Beyond DayZ: Dean Hall on Early Access, self-funding, and the next big thing

Dean Hall was on stage at Microsoft's E3 press conference this year to unveil a name and a teaser for his new studio's brand new game, Ion. But despite his role in helping Microsoft announce their own Early Access-style initiative with Xbox Game Preview, the native New Zealander who made his name as the brain behind the wildly successful DayZ hasn't gone full corporate yet. I ask him about the boring particulars that games press have to poke their interview subjects about, topics that have nothing to do with anything interesting — official game assets, company logos, the kind of thing that let me frame a 4,000 word interview in more than white space.

Unfortunately, Hall can't help me. "I'm afraid we don't," Hall replies when I ask for Ion logos and such. "We don't even have a logo for RocketWerkz yet. I keep firing our branding company. We've got two games in development — quite advanced development — but no logo."

"That's very RocketWerkz."

I had the opportunity to sit down with Hall on the first official day of E3. We talked about Early Access, where DayZ went right and wrong, Kickstarter, crowd-funding, Microsoft's commitment to the PC space, how much of his own money he's put into Ion, and even how to bring a little civilization to the survival game genre.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

So you're going back to New Zealand tonight?

Back to London, actually.

Is that where you're based now?

Yeah. The New Zealand team is doing a project in New Zealand. There's five people there. It'll be seven in the next few days. There's a team of 25-ish in London.

So you have multiple projects going on.That's a big change of pace from working on what was ostensibly a mod that became the thing that dominated the conversation for a long time. What's it been like to grow from the DayZ era to what you're doing now, someone who's leading two teams?

I learned a lot about early access. We all have. There are no wise old men with early access. I've been trying to apply some of those things. What I wanted to do was make games that I wanted to play. I can't really do that by just making one game every three years. The idea was to find some talented people with good ideas and go forward with those.

That's been one of the most awesome things about running Ion. We just found really good people, working with Improbable in London. It's been fantastic, a bunch of really smart guys making technology. They were looking for some stuff to do. I had some spare cash and an idea. We turned that into a proper prototype and then rolled it into production.

Touching on early access a bit, a lot of people feel like something like DayZ is the ideal of what early access is, with this really compelling, interesting core that grew to be more over time. But I think we've seen early access get sort of banged around a lot since DayZ debuted. As one of the poster children for Xbox Game Preview, did they ask you for feedback on what that should be?

I actually worked with them on it for quite a while. I'd probably have to revise the description of DayZ a bit. I'd say Kerbal Space Program is the perfect example. DayZ — In some ways it's ... it's not a problem child of early access, but it got so big. It got so popular so fast. It's a first-person shooter game. People have an expectation of it.

Whereas if you look at Kerbal Space Program, they don't, not in the same way. It's not that I think DayZ was bad or anything, but it does help highlight some of those potential pitfalls. I don't think it has the problem Towns did — which got pulled out, though I think it's being redeveloped again (ed's note: the most recent update listed on Towns' Steam page dates to September 2014).

dean hall feature image 1
"When I was in charge of DayZ, we didn't have a good road map"

Initially, with Microsoft, I was quite surprised that they had the appetite for risk to look at it. But it felt like they were really hungry to do something different, which is what I think excited me. They were looking to PC and saying "a whole bunch of things are really working on PC. What can we do with those things?" That was really interesting. They asked for a lot of feedback and I gave them a lot of feedback. We've been talking for quite a while.

Is there anything you feel is problematic with the concept of early access right now, something you're hoping another player might be able to fix?

I guess the simple way to solve it is by being selective about the people involved in the process. Xbox One as a platform has quite an element of that. Microsoft has a walled garden. They're very particular. That'll help them quite a bit. Anyone they're looking into bringing on, they're going to be putting the thumb down on them to make sure things actually happen. They want it to be a success story. I guess Steam is further down the track. They're trying to grow an environment where they don't have to be the police.

dean hall feature image 2
Towns, 2012

For me, I learned one big thing: you need to have a good road map. When I was in charge of DayZ, we didn't have a good road map. That's a huge pitfall. People get excited about the end result of it, like Kickstarter, right? But they don't know all the steps it takes to get there. That was a huge lesson for me, doing a really good road map.

