zombie’s dilemma

Tue May-29th-2012 // Filed under: Games

That’s right, another DayZ post. I haven’t been able to put anywhere near as much time into this game as I’d like to, but I keep thinking about it constantly. One of things I touched on in my previous post was the concept of banditry — people killing you for your gear, or just ’cause. I wanted to write some more about that.

Being a bandit is something that until very recently had a very specific meaning in DayZ. Until the latest update, if you killed innocent people, your Humanity score went down, and you gained a bandit skin for your character — meaning that people would know you to be a murderer. This is no longer the case. Now you can’t tell who’s a bandit just by looking at them — which adds a whole new level of uncertainty to encounters.

There’s a huge PVP element in DayZ. Don’t get me wrong, the zombies are a danger, absolutely. So are hunger, thirst and cold — but they are reasonably predictable things. These things can kill you, but they typically aren’t that hard to deal with. If you don’t get too stupid about it, and especially if you have a friend or two to help you, you can cope; once you have managed to get a certain basic level of equipment, you can probably handle most situations pretty well.

But it becomes a whole another story when you’re trying to make sure you don’t die of zombies, hunger, or exposure, and you constantly have to worry about whether somebody’s taking aim on you.

Could be somebody with a sniper rifle on the nearby hill or rooftop. Could be a group of ruthless bastards with fantastic gear. Could be just one desperate guy who’s starving and who will do anything to get the food in your pack. Could be somebody who sees you coming and is sure that you’re about to murder him for the food in his pack.

Could be one of your friends, even — the guy who’s supposed to be watching your back.

Again, DayZ is based on Arma II, a military simulation that strives for realism. It’s not one of those games where people are bullet sponges. A few shots to the body from even the lightest handgun in the game, and you’re probably dead or dying. A headshot from the puniest weapon in the game will drop you like third period French. This means that every encounter can be extremely deadly — you can’t go around thinking that because you have great gear, you’re safe. You may have an advantage, but if someone gets the drop on you, you can still die in an eyeblink.

And because the game has permadeath, once you die, you lose everything. Spend hours getting that good gear? Too bad, Buckaroo, you’re gonna have to start right over with that shitty little Makarov and one can of food. Lots of luck.

Pulling that trigger isn’t a small thing. You really don’t want to start something you can’t finish.

Painting With a Broad Brush

There are a bunch of ways to approach this, and for purposes of illustration, I’m going to generalize and divide DayZ players into three groups.

  • There are people who will never fire first on another player-controlled character. It’s probably safe to say that these are very much in the minority. That’s pretty much how I play, incidentally; I wouldn’t go so far as to say I can’t see myself being the one to open fire, but it’d take some fairly serious provocation.
  • There are people who will avoid trouble, but if they see someone they have reason to believe is a bandit or a threat, they’ll take pre-emptive action. There’s a great range of behavior under this one — some people adopt an “I won’t bother you if you won’t bother me, but if you get between me and what I want, I’ll take you out” stance, for instance. (Of course, depending on circumstances, “what I want” could just be a can of beans.) Others will actively engage anybody who gets too close, but may not shoot to kill — they may just try to frighten others off. Communication is a big thing here — it’s not at all unusual to hear people issue warnings to back the hell off. That may seem like bluster, and to some extent, it of course is, but they do give the other party the option to leave unscathed. Of course, there’s that whole “unrelenting force meets immovable object” aspect to that, but that’s always a risk with an ultimatum.
  • And then there are the hardcore bandits — people who’ll kill you as soon as look at you, unless you’re a part of their group (and judging by some stories they tell, even that may not protect you). They may do it for your gear, or just for kicks, or to make sure you can’t threaten them, for bragging rights, or any combination of the above. And yes, some people are just colossal assholes.

Of course, this is hardly a comprehensive catalog of player types. For instance, you also get people who won’t fire on survivors, but make it a point to hunt down bandits (although that’s now much harder than before, since you can’t tell them by sight). Some people are perfectly nice most of the time, and then they dabble in banditry, just because the opportunity seems too good to miss — “I wouldn’t normally do this, but that guy had a sniper rifle and I got the drop on him, and I just knew life would be so much easier if I had his weapon.” Some people just go on occasional rampages, and then go back to being nice… or vice versa.

So for a lot of players, things aren’t anywhere near that black and white — although you wouldn’t know that by listening to many of them. There’s a strong sentiment among many players that people who engage in outright banditry are horrible jerks who are ruining the game.

“This game is ruined!”

