Our friend Marcus Carter (PhD Student at the University of Melbourne) sends in this report about DayZ. Back in the day, we pushed CounterStrike and friends out of the virtual world category because the multi-user environments were not persistent. Now of course all the lines blur; console-based achievement systems create a persistent community at the hub of every FPS. DayZ takes it a step further, adding a massive spatial environment. When an FPS gets a huge persistent map, we are back to Trammel.
Here is Marcus' report.
Have you heard about DayZ yet? If you’re willing to do battle with the installation process, the runaway successful Arma II mod is definitely worth the time. It is a hyper-realistic, ruthless, multiplayer zombie survival game that strings together a series of interesting and unique features that feels like the MMO/FPS experience I didn’t know I was missing.
Here’s a low-down of the interesting features in the DayZ alpha for TerraNovans who haven’t had a chance to play.
What is DayZ
DayZ is a mod for the hyper-realist combat simulator Arma II: Combined Operations. Developed by Bohemia Interactive developer Dean Hall, or ‘Rocket’ to the community, DayZ allows players to explore a 225 km2 open world called Chernarus which has multiple cities, airfields, hospitals, villages, grocery stores, lakes, petrol stations and plenty of forest to create an immersive, sandbox zombie survival experience. There are already 800,000 unique players who log into shard-style servers hosted around the world. Each server is connected to a persistent identity system, nicknamed ‘The Hive’, which saves a player’s location and inventory and allows them to use the same character on any of the independently hosted servers.
You will first spawn on the ‘coast’ of Chernarus, with bandages, painkillers and a flashlight (previously players spawned with a can of beans, leading to the ‘bean wars’; well equipped players farming newbies as they spawned for their high-value food source). There is no tutorial or friendly sprite giving you advice, no direction markers and no map. Players have to use their wits (or more likely one of the numerous newbie guides on the internet) to source weapons, food, water, medication and ammunition to stay alive. B.Y.O Narrative.
The zombie-movie esque beginnings of the game aside, the most unique feature that players face is consequential death: in DayZ; if you die, you start again with no inventory. In other words, Diablo’s Nightmare mode is the only way to play DayZ. The result is intense do-or-die PvP combat between desperate attempts to find the food, water or medication necessary to keep your character alive.
Once a player salvages or loots their way to short-term security, the expansive sandbox offers various ‘end-game’ goals: either battle it out in the zombie infested cities, raid the military airfield, or scavenge vehicle parts to repair cars, buses or even helicopters. This is a great sandbox game, filled with zombies and other players who will kill you for a can of Heinz Baked Beans.
Why DayZ is exciting
I’ve found so far my experience of DayZ is much like viewing the Tour De France; long periods travelling through beautiful yet repetitive scenery interspersed with 15-20 seconds of intense and exhilarating competition. The thing is though, those 20 seconds make it totally worthwhile. But why is it interesting for TerraNova?
First, DayZ is another example of the benefits of permitting modding in games. It’s put a 2009 game in the Steam top ten for the last three months. Dayz has had over 800,000 unique players and 200,000 in the last 24 hours. There are more concurrent players in DayZ than there are in the similarly ruthless and hardcore EVE Online. All for a mod, still in alpha, with buggy controls and some serious gameplay issues.
Secondly, DayZ strongly illustrates the potential for social experiment in virtual worlds. There is no ‘friendly fire’ function available, every player might help or attack you, so each social interaction is a Prisoners’ Dilemma. There was a good discussion of this aspect of the game on the DayZ subreddit.
By most definitions (I’m partial to the one at MMO Data) DayZ probably does not have all the components necessary to constitute an MMO. But to me, the gaming experience feels similar enough in a handful of important ways. Perhaps it should be called MMOE: “MMO-esque”? The shards might be small (between 40-60 people maximum) but there are more than enough of them, and other than location-related ping, there is nothing stopping you playing on them all (and as such interacting with every other DayZ player). The persistence of the world and persistence of each user’s character, in attributes and location, are sufficient in creating a feeling of player persistence similar to that of traditional MMOs.
What makes me describe DayZ as persistent is an in-game ‘tent’ item. It is possible to place a camouflaged tent in the game world which remains despite you logging out. Players are able to store items within this tent that can be stolen by other players (I was rather gleeful when I looted some food and weapons from a tent I stumbled upon in a forest) or shared between a clan of cooperating players. Now these tents are persistent to each shard, but illustrates the step that has been taken from a matchmaking room to a persistent environment.
As is the case with nearly any online game; the really interesting stuff emerges through multiplayer gameplay. DayZ has one feature that changes and enhances the nature and quality of social interactions above those i’ve experienced in any other online game; proximity voice chat, not based on teams but rather enabling communication between all players.
In DayZ, your ‘health bar’ is your volume of blood. If you get low, you begin to have difficulty seeing things, and too low, you’ll start passing out. ‘Blood Transfusions’ are an item in the game, but they have to be administered by another user. Forced social interaction. I’ve been playing with a friend of mine who reported this experience with the spatially-propagated voice soon after I logged out...
we had some awesome stuff, 2 pistols, heaps of meds, then we saw a dude with no weapons. He asked if we could give him a blood transplant so we figured we would, then as we were picking up the blood bag he went into our pack, took our stored pistol and shot us....... MOTHER F*****R!!!! From here on in. Everyone dies.
Proximity voice results in bizarre, unique and evocative gameplay thanks the streamlined ability to converse with any spatially colocated player. There are some great examples of these situations; in what other game can you be robbed at gunpoint? How about the player who got kidnapped in DayZ and tweeted the whole experience (see a writeup here). Up for some gun-point trivia? Fancy joining one of the roving teams of DayZ Doctors, saving players starving or bleeding to death?
These examples and my own experience appear to validate the findings of some of my colleagues back in ‘06; proximity-based chat in a first person shooter: using a novel voice communication system for online play. This study looked at the impact of proximity voice when implemented in a team FPS, Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. It became clear that using proximity voice rather than a radio voice system (in which communication is organized by teams but unaffected by spatial location) enhanced realism and acted as a “filter for relevance” (p. 99); that is, location-based communication ensures that if you can hear it, it is probably relevant to you - the person screaming ‘help’ is definitely nearby. Check out chapter 5 of Greg Wadley’s PhD for more details about this study of spatially-propagated voice in an FPS. The implementation of proximity voice in DayZ strongly illustrates that the way game developers design social communication can have a pronounced affect on gameplay.
I don’t enjoy ‘movie games’ where non-interactive cut-scenes comprise a third of the entire game; give me a sandbox and toys, and a social interaction system that enhances those interactions, and let me make my own story. I don’t want to be a hero, and I don’t want to be a villain. I want to be what suits me; and DayZ lets me do that. I recommend you check out the mod, but if you don’t get the chance a standalone version may be on its way.
Marcus Carter is a PhD Student at the University of Melbourne, Australia researching EVE Online and Warhammer 40,000 tournaments.