Do you think there are any dangers in that sort of curated approach to an early access platform?

I think there are, because philosophically, do we really want to rely on Valve to be the arbiter of what should and shouldn't be? Or Microsoft or Sony or anybody? I get Valve's approach. They're awesome to work with. I love working with the Valve guys. They've been huge mentors to me.

"I both love and hate early access"

Steam refunds goes a long way to help them with that. It gives people an out. The only issue is, and this is maybe the big risk, a lot of the people who end up dissatisfied — say with DayZ — they don't end up dissatisfied after two hours. They're dissatisfied because the game's progress is slower than they expect. It might be that the game is developing at a normal development pace, but it's going slower than their expectations.

Do you think that there's a good way to hold developers accountable in that situation? Or is that just something we'll have to deal with in early access?

I like Steam reviews in general. Sometimes you get some really annoying ones. But that helps. My hope is that consumers, more and more, say "I won't buy this unless it's good." Money talks. That's what drives what publishers make. If people don't buy bad games, if I make a bad game and people don't buy it, I won't be able to make another game again. That's a very powerful thing. But it's hard to achieve that change.

ion image 1

To speak to the counter to that, a lot of early access games that have gotten big started out bad.

Yes, or released too early.

Or to a lesser extent, there are lots of unproven entities trying to do this stuff.

Honestly, I'm of two minds about it. On one hand, I look at DayZ. It gets really frustrating. You get people who are very upset with the development. And that's why, to be honest, Steam refunds are a bit of a godsend. At least you can say, if someone's dissatisfied in two hours they can return it, and you haven't lost a future customer. But for people who have played longer than that, it can get quite frustrating.

Kerbal Space Program, I played it a long time ago, and it was incredibly buggy. There was very little to do in it. And yet I played it and I was like, wow, I can't wait to see where this comes from. If it got really huge very early on, it might have gotten a bit more negativity around it.

Honestly, I don't know the answer. I both love and hate early access.

dean hall feature image 3 Prison Architect, 2012

Yeah, I think that's a fair statement.

Like Prison Architect. Introversion, would they still be around if Prison Architect wasn't successful?

With stuff like Kerbal Space Program, it was the idea of early access before early access was a codified thing.

And Minecraft.

You haven't had a ton of experience with "triple-A" game development, but I think you've gotten a lot of hands-on experience with development in general. Do you feel like the idea of an early access game fundamentally changes the way that game is developed?

Absolutely. This is one of the things I love about it. It's hard to explain this to customers. Take Kerbal Space Program, because it's a good example and people understand it. DayZ maybe has some politics around it. Kerbal Space Program, when it started — I know Felipe quite well. It was a very small scope for a game. If they had just stayed in a room and finished it, that's what it would have stayed as. You might have had incremental changes to Kerbal Space Program 2. But because they had this small idea and it started to explode, they just started increasing the scope as it went.

I love that as a game developer. I don't like us saying, oh, well, this is our scope, this is our budget, everything else gets put in the sequel. It's nice to be able to be agile about it. With Ion, for example, we're being really agile about how we approach it. Have you played Besiege?

No, but I know what it is.

I think they did a really polished game. They had a small scope, but they polished it a lot. That helped, because you play it and you think, okay, there's not a lot there, but I like what's there and I really want more. That, to me — I think that's the secret recipe for early access.

Do you think that the best early access games have to rely on that really strong central concept and mechanic?

Yes, I think so. That's a pretty good way to sum it up. I'd maybe use the cautionary tale of Godus, by Peter Molyneux. It wasn't fun. If it's not fun — If you don't play it and say, wow, I really want more of that, then I think that people aren't going to identify with it at all.

Were you surprised that the conversations you had with console early access were with Microsoft and not Sony?

"I was quite surprised that (Microsoft) had the appetite for risk"

Yeah. I mean, I grew up on Microsoft Flight Simulator. To me they're the grandfather of PC gaming. I've been kind of waiting for their second coming. To be able to talk about things like Xbox Game Preview, about Windows 10 — Like, really. Not like Games for Windows Live, but to hear Microsoft saying that PC is important to them for gaming. That was a surprise but it was a very welcome one.

