The Secret Behind the Success of DayZ, the Most Interesting PC "Game" of 2012

You can keep your Diablos, the most interesting thing to happen to PC gaming this year has easily been DayZ, a zombie survival mod for military shooter ArmA II.

What's even more impressive than the experience itself, though, is the fact it was created by a single man, New Zealander Dean Hall. So earlier this week we had a little chat to discuss the past, present and future of the mod.

Before we start, though, let's clear something up: this isn't strictly a fan-made mod. One of the reasons DayZ is running so well so early in its life (it's still in alpha) is that Hall actually works for Bohemia Interactive, the developers of ArmA II, where he's been since January after Skype chats with BI's creative director Ivan Buchta turned into a job offer.

"It is definitely an advantage because you can learn about how the engine works, and how you can work with the engine to achieve what you want", Hall says. "In a way, DayZ was a chance for me to really consolidate what I was learning during the day, in the weekends and at night. This allowed me to quickly refine and consolidate my knowledge in the engine."

Don't go calling this an official mod, though. Work on DayZ began long before Hall flew to the Czech Republic. "Much of the actual tech underneath I actually developed prior to turning up, in things I had been developing that was more like a persistent world battlefield (i.e. no infected people). But being at the heart of the development allowed me to learn how to work with the engine in what I was trying to achieve."

When I spoke with ArmA II devs Bohemia Interactive last week, they told me that sales of the game had shot up fivefold since DayZ's release, with the ageing shooter even occasionally topping Steam's sales charts ahead of brand new, AAA blockbusters.

"The base mechanics had to work because there was nothing else to pull it through."

Has this caused any problems for Hall as far as development of the mod goes? You bet it has. "In many ways, it slowed development to a crawl. I had to focus nearly all my time on performance issues associated with the drastically increased numbers."

"But it allowed the concept to be proven in a mass-scale environment. I really didn't have time to think about anything for the first few weeks, it was one problem to the next. Luckily there were members from the community to help me at every turn."

Getting a little deeper than his immediate responses to the flood of people rushing to try the mod, I ask Hall for his thoughts on the game's real hook: its emotional effect on the player, and how the game's lack of design, for want of a better term, was part of its appeal.

"Well I guess it depends what you mean by design", he says. "I think that's the core problem in the game industry at the moment, many people think design largely means story, progression, mechanics. I think as an industry we got stuck on repeat with that and designers started to devote more and more time to that. I spent far more time on design that I did on really anything else within DayZ, but that design was entirely focused on developing and refining how the game would effect the players thinking and develop their emotions, how the mechanics in game with affect the player and what situations the player would be faced with. Because I didn't allow for anything else, I couldn't take the easy way out. The base mechanics had to work because there was nothing else to pull it through."

While DayZ's terrifying appeal is built on keeping things to a relative minimum - an irony given the complexity of ArmA II itself - that doesn't mean the mod is going to simply stay at "man vs zombies vs other men" level. Hall is committed to adding new and more immersive features to DayZ as he and the community see fit.

"I just added the temperature system, I am really passionate about having the game world have a key effect on the players thinking. I think this will make the players feel more engaged with the game. I loved Skyrim's visuals, they made me dreamy, but I always felt disconnected from the world because it had no effect on my character. I didn't have to factor in the rain or the snow, or being in water. I want to explore this concept with the DayZ players and see how this can be refined to add a whole dimension to the gameplay."

Looking at DayZ's success, even given the mod's early development stage and rough code, it's clear that Hall has struck a nerve, giving PC gamers an experience they weren't getting elsewhere, but which they were clearly hanging out for. Which begs the question: rather than simply exist as a mod, could DayZ, or something similar, work as a standalone, dedicated product?

"I think that DayZ has proven that such a concept would not only be a critical success, but a financial one as well. I think it's really just a question of who, on what, and when before this kind of gameplay mode becomes an actual game. I think that's great news for gamers, they have hit directly into the bottom line - and that is what will make studios take notice."

Before we wind up, I have to ask: given the mod can be very difficult for newcomers, what advice does Hall have for those taking their first steps in DayZ?

"Probably the same advice for any natural disaster: Have a plan and don't do anything stupid."