Friday, September 7, 2012

How the Community Ruins the Day Z Experience

Day Z is the sort of game that's really fun and interesting for a while, but then quickly loses its appeal. I played consistently for about a week and then lost interest, largely because I started to realize there was no real point to anything; it was just a never-ending cycle of spawn, scavenge loot, get killed, do it all over again. The whole point of the game is to survive long enough to assemble some ultimate set of equipment, but even once you accomplish that, there's not much to do with that equipment besides killing other players because there's just not enough actual content.

The longer Day Z has gone on, the more it's turned from an innovative survival game full of uniquely challenging and rewarding gameplay ideas, to a stupidly boring and pointless PVP deathmatch shooter. Don't get me wrong, the open PVP system is a crucial, integral element in making Day Z such a compelling experience, and I would never suggest scrapping it -- but it's gotten to a ridiculous point where people only play to grief other players. In the end, the survival mechanics create a vicious cycle where grief begets grief, to the point that even honest, honorable players end up devolving to a "shoot on sight" mentality which ultimately ruins the game experience.

What makes Day Z such a phenomenal concept is that it's a post-apocalyptic sandbox with servers run in total anarchy; only the fit will survive, and the strongest write the rules. Then you've got the brutally harsh survival mechanics that require you to keep up on basic supplies like food and water in addition to ammunition and medical supplies. Death can come just as easily from an empty stomach or a broken leg as from a horde of zombies, and once you die, you lose everything. The constant risk of permanent death adds an extra special emphasis to the survival elements; the longer you stay alive, the more you have to lose.

Mix all of these concepts together -- lawless anarchy, harsh survival mechanics, permadeath -- and you have a game that realizes survival-horror in ways no other game has ever come close to. Unlike most conventional survival-horror games, Day Z doesn't try to elicit superficial horror in the form of grotesque monsters in a dark environment that want to kill you -- in fact, the zombies are perhaps the least scary aspect of Day Z. What's scary is the thought of losing everything you've worked so hard for, because there are consequences for nearly everything you do.

The icing on the cake is being able to kill other survivors to take their equipment. It's a viable option for survival, sometimes even a necessity when you're about to die of starvation and can't find any food or don't have the materials to prepare your own. You have to watch your back because you can't afford to trust everyone you see. This is arguably the best feature of Day Z -- if there were absolutely no PVP, the game would become even more boring and pointless than it already has the potential to be. But at the same time, the game loses its special charm when everyone shoots everyone else on sight.

In my time with Day Z, I've encountered a lot of other players, and without a doubt I've experienced the most tension when we weren't shooting each other. It's a hell of a lot scarier seeing another survivor and trying to stay out of sight, watching them to see what they'll do and ascertaining whether they're a threat, hoping you won't get seen and being ready to defend yourself if necessary, than simply shooting them dead the moment you see them. Simply put, there's no time for either side of such an encounter to feel tension or excitement when you're spotted and die instantly -- it's just an annoying nuisance for the person who died and not much of a thrilling accomplishment for the shooter.

And yet, people are understandably very protective of what they've earned. If you've spent five hours collecting lots of rare and valuable equipment, you don't want to see it all go, so the safest option for preserving that gear is to kill other players before they can kill you. Once one person starts thinking like this, it causes a viral chain reaction -- the more people get killed on sight, the more they start killing on sight as a means of self-defense -- until everyone is so paranoid of everyone else that the general rule is kill or be killed, not because everyone is a murderous bandit, but because everyone adopts a "better safe than sorry" approach. 

A large percentage of bandits probably don't choose to be -- many are just forced to fight fire with fire -- but there's also a significant percentage of people who play Day Z specifically to grief other players. A lot of people get a sniper rifle just so they can pick off everyone they see from a safe distance, when their victims are no threat to their own survival and they have no chance of collecting their gear, anyway. It's just as popular for people to get a weapon and set their sights on the coastline just so they can kill newly-spawned players. Then there are the hackers, oh the hackers, who spawn insane gear for themselves, make themselves invincible, teleport around the map, and even kill the entire server with one click of a button.

