MMO devs need to be Left 4 Dead

Last night I played through the Left 4 Dead demo again, mostly to make sure I’d given it a fair shot. I still don’t think I want to spend $60 to kill endless hordes of zombies, but I did come to appreciate some other aspects of the game.

During the hype-storm we learned a lot about L4D’s “AI Director” system. This system modulates the game experience in real-time. If you’re getting your arse handed to you, the number of baddies will abate a bit. Conversely, if you’re sailing through effortlessly the AI Directory will spawn more enemies to make the game a little more difficult.

It’s hard to quantify these changes in a game with as many enemies as L4D, and more so in the course of a 2 level demo played twice, but let’s assume this was working as intended. It felt like it was. I performed a lot better during my second try but the game didn’t feel any easier. But what I *can* quantify is that the experience was different in two play-throughs.

For instance in my first session, I ran into what I assumed was a “mini-boss” character in the subway. This massive creature came crashing through the wrecked subway car using the ‘terrain’ intelligently and provided a good challenge and change of pace. If felt like an “Encounter.” The second time through, I approached this intersection carefully, waiting for the boss. And he wasn’t there. In fact I didn’t encounter him at all in the second run through the levels, though I did encounter another “hero zombie” that I hadn’t the first time. Additionally ammo caches showed up in different places and the zombies came from different directions.

Which leads me to the title of this post. How cool would it be if MMO devs could incorporate this system into our favorite online games? Both in terms of scaling the difficulty of an area based on player concentration, but more so in having random bosses roaming around providing “Encounters” at unexpected times? Some games do a little of this: think of resource spawns, or random chests that you might come across out in the world.

I’m imagining an instanced dungeon that could be done by 1 person or 10. Obviously the loot drops would be better when 10 players took it on, but a solo-er could at least go in and have fun and experience the storyline of the dungeon. And every time through could be a little different in order to keep players on their toes.

I’m also imagining random Encounters that are self-contained quests. Your party is out questing when you unexpectedly run into some strong mob. If you can defeat him, you get some quest experience (maybe an NPC runs in to reward you or whatever) and loot, same as if he was a fixed Quest. But he isn’t…the next time you pass through this area, he isn’t there. I’m not suggesting a whole MMO built around this: set-pieces are part of the fun of an MMO. But I’m thinking of these as an addition to what we play now.

I also was once again impressed by the AI of my NPC party members, and it’d be interesting to see more MMO devs follow the Guild Wars example of allowing us to hire some extra muscle to fill out a party. I understand there’s a delicate balance between helping the MMO experience and essentially destroying it by letting everyone just hire NPCs rather than grouping. But wouldn’t it be nice to hire a healer (or tank, or whatever) rather than standing around with 4 friends yelling “Looking for Healer for BigBadInstance!” for half an hour?

Left 4 Dead demo review

Last night I downloaded the Left 4 Dead demo off of XBox Live. This is a game I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while. I tried playing it solo, since realistically that’s how I’d be playing it if I bought the game. Scheduling 4 friends to get together to play a game online is pretty much impossible at this stage of my life. Too many wife/kid/girlfriend issues in my social circles.

As a single player game, Left 4 Dead looks great, really sets a great tone and… gets boring really fast. The first ten minutes is amazing as hordes of zombies come charging at you and your 3 NPC friends and you mow them down. The zombies are like aggressive cockroaches, as they come flooding out of a sewer opening or the doorway of a darkened warehouse.

The AI is great. They’ll get you out of trouble and even offer you extra gear (without you asking for it). They’ll call out items laying around and special zombies incoming. They’re skilled too. On my first scorecard I, ahem, ranked last in everything but damage taken, where I came in first. At the same time, they don’t make the game feel easy. You really do need four capable fighters to survive.

On the other hand, you spend a lot of time in dark buildings. Really dark. Bottom of a cave dark. Your flashlight will light up an area about the size of a basketball. There’s no reflective light in the rooms, no ambient light from the flashlights of the other 3 members of your team. Suddenly your XBox Experience is like looking through a pinhole. Yes, it adds to the tension but it quickly becomes really tedious not being able to see. You can get lost in a small bathroom; that’s how small the beam is.

Outside is more fun but I soon started getting the Hellgate: London effect. Block after block of ruined buildings got monotonous really fast. Swarm after swarm of zombies, ditto. Granted the demo is only one level, but it just didn’t hold my interest for very long. And while the idea of getting attacked from all sides constantly is interesting, in practice it felt a bit like a chore, having to constantly turn around and look behind, look up, look down, look to each side (the shoulder buttons do insta-turn you, to be fair). I can see how this could be really compelling for some gamers, but for me it just felt like a lot of work.

I’m guessing multiplayer with friends would be a *lot* more fun, so if that’s how you plan to play it, definitely check out the demo. But I can’t see spending $60 to play this game single player (and to be fair I don’t think Valve has ever pitched as a single player game).

Aaron at Anyway Games had a much different and more positive reaction to the demo. Check out what he has to say: Left 4 Dead Demo