Dean Hall is a natural born risk taker.
He didn't just enlist in the New Zealand Air Force. He endured a month-long survival training exercise in Brunei that turned his fingernails yellow. He didn't just start making maps and mods for games when his service was done. He moved to Prague to make DayZ. And when he took a vacation from development last year, he didn't lounge on a beach. He climbed Mount Everest.
Telling Dean Hall not to take a risk is like telling Robert Frost to take the path most traveled. Their DNA would rebel.
Last December, after years of work, he and the DayZ development team at Bohemia Interactive took the latest in a series of risks and released an unfinished, standalone version of the game on Steam Early Access.
Hall and the DayZ development team spent 2013 rebuilding the game and its reputation after an often difficult 2012. By the end of 2013, they were satisfied with their progress and ready to release it to the world. But nobody quite knew what to expect when releasing a game that they fully acknowledged was still in active development.
Hall thought it'd maybe sell 250,000 units. Bohemia CEO Marek Spanel had a more optimistic prediction of 300,000. They were both wrong. In its first month on Steam Early Access, DayZ sold more than 1 million copies.
In the wake of that sales success, Polygon spoke with Hall about the game, how its early sales will affect development and why he believes that following his natural predilection for risk produced a mandate not just for DayZ's future but his future as a developer.
"I'll tend to go for the risky option."
To Dean Hall, more than anything, the sales mean vindication. They mean that the open-world survival game's deliberately adventurous development pays dividends. They mean that the plan worked, that the developers could learn from their mistakes, that taking risks pays off. But the path to vindication was neither simple nor easy. Hall is quick to acknowledge that risk doesn't always pay off. He knows this from experience because the story of DayZ's recent triumph is rooted in frustration.
"I'm a natural risk taker," Hall told Polygon. "If I have control over a project, that's what I naturally push. I'll tend to go for the risky option, when we're developing."
Sometimes, like last December, that strategy pays off. Other times, it creates its own problems. Just a year before its December 2013 success, DayZ was far less presentable and its future less clear.
"Certainly, in December 2012, it was looking like the risk that had been taken was a — perhaps Bohemia will disagree with me — but from my perspective it was almost a catastrophic disaster because we didn't really have much at all for the risks that had been taken," he said.
"If you can't get the core right in that early stage, then it's just not going to be good."
Hall and the development team spent much of 2013 deciding exactly what the game would be, with an eye toward releasing it in an early form by the end of the year. He still wanted to ship DayZ during active development, but not until the foundations of the final game were apparent. Laying those foundations became the theme of the year.
In early 2013, the development team had "a couple of great big wins," he said, but that didn't necessarily set the tone for the rest of the year. Showing off the game at E3 2013 in June helped him realized that there was more work to be done, as he found himself apologizing for parts of the game and assuring players it would change. As he put it, the play testing showed that the development team was "heading in the wrong direction with some stuff." Again, at Gamescom in August, they watched people play DayZ and understood that more needed to change. Releasing the game at this point would have violated his own rule because "the core," as he calls it, wasn't there yet.
Figuring out the kind of project that's right for Early Access is something Hall has thought a lot about. Guided by the conviction that releasing the game on Early Access was the right path, DayZ's developers continued to work toward the goal of releasing the game by the end of the year.
"From my perspective, the most important thing to me — as a consumer and as a developer — was always a playable concept that was fun," he said. "There are a couple of Early Access games that I've played, and the concept wasn't fun. You can say that it's alpha or it's beta or whatever, but I honestly think that, if it's not fun — if it's too much clicking or whatever — it's just not enjoyable at its core, then I don't think that it's going to be a good game later on. If you can't get the core right in that early stage, then it's just not going to be good."
In December, satisfied that their criteria had been met, the developers released DayZ for everyone. Except that's not entirely true. DayZ as it exists now isn't designed for everyone, really, and Hall wanted to make sure that people knew that before its release.
"Sometimes, the messaging had been quite mixed."
In the last couple of years, several games from several established developers have broken down at launch. Games like Battlefield 4, Grand Theft Auto Online and SimCity buckled under the weight of their launches. Hall studied several troubled games and their developer's reaction to them. He didn't want to repeat any mistakes — his or others — so he began a process of managing expectations and reaching out to potential players. The idea, he said, was to let them know exactly what they'd get from the Early Access version of DayZ.
"I think it was a lot better than [how] I'd handled the messaging a bit earlier," Hall said. "Sometimes, the messaging had been quite mixed. Earlier on in 2013 was a very difficult time."
He and the development team would be to make it perfectly clear that the version of DayZ that launched late last year just wasn't for everybody. It would appeal, however, to a certain subset of players who wanted to join early and affect the game's development. Based on user feedback, he believes it worked.
