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Left 4 Dead - FPS... or RPG?
by Stephen Chin on 06/13/09 08:00:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Imagine, if you will, this scenerio. A random bunch of strangers met up in a random location in order to embark on a dangerous journey, equipped with only what they have on hand. It's probably the start to many a RPGs and heroic journey fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, or otherwise) but it's also the start of Left 4 Dead.

 In playing L4D recently, I was reminded of the Quick Start Guide for D&D/AD&D (first edition blue box for the geeks out there) as well as similar D&D related products of that time (like some of the various board game or adventure sets available). In that, if you didn't want to make a character, you basically picked a stock character and went onword. In Left 4 Dead, you do the same, filling in the background as you go between the characters.

 But as this thought lingered on my mind, I began to notice how in playing Left 4 Dead, a lot of the basic ideas put forth in the Dungeon Master's Guide as well as the general ideas in heroic fiction, seemed to fit the gameplay of Left 4 Dead.

 Take for instance the role of random encounters and encounters in general. In pen and paper RPGs, random encounters aren't as they are in consoles/computer RPGs. Rather than being means of generating XP and resources, they're outlined as a way of -reducing- resources. I recall one DMG mentioning that a random encounter should probably use up about 10% of a party's resources (subject to finding more potions and resting to regain spells and health, of course). In Left 4 Dead, the common infected generally fall into this part of the traditional adventure. Even in groups, they're not likely to cause significant harm unless the party is not careful. But they do force the party to spend resources - ammo, in this case, unless the party is being cautious.

 In time with the common Special Infected, these produce the more story specific encounters within an adventure. These encounters generally use up more resources and are more dangerous. It's more likely that a character will be heavily damaged but the expectation is that most will probably survive.

 Lastly, when you have the Tank and the Witch, these are the bosses of a dungeon or other major milestone monster. These are the most dangerous battles where every last resource is generally used up with only a little left to spare;resources you find after aren't just rewards, they're a resupply.

 In a similar parallel, let's look at the advancement of power and items. In the stories that D&D draws upon and some of the original settings of D&D, the gaining of a magical item was a big moment. Generally, that item became the signature item of a character and there was rarely a time when they switched weapons or 'upgraded' or what have you. Aragorn for instance only really got one sword during the books. In Left 4 Dead, especially on the harder difficulties (or in versus on occasion), finding the improved weapons is usually a big moment (and appropiately, you're most going to find them in the mid-sections of levels and of the campaigns - you won't find it in the first episode ever). It gives the party power and confidence and a significant upgrade. And, generally, people tend to pick their favorite weapons - their signature weapon if you will.

But perhaps most of all, consider the role of the AI director as a Dungeon Master. The AI director isn't really trying to kill the players - it's trying to provide a sense of challenge and produce epic moments. It's balancing challenge and rewards and progress to create a story along side the players.

So, perhaps, as gaming continues to develop, the ideas of Left 4 Dead as applied to RPGs can help answer some questions. Approaching instances in MMOs for instance in the same manner as a campaign in Left 4 Dead might provide a way of creating a story that both fits a particular static structure while still maintaining a dynamic and personalized feel to it.

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Alexander Bruce
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Hmm... I am interested in your comparisons, but at the same time I am sketchy about the conclusions drawn. One of the major reasons for that is because of discussions that were had about Metroid Prime that followed similar themes. Is the game a First Person Shooter, or is it an Adventure game in the First Person? Ultimately, conclusions could be drawn that it was either, but the bigger question is what does that information do for us? Short of using the information to try and classify the game as belonging to a genre, the answer out of a lot of those discussions was "not much".

We can look at a lot of games around the place and analyse parts of them that may even be directly associated with other genres, or have clear metaphors for other types of game play, but to what end? Perhaps my biggest issue with this post is that it draws a conclusion that such information may be useful, but only brushes over its application. I would be more interested if your post consisted of a second half relating how utilizing this information offered gameplay that was different to what was already there.

Tony Dormanesh
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Nice article. I especially like the thought of instances in MMOs drawing from L4D. They really NEED to. I guess there is always a place for known placement of enemies and such, but to mix in some randomness would really spice up most instances I've ever played. It would probably need to be little bit of a mix... The Boss at the end, etc. But to throw in mini-bosses and some random encounters is a great idea. I know WoW has their "rare spawns", but that is mostly a bonus. I've ran Scarlet Monastary probably 100 times and I was sick of it, I've played L4D more than 100 times and still love every play through.

I've always thought the idea of a DM in games was something that would be really cool and the L4D AI Director has proven that. Your idea takes it to the next level.

Stephen Chin
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@Alexander Bruce: An absolutely good point and something I probably should have done myself in this one. I'll make a second posting addressing just that on looking at things from this approach in a second post.