Do you think they're doing what they need to do, or have the plans in motion, to show the PC audience that they're serious this time as far as making PC a priority platform?

That's just something we have to see. At the end of the day, talk is cheap. Gamers know that from Games for Windows Live. But I like this hungry Microsoft. I'm not just into Microsoft now. I talk with Sony as well. But to me, as a game developer, having two sides be competitive is pretty awesome. I'm interested with the stuff I've seen from Microsoft. Some of that's not necessarily what the public has seen. But I'm much more confident than, say—It's not going to be Games for Windows Live. They seem really serious. And there's good reason for them to be. Look at how successful Steam has been.

Let's talk a bit about Ion. What was the root idea there? With DayZ it's something very grounded, whereas Ion seems like this very expansive concept, with a very strong central conceit. Tell me about that.

Do you know a game called Space Station 13, a free game? It's very esoteric. It's a top-down 2D sprite-based game. It was made by some semi-mysterious figures, played a lot on 4chan and Reddit and those things. It's round-based. You play a role on a space station. Maybe about 50 players. Other people will be on it. You play your role for about two hours until the space station explodes. It's incredibly intricate in what you can do, but also incredibly difficult to learn how to play. That was the core idea of the game.

What is Space Station 13?

One of Dean Hall's inspirations for his next project, called Ion, is a cult classic role-playing game called Space Station 13.

SS13 is a 2D, multiplayer sandbox set on a space station. In the opening round of the game each player picks their own job, from staff officers and engineers to bartenders and janitors. As the game progresses, each member of the crew must perform their job in order for the station to run smoothly.

space station 13 image 1

It sounds boring, but with dozens of other players in the game world with you, each with their own role and motivations, something strange is always just around the corner. And when something goes wrong on your space station, because it inevitably will, the whole thing is fully destructible. It's a chaotic orchestra of cooperative role-playing, made much more challenging by the fact that not everyone has the best intentions.

"One or more players will be given an antagonistic role at random," says the game's website, "and a secret mission that’s very likely to cause disruption.

(Continued below)

I've always been a massive fan of EVE Online and their approach. I don't think a lot of, or really any games have gone and taken on the heritage of EVE Online. It was a mashup of those two things. You've got Star Citizen. You've got Elite Dangerous. You've got EVE Online. There are all these games doing these parts of space really well. I wanted to get inside the space station, get inside the character and play as a character. I also played a lot of Tekkit, the Minecraft mod. It allows you to build machines in Minecraft, like nuclear reactors and stuff like that (ed's note: Previously, Tekkit was a discrete set of related Minecraft mods. Now it's something slightly different. See our sidebar.). My friends would say, let's play Tekkit, let's build a nuclear reactor, and I'd say, why? I want a context. I want it to occur in a broader scheme of things.

That's what Ion is about. It's taking Minecraft and Tekkit and everyone's own separate worlds, their own servers, and mashing it all together, linking all the regions.

You mentioned that one of DayZ's growing pains was not having that strong road map. In your head, do you have an idea of what Ion will be at release? Do you have a road map for where the game is going?

I tried to keep DayZ super agile. We didn't really have a road map, and whenever we wrote one we got out of place. That's been a huge lesson. Ion has a solid road map. But I guess that's why we haven't released a lot of details. Until we really lock that road map down, we don't want to say, this feature, this feature, this feature. I can talk to the parts that are there.

One of the things that I fouled on a bit with the design of DayZ was investing players in their character. They're invested in their gear, but obviously there's no leveling for the character. That's something we've been looking at. We have a couple of good designers on the Ion team — Mike Green, who's ex-Fable, and Gianni, who's a new designer, he's a total World of Warcraft fanatic. They've been looking at skill-based systems. You can learn skills to be an engineer, a miner, a doctor. We're trying to allow people to take on several roles in the game, and they'll be able to choose those roles depending on what's available.

Another big thing for us is a reputation system. If you're going to be interacting with many people, you need to know who to trust. That was something that was asked for a lot with DayZ, but we were never sure how to implement it. With this game it just fits. Another big part of our road map is the contract system.