The more this happens, the more the game devolves into a mindless deathmatch FPS with a supplemental survival system, when it has the potential to be so much more nuanced than that. Playing Day Z can be a fun study of sociology and psychology, with all kinds of social and psychological dilemmas that simply don't exist in other shooters. It's a game where experiences can be extremely diverse and dynamic, but once everyone just starts killing each other for the hell of it, it makes every experience into the same experience. 

A bus ride to a gladiator arena

Of all the stories I've read of players' experiences in Day Z, by far the most interesting ones are when people get to interact with other players in scenarios that extend far beyond the ordinary gameplay mechanics. A group of players surrounds someone and makes them their slave for a day; a player gets picked up on a bus and has to fight in a gladiator arena to survive. This is the coolest aspect of Day Z, that it's a sandbox where players can generate their own kinds of content with truly emergent gameplay. But if everyone just shoots everyone else on sight, then you have no opportunity to actually interact with other players like this and the experience becomes a far more shallow, straightforward matter.

In the real world, people survive by banding together because there's strength in numbers. A large group can defend themselves from a smaller group, and they can aggressively push their weight to get what they want. In the real world, people have extreme reservations for committing murder and are more apt to work together towards a common goal. In the real world, death is permanent and people don't risk their lives so nonchalantly. In Day Z, a game where death is really only a minor setback, people kill indiscriminately just for the fun of it. There are no consequences for murder (in fact, there are actually numerous benefits) and practically no benefit for letting another player live. Mindless murder is the norm in this post-apocalyptic society, and it only serves to devalue the core concepts of the game, death and survival, turning those concepts into cheap commodities. 

What I'd eventually like to see in Day Z is a system that promotes PVP in some kind of structured, meaningful way with specific end-game goals. One idea is to allow players to join various factions and having them fight for ownership of certain towns or locations, which grant access to unique content and benefits. This way you have clear allies and enemies (though you can still be betrayed by your own people), and the PVP serves a greater purpose, as a means to an end. Give players productive things to do once they have their gear.

I'd also like to see some system to discourage random, senseless murder. There need to be consequences for player-killing, because as the game stands now, the only risk you have is of getting yourself killed and losing your gear. But losing your gear isn't even that big of a consequence, because once you know where to find things, you can get yourself re-equipped in an hour or less; dying isn't much of a setback for griefers or hackers. It would also be nice to have some kind of worthwhile reason to let other players live so that an encounter with another player can actually develop in multiple different ways, rather than inevitably boiling down to a firefight.

Day Z is a game with a lot of potential to transcend normal multiplayer experiences. Thousands of gamers have experienced what it can offer, and I got a small taste of it, but the thrill wears off very quickly because there just isn't enough content to experience right now, and because the community is turning the entire game into a bloated deathmatch shooter. The PVP is a fun, integral component in making Day Z what it is, but all of my most tense, dramatic experiences occurred when we weren't shooting each other. There's a lot more to this game than killing other players, but you just can't experience the game's best elements when everyone's busy shooting everyone else on sight. 


  1. Sounds interesting.
    Maybe they should just make the PvE aspect a lot harder.

    Such that it does not matter how much equipment you have, a single shot has a very real potential to attract more zombies then you could possibly deal with.

    More of a Walking Dead type scenario. You run, you hide, and often you do not shoot each other simply because it could mean death to everyone in the area if you attracted the zombie hordes.

    The game is still in beta from what I understand, so you should not be to harsh on the lack of content.

    1. More accurately, I think it's still in alpha development. I don't mean for it to sound harsh, but that is the honest truth and people should be aware of it before spending money on either Arma 2 or the proposed standalone version.

  2. This is why only RPGs should be roguelike.