In March this year, Dean Hall, a soldier in the New Zealand army, started testing a new mod for ARMA 2, a mildly successful 2009 first person military sim, with his friends.
Called DayZ, it was a novel mod that let players try to survive and scavenge for resources while dodging zombies.
He didn’t expect anyone else to join in, but he posted the download link in the server’s name anyway: anyone logging on to play ARMA 2 could download it and give it a go, if they liked. Then something curious happened. People did.
"At first there was one guy who stayed on it for about six hours and he didn’t say a word," says Matthew Lightfoot, who was operations manager for the DayZ mod, a close friend of Dean who now works for ARMA 2 developer Bohemia Interactive on the standalone version of the game.
"The next day it was two people, and then it was eight." In a few days, the team could no longer get on their own server for all the people playing the game. So more servers were added.
"We never thought it would go over 600 people so when it reached 1,000, it was like, ‘this is really strange.’"
People started buying ARMA 2 in the hundreds of thousands, just to install the mod. Within five months, DayZ had reached a million players. In August, Bohemia Interactive hired Hall and the team to turn DayZ into a full game.
Just to give it a bit of perspective it took [darling of the indie gaming scene] Minecraft a year and a half to reach a million players.
That’s an astonishing feat when you consider the slow-paced nature of the game: the average player lasts well over an hour before being killed, and you can cover miles of in-game turf without seeing another living (or dead) soul. How did it happen?
Fight or flight
They say the best zombie films are the ones about the few humans left alive, and how they adapt to survive. The same is certainly true of DayZ, which dumps players in the middle of Chernarus, a fictional, desolate 225 sq km of of post-apocalyptic Soviet Russia.
It’s up to you to find resources to survive: you need to drink, you need to eat, it’s best to avoid breaking your limbs if you can, and you definitely need to avoid being eaten by zombies.
But it’s the other human players you really have to watch out for: with no particular goals except staying alive, it’s a constant struggle to work out who you can team up with, and who will leave you as food for the lurchers.
And that’s the beauty of the game. DayZ shows you who you really are: what would you do if you needed to survive?
A Game Changer
Would you share the last tin of tuna with a friend, or use it to off them and eat it all yourself? Lightfoot laughs at the question, in a good-natured, definitely-not-dastardly way. He says Hall plays the game as an eternal optimist, but in DayZ, he himself is "horrendously cruel".
"As for survival, I have no problem killing players if they’re a threat to me," he says. "I like to think I’m a nice person in real life."
His Macbethian descent isn’t unusual. Players have dispatched other players at least 8.87 million times so far: it’s The Walking Dead on an unbelievable scale. Some have set up "Hunger Games" style face-offs; others have forced players into in-game slavery; it’s even attracted the interest of psychologists: two students have been in touch with the team to examine how people play the game as the subject of their dissertations.
Lightfoot’s most horrifying memory is of the self-styled "Black Widow", a female player who would ask for help through voice chat in the game. "Men could hear she was female in distress, they’d be very chivalrous [and come to help]. Then she’d kill them and film it."
It’s this open gameplay that’s struck a chord with so many people. It’s the flip side to Minecraft’s build-what-you-like sandbox: it’s a shoot-what-you-like sandbox.
"I do think we’ve hit a different area of player versus player combat," says Lightfoot. "Players have got the choice as to whether people want to kill each other or not. It’s all about risk and reward...it’s all about player driven stories."
That 68 minute average survival time would be unthinkable in a new Halo or Call of Duty game, but people love DayZ. At the time of writing, the mod had 1,267,211 players, who had killed 2.14 billion zombies between them. Lightfoot says the true statistics are likely twice that given the sheer number of players on unofficial servers.
It’s already spawned imitators: another team is hard at work on a similar game called War Z, due for release next year. Hall is resigned, rather than flattered or impressed.
"Maybe they will make a better game, I don't know. Maybe what they're doing is not cool to me, but the way I look at it is what are my options? What could I do?" he told a crowd of journalists and fans at the Eurogamer Expo in London yesterday.
Stumbling into the Future
DayZ may have grown far quicker than Minecraft ever did, but now that Bohemia is turning it into a standalone game that won’t require an ARMA 2 purchase, it’s adopting much the same business model.
The game will be released as an alpha build (lots of bugs, new features all the time) before the end of the year for a less than final price: around €15-20 (£12-16), and probably through the Steam game download service, says Lightfoot.
Hall’s team of eight, several drawn from Hall’s gaming clan USEC, is now working on the game at Bohemia’s Prague offices; Lightfoot estimates 60 or so of the studio’s 200 employees have helped with the game so far.
Hall has been open about the new features he wants to include in the game, including diseases that can spread through the zombie and human populace (Hall’s brother is a virologist), underground mines you can carve out for safety, and a general attempt to stop hackers from ruining the game for others by cheating.
But there are other big shifts coming, says Lightfoot. The player cap may change: the current limitation of around 150-200 players isn’t a technical one (and nowhere near the 2,200 simultaneous players Just Cause 2 can support) - any more at the moment and areas of the map just get congested with hungry survivors.
Lightfoot says the map layout will definitely change: "A lot of people seem to have the same ideas. Lots of people go to the shops," he says. "Nobody is hiding up in the mountains."
"We’re reworking the maps to try and draw players across the map, and make the map have more of a historic backstory, so it actually feels like a more engaging world space." Where players previously shunned towns in the game with no water taps, they’ll now have reason to venture inland, away from the coast and into the deadly mountain ranges of Chernarus.
That’s a big shift, but as for Lightfoot, he’s still getting used to the sudden change his real life has taken. At the start of the year he was a student at Manchester Metropolitan university: now he’s working on a million-player game and adjusting to living in the Czech Republic.
"We’ve had to make ourselves much more professional. We’re actually now having to deliver something where previously there were no deadlines," he says. "It was if-and-when we wanted to do it." If they can gain a million players in five months, they can always lose them too: here’s hoping they don’t.