As the multiplayer zombie survival game DayZ enters its second full year in Steam's Early Access program, the team behind it faces a number of challenges. After selling millions of copies of an unfinished game how does it keep its fans motivated to see development through to the end? And now that the creator of the game, Dean Hall, is leaving to form his own studio how does the team left behind keep its momentum going?
Polygon reached out to Bohemia Interactive public relations' Matt Lightfoot via email to learn more about the state of affairs in zombie-infested Chernarus.
One year ago last week, early access to the standalone version of DayZ went on sale. The successor to the wildly popular Arma 2 mod sold two million copies by May of the this year. That's 200,000 copies a month for a game that isn't finished, a game that some might say is only just barely playable.
DayZ seems to have a momentum of its own. People keep buying the game, even with Hall telling them not to.
Sales of 200,000 units a month, for a game that isn't finished
"I think if you have to ask [yourself whether or not you should buy it in its current state] the answer is don't buy it," Hall told Polygon in June. "I think it's still just not at that point. I don't think I would recommend it, no."
The DayZ team enters 2015 in a precarious position. In February Hall announced that he would be stepping down as lead developer on DayZ. He's left the developer Bohemia Interactive entirely, returning to his native New Zealand to open his own studio. Earlier this month the price for early access to the game went up to $35, an announcement that angered players. The fallout from the price increase actually drove Hall from the message boards on Reddit.
Deleted my Reddit account. Never coming back. You won, internet. You won.
— Dean Hall (@rocket2guns) November 27, 2014
Needless to say, the DayZ community is a little on edge as it enters the new year.
"I believe that people being tense stems from two things," Lightfoot wrote Polygon. "Firstly, people care about DayZ. Even in the early days when there were less than 10 of us that were making the mod, and no one playing, we used to shout, argue and rage at each other, this is because we cared about DayZ and I believe it's definitely better because of it. The community have always been a part of development, in giving us feedback, ideas and support and this is the good anger. Secondly, some people like to troll."
Along with the price increase, the team at Bohemia announced a laundry list of improvements and enhancements for 2015. Among them a revamped UI, a complete overhaul of zombie AI and the implementation of multiple new vehicles, including helicopters. But many players continue to be frustrated at the overall lack of polish in the game.
The DayZ community is on edge...
Lightfoot says that's just the nature of how they've chosen to develop the game in the early access model.
"I understand the frustration," he said. "However we don't want to invest time into features that would just have a short term benefit. Due to the success of the mod, DayZ [standalone] has loftier goals. From the beginning we chose to change large parts of the underlying technology to support our vision, and make the best game possible. We don't want to invest time to remake a system on old technology, and then have to go back later redo it all again.
"There are still quite a few systems and features that the mod possess that the standalone game doesn't yet, however as people can see from our project plan, most of these aren't far off being implemented into the standalone. The reason we decided to redo most of the features for DayZ standalone is because they weren't implemented in the best manner in the mod, this takes time."
Lightfoot went on to say that DayZ was released to early access well ahead of where other game may have been.
"This is not a normal early access title that is released 6-12 months before being almost done. DayZ was really early in development, we released it as early as possible, and we will continue to improve and develop it."
... even as the player count keeps increasing
As far as the continued momentum of the franchise, Lightfoot wasn't able to share current sales numbers but he was able to comment on the liveliness of the playerbase. Even a year into early access, the number of people wandering the woods searching for tins of beans continues to rise.
"Over the past month we have seen an increase in the amount of people playing DayZ per month rise by over 40 percent," Lightfoot said. "900,000 people that played the game during October [while] 1,300,000 people that played DayZ during November. With some of the features we have just put into the game — like our first vehicle, some new weapons and new diseases, as well as some of our upcoming planned features, more vehicles and a new renderer both planned for the first quarter next year — I believe interest can only increase."
One of the many unique aspects of DayZ is that not all of the servers are sponsored by the developer. While player progress is tracked globally through a central server by the team at Bohemia, players are free to rent their own servers through through authorized game service providers.
Finding a stable experience out of the gate can be one of the biggest obstacles for new players, and Lightfoot had a few recommendations for those looking to get in on the action sooner than later.
"There are plenty of servers with different communities," Lightfoot said. "If you are looking to play with communities then there are plenty of groups that are looking for new friendly members on the DayZ forums, or the DayZ LFG subreddit. There are also plenty of other servers that are looking for new people both on the DayZ forums and the server subreddit."
By late next year the DayZ team plans to have a playable alpha on the PlayStation 4, and to release the final version of the game on PC by early 2016. In order to keep moving forward, and to keep the community happy, Lightfoot says that 2015 is all about keeping the lines of communication open.
"We try to keep people as in the loop as possible, with our status reports at DayZ.com, the official DayZ forums and Twitter. As part of this we also have to manage expectations, correct rumours and be honest with the playerbase.
"Doing these things will be the best way to ensure the community understands our plans and reasoning so that they trust that we are making the right decisions in the development of DayZ."
Correction: Several changes have been made to this article to improve accuracy, including the connected nature of DayZ servers and the channels through which the development team shares information with the community.