For a time, Arma 2 was the most popular game on Twitch, ahead of Dota 2, League of Legends, and Starcraft. And it was all thanks to a mod of a mod. A mod of DayZ called the Survivor GameZ. It is the Hunger Games written in the DayZ engine: 30 players thrown together on an island sparsely scattered with weapons, they must kill each other until there is just one pair left.
After a year of silence, the team are spooling up to restart the games.
We spoke with Brian Hicks, one of the games’ founders and now the producer on DayZ, about how the games started and his plans for the future of The Survivor GameZ.
The Survivor GameZ are returning.
Related: Check our guide to the best survival games.
“It started back in 2012,” Hicks tells me over Skype. “At the time I was working at Microsoft Studios.” Dean Hall had launched his mod for Arma 2, DayZ, earlier that year and it had bloomed in popularity, pulling more than a million players in its first four months.
“I played a lot of DayZ in my off-time and streamed it on Twitch with my friends. One of them, Jordan Tayer, who is now a community manager at Twitch, originally approached me with an idea to do a Hunger Games/Battle Royale in DayZ.”
The central premise of both The Hunger Games and Battle Royale is that a group of people must fight to the death until there is a single survivor. They must find weapons and gear with which to survive the harsh environment and hunt each other.
“To Jordan’s credit I was very reluctant,” Hicks admits. “Jordan and I got together and talked about what he wanted and how he wanted it to occur and I started to look at how to make it happen – what tech would be required for it and how we would execute it in the Arma engine.”
Hicks and the team began recruiting DayZ streamers with big audiences, they needed 30 in total, enough for 15 teams of two. A group also began coding the tools Hicks would need to run the event; he needed “the most data possible – player positions, a live map, that kind of stuff.” Also, god powers, like “moving players with a couple of clicks of the mouse.”
The final challenge was how to direct players in the event. Chernarus, the island DayZ takes place on, is 120km². It’s easy for 30 players to hide in that much space. The games would go on for hours if they had the whole island to play with.
“I’ll give credit to Sacriel, he’s been in every Survivor GameZ,” Hick says. He came up with an idea adapted from Battle Royale: “In the film they effectively shut certain areas of the map off.” It forced the characters to move from one part of the island to another, focussing them in particular, claustrophobic locations.
“We adopted something similar.”
“We have three phases – it’s like Russian nesting dolls. Phase One is the biggest one, Phase Two is a little bit smaller, and by the time we get to Phase Three we’ve got a small amount of players in a relatively small area, maybe a small village or a mountain top outpost.
“As we observe the players interacting, spreading out, killing each other and so on we start giving out notices that in ten minutes we’re going to transition into the Phase Two area,” Hicks says. “If anyone stays in Phase One, we’ll send out roving gangs of bandits or airstrikes, something along those lines. We make it a no man’s land for them.”
Before each event, the team write a storyline to explain the different phases. “We shuffle people through these narrative style events in the game – helicopter crashes, bandit camps, national guard – elements that seem to fit the space the events are occurring in.” One game had players acting as the last survivors of a zombie attack fleeing from the undead and bandit groups. After the countdown announcing the start of the games players were free to explore for supplies and weapons in the woods and villages near Brensk. Hicks then told players to head to the town of Norinsk where an evacuation was being prepared. Players who dawdled would be overrun by bandits (who were being played by game admins). The final phase demanded players converge on the enclosed Seraja Army Base for a final chance at evacuation.
“In earlier events, we flat out forced people who wouldn’t get out of a tree, for example, to move,” Hicks said. “The game masters would move around invisibly and they’d drop a smoke grenade or make a lot of noise to say ‘If you’re going to stay in this tree people are going to know where you are.’”
Hicks and his team are strict about keeping things moving. “Survival games and last man standing competitions will inherently push people to find a safe spot. That’s okay but players have to keep in mind it’s a livestreamed event. They’ve got viewers who are not going to be happy if they’re sitting in a tree. Our viewers aren’t happy if they’re sitting in a tree. It’s in everyone’s best interests if they get out of the tree. We’ve rarely had to deal with anyone being stationary.”
Hicks knew they were onto something when he watched the contestants’ streams. “They’d get very nervous,” he said. “[With DayZ] there’s already the opportunity to lose everything or come out on top and win the day; already your hand’s shaking, yourr heart’s beating. [The stakes of] the Survivor GameZ add to that. They knew they had 60-70,000 people watching them. You’d get people who play DayZ full-time – the grizzled, unshakeable vets – who would stop after they killed someone and hold up their hands to the camera to say ‘Holy shit, look how much I’m shaking’.
“I think that speaks to the overall draw of the Survivor GameZ for its competitors.”
The first event (then going by the legally dubious Hunger GameZ) was a success, drawing in thousands of viewers on Twitch. As the team ran more events, a community began to form around the contest. “People had parties set up for the Survivor GameZ; they’d invite friends over like it was a superbowl party. They’d have BBQs and chips and multiple streams up on their TVs in the living room.” It’s how Hicks first met Dean Hall: “He’d watch the Survivor GameZ events, have friends over to his flat and watch them on his TV.”