All these things I'm talking about now are things that are going to be in the 1.0, that first release. That's kind of the paradigm shift for me. Instead of thinking about the release as the alpha, I'm thinking about the release as the polished minimal scope. Like you said, the game has to have a solid little core. That's what we're trying to nail. I think when people play that, they'll say, okay, this is my kind of game. Or maybe they say it's not and they just get out at that point. But then we can grow it from there.

Do you think that a lot of other early access games miss that idea of a strong 30-second loop to build on?

It's really hard. It's hard when you don't have much money, too. This is what people don't realize. Some people almost stumble into early access. That's what's funny about it. Without having that mechanism of getting your game out, you might not get a game out at all. We've missed out on so many awesome games. Like Project Zomboid. I don't think many publishers would have backed that game initially, but it's come through early access even before there was early access, and now it's an amazing game. There are developers who stumble into that. You could argue that I was one of those with DayZ. That's why I'm torn on early access.

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As a game that is, by virtue of being an early access title, going to be crowdfunded to a degree, do you feel like you need to be conservative with what you build and how you build it in Ion? Or do you feel, as someone who's had big successes and is one of the more recognizable names in the community, that you can be more ambitious and be more optimistic?

This is absolutely an ambitious project. I've pumped $2.5 million into it. We're not going into early access or going preview for money at all. It's just a massive experiment. I want to nail how to do these kinds of persistent world games. A lot of people make survival games, but they're all very instance-based. Even Destiny's quite instance-based when you look at it. Grand Theft Auto Online is still quite instance-based. It's a mile wide and an inch deep. That's why I wanted to nail that core experience. We've made a couple of concessions when we're making the game. It's more of a Diablo-style camera. It's not a first-person game. That allowed us to limit the scope of what you see on the screen and put more time into design and mechanics. This is a massive experiment. It's almost a very unlikely game, when you think about it.

Was there ever any concern that an isometric camera perspective would alienate people?


This is a genre that's been defined by first-person.

Exactly. Almost going back to your point, this is really an experiment. That's the key. We just don't know how it's going to do.

$2.5 million is a lot of money. That's a proper indie game budget, as opposed to — It's not triple-A, but Shenmue's Kickstarter was $2.2 million. To invest that much in an early access game seems like a lot. Is that all your money?

Yeah, it's all my money.

Do you have investors, other people helping with this?

I have a joint venture partner in Improbable. They're providing the technology, which is probably worth even more than the money I've put in. And they're amazing people. I have money and concepts and they have people and technology. They wanted to try and make these kinds of games. It's a crazy game.

The best way I can describe it is through my favorite bug. For a while when you clicked on another player, and all their organs fell out. It goes like that. You could go around and make people unconscious. Because your character doesn't leave the game, you can make them unconscious and then steal an organ out of them and they'll die. Stuff like that.

Our concept artist, Jamie, was the concept artist on Gravity. one of our artists, Rashad, is ex-Bethesda, and worked on Fallout 3 and Skyrim. It's insane. It's kind of like — Like you say, it's filling that space between indie and triple-A. I don't know what's going to happen with it, but I love that about it. We had a lot of marketing people saying, don't call it an MMO. Everyone will think it's orcs and wizards running around.

And that seems like a genre that's dying.

Yeah. It's stale. My point is, that's exactly why we have to own it as an MMO. It is. It's inspired by EVE Online and Space Station 13. I'm hoping that we can show there are so many areas you can innovate in terms of MMOs.

The trend from DayZ onward as far as these games go, Rust being the epitome of that, is this almost Lord of the Flies online experience, where there's a veneer of civility that dissolves very quickly. It turns into this violent player-versus-player thing. Is that what you expect Ion to be?

No. I expect it to not be too violent. A lot of DayZ lessons have flowed into Ion. I was quite stubborn with DayZ. People have to remember, DayZ started out when I thought maybe 50 people would play it. A lot of the design decisions were made with that in mind. With Ion, that's why we have this idea of reputation. We have the concept of the Federation. The Federation is run by me, by us as the game developers. We play characters in the game.

Can someone steal your kidneys?

Yes, that's right. They could kill me as the president of the Federation.

Space Station 13 (cont.)

