This summer, fans of the survival genre are hoping to get another platform to hone their video game survival skills in Rocketwerkz’s Icarus. This release is widely discussed around the world, not only thanks to impressive trailers, but above all because the development is headed by none other than Dean Hall, a game designer who once gave the industry a unique sense of helplessness as part of the DayZ modification, an open survival sandbox with zombie, developed on the basis of the combat simulator Arma 2.
Although Hall left the development of his main project already seven years ago, he is only now planning to release something that fully embodies his philosophy and experience in game design.
The first attempts to develop something of their own were made by Hall as a child, when his parents gave him a Commodore Amiga 500 computer. Very soon he began to create his own games using the manual for the computer, because those titles that were did not suit him.
“After playing a video game, you get a sense of satisfaction, because you have solved a number of gameplay problems. If we talk about TV and cinema, then there you just wait for what will happen next. Video games, books, chess make you think, and I think this is a very important aspect of any game,” says Hall.
After graduating from school, Hall immediately joined the Royal Air Force of his native New Zealand, rising to the rank of logistics officer. Five years later, he left the army and for some time participated in various projects until he got a position as a producer at Sidhe Interactive. There he had the opportunity to interact with real masters of their craft in the development of video games and gradually learn their skills.
In general, even before the whole story with DayZ, Hall considered himself an accomplished author of modifications, loved unpopular gaming communities, and even ran a small site for fans of flight simulators.
As part of Sidhe, Hall managed to release only the title Speed Racer: The Videogame before he got bored with the industry and was drawn to the army again. Hall had no intention of getting into game development permanently and viewed working at Sidhe more like a vacation.
As a result, Hall ended up in the army again, this time with the rank of second lieutenant, and fell under an experience exchange program with Singapore, going to the Brunei jungle. Unfortunately, Hall did not have time to get used to the local diet, and during part of the exercise, with an emphasis on survival, he wasted food, very quickly using up all his supplies, and at the same time poisoning himself with water.
“I remember I caught two small fish, but I didn’t even have the strength to start a fire corny. I tried eating bracken but then just gave up and lay there waiting for the program to end. The atmosphere was darker than ever,” recalls Hall.
In a very short time, Hall lost 25 kilograms, his hair began to fall out, and his nails turned yellow. The organism devoured itself in order to survive, but the future game designer still endured to the end.
“On the way back, when we joined another part of the platoon, someone gave me a cookie, and I was so ecstatic that I cried for an hour. There is a friendship that can only be born in a very desperate situation. When you’re hungry, covered in leeches in the middle of the jungle… You realize who your friends are and you never forget that.”
During the test, Hall so planted the digestive system that he had to undergo surgery and spend more than one month in the hospital. Looking back, Hall realizes that this experience helped him to look at life differently, which in turn influenced the concept of DayZ in the future.
“This experience had a significant impact on my life, and since then everything has been different in it. It would seem that there was one negative, but in fact, that trip was a key period in my life, which pushed me to ultimately achieve great success, ”said Hall.
Application in practice
At some point, Hall decided to use his experience modifying Arma 2 to improve his performance in military exercises. He created a copy of the Vaioru military camp in the game, where he practiced leading a platoon to the target before doing it in real life. Hall kept track of performance statistics and found that video game training helped him achieve better results.
“If you want the exercises to work, you need to simulate not only the situation itself, but also the emotions and thought processes that will appear in real situations. It is necessary for the brain to realize that the result really matters, ”explained Hall
The game designer even offered his ideas to the army itself, as a soldier simulator, but did not meet with understanding.
“Tools like this could save the army millions of dollars, but I think the fact that my idea was based on a video game has become a stumbling block for certain people. Although, of course, another obstacle was the very idea of change. I have learned well that people do not like to change, they are only ready to adapt new tools that do not disrupt the usual pattern of actions. I was only a second lieutenant, and perhaps the authorities thought that if my ideas were good, I would already be making a lot of money in the gaming industry.
In December 2011, Hall despaired of imposing his views on soldier training on the army and slowly polished the modification, adding elements to it that could attract mainstream attention. Of course, the main of these elements were zombies.
In January, he moved to the Czech Republic, where he received an offer to work for Bohemia Interactive, helping to develop ARMA 3. It was during this period that Hall began writing DayZ code.
Hall wrote the key code for the mod over the weekend, but all the work before that, including understanding the Real Virtuality 3 engine and thinking about the concept, took several years.
“In a sense, the combination of circumstances played a big role. Several times during my service, I found myself for a long time in places where I did not have friends, or I did not know the language. It was during these periods of loneliness that I laid the foundations of DayZ, ”said Hall.
In the first two and a half weeks after the release in April 2012, DayZ already had 80 thousand people playing, most of whom bought Arma 2 for this, which undoubtedly pleased Bohemia, because the second part of the line was already three years old at that time.
“I wanted people to feel something other than basic emotions. I wanted to make them really sad, angry and disappointed. Therefore, the DayZ slogan is “This is your story,” Hall said.
According to Hall, social media played a major role in DayZ’s popularity, allowing it to attract a serious fan base despite the lack of advertising. In addition, Hall believes that players are filled with the desire to find titles that are truly challenging.
