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Dynamic deathmatch dungeons

This past month, I was fortunate enough to be invited by Reviews Editor Dan Stapleton to “assist” in his review of Left 4 Dead, joining him in an exhausting marathon session of zombie-slaying while he evaluated the game. I agreed with him on his verdict—namely that the game is crazy awesome—but after 15 hours of nearly continuous undead brain-bashing, a troubling thought wandered into my head: will this game fall victim to repetitiveness?

As a cooperative shooter, Left 4 Dead essentially retains the structure of a single-player game. The game’s four “story” acts are designed in a linear fashion so that players feel like they’re gunning through a zombie movie, with certain game events carefully scripted to heighten the tension (i.e., the mini-finale standoffs spaced out through each act). The campaign experience is riveting and nerve-wracking the first couple times through, as the sense of unfamiliarity and the need to explore the ominous environments make for great horror-movie moments where you’re genuinely frightened. But what happens after you’ve memorized the layout of every map and the optimal routes and tactics for survival? Even with the game’s intelligent “AI Director” dynamically unleashing the zombie horde, I was worried that the action would eventually become too predictable.

That led me to wonder what first-person shooter games could do to stave off staleness, especially in games the developers intend gamers to play for months or years. My immediate thought: randomly generated maps. This solution works well for plenty of role-playing and real-time strategy games, in both single- and multiplayer modes. Diablo’s single-player dungeons were almost completely dynamically created by the game engine, and random maps in strategy games like Rise of Nations put multiplayer competitors on equal footing so that no player knows what to expect out of the gate.


In Left 4 Dead you might learn the map, but you'll never know where the zombies are

Unfortunately, random levels aren’t a practical solution for FPSes, where environments are painstakingly crafted 3D worlds as opposed to gridded 2D planes. Sure, map designers could work in multiple map routes and a few dynamic obstacles like random walls or bridges, but even the best programmers have not achieved the kind of algorithmic coding finesse required to procedurally generate a 3D environment that’s both fun to play in and aesthetically sensible (Hellgate, I’m looking at you). And with a game like Left 4 Dead, which is set in a familiar world, realistic level design plays a large factor in what makes the game fun.

So, what other attributes, aside from the actual level architecture, could be randomized to increase replayability? Spawn locations, weapon and health placement, and maybe even weather are all variables that can reasonably be adjusted for each gameplay session. Borderlands, Gearbox’s upcoming sci-fi shooter, takes the idea of randomized items and runs with it, touting over a million different variations of weapon and item types. Left 4 Dead also does a bit of this, changing up the availability of explosives canisters and high-powered rifles so that you can’t execute the exact same tactics for every playthrough.

But then I considered this: maybe gamers don’t necessarily want randomization in their multiplayer games. In a competitive multiplayer game (which L4D aims to be with its Versus mode), having discrete and fixed variables might actually be more of a boon than a disadvantage. Because even though uncertainty can contribute to tension, consistency and reliability are foundations of the balance that multiplayer matches demand. Just imagine if Counter-Strike was patched with randomized weapon kits and spawn locations—hardcore players would revolt.

So maybe there’s no point in worrying about the longevity of Left 4 Dead, and I’ll still be enjoying it just as much a year from now. After all, it’s hard to imagine zombie-killing ever getting old.

November 19, 2008

8 comments

  • Defguru7777 - November 22, 2008 10:13 p.m.

    I don't think random maps would be a good idea. The odds of getting a crap-map too many times is way too high. Also, do we want another version of Snowbound on Halo 3?
  • MacGyver1138 - November 20, 2008 10:06 p.m.

    I remember reading about a game in OXM some time ago that previewed an FPS that was to have "semi-random" maps. The idea was that each map consisted of a certain number of pieces, and each piece was selected randomly at the start of the match. That way, you could still be individually familiar with each piece, but the entire level would be different every time. I don't remember the name of the game, or if it even got released, but I thought it was an interesting idea, and I would like to play a game with that implemented to see if it would work as well as it seems like it would. Also, I would love to see a comments section where every annoying and useless "First" post got deleted.
  • TeenAgeMutant - November 24, 2008 5:29 p.m.

    I think that would rock, it creates that WOW factor that would really keep you on your toes.....you know, may things more on the fly, cos its really annoying having some a** camp on the same spot and pot you off all the time....I understand that some people wouldn't dig this cos they're all "hardcore" and what not, but how bout making the base map which doesn't change, but then theres a feature that allows match to be randomized.....that would pls both sides, I know its probably really hard to do, but that would be cool...Borderlands has that appeal for me, randomly generated stuff is just cool (minus Hellgate London), cos its just keeps you hooked for that extra 5 mins trying to get a better gun or a better items, thats by far one of the most addictive things in a vid game, add a good story, good shooting elements and other cool stuff and you've got a recipe for pure EPIC!!!
  • Geigan - November 20, 2008 11:11 p.m.

    I thought the last paragraph was hilarious. You basically questioned the entire purpose of the article.
  • vic88 - November 20, 2008 5:12 a.m.

    random maps would be awesome, I wonder if Valve considered this idea.
  • Stryde22 - November 20, 2008 2:06 a.m.

    agree...level generators would be awesome...or a level editor with the level of detail equal to Farcry 2. i think thatd last a VERY long time.
  • Sylizar - November 20, 2008 1:15 a.m.

    f*** you WOOT
  • operation_M.A.T.T. - November 20, 2008 12:50 a.m.

    firST WOOT

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