"When the crew aren’t turning on each other through sheer paranoia, they will face various dangers depending on the round: sleeper agents hell bent on sabotage, shape-shifting aliens, RPG toting syndicate operatives and more. Not to mention the occupational hazards of working in space: decompression, meteor showers, radiation storms, airlock mishaps, rogue AI and catastrophic engine failure are a few worth mentioning."

To get a taste of what the game was like in its prime, Quintin Smith's 2-part write-up of his life as a galactic bartender stands out as a good place to start. For a deep dive, there's a series of videos from a thread started in 2007 that chronicles one particular SS13 community in detail.

Sadly, the development team has largely broken up. There was a valiant attempt to port the game off of the free Byond engine that it was built on, but it lost momentum. The game's source code was released this past January as a final parting gift from the people behind it. - Charlie Hall

Which seems very EVE-inspired.

Exactly, it is. When I went to the Fanfest, Helmar (ed's note: Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, CEO of EVE Online developer CCP) came up and hugged me. I have a huge amount of respect and inspiration from the EVE guys. But also, this is not Star Citizen. This is not EVE. In fact I think a lot of the people who like Star Citizen will probably not like this game. I realize from the teaser — the teaser was just to get people interested and excited. That's not the game. I'm trying to hopefully clear the picture up. I don't think I answered your question?

Is that sort of sociopathic impulse that can dominate existing survival games still present?

What we want to do is provide the mechanisms for people to do what they want, but also have a policing approach to it. If you play Space Station 13, any Space Station 13 gamer will know—They call it "shitcurity." The players who play as security, they're just walking around beating everyone up to try and make everyone behave. We're taking in elements of that. The players will be involved in policing the Federation areas. It's kind of — You can do bad things. You can run around naked like you can in Rust. But there will not only be paid people in the game, game masters we've employed to be federal agents, but there will also be deputized players whose job it is to do contracts, to find bad players and trolls and things like that.

It sounds like it's expanding on the idea of attachment.

Yeah. Like I said, I can't sit here and say it's all going to work, but that's what I find really interesting. If I can figure out how to make this kind of thing work, it'll be a very compelling game.

It's interesting to me because one of the things that turned me off of Rust, which I played for 50 or 60 hours, was I didn't like the people my friends were when we played that game.


The absence of any attachment or consequence —

Yeah. You have that in real life. You don't have that in a game. That's the eternal problem DayZ, Rust, Life is Feudal, all that faces. I believe that persistence helps solve that. It's a similar thing to what happens in Space Station 13, because it's round-based. That's why we want to have this persistent world. Your character you have now will be the same character. That character has a reputation. If you die, your consciousness gets put into a new clone. You take your reputation with you. If you want to be a bandit in the game, you can, but you will be branded as a bandit. You will need to live that life as a bandit. This setting makes it a lot easier to do than a hyper-realistic post-apocalyptic Russia.

Do you expect Ion to operate on a standard, copy-sold business model, where you sell the game, like DayZ or like Rust or whatever other thing?

One of the big issues when I look at DayZ is, we were really lucky. 3.2 million people have bought that game. But we had a lot of fixed costs. People don't realize this, but running the central server architecture was hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Especially when you have a really big player base.

Yeah, that's right. People say, well, the game made a lot of money. Imagine if the game hadn't made a lot of money and was just kind of ticking over. All your development costs could be pulled in. I think we were spending $100,000 a month on server slots initially. Luckily the community's kind of taken over that role. I'm not a fan of the free-to-play model, although I have been enjoying World of Warships. But I wanted to look for something else, for something the community likes. We haven't settled 100 percent on anything. Certainly with the early access we'll be very closely and intimately involved on Reddit, social media and all that, to try and find out whether stuff's working or not. But we'll probably have an early access fee to buy the game, and when you buy the game you'll be able to run around in the universe forever. You won't have to spend any more money. That doesn't cost us a lot of money, you running around in the universe. If you want to be a landowner, you're going to have to effectively rent a server.

Citizenship is a fee.

More like title. Look at Minecraft. You can pay one fee and play Minecraft, but if you want a Minecraft server, you need to rent a server. That's what we're doing. We're just mashing all the servers together at one time.