DayZ, Dean Hall’s Departure and the Dramas of Early Access
Dean “Rocket” Hall has announced his desire to leave the DayZ project by the end of 2014, and people are freaking out.
That frustration is understandable. Hall is the DayZ figurehead, the original creative force behind the mod that eventually led to a stand-alone alpha version on Steam’s Early Access, and the public face of the project. He’s the man who gives the interviews (including the one which broke this departure story) and posts regular updates about the game through his twitter and DayZ forum accounts.
It’s reasonable to assume that the Rocket-less DayZ will be a somewhat different title. One look at how the DayZ Arma II mod version is being handled without him will confirm this theory.
I’m willing to bet that his enthusiasm and vision for the DayZ stand-alone project is what convinced a fair number of people to take the plunge on the Early Access alpha version. Not everybody. Probably not even a majority. But some of those Early Access sales will be down, in part, to people’s faith in Hall to deliver on the proposed updates and scope of the stand-alone title.
There’s a semi-famous example of bad games writing which opens with the following line: ‘”There’s a tendency among the press to attribute the creation of a game to a single person,” says Warren Spector, creator of Thief and Deus Ex.’ As well as hilarious irony, it highlights how difficult it is for people to separate the team project from the lone figurehead. Even in a sentence which is trying to do exactly that.
It’s extremely rare for a game to be made by one person, but certain characters will always be synonymous with a given series. Ken Levine with BioShock, Markus “Notch” Persson with Minecraft and, indeed, Warren Spector with Deus Ex.
Had Notch chosen to leave Minecraft far earlier in the development process than he ultimately did, there would have been a loud, negative public reaction. Rightly so, as Mojang had effectively employed a proto-Early Access system to finance the game and made certain promises about what features the title would have upon release.
Of course, an important factor in all this is that Hall is not actually leaving DayZ yet. He has stated his intention to do so, but plans to be around until sometime at the end of this year. That’s the same period when DayZ is said to be heading towards a beta release. There’s no telling if that schedule will be met, or how “feature complete” the game will be at that stage, but it would be best to hold off on any rapid judgments about the title being doomed until it’s known what state the game will be in when Hall does actually leave.
But there is some justified anger at the timing of this announcement. DayZ only entered Early Access back in December. In the interview, Hall says that he “originally wasn’t going to do this year,” but relented because he felt it would be unfair to the community. From this, we can infer that he’s had the departure from DayZ on his mind for a while. Perhaps even before the game appeared on Early Access.
It’s hard to fault the general all-caps disclaimer that the title still has on it’s store page, which states “THIS GAME IS EARLY ACCESS ALPHA. PLEASE DO NOT PURCHASE IT UNLESS YOU … ARE PREPARED TO HANDLE WITH SERIOUS ISSUES AND POSSIBLE INTERRUPTIONS OF GAME FUNCTIONING.” What it doesn’t mention though, is anything about the creator’s intentions to leave the project within the next 12 months. If Hall had this in mind before the Early Access launch, there’s a strong case for saying that information should have been disclosed to the public.
Few of the thousands of people who’ve kept DayZ towards the top of Steam’s sales charts bought it purely on the strength of Hall’s involvement, but certainly the knowledge that he might be leaving the team before the end of 2014 would have factored into many of those purchasing decisions.
The nature of Early Access puts a title in the public eye, and in choosing to enter that open development process developers take on additional responsibilities and external expectations. In return for those new responsibilities, they get a lot of public money up front.
Hall shouldn’t be blamed for wanting to depart from the project. His position makes sense, and it’d take a severely jaded soul not to empathise with his desire to return to his family in New Zealand. In dedicating himself to another 10-12 months or so on DayZ, he stands a decent chance of fulfilling some of the commitments he made to the game’s community and leaving with the title in (or close to) beta form. His reminders that there will be a whole team left at Bohemia to carry on working on the game are quite correct.
But nor should it be a surprise that people are upset and discouraged by what they will feel is the early abandonment of the project by its main creative force.
There’s no telling now whether DayZ will reach its potential, or whether the game’s legacy will be as an inspiration for other open world survival titles to fulfill that promise. Hall has made his choice for legitimate reasons, and parts of the community have responded with understandable disappointment. In the debate over his departure, almost everyone has a point. Including Hall himself.
If blame should be apportioned anywhere, it’s on the Early Access system. Valve’s platform for unfinished projects has certain benefits, but the bulk of those are in favour of developers and few (aside from a chance to look at a work in progress) are there to aid the customer. It’s a system where, as with DayZ, changing circumstances can leave buyers with a nasty surprise. No matter how loud and comprehensive the disclaimer on a game is, it can never hope to encompass the problems and pitfalls that might beset a project between an early alpha build and a full release.
As a result of the Early Access system DayZ’s development is playing out in public, and players are seeing some of the unpredictable, chaotic changes that occur in the process of games development. They’re also paying for the privilege. Some may now be rethinking that purchase.