With over 2 million early access copies sold since its launch in December last year, the horde of DayZ diehards is growing faster than Bohemia Interactive could have anticipated. But those early adopters are also growing impatient as they wait for bug fixes and new game mechanics that seem like they're always just on the horizon. I caught up with the project lead and creator of the original ARMA II mod, Dean "Rocket" Hall, to find out what was taking so long.
It turns out there are some massive changes afoot. However, Hall's grandiose, pie-in-the-sky vision for how those changes could be implemented requires Bohemia to scale some significant technical hurdles first. Find out how a new engine, new server technology, a new loot system, brand-new hunting mechanics, and a completely redesigned control scheme could bring DayZ devotees the changes they're looking for, as well as entice all-new survivalists to make the trek to Chernarus.
A NEW ENGINE
Originally, Hall thought development of DayZ would be bound by the limitations of the legacy ARMA II engine. Since the game has sold like hotcakes, that is no longer the case. The interest has given the team the impetus to rip out the graphics renderer, which was limited to DirectX 9, and write a new renderer, with support for either DirectX 10 or 11, and even OpenGL for Linux support down the line.
"We lose a lot of time," Hall admits. "But implementing DirectX 10 or 11 will have a dramatic, instant visual difference and quite a significant performance difference."
System performance remains a major issue with the game's current engine. Enterprising players have ported the Chernarus map into ARMA III's DirectX 11 engine and have already seen a massive performance boost, so an official upgrade such as this should be just what the doctor ordered.
Implementing DirectX 10 or 11 will have a dramatic, instant visual difference and quite a significant performance difference.
It won't just be visual and performance improvements that a new engine will bring. "The big benefit we get is being able to implement dynamic lighting so we can have dynamic shadows," Hall explains. "If you've got a good computer, you'll be able to play with more lights. If there's a lot of people using torches in the distance, you'll be able to see their lights."
New shaders also mean Hall has the ability to look at making DayZ's pitch-black nighttime phase more playable, as it was originally being rendered using the ancient DirectX 7. "It really just gives us options to play with," he elaborates. "Once we've got that, we'll then experiment and say, 'How can we change the lighting at night so that we still achieve that pitch blackness, but at the same time actually allow you to play it?'"
NEW SERVER TECH
Facilitating even more significant gameplay changes is the recent upgrade to a 64-bit server architecture. "It's working and it's great," says Hall. "It allows us to use a lot more RAM, which helps us a great deal with spawning in thousands more items into the world. It means we can have more zombies. It means we can have more loot items." More items and zombies always means a greater hit on server performance, however, so Hall sees the ideal zombie count target being a factor of 10 compared to the game's current undead numbers.
It means we can have more zombies. It means we can have more loot items.
To get to that target, some work still needs to be done to fully support multiple cores on the 64-bit servers, but this is nevertheless a major step at addressing the server issues that Hall sees as the primary bottleneck affecting DayZ's development. "And that's why the vast majority of our efforts have been focused on architecture with the servers," he elaborates. "One of the key reasons for that is to make everything more robust from a hacking standpoint. Hacking was a real problem with the mod. We just wanted to go back to basics. This is stuff that, if you look at most massively multiplayer engines, they're already designed to do this. We had to go back through and do a lot of housekeeping to make sure that would work out."
A NEW EARLY GAME
In the original mod, you would spawn on the south coast of Chernarus and have to make your way north to gather weapons and supplies. A recent update to the stand-alone game moved those spawn points to the east coast instead. "Actually, a lot of that wasn't intentional at all," says Hall, who goes on to explain how the intention was to open up both coasts for spawning, but the ratio has not been balanced yet.
Yet this has had a significant effect on the way new players progress. The southern capital city of Chernogorsk is much further away, so it is no longer crawling with fresh, defenceless survivors. Those players now need to venture westward, instead of north, if they hope to find towns that haven't already been looted. The recent reintroduction of helicopter crash sites, which only appear in the far west and contain powerful weapons, provides further incentive to undertake this cross-country trek.
The new, large towns to the north that have been added to the stand-alone game should increase that temptation, but current problems with the loot spawning system are preventing that.
"Each building type has hundreds of places that items can spawn, and hundreds of different possible items," Hall explains. "The problem is, the system goes through the buildings one by one. When it gets near the end of the list, it can often run out. Unfortunately, the last items in the list are the new areas."
Making that list larger isn't as simple a fix as it would seem. "We increased the item spawn numbers from 15,000 to like 30,000," says Hall. "But that takes away a lot of the server optimisations we gained."
Once the servers fully support multiple cores on the new 64-bit architecture, we should see the team return to this issue with the bandwidth for a more elegant solution--which will give players a more tangible survival arc as they journey inland.
GLOBAL LOOT RARITY
Once the loot spawning system has been fixed, Hall plans to revolutionise the loot economy itself by making loot persistent across every single server in the entire world. This allows the team to control the rarity of individual items not just per server, but for every single player no matter where they live.
"We'll say there can only be, for example, a hundred night-vision goggles in the whole world across all servers," Hall explains. "Then, once your character dies, or that item gets destroyed, it makes a new one available to spawn on a server."
We'll say there can only be, for example, a hundred night vision goggles in the whole world across all servers.
The rarity of an item will be defined by its function. Specialist military gear, such as night-vision goggles, logically wouldn't be found as often as a can of baked beans. Hall wants players to hear rumours that a particular player on a particular server has found some of this specialist gear, which could lead to a kind of lore and reputation building up around such servers. And if you are the person who has found such an item, you'll start playing differently to hold onto it for as long as possible.
