Authenticity vs. reality: designing DayZ

Dean Hall, the creator of zombie survival sensation DayZ, readily admits that he is a strange guy. He opened his talk at the Game Developer’s Conference 2013 with that admission, before diving into the pillars of DayZ’s design, which include an emphasis on authenticity and intense, personal player experience.

Recalling his experiences in the military, including real-life jungle survival training, Hall originally created DayZ as a mod for ARMA II that prioritized the feeling of authenticity over realism. "That’s definitely something I believe strongly in," he said. "The situation being authentic, but not exactly real."

A pillar of DayZ's design is the idea that the potential for loss provides a sense of real value. Players lose all of their gear when they die in-game, and every death is permanent. There’s no "leveling" or character progression aside from gear collected, so dying carries real, painful consequences.

Hall argues that this keen sense of loss is integral to the game’s design and its success.

"People instinctually understand risk," Hall said, noting that this creates a strong sense of ownership in players. When combined with a persistent world, the effect is highly addicting.

This feeds directly into another pillar of the game's design: emotion trumps reason. "I was most captivated by the stories the players were [experiencing]," said Hall, launching into a story one forum poster shared that he called "the last stand." He argued that these personal narratives are powerful precisely because players feel a strong sense of ownership and investment. They also happen through the gameplay, not by artificial means.

"Any story you write will not be as compelling as an unscripted happening between 2 players."

This emphasis on player-driven experience naturally made for a transparent community engagement process. Hall read forums regularly. "I use Reddit, I use 4chan to keep me in check."

"The players know." He said. "They know the game better than you do." He stated that the greatest challenge comes from balancing valuable player feedback with the original vision for a given feature or aspect of the game.

Hall also illustrated the benefits of a top-down development system and his unwillingness to waver on the core design pillars. "Compromising on design will sink your game," He said, noting that he would rather DayZ never come out than have it arrive in a watered down format.

Hall's final word showcased this rigorous mentality. "I don’t think a great game is a collection of features, it’s a mastery of them."

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