The games became so popular that DayZ for a time became the number one viewed game on Twitch. “We were above Dota, League, and Starcraft,” Hicks said. “It was astounding. Our peak viewership, and keep in mind this is from a small team based off a hobby and a mod, we had 62,000 concurrents. That’s three times more people than were playing DayZ.
“After the each Survivor GameZ I’d look at Reddit and see the huge threads of the controversial referee decision or why this person should have been disqualified. It would dominate the DayZ subreddit. Controversial referee decisions or game outcomes made it to the front page of Reddit itself. That blew my mind. I think that’s why Jordan constantly text messages me saying ‘Hey man, we’ve got to do another Survivor GameZ thing. Come on. Talk to me.’”
Then, in December 2013, just before The Survivor GameZ V final the team cancelled the event. “A couple of things happened,” Hicks says. “I left my job over at the Microsoft campus to produce DayZ over in the Czech Republic. Which meant I left one job at the end of the Survivor GameZ semi-finals and went into hard crunch to ship the Early Access for DayZ. I didn’t have enough time to get groceries, let alone organise an eSport. Right around the same time Jordan made the move to Twitch. Jordan and I had been the major force behind the Survivor GameZ events and we both became very busy.”
When things died down after DayZ’s launch Hicks hit another problem. “People wanted to see Survivor GameZ in DayZ, not the mod. From my position, being senior leadership of the project, I could see that the technology wasn’t there. It just wasn’t ready.
“It hasn’t been until the end of this year till both Jordan and I have felt confident that we can pick this up again; between time and technology we couldn’t provide a Survivor GameZ that was worthy of the name.”
The year off has given Hicks time to plan what he’d like to add to the event. “Out the gate I’d like some backend administrator control over the weather, rain, cold, things like infected swarms or hordes,” he said. “Almost like in the second Hunger Games, they had that game master control, a master display to adjust the daylight, weather, and the terrain. That kind of control for a Survivor GameZ experience would give so many opportunities to the eSports folks running it.
“It would make the Survivor GameZ run so much more smoothly, too. If you’ve watched the events livestreamed you’ll see I’ll have to jump into a Teamspeak chat to tell people they’re going in the wrong direction or broadcast over global chat that the player space is shrinking. If we had tools that let us do that organically it would add so much more to the immersion. We wouldn’t have to use things like text, [we could] broadcast it with a klaxon sound or there could be a visual or auditory interaction in the game that people couldn’t miss – be it air strikes or hordes of infected moving in, pushing people into the proper area.”
While DayZ wasn’t ready to run the Survivor GameZ, Hicks looked at other engines, ones that could “do something specific to a Survivor GameZ experience.”
“In my off time I could put together a team and look to do something in Unreal,” Hicks said. “It’s got some fantastic tools and technology behind it and its multiplayer support would be more than enough for the Survivor GameZ.”
A purpose-built Survivor GameZ would mean the team could focus only on what their eSport needs. “We wouldn’t have to put as much focus on the persistence and hybrid MMO side of things because we wouldn’t need it,” Hicks said, speaking hypothetically. “We only need to focus on the event because at the end of every Survivor GameZ event you start fresh. That would save us a lot of tech and time and overhead costs if we didn’t need to worry about a central architecture, persistence, writing data from the server executable (saving character data and stuff like that which is saved in active memory). The focus would be on the raw fundamentals of the original Survivor GameZ experience and less on the depth we’re trying to take DayZ in terms of pure survival.
“If you look at DayZ, we’re expanding simulation where it makes sense for gameplay. Look at the DayZ mod back in the day and it looks basic compared to our diseases, temperatures, or limb statuses, hunger and blood. It kept expanding and became more of a survival game and became less of a mod of a military simulator. While that’s fascinating and I love that gameplay, I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I didn’t, the Survivor GameZ is more about the absolute risk of losing everything; which might not necessarily mean the depth of survival simulation DayZ’s going for.”
While hypothetical, Hicks’ talk of making Survivor GameZ in Unreal shows he thinks of it as something separate to DayZ. Like how ArmA 2 was Dean Hall’s platform to build his zombie survival sim, DayZ was Hicks platform to build his arena survival simulator.
It’s not just Hicks and Jordan who want to see The Survivor GameZ stand on its own. “It’s the first eSport to come from survival gaming,” Hicks says. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities come up. People have said ‘I like what you guys are doing here. I’m interested in making this bigger.’ Whether it be existing eSports organisations talking to us about bringing it to the next level, or outside developers, or investors interested in evolving it.
“We’ve looked at hosting live events at trade shows with hardware partners, sponsor partners, whether it be like the LANfest Intel puts together at the PAX show or ESL at Gamescom. There’s been talks and offers to develop a completely separate SKU away from DayZ in something more specific to Survivor GameZ as a competition.
“2015 is going to be an interesting year for the Survivor GameZ.”