Just over a year ago, in December of 2013, a little game known as DayZ was released to the public on Steam Early Access. Just last week, an anniversary notice, video, and a 2015 roadmap were released to show where the game has been and indicate where it is going. Along with that came an update to the experimental build. Altogether, the game has sold 2,830,000 copies as of December 16th, 2014. With a consistent presence on the Steam charts, frequent updates, a favorite of streamers, and as a platform for friendly and not so friendly trolling, DayZ might just be the best current example of Early Access done right since Steam launched the program. I’ve been thinking about trust in this age of so many ways to pay for games before they’re ever remotely finished.
Letting players come along for the development ride is nothing new, but Minecraft changed things. Players who aren’t hired testers or among a carefully selected group of invitees can play a game and give feedback on their experiences. Players will remember just one or two things when the game is out – if it’s good, and if they felt listened to. Crowdfunding in any manner relies upon a sense of trust, and under Dean Hall, who stepped down as lead, DayZ seems to be in remarkably good hands as it heads toward an eventual 2016 release. Even when the game was formally pushed back and various incidents emerged in the industry related to crowdfunding and early release alphas, (The War Z and other disappointments come to mind), players have stuck with DayZ and continued to help it grow. When Bohemia Interactive teamed up with Hall, providing the funding to turn DayZ from a mod into a full game, sales continued to be strong. The team’s responsiveness, frequent updates on what’s going on in the game, and a robust slate of upcoming features add to earning players’ trust.
Players are going to remember two things in the end – if the game is good, and if it was enjoyable enough to warrant the time and money invested. Releasing the game in Early Access was a smart idea, because DayZ captures multiple trends in gaming at once – online play, often with friends, roguelike elements and permadeath, and well, zombies. Though the zombie trend may have cooled down a bit (though games like recent releases Dead State and upcoming MOBA Kill Strain aren’t letting it go quietly), DayZ still managed an average of 13,662.5 players in December 2014, according to Steam Charts. That is definitely off from the post-launch 23,093 average in January 2014, but still notable. To put things in perspective, the peak number of players this month (as of this writing) was 28,605. Bohemia Interactive claims a further 1 million players peak each month. Either way, it’s clear players support the game.
Games drop in popularity all the time and slide down the charts, but DayZ has staying power at its core. Marking out a long beta and a 2016 launch, the team learned from other companies’ mistakes. Many players have been burned on games released too soon and without promised features. Next year will be key, but DayZ has already made its mark. People know what they’re getting, and that, not coyness about features or shipping a broken product that a studio announced as done with a straight face, is how to approach your players.
It’s been a mixed year as crowdfunding takes a few hits and major studios release broken games with controversial agreements. Yet, DayZ is a bright spot in this field, and the recent update made me take notice again. I do wonder if the zombie theme will hold up into 2016, but as mentioned, releasing once a generally stable alpha build was in place was the smartest thing they could do. Players have been engaged and having fun. It doesn’t hurt that DayZ has natural drama built into it due to having to start over, as well as dealing with the effects of both the environment and the best and worst of human nature. It’s also a game ripe for roleplayers, and that should also get better next year, with vehicles, diseases, promises for improved cooking and horticulture, new world containers, animal predators and companions, and more.
Also on the agenda are soft skills for characters, so if you manage to survive long enough, you can put all that to good use. Finally, in about a year, we can expect a system of traps, barricades (door locks are there this month), base building, and aerial transport to all arrive by the start of official beta. A lot of promises, but the developers have earned a lot of trust and the players continue to support the game. Once things like base building and improvements in supplies, vehicles, and animals are in, it’s likely that there will be new and returning players to take advantage, especially as these features begin to appear on streams.
On top of just being a fun game that lets you determine how you want to play it (and also lets others try to impede that – to either frustration, laughter, or both), DayZ is one of the better examples of an actual relationship between devs and community. Minecraft paved the way for early access and sold alpha models, but it takes more than offering up a build and saying “buy this and we’ll develop it more”. The team at Bohemia Interactive does well to recognize that ongoing community support is vital to development when even somewhat reliant on an Early Access model, and it goes hand in hand with tangible results.