To no one’s great surprise, all this has been a topic for lively discussion in the community, particularly once the removal of the bandit skin was announced. As very loud and indignant people on the internet will tell you, that means that the game will inevitably degenerate into a deathmatch, because you will no longer have any idea who to trust. (Things like “Call of Duty” and “console fag” get mentioned on a regular basis, presumably in an attempt to brilliantly demonstrate how much less mature people who play on consoles are.)

The argument for removing the skin essentially boils down to added realism: in real life, bad people don’t have badges that say “bad guy.” And the counterargument is, of course, that this is a game, not real life, and games are supposed to be fun… and so it goes.

But I would argue that it is precisely this dynamic that gives DayZ its pretty much unique flavor. It is an unforgiving game, but it’s more than that; it taps into the human psyche in interesting ways. Our own instincts, compulsions, fears, and aspirations (and I want to say that I almost went with “nobility,” here; it’s not a word I want to use, but there’s something appropriate about that) are very much the engine that really drives this thing.

For example, here’s one interesting aspect to the whole thing: there’s no need for anyone to be a bandit that I can see. Absolutely none. If everyone on the server banded together and worked together, the zombies wouldn’t be much of a threat. There would be the occasional casualty, of course, whether from zombies, injuries obtained while adventuring, or the accidental case of friendly fire, but as far as I can tell, at the rate items respawn into the game, there are easily enough resources to go around to keep everybody going.

But if that was the case, there would be no game to speak of. Sure, there might be some fairly interesting challenges, but there wouldn’t be a lot of tension — and that tension is very much what DayZ is all about.

On the other hand, there’s a flip side to this: if everybody is a bandit, if that deathmatch scenario came to pass — in other words, if no one can work together at all, then there is also no game to speak of. At that point it is indeed just one big meat grinder, with dozens of players constantly stalking each other. That can be interesting to some extent, but it certainly wouldn’t be enough to differentiate the game from any number of others that offer a similar experience.

Luckily, people being what they are, both situations are fairly unrealistic.

First of all, in a purported game of total cooperation, if everybody actually played by those rules, you would very soon be bored to tears and go do something else. Luckily, that will never happen, because you could never be sure that somebody wouldn’t just start messing with the others. People often can’t even agree on where to go for lunch without splinter groups forming — are you really going to trust fifty people with guns to share and share alike? (You could enforce it by turning friendly fire off and whatnot, of course, but that would castrate the game even further.)

But on the other end of the spectrum, you can’t trust people to be just total trigger-happy assholes, either. Pure deathmatch wouldn’t happen, and there are two reasons for it. First of all, there’s plain old survival. If everyone’s just out to shoot everybody, any situation where you have somebody watching your back gives you a tremendous tactical advantage. Secondly, and far more interestingly, there are cool moments that will never go away. You see a complete stranger go down under a zombie assault, and you save his ass. All of a sudden, new things come to play — relief, gratitude, maybe even friendship. Killing yet another guy? Not much of a story. Being the cool guy who charges out of the darkness to save somebody from certain death? There’s something iconic about that, and that’ll always have appeal to people. Not all people, no, but many of them.

Despite this, the whole thing about removing bandit skins has some people up in arms. If you can’t tell who are bandits by their appearance, the argument goes, the only way to be safe is to open fire on anyone you don’t know to be friendly — so you will kill attempt to kill every stranger. A lot of people are very sure about that, and they are happy to cite any number of personal anecdotes of situations where they ran into somebody who shot them without any provocation.

I don’t doubt those stories. That can happen. But it’s a little amazing how many of those people refuse to acknowledge that the problem here is not so much that anybody can be a bandit (although it is true, and that uncertainty can certainly be a challenge), but rather that this is very much “do unto others” territory. If you cite your own safety as the reason to kill anybody you don’t know, what do you think those people who shot you when you weren’t really a threat to them were thinking?

Going deeper into that social dynamic, we could start thinking about things like how do you inspire trust in others if you constantly demonstrate that kind of a ruthlessly utilitarian moral stance — but that may not come into play too often in a game like DayZ.

Not yet, anyway…

Prisoner’s Dilemma

In any case, this is fascinating, because now we’re really deep into the Prisoner’s Dilemma aspects of DayZ. If you’re not familiar with the concept, I suggest you check out the article on it on Wikipedia. In short, it’s a classic example of game theory that illustrates why people might not do what’s best for them, and DayZ is full of mechanics and dynamics like that. This is particularly evident in the fact that it’s very hard for people to make decisions that have an impact on their long-term prospects of survival — decisions that might shape the game’s culture towards something they might find more positive — if that means sacrificing short-term gain.

