Disclaimer: It should be noted that these are my personal musings and reflections, and do not reflect the official stance on design for any project I am associated with, nor the official position of my employer.
Over the last week or so I’ve been re-reading through one of my favorite books on game design (A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster) and thinking over how DayZ as a game looks through the lens of the systems and lessons within it. For a book written well over ten years ago, it still holds up incredibly well when applied to the modern video game industry, a testament to how spot on Raph was with a lot of his musings within.
There are several areas of DayZ as a whole I’d like to cover – but initially I’d like to take a look at how the core game loop for DayZ is both brilliant, and in some cases very lazy. (Yes, I said it – but you’ll understand why later on)
DayZ’s core gameplay loop is pretty simple straight out of the box – it is effectively unchanged from the DayZ Mod, or the launch of the Early Access build on Steam. Spawn (or respawn), Loot, Shoot, Die. The base mechanics have always been there, in one form or another – simpler in the more restricted environment of the mod – and more drawn out and complex in the standalone title. From the initial spawn you are looking for the items you need to survive, or pursue the gameplay method you are interested in. Through performing this initial action, you encounter the antagonist to your own story. Be it the environment, the infected, or other players.
This spine that runs through all of DayZ’s gameplay is engaging yes, but like all gameplay systems created by a designer – it can be mastered. Through this repetition it can become boring, and in this situation.. if it was not for DayZ’s saving grace, it would be forgotten rather quickly. Emergent gameplay (player to player interaction and engagement outside anything that can be scripted and controlled by a designer) is the core of what keeps people coming back to DayZ, and other titles like it. All gameplay systems and mechanics – anything that can be scripted, or programmed by a developer is a system that can be grokked (learned, and mastered) by a player with enough time, intelligence, or persistence. This ties back to some of the comments I made years ago on our subreddit about the infected/zombies within DayZ, and how they will never be as much of a threat as another player.
Player interaction is fluid, unpredictable, and while a lot of it within DayZ can seem similar or predictable – it really is not. You can never honestly know exactly what the other player is thinking, or what is going on behind the keyboard/monitor. This type of constantly changing, constantly evolving gameplay is addicting and generates something that story based games have always struggled to do: Actually *involve* the player in the story that is being created around them.
While this might seem like a fantastic method of ensuring a title with a long shelf life and tail, it (and DayZ as a whole) ignores a lot of the traditional game mechanic design standards throughout the past. Nearly everything within DayZ is intended in one form or another to push players towards other players. Either directly through the rush of player to player combat and the potential reward there within, or indirectly through attempting to control the location of highly sought after items, vehicles, supplies and so on. We as designers tend to put a large portion of the responsibility of creating an engaging experience on -the player- themselves.
In hindsight, this can create a large learning curve as we shy away from any hand holding, any tutorials, guides, loading screen tool tips, and so on. Something that would be viewed by a traditional publisher as high risk, and in some cases downright crazy. The responsibility to understand what to do, where to go, and how the gameplay systems within the title operate is all left on the players shoulders.
As a title that relies so heavily on these emergent gameplay stories being created, and then shared, we end up in a situation where those who fit within our niche audience fully grok (and eventually master) the game. Those players share their stories – sometimes through high exposure mediums such as twitch, youtube, and so on – and the new and inexperienced player is presented with an experience from the perspective of a master of gameplay. What they experience coming into the game fresh, compared to the story they were exposed to does not always match up, and we end up with some confused or frustrated users.
There is something to be said for continuing to try and tackle this issue of presenting a more easily understandable path to mastering the mechanics and systems within DayZ that push players to interact, without compromising the past legacy of an unforgiving niche “anti-game”. This is something I’m certain will be addressed and investigated as DayZ moves into its Beta phase.
I’d like to continue this later on, and discuss “the mastery problem” as impacts DayZ. Not only within the impact of “high gear” players becoming bored and traveling back down to the coast (the starting region for DayZ) and harassing new characters, but how the mastery problem applies to the economy within DayZ and the ongoing struggle to tackle it. That however, is for another time.