I’ve yet to enter the zombie-infested world that comprises DayZ, but certainly not from a lack of interest. A lack of time perhaps, but more critically, I find myself being slightly intimidated by the experience it has the potential to offer.
It’s a gameplay experience that reads like no other: a persistent, vast open world, taken over by a zombie apocalypse, in which your task is to simply survive in it. No arcade style action or cinematic cruft; just the brutal reality of trying your best to stay alive by whatever means necessary. It ticks many boxes on my list of desirable gameplay components: the fact that the result is intimidating serves to illustrate that DayZ is one very effective product.
While the appeal of DayZ is very much welcome, it is not overly surprising. The majority of zombie games put combat at the forefront of the experience, in an attempt to ape every single B-movie trope that’s ever existed. The resultant game is one that lacks any sort of identity beyond the superficial: what the enemies physically are, the environments the player encounters, and so on. DayZ looks at the logical core of what a real-life zombie invasion would entail, and that’s simply to survive. No sane individual in an impending crisis would charge straight in, all guns blazing: they would (at least attempt to) be methodical and calculating, weighing the risks against benefits.
At its most base level, this is what’s keeping DayZ popular. Being a realistic zombie simulator is not the sticking point for players: it’s because it’s a game that engages them on a far higher level than usual. It’s a game in which the rules of the world fade gracefully away, before allowing the player to connect with it: in a way, it breaks the fourth wall by forcing the player not to pretend that they’re a mindless hero plunging through a series of cutscenes, but rather to be themselves reacting to a situation in the most realistic way possible.
That isn’t to say that games that don’t require the player to think this way, or are ‘unrealistic’ are inferior. After all, the fictional element of DayZ is partly responsible for the high levels of interest, particularly in comparison to the far more grounded ArmA II that this mod is built on. It’s, yet again, one of those great advantages of gaming: the ability to be taken to a different world or scenario and giving the player the ability to act upon it with their own methods of thinking and problem solving. It represents a higher level of game design seen in titles like the original Deus Ex and System Shock 2. The rules of the game are certainly in place, but the player decides how to best utilise them to proceed.
In short, we need more games like this. Period. From the research I’ve done, DayZ is certainly a little rough around the edges, but it’s still a stunning achievement. Technology is superseding itself every single day, but we only seem to see the fruits of that advancement in the form of shinier visuals. If a single designer was able to create DayZ and offer it for free, imagine the result of a game like this in the hands of an established developer with a proper budget…
So AJ has this habit of wanting to write about games he hasn’t played. That’s not my thing – I can’t offer any insightful information on something that I have not experienced. However, you don’t have to travel too far from the initial topic to reach something infinitely more talk-about-able: game modifications.
Mods are one of the biggest reasons why PC gaming stands way out from the other platforms. The vast majority of console ports are ignored, and almost shunned by the modding community – with rare exceptions, they’re either entirely unmoddable, have no tools available, or are just far too difficult to work with. But a huge number of games built primarily for PC contain lots of modding tools and are very successful in that area.
Exhibit A: Half-Life. The original Half-Life and the modding thereof is particularly close to my heart. The modding community had already started working with the Doom and Quake engines, but Half-Life made the modding community explode in size. Valve released their level editor, Worldcraft (now Hammer), with the game, as well as a full code SDK, allowing mod creators to implement custom weapons, gameplay elements, and so on.
The result of this act? Some of the most successful mods of all time are built on the Half-Life engine. Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Team Fortress Classic were all hugely successful Half-Life multiplayer mods. Valve has since hired the teams behind these mods, and made best-selling sequels for all of them. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is nearing release, and is set to be another popular game for Valve. Even before the game is released, development tools are already released for it.
Exhibit B: Team Fortress 2. Yeah, another Valve game. But they really are doing tons of cool things in the modding space. Source has been less popular than the Half-Life 1 engine for modding, for a number of reasons, but the Team Fortress 2 team are throwing back to their modding roots, and continuously adding community-made content into the full game. This has two advantages – the first being that the players get more content, and the second is that Valve can continue to easily add new content to the game while still working on new games.
To this day, Team Fortress 2 is the most played game on Steam, followed closely by DOTA 2 (sequel to a mod that is still in closed beta) and Counter-Strike (a 12 year old mod of a 14 year old game). Yes, Valve has built the majority of their business on game mods. And they’re doing a damn good job of it.
Exhibit C: DayZ. Now we’re back to where we started. I don’t know a lot about the ARMA II engine, as it’s a game that doesn’t fill my particular niche, but I do know that it is a PC game through-and-through. Wikipedia tells me that modding support for the game is extensive, and DayZ shows that off better than anything I can look up on the Internet. The most interesting thing about DayZ is that it caused sales of ARMA II to skyrocket. Quoting Wikipedia: "The mod was responsible for putting the three year old game into the top seller charts for over five weeks, spending most of this time the top selling game". ARMA 2 developers Bohemia Interactive have since hired the mod creator – a smart move, considering Valve’s success after doing the same thing.
So, what does all this ranting about Valve and modding actually mean? Community modding generates commercial profits. Valve understand this better than anybody, and I’m willing to bet that Bohemia Interactive now understand it a bit better too. Time and time again, PC porting companies often claim that "PC gaming is dead". They’ve always been wrong, but there’s no way that they can know that – their games aren’t the ones getting the attention on the platform. If they released real modding tools for their games, they might be thinking a little differently.