Dean Hall is a former Oamaruvian and tech guru making his mark on the videogame world with Day Z, the zombie apocalypse game he is leading the development of at a studio in the Czech Republic. Oamaru Mail reporter David De Lorean caught up with Dean during his return to New Zealand over the holidays to talk about his life in Oamaru, the zombie apocalypse and what comes next.
Dean Hall lives in a harsh, bleak world.
Every day is a fight for survival, nobody can be trusted and danger lurks around every corner.
This is Chernarus – a virtual world created by Dean for the video game project he is leading.
He calls it Day Z – “an open-world zombie survival game” – and with more than 950,000 players and projected earnings of about $40 million USD in its first month on the market, the game is already a huge success.
Dean is an Oamaru boy through and through and part of a new generation of Oamaruvians making their mark on the tech world.
Born in Timaru in 1981, Dean and his family moved to Oamaru about a month after his birth.
Growing up, he attended Oamaru South School, Oamaru Intermediate School and then Waitaki Boys’ High School.
“I think I probably gave my teachers a run for their money, probably my parents too.”
While admitting he was not the hardest-working pupil, his love of Oamaru was still there.
“I have really fond memories of Oamaru.”
In his youth he discovered a passion for video games, at one point playing a game console, the Commodore 64, until he threw up from watching the screen for so long.
His family eventually bought an Amiga game console, which required him to manually enter in all the data needed to make a game.
“That was where I sort of cut my teeth,” Dean said.
He started making games in his spare time, a hobby which would eventually see him find success in the competitive video game world.
After leaving high school in 1999, Dean joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force and was given a defence scholarship to complete a bachelor of commerce, management and political studies at the University of Otago.
Once his time studying was done, he set his sights on a Wellington-based game development studio called Sidhe Interactive – and after he “nagged them”, they eventually gave him a job as a producer on several game projects.
Eventually he left Sidhe Interactive – “I wanted to do something different” – and went into the army.
Air force training “wasn’t up to scratch” so immediately Dean had to spend a year training with the army.
He was then in for “a massive shock culturally” which would change him forever when he participated in an army exchange programme and was sent to Singapore.
“It was really hot and I didn’t understand what they were saying . . . but it was awesome as well.
“It made me realise what I wanted to do.”
Dean participated in survival training in Brunei – a brutal experience which left him injured.
Lack of food and the conditions during the survival training would change his life, however, as his experience inspired him to modify a game called Arma 2 to create his own survival-centric take on the game.
By adding zombies to give the game an enemy, Dean would create a video game sensation.
After his posting in Singapore, Dean returned to New Zealand.
Despite being “insanely fit”, he had a low rank.
With an injury from his survival training and lay-offs across the board in the army, Dean said he was nervous about losing his job.
He had an ace up his sleeve, however, as with the release of the original Day Z, his multiplayer zombie survival game, he took the world by storm.
Dean talked to Bohemia Interactive, the Czech Republic-based game studio that made the game he modified to create Day Z, and with their interest in his multiplayer game development knowledge, he secured a job.
Originally employed to work on a game called Arma 3, the sequel to the game he had modified to create Day Z, his position changed quickly.
Dean said he was surprised to find about 20,000 people playing Day Z.
Bohemia Interactive took notice as well, and as the number of people playing Day Z increased the company decided Day Z, a modified version of the game Arma 2, should be converted to run from the game Arma 3, the sequel they were developing.
When Day Z reached more than one million people playing, there was a “pretty quick” transition and Dean found himself as the project lead on a stand-alone version of Day Z.
“We said okay, we’re gonna put a serious amount of work into this as a proper stand-alone title.”
Initially with about three people working on the game, Dean said his team grew to about 30, and is likely to keep expanding.
“It’s gonna grow dramatically.”
On December 20, 2013 an early version of the game was released for people wanting to help fix bugs in it.
Already it has been purchased more than 850,000 times and the game is not even finished yet.
“It’s far beyond what I was expecting,” he said.
“I haven’t had a lot of time to reflect about it.”
With sales expectations for the initial “early access” version set at about 250,000 for its first three months – which it more than tripled in about three weeks – Dean and his team are going back to the drawing board to re-evaluate what they can do with the game.
Ambition was now the key for growing Day Z, as the game was “vastly outstripping our remotest fantasies”, Dean said.
His team at Bohemia Interactive was now working on fixing bugs in the game and testing various new systems to be implemented.
With his holiday in New Zealand over the Christmas period coming to an end, he would soon be heading back to Prague to plan the future of the game with his team.
“In the later half of this month we’re gonna decide what our road map is.”
A version of the currently computer-exclusive game was likely for new game consoles.
People loved their time in the virtual world of Chernarus, the fictional area Day Z is set in and it was changing the lives of many people, Dean said.
Bohemia Interactive had gone through some “difficult” growing pains, but was doing well now, Dean said.
He was aware of someone who was now making a living broadcasting themselves playing Day Z online.
Some companies which hosted servers to store the virtual worlds were now making millions of dollars because of Day Z.
In general people just loved the game, he said.
“You go into this open world . . . and you’ve got to try and survive.”
With literally nothing spent on marketing the game – “We haven’t spent a single dollar” – the game is a true viral success.
Despite his success, Dean misses home.
“People don’t realise just how awesome New Zealand is.”
Eventually when his time making Day Z is done, Dean said he has big plans.
He is looking at opening his own game studio.
Initially considering Oamaru, then Dunedin, currently Dean said he has his heart set on Queenstown as the location for his potential studio.
With Day Z continuing to grow it may be a while until this former Oamaruvian can return home, but when he does he will bring with him a wealth of experience and knowledge.