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DayZ's Dean Hall on the risks and rewards of an open development process

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

The makers of DayZ decided to be open with their fans from the start about the development process, and while they've hit some bumps in the road, they're learning from their mistakes and they wouldn't want to do it any other way.

According to project lead Dean Hall, who created DayZ as a mod of Bohemia Interactive's Arma 2 before the studio hired him to turn the mod into its own game, he and Bohemia CEO Marek Spanel had the same ideas about how to make DayZ.

"Marek really liked the process we had with the mod, in terms of communicating," said Hall in an interview with Polygon at PAX East 2013. "So that was where the decision was to be really open."

Bohemia provides regular updates on the development process through a Tumblr page for DayZ, and Hall noted that while the community was relatively small when DayZ was just a mod, the developers now have a much higher profile. Hall admitted that "there've been a couple of big failures in terms of our community engagement" — most notably, where release dates are concerned. Hall said last fall that an alpha version of DayZ would be available in December 2012, then estimated it would be released this April, but told us that Bohemia is now planning to evaluate the state of the alpha in June and launch it at some point afterward.

"there've been a couple of big failures in terms of our community engagement"

"[Spanel] sort of felt we were always honest," Hall explained, adding that the studio head is willing to forgive the team's mistakes as long as it isn't repeating them. Still, regardless of the missteps themselves, Hall made no bones about his disappointment at missing the announced dates.

"I think that DayZ is hurt by not being out by now," he said. "But we've talked about it, and we're OK with that. We'd rather there be less sales than the game be a [bad] game."

Bohemia is still in the process of developing DayZ's client-server architecture, a massive departure from the mod; it's the biggest hurdle the studio has to clear before it can release the alpha. The developers are building the game's engine this way to combat the performance problems and hacking that the mod suffers from.

"We're going into a couple of [development] sprints over the next two months, and so we're going to review the situation in June as to where we're at with the alpha release," said Hall, explaining that the current plan is to release the alpha sometime after that.

"We talked about doing a release without it, because we could, but we just feel like we need that," Hall added. "We could only really solve the issues of the mod if the engine was completely redesigned."

"DayZ is hurt by not being out by now, but ... we're OK with that"

Hall was just as forthright during the DayZ panel later that day. He and production assistant Matt Lightfoot began the session with a live demo of a work-in-progress build of the game — "there's plenty that's sort of broken with it," Hall noted — to show off how different it is from the mod. On a number of occasions, Hall mentioned a new feature and then warned the packed panel room that it wouldn't be available until some time in the future. The developers are hoping to add vehicles, but wouldn't be able to get to it until August or September. And while they eventually want to implement underground base-building for instanced gameplay resembling Skyrim dungeons, that wouldn't be available until a year after the alpha at the earliest.

Bohemia is experimenting with an aiming mode in which you have to hold a button to bring your gun up; by default, you'd walk around with it facing downward. A change that drew cheers from the audience was the revamped inventory, which Hall said was inspired by X-COM: UFO Defense. And the alpha will initially feature fewer weapons than the mod, so "your reliance on melee is going to be quite high," said Hall.

After completing the demo and talking at the fans in attendance, Hall turned the panel into a dialogue: He and Lightfoot dedicated the entire second half of the panel to a Q&A session, another instance of Bohemia's desire to involve the community in the development of DayZ.

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