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The Law of Unintended Design

December 11, 2012

Dear Reader,

First off, let me point out something that’s probably completely uninteresting.  I was mortified to discover that in my last article, which got picked up by a larger blog site, I had used site instead of cite.  I don’t know how many people saw that before I caught it myself, but it literally has distressed me since I noticed it Monday morning.  Did anyone else notice?  Probably only a handful.  Did any of that handful care?  Probably a small few.  It’s not really about them, though, it’s about me.  Argh!

Anyway, it’s rectified.

That’s not, thank goodness, the topic of our correspondence today.  Instead, I’d like to discuss how in a 48 hour time period, DayZ went from what I wanted to play to what I don’t want to play any more.  I mentioned DayZ a few days (weeks, perhaps?) ago.  It’s a zombie-horror survival game wherein you play a survivor washed up on an unfamiliar coastline with nothing but a flashlight, a Band-aid, and a bottle of Tylenol.  From there, you have to find food and water, arm yourself, equip yourself with tools to hunt, build fires, and cook, and see just how long you can survive.

It’s a masterful concept, but the more my buddy and I played, the more we realized the glaring design faults.  This isn’t about the various bugs that exist everywhere in the game; it’s only in alpha, so we can hardly complain.  No, the game clearly wants to be about one thing – survival – but due to poor design, it becomes something else – a Belarusian Counterstrike.

The primary outcome of the flawed design is that everyone becomes a “bandit.”  A “bandit” is a player who kills other players for no reason.  Now, I’m not against the PvP elements of the game; in a true survival situation, there will be bandits, even teams of them, and there will also be desperate situations where it’s kill or starve, and they’ll be misunderstandings that lead to bloodshed.  But not everyone will be a bandit.  It’s simply not realistic.  However, after our first few play sessions, literally everyone we ever met shot at us for no reason.  In most of those cases, we died.  In a few, we pushed them back.  In one, I killed the fellow.  So to be clear: I’m not against the PvP.  I’m against the concept that the whole goddamn game is PvP.

This comes from player upbringing.  Since so many people are bandits, new players are constantly shot by people for no reason.  As a result, they learn that they damn well begin to shoot first and ask questions later.  Thus, a new generation of players arise who believe they have to be bandits to survive.  The cycle continues from there.

This primary problem stems from a multitude of poor design decisions.  First, the zombies in the game become a joke.  While they’re very scary at first, once you learn how to properly deal with them, they cease being a threat, even when you do get “hawkeye” spotted by a zombie from 100m away with its back to you (it’s just a bug is my point).  Additionally, if you’re really backed into a corner, zombies take little to kill; they have about 1/3rd as many hit points as players.  This is completely illogical; it should be harder to kill an animated corpse than a living person!  So, since the zombies aren’t a real threat, once you get to a basic level of gear, there’s not that much to worry about.

That’s design flaw #2; to truly “play correctly,” you should go into the deep woods, kill animals, fill up bottles at streams, and just stay out of trouble.  But that’s boring.  That’s even boring for me, who doesn’t like PvP.  So the game inadvertently pushes players to take risks that they don’t need to, or, as is often the case, just voluntarily become a bandit so that you have something to do.

The final serious design flaw is the weird power scaling of the weapons.  It takes 6 shots from a revolver to kill a zombie but 1 from a rifle.  It takes 2 to kill a player with a sniper rifle but like a whole clip’s worth from a silenced assault rifle.  The results of this flaw is that camp sniping becomes the primary way to “win,” as in to kill other players. In the 3 encounters that drove my friend and I to want to quit playing, in 2 of them we never saw our killer (and we were being “careful” in that we were taking our time, not running into places, scouting them out first, and so forth).  In the 3rd, we were attacked from behind and 2 of us were killed (our 3rd buddy was at this one).  The remaining 1 (me), circled silently around the guy, got right up behind him, and put 3 revolver rounds in his back.  He didn’t flinch, turned around, and opened up with an Uzi, which killed me.  It’s been suggested he was hacking, but I don’t know; regardless, he “sniped” first by attacking from a hidden position, and my weaker revolver – which absolutely would have put a stop to him in a realistic situation – did nothing.

Sniping in particular makes no sense in a survival situation.  If you’re hidden, there’s no reason to reveal yourself by taking a chance.  If you’re in a comfortable enough situation to be able to sit around in the first place, then you don’t need the food and water the others are carrying, you’re just killing to kill.  However, there’s no drawback to sniping in the game; there’s no disincentive for being a bandit.  Additionally, if you’re playing the “right” way, you’re going out, scouting, scavenging - moving around - which leads you to eventually becoming vulnerable, even if only for a moment.  Camping snipers can just wait until someone does that and kill them; the full tactical advantage is to the sniper, not the “survivor.”

