcasted similar messages themselves. But if that's their stance, why not do a later Early Access release and minimise the growing pains to begin with?
Tricky, isn't it? They didn't want to miss their opportunity, which brought in a lot of money, but in capitalising they ended up upsetting some, maybe a lot, of their fans.
"Honestly, when it comes down to that kind of stuff, when people say that kind of stuff, my personal opinion is just they care - a lot - about the game," says Hicks. "They love the game and they get frustrated. And the internet offers anonymity and they just, you know, they put the words out there. I don't take any of that stuff to heart too much. I understand that they wouldn't be this upset if they didn't love DayZ as much as we did.
"I can understand people get upset and frustrated playing the Early Access builds. It's an incomplete product when it's in Early Access; there are a lot of things that haven't been finished or a lot of old technology on the Steam Branch. It's just an end-user or gamer who wants to get in there and have a good time, and it can be frustrating. I deal with the same things. And I appreciate everyone who's been patient and engaged and I think, I firmly believe, that for everybody that loves DayZ, when we leave Early Access they will all be happy. "