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Face it, pirates and ninjas are out and zombies are in. And we have no doubt that one of our most high-anticipated games of this year is Left4Dead, Valve’s post-apocalyptic survival horror shooter. Our initial playtest sent chills down our spine when we first saw it at last year’s Showdown LAN, and the game looked much more refined and polished when we played it at this year’s E3. A revamped visual style and new character designs suit the cinematic direction -- the levels looked grittier and the zombies were definitely more terrifying (if that’s even possible). We spoke with Michael Booth, the designer of Left4Dead, to find out what other changes have been made to the game since Valve bought up his development team.
Maximum PC: Tell us a little about Left4Dead, assuming we've never played it before.
Michael Booth, Designer: So the main thing with Left4Dead is, in a nut shell, it’s you and your friends surviving the zombie apocalypse. But the key thing that we’re pushing for with this game that differentiates it from any other game like this is the level of cooperation that’s required. This is really a cooperative game. With other cooperative games you may be able to play the same game together [with friends], but you kind of do your own thing. In this game you have to stay together, work together, and watch each other’s back. Because if you run off by yourself, you’re going to die.
MPC: So we just spent some time playing the game and we noticed a couple of things right off the bat: zombies running up to people, us punching them off, people getting knocked down, zombies are piling on them and then we have to punch them off and then help our teammates back up. Stuff like that -- healing other people sharing ammo.
MB: Right. At the most fundamental level, there are just too many zombies that you can’t handle them yourself right. But then beyond that we have explicit attacks like the Hunter’s pounce. If he pounces on you, you are helpless -- you’re done and will die unless a friend comes and saves you. The Smoker’s tongue is the same way. He pulls you way out of position but once he gets you he’s going to squeeze you until you die.
MPC: This is the thing that comes and grabs you from above and sucks you up into the air.
MB: Exactly. And with the Boomer you know if he hits you with his vomit then you’re tagged. All the zombies will be coming after you so your friends need to help. The Tank is another good example where if everyone stays calm and focuses fire on it you’ll probably be ok. But if the team panics and someone breaks and runs, the team spreads apart you’re in big trouble. And then of course there’s reviving people when their health reaches zero. I can guarantee you that if you don’t do those things the team is not going to make it.
MPC: So one of the things that Left4Dead does that is really kind of unique is the really dynamic difficulty system. Can you explain a little bit about that?
MB: Dynamic difficulty isn’t exactly the right term. It’s a dynamic drama pacing system so it doesn’t nerf the game to bring it down to someone’s level so much as it really makes sure that you have an exciting experience. It’ss very easy for us in this game to give you a very intense experience.
MPC: You just keep throwing zombies non stop and…
MB: Right. So what the “AI Director” is doing in that case is it’s watching for cases where the team is just getting pounded on and then it’ll ramp things down a bit, to make sure there’s a gap a pacing.
MPC: So you watch statistics like health, the number of zombies the survivors have killed, and how much ammo they have, and then make decisions?
MPC: What are the exact variables that the Director monitors?
MB: Well I can’t give you a full set of them. But it’s things like you just mentioned. It’s things like whether you’ve been hit recently, how often have you been hit, how many zombies do you see, how many zombies are running at you, and how many zombies you’ve killed recently.
MPC: All the way down to your level of accuracy or not so much?
MB: Not so much accuracy. It checks to see when you killed that zombie if he was way out in the distance wandering and not so much a threat or if he was in your face and hitting you -- that’s a little more intense. So its metrics like that. The Director’s doing that to make sure that there’s high peaks and valleys because if they’re all valleys you quit because it’s boring and if it’s all peaks you get stressed out and you quit anyway. So we want you to have the same kind of excitement as a rollercoaster ride. And of course the Director makes sure everything is procedural so you can never predict when or where the zombies are coming from.
MPC: Cool. What’s this we hear about the game having two modes?
MB: We tried for a long time to sort of have this holistic mode that did everything. You could play as a survivor or you can play as the infected and it all just worked. But we basically found that we were reaching diminishing returns and we could serve the game better by splitting it into two modes. It’s essentially PVP and PVE. There’s pure co-op mode where we could focus on the survivor’s experience against the AI controlled infected to make sure that they have the best dramatic experience that they can have. And then we have the Versus mode which is survivors versus four player-controlled zombies and you can take over the Tank, Boomer, Hunter and Smoker. So the basic thing is that when you join Versus mode you’re signing up for a tough experience.
MPC: You know what’s coming.
MB: Yeah. If I’m going to play Versus mode I know it’s going to be rough but I also know and its going to be awesome. As opposed to if I just want to play a co-op game with my friends and kill zombies and you know you’ll be able to avoid jerks.
MPC: So it’s purely a user preference and difficulty expectations or is the Director algorithm any different?
MB: The biggest thing is user expectation so you know what you’re signing up for. At the same time we’re able to relax some of the really tough constraints like Boss Infected spawn times and things like that that were really difficult before.
MPC: When we join a Versus server and two of our friends sign up, are we playing as a group or does it keep shuffling people around? Is there some sort of mechanism to control how often I’m a zombie and how often I’m a survivor?
MB: Some of that is still in flux but we are spending a lot of effort on matchmaking so it’s really easy to find and connect with your friends. The way that we’ve been doing the Versus mode is that the four zombies win by eating the four survivors., who win by escaping. After each round, the teams just swap and either you play again on that campaign or you go to the next campaign. It’s a total revenge thing.
MPC: So its attack versus defend.