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."

More from Polygon

The horror of Five Nights at Freddy's

  • Dark Souls 2: Crown of the Old Iron King Overview

  • Spacecom: a fast 4X built for multiplayer

  • Pillars of Eternity builds on role-playing classics

  • Tour the 1 KB hard drive built inside Minecraft

Latest Discussions

Log In Sign Up

Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new Polygon username and password

As part of the new Polygon launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to Polygon going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new Polygon username and password

As part of the new Polygon launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to Polygon going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.



Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.