DayZ, which has sold nearly three million copies to date, is one of the most popular PC games of all time. On the list of best-sellers, it sits in the company of AAA titles like Warcraft III, Crysis, and Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. Compared to those games, DayZ–originally conceived as a mod for a little-known game called Arma 2–sticks out like a sore thumb. How did it manage to sell so many copies?

The answer, as you might except, lies on YouTube and Twitch, where DayZ is a hugely popular choice among streamers and “Let’s Play” commentators. As it has racked up hundreds of millions of views, the survival game has made huge profits for its creators, who have barely spent any money promoting it. “My personal opinion, since we have nearly $0 marketing budget – our marketing is me and Dean going to shows and interacting with consumers – I’d say Youtube and Twitch are the entire force behind DayZ‘s success,” DayZ producer Brian Hicks told PCGamerN.

DayZ, though, is more than just another bullet point related to YouTube and Twitch’s marketing potential. It is an important indicator of the sort of game that performs well online. DayZ, like Minecraft (which is far and away the best-selling PC game of all time) is an open-world game. Players are placed into a massive environment, where they must fend off attacks from zombies, wild animals, and the most dangerous foe of all: other players.

This setup makes each player’s DayZ experience unique. Viewers who check the game are enticed to watch more videos and pick up a copy of their own in order to find new in-game scenarios they have not yet experienced. It is these unexpected moments, Hicks explains, that keep viewers coming back. “[Sandbox games] are not as much defined linear and narrative game worlds as they are a narrative toolset to create your own stories,” he explains. “It sounds so PR-ish but you can’t design this. You cannot force the kind of emergent gameplay you get when you put 50 people in [DayZ game world] Chernarus and give them the tools to do whatever the hell they want.”

More than anything, the popular indie games on YouTube and Twitch share this element of unexpected gameplay in common. DayZ has it. So does Minecraft. So does another PC best-seller, Garry’s Mod. By offering streamers a less defined canvas, these games allow individual players to inject their own personalities into their respective commentaries. For DayZ in particular, three million sales later, that formula is still going strong.

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