"I think we have been successful with it," he said. "I certainly haven't noticed a lot of push-back. I think the Steam reviews have been good. The reviews from gaming media have been great. The first thing they're doing is acknowledging is that it's maybe not the best purchase right now, but for people who are looking to be part of that experience, then it's great. That was exactly the message we wanted to get across. And that's been very consistent."
Even DayZ's $29.99 Early Access price was designed to both welcome certain players and let others know that it might not be worth it right now.
"We changed the price right up until the day before — drastically," he said. "I think the price was right because it was high enough to discourage people who were maybe on the edge and just low enough that people didn't feel ripped off."
"I felt like I could be very honest about the problems we had."
It's not that Hall didn't want people to play DayZ. It's that he wanted the people who played DayZ to know what they were getting for the price. It's also why he wanted to take the game to Steam Early Access rather than Kickstarter as part of its development. It's what he prefers both as a developer and a player.
"For me, personally," he said, "I've found the Early Access route a bit more satisfying because I felt like I could be very honest about the problems we had — delays and things like that — without feeling like I was responsible to the other people for that. Obviously, I was responsible for their expectations and dashing them, but I wasn't financially responsible to them. If it took us an extra 12 months to make it, that was money that we lose from the sales. It's not money that other people are losing."
The way he sees it, those who buy games at early stages are like investors, and he'd rather provide a product when players invest in his game, rather than make them wait for it. After all, if you're going to jam a finger in the eye of the traditional publishing model, you should have something to show for it.
"If you're paying for something, you should get something," he said. "For me, Early Access provides that. You get the experience early. You get to be part of the process. And, in fact, you get a discount. It's not a pre-order. You're buying the experience then. That's what I got with Minecraft, that's what I got with Prison Architect, that's what I get with Project Zomboid. I'm a junkie for these types of alpha games."
"If you're paying for something, you should get something."
Up until December, this was all academic. Dean Hall thought this was the right way to do things, and he thought that players would respond. A million or so did.
So what happens now that DayZ has something 1 million players? Will that change the game? It's a complicated answer.
Regardless of how DayZ fared on Steam Early Access, its developers already planned to finalize the development roadmap in January, figuring out what to do based on their successes and failures. But now they get to do that with more players than anyone imagined.
"The remainder of 2014, the idea was to reevaluate, based on the areas and areas of failure," he said. "There've obviously been some things that have gone very, very well. There've been other things that, thus far, have kind of been a failure for us. So it's really about reevaluating the whole picture."
In other words, the academic nature of developing an unreleased game is shifting now that DayZ is in the wild.
"Now, it's not just guesses," he said. "It's actual metrics. We've got a million players that we can look at and say, 'OK, well this is what they did, based on everything."
That was going to happen, no matter how many people played the game. The biggest developmental difference might be of Hall's perspective, on how he thinks about DayZ and where it's going. And that did change because of the sales, which Hall sees as a vindication of the risks he and Bohemia have taken.
"The sales of that were pretty good, so we're going to think about the future."
"I guess the success and the changes mean that we needed to take sock of longer term issues," he said. "Because, really, it just fully validated the whole concept within a month, which is great because normally — and certainly with the other projects I've worked on — it could take six months to a year before you say, 'Yeah, OK, the sales of that were pretty good, so we're going to think about the future. I think that, because of the success of [DayZ's] strong sales, from a corporate perspective, Bohemia was ready to go, 'OK, this is is a big deal for us. This is a big deal for us longterm, so let's start doing that now.'
"That's made the brainstorming process a little bit longer. And also we've used that time to work on bugs and get as much information the current state of the game as we could."
DayZ's current high is as much of a personal success as anything else to Hall. The team he leads is small and nimble by design. They don't devote their time to creating cinematic trailers or incredible websites, he said. Instead, they focus on the game. Hall says he's still learning and will continue to learn from players. DayZ's first month means that he has a mandate to keep doing exactly that. That means that Dean Hall gets to stay exactly where he wants to be: working on the game he wants to make. His plan succeeded, and he believes it can succeed again.
That is why, ultimately, DayZ's sales' biggest impact might not be on the game itself. Their biggest impact might be on its creator, Dean Hall, the natural born risk taker.
"I thought I would be one of those guys who would go out and buy a Lamborghini or something."
"The greatest thing for me was," he said, "I guess, with the success of it, I didn't really have the expectation I did. I thought I would be one of those guys who would go out and buy a Lamborghini or something. But I didn't. I think, for me, literally the first thing I thought was, 'Great. This means I can make all the games I've always wanted, and I don't have to rely on anyone else. I can spend years blowing that money, just make the games I want, and completely ignore anyone who's telling me I'm crazy. And I think, for me, that was the biggest reward I got out of the situation.
"I believe they call it 'fuck you money,' right?" he said with a laugh and the rest of his career in mind.