“I think people have always loved hard games, not just when Dark Souls came on the scene. I remember some titles on the Amiga as a child seemed incredibly complicated. One day, I accidentally started playing X-COM, having no idea what kind of game it was. Then I had discovery after discovery. Indescribable feeling. Even when we play with friends, like Company of Heroes, we always set the AI difficulty to max. Yes, we lose 99% of the time, but those moments of passion when we yell at each other in an attempt to protect locations are the real game for me.
Hall considered the permanent death of characters as another trump card of DayZ. According to him, if the players are threatened with death, they find themselves in more interesting situations. They know that if something goes wrong, everything will have to be lost.
“In Hotline Miami, you understand that there will be a slight delay before you get to the last place, so you act more carefully. Player behavior changes and memorable moments are born.”
Hall sometimes calls DayZ an anti-game, because during development he deliberately broke what was considered the basis of game design.
“I wanted to see what would happen if I messed up the balance. What if I put the player in a hopeless situation where the whole world is trying to destroy them, and one mistake can cost the character’s life? A key element of DayZ is the sense of danger.”
By August, DayZ had hit the one million player mark. Everything was going so well that Hall even looked at the competition with such a giant as Minecraft, or at least the same distribution model. However, another option arose on the threshold.
“From the very beginning, I said that I wanted to turn DayZ into a full-fledged game. There are quite a few people who are ready to help me with this, so I’m sure I will announce a future release soon.”
Indeed, already in early August, Hall announced that he had officially become an employee of Bohemia and would lead a project to turn DayZ into an independent title, which at that time was planned for release at the end of 2012.
“When I came up with DayZ, I was expecting a maximum of fifty people to play this mod, but it became very popular. When this happened, I realized that I did not have the resources to finalize the idea, and I sold it to Bohemia, ”explained Hall.
Unfortunately, the DayZ team overestimated its capabilities, which caused the release date to be postponed several times. Only in December 2013 the game was released in Early Access on Steam.
“We made a lot of mistakes, so now we are completely honest with the players. For example, a situation where we unexpectedly moved the release date to an indefinite time. Of course, we disappointed a lot of people, but we honestly admitted that we screwed up with the planning. Initially, we just wanted to release the mod as a separate game, but in the process we realized that we would like to radically change certain elements of it, ”said the game designer.
In 2014, Hall decides to leave Bohemia and with it the DayZ project. Accusations of betrayal immediately fell on the game designer, but in fact he agreed with the company’s management in advance that he was joining for a short time, and only in order to give DayZ a different life. With the development of the game dragging on, Hall decided to move on.
DayZ sat in Early Access for five years before finally releasing in 2018. By that time, more than four million people had already bought the game, but despite the positive reviews, enough competitors appeared during development, with which the survivalist community had to be shared.
Soon after leaving Hall finds investors and establishes his own studio Rocketwerkz in New Zealand. The company immediately began recruiting staff, which included developers with experience at companies such as Bethesda, Crytek, Creative Assembly, and Bohemia Interactive.
“The focus of the studio will be experimenting with game design rather than developing technology,” Hall said. “We are focusing on PC games, new genres and a fresh approach to multiplayer. Original rebels have gathered under our roof.”
At first, Rocketwerkz threatened to release some kind of Ion, which Hall did not want to talk about ahead of time. He only vaguely described the title as “an isometric game in the spirit of Diablo, based on the concept of Space Station 13.”
Ion was created in collaboration with the Improbable studio, but was already canceled in 2015, and Rocketwerkz focused on releasing the VR games Out of Ammo and Out of Ammo: Death Drive, which were released in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
The main project of the studio today is the construction sandbox Stationeers, inspired again by Space Station 13, and has been in Early Access since December 2017.
“After DayZ, I was sure that I would never contact Early Access again. However, after discussing this point thoroughly with the authors of RimWorld and Kerbal Space Program, I realized that these titles could turn out worse if they were developed exclusively behind closed doors. And since most of my ideas are terrible, why don’t the gaming community filter them out, ”reasoned Hall.
On top of the world
By the way, before leaving Bohemia, Hall fulfilled another extreme dream of his, namely, he climbed the highest peak of the Earth, Mount Everest, becoming the 42nd New Zealander to reach such a height.
“It is impossible to describe the feelings that you experience being at the very top of Everest. I wanted to take a few photos, but my camera battery failed, although the idea of trying to capture that feeling seemed pointless. I was so overwhelmed with emotions that in the end I did not feel anything concrete. If there is a god, then I seemed to be looking him straight in the face, ”Hall shared his impressions on his blog.
For the upcoming Icarus, here Hall and his team wanted to capture the excitement of the first hour of Minecraft by breaking up the co-op gameplay into sessions. Each session, players will be given a limited amount of time to collect the necessary resources, and if they manage to return alive, they will have the opportunity to develop without losing the excitement and panic of the first hours of gameplay. Less than a month is left before the release of Icarus, and, perhaps, after many years of trial and error, Dean Hall will reach the top of the industry due to his creation.
That said, don’t forget that Rocketwerkz also plans to release a tycoon-like Art of the Rail, which is a tribute to one of Hall’s favorite genres. There is a feeling that despite his solid experience, Hall and his approach to game design are only gaining momentum and will still have their big word.
“I have so many ideas that I want to implement with high quality. I’m proud of DayZ, but could anything have been done differently? Of course. Except I’m ten years older and I’ve learned a lot. Icarus is the next step in my evolution,” concluded Hall.