Dean Hall

“Experiences are what I value most”

Photo (right): Harry Borden
Words: Charles Anderson

How a crazy dream took Dean Hall from near-starvation in the Brunei jungle to multimillion-dollar success in the games world

While on a mission with the Army in December 2010, Dean Hall had an idea for a video game that would change his life. Hall was taking part in survival training in the Brunei jungle, but having eaten all his food rations, he’d been forced to eat rotten fish and ferns.

As he slept on a makeshift bed of sticks, close to starvation, he had feverish dreams about life, death and gaming. In his teens, Hall had taught himself how to program by pulling apart computers, and he was a big fan of role-playing adventures. He wondered if he could channel the fears and extreme emotions he felt in the jungle into a video game. Out of that experience came DayZ, a zombie survival game that has sold more than three million copies worldwide and earned over US$100 million.

The success of DayZ allowed the Kiwi, who’s now 34, to set up his own company, called RocketWerkz, which has offices in Dunedin and London and is currently developing a new space-based game titled Ion.

THE RED BULLETIN: What effect did your experiences in Brunei have?

DEAN HALL: It was a grim period. I didn’t eat for almost a week. I lost 20kg, and you could make out every bone and blood vessel in my body. I learnt a lot about myself at that time, and I wanted to know if you could create a similar experience in a video game. I wanted a game where the stakes are high and every decision means something. I wanted to see how people would react when faced with stark decisions.

Dean Hall talks about his new game Ion at the Microsoft Xbox E3 2015 Conference

© For The Replay // YouTube

Is it that sense of jeopardy that attracted you to mountain climbing, too?

Well, when I was growing up, I was really fascinated by space, but joining NASA wasn’t a viable option. Mountaineering seemed like a whole different world to me. There are no distractions when you’re climbing. It’s very pure. It’s just all about you and the decisions you make. I always feel like myself when I’m doing it.

Have you had any close calls while climbing?

At 18, I climbed Mount Cook for the first time and got really bad frostnip. Even now, I have problems with my fingers. That was the first time I’d faced my own mortality. We were climbing with skis and bad weather conditions forced us to turn around really quickly. I was absolutely exhausted and kept collapsing, and the bindings on my skis kept icing over. The only way I could break out of them was by peeing into a cup and pouring it over the bindings to melt the ice. That experience left a big impression on me and made me aware of my limitations.

“Brunei liberated me. I realised I didn’t want a house or a car – I wanted to climb everest. So I went and did it”
Dean Hall

But it didn’t put you off wanting to climb Mount Everest in May 2013… 

At high school, Everest seemed like another world where normal laws didn’t apply. That really appealed to me. When you’re younger everything seems possible. Somewhere along the way, though, I lost that feeling. My experiences in Brunei completely liberated me from other people’s expectations. I realised I didn’t want a house or a car – I wanted to climb Everest. So I went and did it.

You could have retired on the money you made from DayZ. Why did you set up your own company?

There was stuff I still wanted to achieve and I had a way of going about things that wasn’t very traditional. Ion is a game that really should never have existed. It’s a crazy, esoteric idea about colonising the galaxy, and it’s set 150 years in the future. We’ve got some amazing people involved, including a concept designer who worked on the movie Gravity. It’s amazing to take a crazy design idea and combine it with a game idea that’s equally crazy.

Do you have any more crazy projects lined up?

It’s the crazy stuff that helps you figure things out in life. I was incredibly inspired by the Red Bull Stratos space jump. I’d like to do one some day, and I also want to walk to the North and South Poles. What I value in life more than anything else are experiences.

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