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.
So last time I wrote I started to poke into the core game loop of DayZ, and some of the implications when looked at things through a more traditional game design perspective. One of the things we ended up touching on very briefly was the mastery problem. Now, while obviously there is a direct connection to the economy of DayZ and mastery – there are larger points here.
Some of the oldest design struggles DayZ has had since the mod days were directly related to experienced players who “mastered” the progression path and essentially ran up against an issue with agency. As I had mentioned earlier, player to player interaction (of any degree honestly) is the great motivator – the main attraction when dealing with open world gameplay that leans heavily toward supporting emergent gameplay.
The original economy within DayZ mod was significantly smaller in scope. While the world size was effectively the same, the majority of the space was more or less unused/open/dead space. Potential loot spawn points were around or below 10,000 – and players could very quickly learn the meta when it came to routes, movement, and priority. While this led to a much smaller world space truly being utilized by designer influenced mechanics, it did have a nice side effect of increased player interactions due to more players utilizing those same routes.
From day one, one of the primary pillars of DayZ as a standalone title was to open up the world. Make every house in every village, town, and city enterable – and thus, every enterable structure should spawn loot. While this carries the inherent risk of slowing down part of the core game loop (exploring, looting) it was a risk that we were willing to take.
As the progress on this goal moved forward, we rapidly approached over 3,000,000 potential spawn points across Chernarus. Efforts were made (and continue to be made) to continue to decentralize a good deal of the high reward areas such as military bases, and hospitals – but without the technical support to support the 100+ player range that such a diverse economy would need, we ended up swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction. Players *were* far more spread out, but as their numbers did not support such dispersion as player capacity per instance ran from 40-60 depending on the server – the result was an increasingly bored and trigger happy player-versus-player community.
Plugging in the same tools used for zone based spawning of animals into the loot side of the economy allowed designers to start pushing towards a more defined route for progression from newly spawned players aimed at going to those high risk areas. While this did offer an increase in player interaction, it really only masked the underlying issue (aside from the support for higher player counts not being there yet).
Despite the (loot) economy of DayZ being a very robust dynamic tool – it still has to deal with an excessively large volume of data. Millions of spawn points, tens of thousands of active items (currently floating between 20,000 and 30,000 active) in addition to a whole slew of hard to plan for issues surrounding user hosted services, user exploits, and more.
However – none of that really ties into the mastery issue (and I feel like I’ve been rambling slowly more and more off topic here).
Experienced, and dedicated players will with enough time begin to master the quirks of the economy side of DayZ. Their path to “peak DayZ character performance” grows shorter with each playthrough, and really.. honestly.. expecting them to invest their time from that point forward in building a camp (at this stage in development effectively being limited to the DayZ version of TLC’s “Hoarders” show) is cheap and ineffective. So what do they do? Most of the time they will either: Sit around their favorite hotspot, Rotate through primary player presence hotspots, or.. go south (and in some cases even stay south after having done too many runs up north).
This devolves the DayZ experience to a set amount of locations, and a small amount of average interaction types.
There are several other titles within the open world survival space that have tackled this rather well honestly. Giving players a continued “end-game” goal beyond just going to the same locations, or staying on the coast harassing new spawns. Player progression mechanics in titles like Rust, and Conan Exiles for example allow for almost exponential growth in progression. Objectives such as creating a home base, and placing a bed (thus changing your respawn location) moves the players center of priority away from the “new player area” (typically) and also drives late-game goals and activities in a linear fashion. From creating the base, placing the bed, upgrading the base (and finding resources to do so), finding other player bases to raid, to being raided yourself. This all (in the ideal situation) moves the mastered players interactions and attentions typically away from the coast (new player areas) and gives more chance to new players learning the title, and moving upwards towards mastering the game themselves.
It goes without saying that players who are able to grok the basic mechanics and start to experience the game (and feel as if they are actually making progress) will come back for more, and often share the stories of their progress and experiences with their friends.
However – at least to me, and at least at this point – the lynch pin of all of that for these other titles is essentially.. the base (and more specifically the bed). In skirting full permadeath they allow for player progression, while still ensuring gameplay risk (in death and losing your items). This is where DayZ runs into a problem. Sometimes it can be said that DayZ is almost at times a victim of its own heritage. The anti-game dogma, the “unforgiving and punishing experience” is not one that would (at least in the vanilla title) allow for stepping away (even slightly) from that permadeath mantra.
I suppose that is a discussion for another time. Forgive any typos or grammatical errors please, I wrote this up while at GDC and under the influence of far too much coffee.