These are the dynamics that make DayZ so interesting. It’s not predictable, and that’s the wonderful thing about it. People keep surprising you in different ways. It just doesn’t feel safe.

There’s something about coming face to face with another armed guy, and not knowing how that encounter will play out. Or hiding in the bushes and seeing another player going around, and knowing that you could execute them and take their stuff. Or being in those bushes, and knowing you could do it, but you aren’t sure if they’re alone. Or seeing bushes and knowing there might be somebody in there right now. Or seeing the bushes and knowing that you have a friend watching your back.

There’s also this: DayZ is very clearly an experiment. It’s at an alpha stage right now, meaning that it’s not a finished product — it’s not even feature complete, let alone something that’s been polished and perfected. It keeps evolving on its players. It’s an experiment in game design and player manipulation, and there’s very clearly a vision and a philosophy guiding the project’s development. I’m sure there will be missteps along the way — it’s very much an iterative process, and some things will prove to work out, others will not.

The important thing is that Dean “Rocket” Hall, its creator, has made a very obvious commitment to making it what he feels it needs to be, and those decisions often fly in the way of conventional game designed wisdom. The game isn’t balanced, and it isn’t fair, and it’s obvious that at least right now, he doesn’t want it to be. I hope he can stick to his guns on that.

A lot of players have strong opinions about it, and Rocket’s often blunt “send me tears” approach to complaints is admirable. He’s not terribly diplomatic about it, and while that may rub some people the wrong way, that’s exactly the right approach to take, because it wouldn’t take much to water this experience down and turn it into into a weak and toothless compromise. Judging by his forum posts, he understands that the magic of the game lies in the unique player dynamic. I don’t know if the game can keep evolving and maintain that dynamic, and more importantly, I don’t know if players can keep from fucking it up. There’s something… earnest and honest about the way DayZ works, about how those player interactions are constructed, and in the end, it’s up to the players to maintain the correct balance of altruism and asshattery.

The bottom line is, it doesn’t work if there are too many bandits, and it doesn’t work if there are too few of them, and I’m not sure how much you can really regulate that with game mechanics. Self-moderation is not one of the things random people on the internet are known for, but I can’t help thinking that a pinch of that is precisely what DayZ needs to succeed in the long run.

Edit: Oh, goddammit, I can’t believe I forgot to include this with the original post:

Probably doesn’t take a genius to figure out how this applies. =)


  1. Thanks for writing these. DayZ sounds like an interesting game, just for the social reasons. I haven’t played FPS games that much, but I might try this out.

    The social thing is the reason I still pay for the EVE account, though I haven’t played a lot lately.

    (Also, after discussing DayZ also at work last week, last night I dreamed about it. Not the zombies so much, although they were there, but the trust mechanics. When I’ve dreamed about games lately, it’s been Dwarf Fortress so this is a welcome change.)

    Comment by Mikko Parviainen — May 29, 2012 @ 1338275754

  2. This sure sounds like a fascinating game. Could you elaborate a bit on how does the communications work in the game; I understand there’s a voice chat in the game, so if you use it does everyone close to hear it? And if you want to speak only to your friends you use Skype or some other external app?

    I would think that this one of the most crucial aspect in how do the encounters with other players end up. You will need superb communication tools (and skills) to achieve something like trading etc.

    Comment by jussir — July 2, 2012 @ 1341235820

  3. First of all, sorry for not responding sooner — summer vacation time, you know how it goes…

    Yeah, the game has direct communication, which means that what you say in the mic is audible to others in the game world, with the audio originating from your character. It has a falloff range and so forth, so you can only hear people who are close to you, and you can affect the range by yelling or whispering. It didn’t used to work properly, but now it does. So you can do things like sneak up on people and eavesdrop on them, or shout at somebody that they need to back off, or whatever.

    Another option is to use Skype, Teamspeak, Mumble or some other solution, and a lot of people do that — that enables private communication within your own team. Personally, I think that kinda misses the point of the game — but on the other hand, without something like that, coordinating anything between players would be next to impossible — if two players spawn in random locations, they need to have some way of communicating with each other or chances are they’ll never meet. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think people should use other VOIP software to completely replace direct communication in the game, because overhearing enemy conversations, or being able to talk to people you meet, is a huge part of the game, and has a big impact on the atmosphere. Of course, this is just about impossible to enforce.

    Comment by Mikki — July 7, 2012 @ 1341683856

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