These three flaws have created a conceptually awesome game that’s fundamentally broken.  I won’t go back to DayZ until these problems are addressed, until being a pointless killer is disincentivized.  It wouldn’t be hard, either.  Making the zombies spawn anywhere, not just near buildings, making them harder to kill than players, which makes sense with zombie lore, and making zombies more perceptive (they don’t respond to every stimuli, just close ones, so make them run towards gunshots), and more mobile (right now zombies climb like shit and can’t run inside buildings, so snipers on roofs are basically invulnerable to them) would make firing a weapon truly an option of last resort.  Reducing the flow of ammo would, too, as would a better dietary system, so you can’t just live on cooked meat (which you can’t), forcing people to scavenge more.  Additionally, if banditry was disincentivized, trade would become more viable, and a reduction of ammo and increase in food needs would supplement that.  That would lead to a more realistic survival scenario, where some people are bad, others are untrustworthy, but most were just trying to live to see the next day.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (and disappointed in how DayZ turned out)

9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2012 7:48 am

    Boo. Now you have unconvinced me to buy it :|

    • December 12, 2012 1:49 pm

      I’m sorry that I did. If you see ARMA II for cheap, I’d give it a try anyway. The first 20 or so hours were great; only after we “mastered” the environmental stuff did the player problems really become apparent. 20 hours from a game nowadays is a great deal (the new Black Ops providing about 5 for 60 bucks, ARMA II about 30 for 15 bucks).

      Thanks for the comment!

    • December 12, 2012 10:14 pm

      mm, well that’s true. 20 hours isn’t bad. I had kind of gotten the impression that you just regretted buying it from this blog post :x

      If I Steam puts it up for cheap during the holidays, I’ll give it a shot =D

      Thanks for answering my comment =)

    • December 12, 2012 10:15 pm

      That face/emoticon…wasn’t what I expected it to be.

  2. December 11, 2012 8:21 am

    That’s about the impression I received from reading other reviews, and it’s really not a surprise. Most games with a serious PvP element will attract a certain type of player. Add full loot and you are certain to have that population. In that sort of game it’s a surprise to me to read about players who go out of their way to help other players (and there are a few in DayZ).

    But, how much reality do we want in our video games? An interesting topic of discussion for a slow night, especially if there’s a power failure, is – how would you survive if the power went out, permanently? A large number of people immediately start talking about getting weapons and being a tough guy. Realistically, most of us did not receive training as Infantrymen and those who did are probably out of practice. Add in that a military will base operations on acceptable loss and ask who in your group you are willing to lose to chase off the bad guys? Not, of course, what we want to hear. The people who go for the John Wayne/Rambo/Whatever-is-current persona see a blaze of flying lead, a messy but inconsequential wound, and boundless glory. Video games, even PvE games, play to that same ideal.

    Do we want to have to worry about food and water? I remember my routine in EQ – log, summon food, summon water, summon light source, summon elemental, and decide what to do that session. How about realistic resource extraction, transport, and processing? Eve Online is the only game I know that uses an arbitrage system. Going back to combat it isn’t difficult to imagine what happens when a 12′ troll build like an over-sized linebacker connects with his two-handed sword. I also doubt that if you set someone on fire that they will heroically shrug it off and charge you, and then repeatedly hit your unarmored head with a mace because skulls are tough stuff. This can go on indefinitely, and is another fun bit of word gaming.

    Winding back to DayZ, I don’t think that the implementation is an error. I’d argue that this is the game experience they want. Your objective is to survive long enough to gear out and see how many other players you can knock down before someone else nails you. The zombies, food, ammo, and the like are environmental issues. The real challenge is the person behind the other keyboard.

    • December 12, 2012 2:07 pm

      It’s REALLY funny you ask about survivalism, because I’ve been “blessed” (read: cursed) with a father who’s a COMPLETE SURVIVAL NUTCASE. Well, let me be fair. He’s not. But he’s pretty nuts, and he’s interested in survival. He’s sent me manual after manual on how to survive “the long emergency,” and routinely asks about my “food storage” (“Do you have enough to last you 2 weeks? That’ll be the hardest time period.”). He’s into gravity filtration systems, renewable self-sustaining power and the like. So really, I can answer those questions pretty damn well! (;

      I think your question about realism in gaming is quite good, too, and it’s a discussion I think a lot of us have had. Still, if they’re going for a zombie horror survival scenario that’s not going to be counter-strike, then there has to be more realism than they’ve provided. Nor do I think that any of my suggestions are particularly “difficulty breaking” in the game.

      And I disagree on your point about the implementation. They put in a lot of survivalism initiatives into the game. I can’t imagine they were looking for a gigantic-map PvP (which makes no sense, since it allows people to avoid one another). I’ve come damn close to starving too many times to believe that it’s supposed to be counter-strike. I just think a lot of the other players out there don’t care because the game isn’t designed to make them do so. It’s the flavor-of-the-month PvP game, but I suspect in final implementation we’ll either have zombine counter-strike (because they give up trying to make it about survival) or a lot more survival elements than are currently implemented. We’ll return to this discussion then (;

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. December 11, 2012 4:09 pm

    “see just how long you can survive.”

    As soon as you said that I guessed where you were going based on your previous post.

    Especially since it’s not a 24/7 thing. If this sort of thing happened in real life, you’d have a strong incentive to band together with others. You’d constantly be with them with no worry about logging off and then coming back to find them somewhere else. Sticking together and building stuff up would be natural and help long term. That concept doesn’t translate well into a video game where people are online at random times.

    Basically, it seems like you want “The Walking Dead” or “Left 4 Dead.” But, like you mentioned, you got “Counterstrike with Zombie Hazards” instead.

    • December 12, 2012 2:10 pm

      Yeah, and that’s the most stinging disappointment of it. I want something that’s really about cooperation, not competition, though there HAS to be some competition, too, or other players cease being a threat. I suspect the final design – should it ever come to pass – will do better than this late-stage alpha, but until then, I think I’m done.

      Thanks for the comment!

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