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Unfinished, unfair and brutally difficult: What developers should steal from DayZ

Now available for $29.99, the open-world, standalone version of DayZ – based on the popular ARMA 2 mod with the same name – has sold over 172,000 in its first day of sales through both the official site and Steam.

The game still tops the best-sellers list on Steam in fact, beating out popular, less expensive games and big-name franchises that have been offered with massive discounts in the previous weeks.

I’ve been playing the game with some friends and it’s an interesting beast. DayZ is now at version 0.3 or so, and is clearly unfinished. In some ways it’s barely working: Your axe will often make gunshot noises, zombies can clip through the floor, and the game can feel unresponsive and hard to play. It’s not a welcoming experience. I was addicted within hours.

The success of DayZ mirrors the success of Minecraft in many ways, although the games may not seem similar at first blush. Minecraft has spawned a small army of imitators, some of which are quite good, but no other game exemplifies the true lessons of Minecraft as well as DayZ.

There’s not much land to be tilled by trying to directly duplicate DayZ, and we’ve already seen the trainwreck that was WarZ’s cash grab, so let’s take a step back and look at the broader lessons of the game, and see what others can do to try to grab a piece of the pie. This is fertile ground for innovation and other developers are likely to move in, but it’s important to understand why DayZ is so important and popular instead of trying to cop the game’s feel and setting without knowing why players have responded so strongly.

Imitators will see an open-world zombie game, and think that's the take away.

Unfinished games are now a valid business strategy

This is a controversial one, but you need only look at popular games such as Starbound, Don’t Starve, Planetary Annihilation, DayZ, Nuclear Throne, Rust and Kerbal Space Program to see how many people are taking advantage of the ability to sell a game before it’s "done," and making their community part of the development effort.

Minecraft may have helped popularize the idea of continuing to add features to a game after its "release," but the Steam early access program provided structure and a home for games that were ready for players, but not ready to be considered finished, polished products.

You take your gaming time in your hands by playing early access games, as many features are missing or don’t work, crashes can be common, and each patch brings the game closer to a "finished" state, but the process often feels like listening to the demos of your favorite bands as they’re in the studio recording.

It's not for everyone, but games and developers with a strong track record are more than comfortable using sales of works in progress to help fund the rest of the game. It’s important that customers understand what they’re getting when they purchase an early access game, pay for a beta, or otherwise interact with these works in progress, but it’s no longer necessary for your game to be 100 percent finished to begin selling it to a waiting and hungry public.

The feedback from these players, taken from the game’s data or the community forums on Steam, can even help guide development itself. With care on the side of developers, and a little research on the part of players before they buy, this system is a win for everyone involved.

And if you’re not interested in playing a game before it’s finished? You don’t have to. Just wait for the official release and enjoy a more polished product. The rest of us will be having fun with the messy, but oftentimes exhilarating, early versions of some very enjoyable games.

It’s okay to remove the training wheels

Modern games usually feature tedious tutorial levels where we’re taught which button makes the character crouch, or worse talking heads that jump into the experience every five minutes to explain what’s going on and what has to happen next. Your hand isn’t held, it’s crushed, and then you’re shoved in the right direction.

Even open-world games such as the Grand Theft Auto series are simply story missions surrounded by optional objectives in a large environment. You have the choice of which order to tackle the content, or what you can safely ignore, but you’re never "free." You’re kept in place by the game's systems, and your interactions are pre-determined by the game’s designers.

DayZ, on the other hand, does almost nothing to teach you how the game is played, much less "won." You can join a server only to be lost in the dead of night, to be quickly killed by zombies. Or you can spend an hour scavenging for supplies only to have a well-placed bullet from an unseen adversary end your character's life. There is nothing fair about it.

If you encounter a group of survivors that is better equipped, you are likely to die. The game is not interested in evening the odds. It simply presents the landscape, and sets you free. DayZ is refreshingly indifferent to your existence.

There is no right or wrong way to play. Do you want to collect as much gear as you can and see how long you can survive? That’s fine. Do you kill other players and steal their gear? That’s perfectly valid. None of this is explained in the game, and you don’t even decide where to spawn when you first play a character.

Figuring out where you are by reading signs and looking for landmarks while looking at an external map on your laptop or tablet is part of the fun, and then trying to survive long enough to bring the players together … these are all distinct challenges.

You have to learn how to survive in this world, and the world does not give a single shit about trying to teach you how to do so. Each player picks up the same set of skills, but they feel earned, not given. That’s a powerful thing to present to each player.

Life is not fair

There are strategies for the metagame, including the act of spawning into a low-population server, collecting as much gear as you can relatively unmolested, finding your friends, and then moving into a higher population server to terrorize the players who are just looking for a canteen. It’s not fair, but then again, life is not fair. Might makes right.

Someone asked me if they had fixed the "trolling and ganking" in the standalone version of the game. I had to explain that the game consists of trolling and ganking. Players have very little reason to trust each other, and many reasons to kill each other. It’s very hard to be the "good guy," which is a scary thing to take away from a simulation of the apocalypse.

EVE Online is another game that has benefited from the act of sitting back while the players learn how lucrative it can be to lie, cheat and steal. There is limited law in EVE Online, but overall the person who has the most friends and the most powerful ships gets to decide how the world operates. It’s not a game to play if you want things to be fair, it’s a game to play if you want to use every tool at your disposal to move the odds to your favor.

I’ve been chased down by groups of three people only to be beaten to death for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve helped my friend flush someone out of a house only to put a round in his head because we wanted to keep an unlooted area for ourselves. There is power in numbers, and a gun may mean nothing if it doesn’t have any bullets.

When someone points a firearm in your direction, and you’re scared of losing your loot if you die, it may just come down to how lucky you’re feeling. Your response to the threat, and their decision to make it, are not based on any of the game’s ideas of fairness or balance. It’s just people trying to survive. No achievements, no points and no levels, nothing to gain or lose in the greater game.

It may not be fair, but it’s certainly freeing.

So what did we learn?

I could go on and on about the clever design decisions of DayZ, including the local chat that allows everyone you meet to communicate, threaten, or coerce everyone else as long as they’re within visual range. If you’re hiding from someone, it’s important to actually shut up if you want them to think you’ve left.

Or you could unplug your microphone, but what fun is that?

The game can also be deeply boring. You have to be into role-playing as a survivor, and it can often feel like a walking simulator. You can go hours between seeing another human being, and at that point your time is spent going through barren houses looking for a better backpack or more ammunition. The minute to minute action can be boring, and often frustrating.

An open door usually means a building has been looted, so you can troll other players by closing the doors as you leave. This will cause them to waste their time looking for items in empty buildings. Does this sound fun? It can be, but it’s hard to describe if you haven’t played the game. You have to make your own fun, and that’s often at the expense of the other players, or perhaps due to their actions towards you. It’s a playground for the perverse.

So if you strip the game to the bone and compare it to Minecraft, the other giant indie success story of the past few years, the trends are certainly there to be explored. Sell a game before it’s done, invite players into an unfinished world and then build it around them, as they play and learn.

It’s a playground for the perverse.

Allow them to uncover the rules and play of your world on their own terms, and keep the guidance minimal, if it’s there at all. Don’t be worried about making the game fair as much as you should make the world feel dynamic and reactive. Remove the training wheels, and let your players tell you what the game is, and what it should be. Not the other way around.

If more developers built a playground instead of shooting a movie, we’d have many more of these success stories, and likely at least a few more brilliant games that share the success of DayZ and Minecraft. Focus on the core lessons, not the superficial trappings. I can’t wait to play the results.

The next level of puzzles.

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