"What we'd see is, particularly when we get into vehicles, or components for helicopters that are very rare and are controlled centrally so there can only be a certain amount of helicopters in every server in the whole world, that would mean that if you hear there's a working helicopter on a particular server, you'll want to go to that server," he adds.
Hall predicts that the team will need to add a new server cluster dedicated to controlling this persistent loot economy. But the introduction of extreme rarity and the reputation surrounding players with such items is an important step toward adding more opportunities for emergent storytelling to take place.
The team also discussed methods of bringing the notion of changing servers into the gameworld itself, such as walking to the edge of the map loading you into a new server on the other side. "But obviously we need to make a lot of maps for that, and it takes many years because they're huge, hand-made maps," says Hall. "We talked about procedural generation, but it was going to be so much effort that, before we looked at that, we needed to do all our architectural work first."
HERMIT SIMULATOR 2014
Bohemia recently acquired the staff from Cauldron, developer of the Cabela's Big Game Hunter series. Hall is having them prototype an entire subset of hunting mechanics that he eventually wants to have become a crucial part of your daily survival routine. "We're getting them to come up with ideas about having animals migrate to different positions depending upon the time of day, and being more active depending on what type of animal, and looking at having aggressive animals, player companion animals, and neutral animals," he elaborates.
Hall sees these new hunting mechanics as something that will go hand in hand with the introduction of low-tech weapons like crossbows, as well as future refinements to melee weapon mechanics. He is also aware that Cauldron's hunting games appeal to a niche audience, and is confident the team will be able to strike a balance with their work on DayZ.
"I played a lot of the Frostfall mod for Skyrim," Hall adds. "It gave you a reason to go out and hunt the deer. To be honest, hunting deer in Skyrim was just so much fun. You have to get the arrow just right, and you get a cool sense of satisfaction with a kill."
Skyrim's Frostfall mod also added a chance to catch hypothermia if players remained out in the cold for too long. Recent additions to DayZ's dynamic weather system, such as synchronising the weather across the entire server, allow the team to explore more survival mechanics such as this. "At the moment, it means you'll use more calories when it's cold, and you'll use more water when it's hot. But we want to expand that dramatically--hypothermia, and things like that," says Hall. Once body temperature becomes key to survival, it should encourage cooperation due to the significant inventory space required to store elements for things like campfires.
This dynamic weather could also tie back into the hunting mechanics, with animals' migration patterns being affected by the current temperature. Hall does want to see more AI-based dynamic events such as this, "but they require a particular server frame rate that we're still a long way off," he says. Hunting, when combined with the recent addition of the ability to pick berries and fish, should, as Hall hopes, allow players to live off the land entirely if they so choose.
CLUNKY CONTROLS MUST DIE
DayZ's controls are complicated and obtuse, largely due to the holdover use of ARMA II's scrollwheel-based action menu. Hall admits the menu is terrible, and has assigned a design team to go away and research ideas. "We wanted them to just think outside the box," he says. "How could it really look? Go play a lot of good games. Find out what it is, rather than just trying to crowbar a solution in."
I'm eternally disappointed that there is no video game that has ever gotten machine gun mechanics right.
Hall thinks that solution could be inspired by Skyrim's Frostfall mod, as well as the simplicity of interactions in Minecraft. "What's cool about Minecraft is it's very visceral," Hall explains. "You walk up to something and you bang it. The Frostfall mod, if you want to light a fire, you place your fireplace, equip a torch to your hand, and then you bash it with your torch. So I think that's where we want to go. We want to have your different stances, and depending on your item, it will do different things." This should make interacting with DayZ's complex systems far simpler, and based more on real-world logic than on scrolling through menus whilst near interactive objects.
A significant and unique aspect of DayZ concerned the way weapons were difficult to handle, which was reflected in the way your crosshair moved independently of your view. But a recent change that locks your crosshair to your viewpoint has been met with criticism by hardcore players who think it feels too much like Counter-Strike. Hall believes the new system is dramatically better, but it's not yet complete, as the team still needs to assign values to each weapon that determine its weight and dispersion.
"We want to introduce these trade-offs with the game and make sure that, if you're equipping an attachment, that the attachments mean something and are not just cosmetic," Hall explains. "If you have a really heavy weapon in real life, sometimes you have a heavy weapon to reduce the recoil. It's not so much that using it might slow you, but if you spin around, it has more momentum, so it can be difficult to stop it."
Hall laments that games have not yet represented the suppressing power of such heavy machine guns. "I'm eternally disappointed that there is no video game that has ever gotten machine-gun mechanics right," he says. "If you fire a GPMG into an enclosed space, it heats up the air so much. We were on an exercise in Thailand, and we were firing at targets, and the targets caught fire." Modelling the heat from rounds flying through the air isn't a priority for DayZ, but tighter controls and logical weapon handling should make the game far more accessible, and far less fiddly, than it currently is.
On top of a new control scheme, DayZ's new server architecture, a smoother and prettier engine, a persistent loot system, and a new early game, along with deep hunting mechanics, all sound like features that will revolutionise how the hardcore zombie survival sim plays. However, most of these changes are still some time away from being introduced into the stable Early Access build. If you weren't sold on the current development state of DayZ, now is still probably not the time to buy in--but, from chatting to Hall, it's clear that time is definitely coming.