Videogames are hardly a passive form of entertainment, by their very nature they require players to actively make decisions that will affect the outcome of the story. But sometimes gamers want more involvement, by taking it upon themselves to substantially change elements of the existing game through the development and sharing of game modifications, or ‘mods’. Mods often result in higher quality game play experience, which can significantly influence the industry. Zombie survival shooter Day Z is potentially one such mod.
Released earlier this year as a mod for the 2009 tactical shooter ArmA II, Day Z thrust the long forgotten niche game to within the top ten downloaded titles on Steam, where it has remained since May. Countless Day Z players have recorded and live-streamed gameplay videos, and others recount their tales on websites such as reddit and 4chan.
For the majority of us who missed ArmA II, players control a single infantryman in the post-Soviet nation of Chernarus, a fictional rendition of the modern Czech Republic. ArmA II is all about strategy and simulation. In Chenarus, one bullet will kill you. Your soldier is slow and can only carry limited equipment. You can commandeer civilian vehicles, drive tanks or pilot fighter jets; but they all drive more or less like their real world counterparts, so you’ll have a tough time making a smooth getaway in the bullet riddled rusted jalopy you found curbside. Pray you don’t run out of fuel before you escape the frontline.
Day Z takes ArmA II and turns Chenarus into the site of a zombie apocalypse. Survival is the only goal. Players will need to find a weapon, scavenge for food and water to avoid exhaustion, and in the event of injury procure and apply bandages. Death is permanent. If you lose your life, you’ll lose your gear and be forced to start from scratch.
Day Z inspires genuine fear, a feat many modern horror games fail to achieve, but not in the way that you would expect. Much like other survival horror games such as Resident Evil or Left 4 Dead the approaching zombie hoards soon become predictable, and players are gradually desensitised to the surrounding gore.
The real scares in Day Z come from interactions with real people – online players from around the world who assume the role of fellow survivors.
Just as in the real world, the players populating Chernarus have their own motivations. Occasionally you’ll find a nice group of people willing to cooperate, share supplies, and brave the zombie apocalypse together. More often, however, you’ll find that survivors value self-preservation above all else, and will attack fellow survivors and zombies indiscriminately. Others still are complete arseholes who will lure players into traps and steal their hard-earned scavenged gear.
The unpredictability and psychology of fellow players is what makes the mod both scary and successful. You are perpetually surrounded by real life monsters. Since its release earlier this year, close to three million virtual survivors have been murdered by fellow human beings. Average life expectancy: 49 minutes.
Despite the success of Day Z and other modifications, many videogame developers continue to view user generated mods with ambivalence or active contempt. Such developers view mods as breaching copyright, or otherwise undermining the integrity of their commercial products. Yet for the companies that support the modding community there are obvious benefits, as Day Z shows. A three-year- old game experienced a huge surge in popularity at no cost to the developers and publishers.
The success of Valve Software’s Half-Life series is partially attributable to Team Fortress Classic and Counter-Strike, both of which began as user made modifications, maintaining a considerable player base over ten years since their releases. Similarly, the user-made Warcraft 3 custom map DOTA was popular enough to spawn an upcoming commercial stand-alone sequel, as well as successors League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth. Skyrim, a game whose user interface was arguably designed to favour consoles, is undoubtedly a better purchase on PC for one reason: mods.