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  • Controlling Pacing Of Core Gameplay Mechanics in Multiplayer Games

    [01.04.11]
    - Filip Coulianos

  • Case study: Left 4 Dead (strong narrative)


    A shot from Left 4 Dead

    Released in 2008, Left 4 Dead took everyone by storm as an extremely polished cooperatively played multiplayer title set in a modern era in which players plays as survivors in teams of four and has to survive waves of zombies (infected) while moving through a deserted city somewhere in the US in their search for rescue. In addition to the usual zombies there are "special infected" which can be described as "super zombies" with different unique abilities. The game comes with a number of campaigns which consists of five levels each. The game is linear, but the infected mobs are controlled by a game logic called the "director" to ensure that the gameplay experience is unique every time you play.

    A typical Left 4 Dead campaign is split into five levels in which each ends with a big fight. The end of each campaign usually has an extra dramatic final battle right before the safe room. This works very well as the dramatic battles tend to put a lot of pressure on players thus creating a nice climax at the end the chapter. Each level is between 8 to 15 minutes in length.


    A simplified hypothetical chart of a Left 4 Dead pacing curve. Y-axis shows excitement and the X-axis time in minutes.

    So what can the level designer do to control the pacing in this cooperatively played title?

    Valve introduced what they call "the director", which essentially is the game logic that controls the zombie attacks frequency as well as infected, and special infected, placements. According to Valve this system calculates the number of infected each attack and frequency on the attacks based upon the players accuracy, health and overall skill level. How well the director actually adapts to the players skill level has been discussed ever since the game came out, but it at least ensures a unique experience every time one plays the game.

    In addition to the director the level designer has the ability to call on zombie waves as players run through triggers and where the zombie mobs should spawn, but in the end everything is up to the director. This is very interesting from a level designer's perspective as she no longer has full control of what should or shouldn't happen on a specific area of the map. Instead she has more of an overall control over the flow of events; where to create choke points, add meta challenges such as defend an area for a limited amount of time, et cetera.

    The game also ships with a "versus mode" in which four survivors plays against four players playing as the special infected. The survivors mission here is to go as far as they can towards the safe zone while the players playing as the special infected can spawn wherever they want outside of the players sight and do everything they can to stop them. The levels are the very same as in the cooperative campaign. Once a round is over, either because of the infected team has killed all the survivors, or the survivors made it to the safe zone, a score is being calculated and compared between the teams. As Left 4 Dead was primarily designed with coop in mind this mode was more of an add-on to let the more competitive players pit themselves against each other and hasn't gotten any attention from professional gamers.

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