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Survival game pioneer Dean Hall is trying to reinvent the genre (again)

‘I have unfinished business with the genre’

A spaceman wearing a full pressure suit lugs the carcass of a huge dear away from his landing pod. Image: Rocketwerkz
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Dean Hall didn’t invent survival games, but the success of his DayZ mod for Arma 2 changed the genre forever. You can draw a direct line from the release of DayZ in 2012 to smash hits like Ark: Survival Evolved, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite, and Valheim.

That original zombie-themed survival game — now available as a stand-alone experience for Windows PC and consoles — still looms over him like a shadow. Hall left developer Bohemia Interactive long before that version of DayZ was ready to be released. Even today, many of his original design goals for that groundbreaking game remain on the drawing board. That’s why all eyes are on his mysterious new project, a game called Icarus.

“I have unfinished business with the genre,” Hall told me earlier this week during a guided tour of Icarus. After wandering around with him for a while and chatting, I left with more questions than answers.

In Icarus, players take on the role of an astronaut visiting a hostile planet for the first time. They’re not alone, of course. The game can be played with up to seven other companions on the same server, but thematically, there might be hundreds or maybe thousands of other astronauts in orbit alongside them. Each one is waiting for a chance to take a contract and start a time-limited mission on the planet below.

The result is quite the strange tableau. There’s a pastoral, mountainous landscape handcrafted by the staff of Hall’s new company, Rocketwerkz. Procedurally generated trees and stones are waiting to be harvested. There are wide fields of wildflowers and crisp, cold, running streams filled with fish. Then there’s the handful of astronauts, all wearing head-to-toe pressure suits, their faces invisible behind tinted masks — and they’re all banging away with stone tools or squatting inside ramshackle log houses. They crush up rocks and smash them into their backpacks in order to breathe.

It all seems a little undignified for a bunch of spacemen, but Hall told me that this elaborate conceit is all part of his master plan to revitalize the survival genre. The secret, he said, is Icarus’ session-based gameplay.

Players can hang out in orbit for as long as they like, but there’s not all that much to do there besides crafting. Crafting materials come from visiting the surface of the planet while on missions, and every mission is on a timer. For instance, the mission that I joined Hall on was set to play out over the course of two real-world days. Players are free to drop in and out of the game world however many times they want over those two days, Hall told me. They can spend their time harvesting materials or building structures to meet their goals, either alone or with a small group of friends. But, at the end of those two days, they had best be headed back into orbit. Otherwise, they’ll get left behind to die.

A spaceman in a full pressure suit walks along a crisp mountain river. There’s another planet on the horizon. Image: Rocketwerkz

“The huge advantages of session-based survival,” Hall said, “is really to solve the core problems that we see with survival games. They tend to break, right? They tend to break from a technical standpoint because you’ve built too much in your time playing the game, particularly in one spot. And they also break from a game economic standpoint. There’s this tipping point when the world is no longer dangerous and it just gets boring.”

The reason that all the players are astronauts is to impose an in-fiction restriction on how much stuff they can carry — both in their pockets on the way down from orbit, and in the payload of their small landing craft when they leave the planet’s surface.

“By breaking it into a gameplay session, you can amass more and more stuff in orbit,” Hall explained. “But you can only take a certain amount down with you on each drop, which is very important, because that means you’re making some decisions about what you take in your backpack.”

By tinkering with those restrictions on carrying weight and spaceship payloads — and with the locations on the alien planet where missions take place — Hall is confident that he can introduce players to new and unexpected survival gameplay scenarios. In his mind, that makes Icarus more than a game. He calls it a platform.

A spaceman wearing furs and carrying a bow and arrow takes aim on the side of a snowy mountain. Image: Rocketwerkz

Thinking of Icarus as a platform, he explained, yields both narrative and technical advantages. Take Ark: Survival Evolved, for instance. It places players on a prehistoric world where they live their entire in-game lives, start to finish. If players want to have new experiences — something other than chasing dinosaurs along a beach, say — they have to physically travel to get there. Introducing something new right in front of them would be jarring and out of context. But it might also literally break the game, causing it to crash or ruining the experience for other players on the server. By contrast, Icarus will simply bring players back up to orbit on a regular basis, then give them a choice of several new and different experiences they could have on the surface.

What those experiences might be, Hall isn’t saying right now. But, given his platform model, they could be anything: a dungeon-crawling scenario, a mine cart level, or a player-versus-player battle royale. These new experiences won’t just materialize out of thin air. Hall reckons that instead he’ll invite players to drop in someplace new directly from orbit. They’ll be carrying whatever they think they need to survive, or leaving enough room in their capsule to take some hard-earned loot back home with them. It’s up to him and his team of 70 developers to make the experience memorable enough that players want to come back.

That’s also why he’s breaking Icarus up into chapters. The initial one, subtitled First Cohort, will provide players with very traditional survival gameplay. Land on a hostile planet, forage for supplies, find a big pile of rare materials, and ferry them back into orbit to be transformed into high-end equipment. There will be player-built bases, vehicles, and lots of other things that were initially promised in DayZ.

Then, at some point later on, a second chapter will open. Called New Frontiers, it will drop players into ever more alien settings on the planetary surface. Finally, the Dangerous Horizons chapter will contain the most threatening biomes of all.

“When we talk about endgame,” Hall told me, “the idea is to [...] introduce to the players lots of different session types, experiences that the player can have. The challenge for the player, I suppose, is he’s constantly evolving to new survival experiences that we bring in. Think of it like World of Warcraft, being able to introduce new raids and new quest lines. That’s what sessionizing the survival game does — in addition to giving players this really clear sense of what they’re doing.”

This time, Hall said, he’s committed to making all of the features in this game work as intended. During my one-hour experience, the illusion held together fairly well. The sun moved across the sky, providing for stunning reflections on the dappled waves and an atmospheric sunset at the end of our first day together. We hunted deer, dressed them in the field, and then cooked steaks along the shoreline. A violent storm passed overhead, causing the timbers in our little shack to creak.

That’s when a bear leapt from the woods, set itself ablaze, and mauled me nearly to death ... just as it was designed to. A team of Rocketwerkz employees, hiding invisibly in the bushes with rifles, put the monster down before giving me first aid.

But the questions remain: Will the missions themselves feel compelling and fair? Will these new alien biomes offer a thrilling new world to explore, or comprise dull jungles filled with inscrutable flora and fauna? And how much — if anything — will the game cost? Hall initially said it would be free-to-play, but now he’s not so sure. Will the next two chapters be available at the same time? How much, if anything, will they cost?

He said it all depends on what fans want.

“It’s definitely been my desire to make a free-to-play game,” Hall said. “But we want to make sure that every step we take is really carefully considered with the community.”

Expect to learn more about what Icarus is capable of on Thursday night, when Rocketwerkz will stream a live gameplay premiere on Twitch starting at 8 p.m. EDT.