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Left 4 Granted

December 30, 2008

[Flamethrower Inhibitor: This article is not critical of L4D.]

I had a play experience recently which puzzled me as a game designer. It wasn’t the game experience that puzzled me, but rather the realization that something had changed in me that left me without the requisite hook to enjoy the experience, an experience I know I would have enjoyed in the past.

Some background first. When I hear a lot of good play buzz about a game, I go out and purchase it almost immediately and prioritize finding a block of hours in which I can play it and consume the experience. So, I was pretty excited to have found both that game, Left 4 Dead, and the hours over the winter break. I played it solo. I played it as a zombie. I played it as a human. I played it over Live. And I realized something seriously, truly odd.

I’m broken. I got old, and I broke. Seriously.

Flashback about 15 years ago. I love horror movies, horror novels, and zombie stuff both real (obeah) and imagined. I watch infamous and horrifying movies and documentaries. All of this feeds something in me the same way that soap operas, which I do not watch, feed something in their fans. We watch whatever it is, because we get something out of it. I don’t recall when this transitions in me, though it may have been during the period mid 1990’s when I decided I’d only read classics for a year (and it lasted 5).

Let me tell you a bit about my play experience – I first kick all the proverbial tires and play the “designer way.” Working designers will, of course, recognize this as the type of play that everyone but other designers abhor. It means that I do something not to play, but to see how the game will react. I see how the AI handles certain situations. I stop a lot and think about why the designers made the decisions that they did and how it will affect what I know about the game. I screw with the interface (as an aside, finding good interface artists/designers is a huge issue in the industry right now, so if you’re considering a career path, that’s a good one).

Once I get all that out of my system, I restart and play seriously and do this for a long time.

Flashback about 10 years ago.  I watched the English Patient at a giant theater in Ottawa, the old type that seat 500+ people in a room. At one point in the movie, the entire room is drowning in tears. All sides. Sniffles, tissues being ruffled. People asking for tissues and passing them around to others. Me? I was missing the hook. Whatever it was that I needed to have in order for me to hang my hat on that experience and get it, I didn’t have. Oh, I understood it, all right, knew precisely why they were all crying, and even marveled in the film’s technical achievements, storytelling and aesthetics. But that moment? That shared experience? Whatever the director required in me to elicit that moment, I just didn’t have or I had too much of the anecdote to the tears.

I feel that way now with Left 4 Dead. Everyone around me is having a blast with this game. Even a non-gaming friend visiting over the holidays played it and loved it. I feel as if I am staring at one of those “magic eye” posters waiting for the image to appear, that deeper experience, but it just didn’t happen. The process of getting through the missions felt like going through the motions, and I accept that this is not the way it’s supposed to be.  It’s a good game. The English Patient was a good movie. I never really immersed, and at the moment the director needed me to believe, my brain responded with a sense of satisfaction and happiness in my current relationship that pretty much gutted the deep longing for something more the movie required.

So, I wonder what all of this means to me as a designer. I know it is a natural part of aging that our interests change from one thing to another, and that things which were incredible at one point in time (keg parties) are less exciting me now (I’d much rather play board games all night with friends, remember it and be tired the next morning).

Does it mean that I’ve also gained some new design hook/perception somewhere else? Have I become, in part, that 40-year-old woman that people want to make games for if only they knew what she liked to play?

I’m going to play Gears 2 tomorrow, and I suppose we’ll find out.

It also raises some larger design questions –

  • Can you design for a hook that you don’t have?
  • How does aging affect a game designer’s perception?
  • Can you really teach people to design games for other audiences if, in play, they won’t be able to fully experience the deep immersive fun of it, and therefore tune the experience toward it?
17 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2008 3:44 am

    Interesting post, but don’t dismiss your own reaction too easily. It’s entirely possible that there’s something in the game itself that’s making it unappealing (even if everyone else seems to love it). The fact that you were excited to play it suggests that you’re a potential audience for the game, but it didn’t grab you, which by itself means something.

    I haven’t actually played it yet (might soon), but from what I’ve heard, it sounds like it’s a very well executed survival horror fps, which is such an overpopulated genre at this point that being well executed might not be enough to engage someone with a deep interest in games. It might just be that other people like it because they are coming to the game with completely different expectations.

    Of course, your interests probably are changing as you get older, but that doesn’t mean that Left 4 Dead is faultless if you couldn’t get into it. That’s my 5 cents.

  2. December 30, 2008 8:36 am

    I know the feeling, but much more with Gears 2 than L4D. I find it interesting that you do not address your relationship to Zombie fiction in general – which brings up the question of how much does the specific theme of a game matter in these cases…

    There is an economy of design to L4D which I appreciate, i.e. it takes the recognizable blueprint of a contemporary zombie flick – without any grand narrative or gameplay-changing pretensions – and orchestrates the co-op and final standoffs in a ruthlessly simple manner. To me, the attractiveness of these is very much down to the zombie formula, even if I know that them undead could be substituted with any other monster from pop culture iconography.

    I do believe that game designers can be, or can be taught to be, emphatic to tastes other than their own. Identifying the emotional points of attachment for that ‘other’ audience is a start (which I have employed when designing, e.g., online lottery games, which do not cater for mw and my kind much). However, partly I feel this question originates from the fact that game designers have had the privilege (or narrow-mindedness?) to design close to their own taste; a privilege that can easily lead to struggle in understanding and catering for broader set of tastes and gaming habits.

  3. Michel permalink
    December 30, 2008 9:18 am

    I’m the same way, but I haven’t even given L4D as much of a chance you have. And I’m only 24. I bought the Zombie Survival Guide, loved Dead Rising, and so on, and there was a time when I would stay up late into the morning playing Counter-Strike or Call of Duty or TF2 multiplayer. So why don’t I like this game? I played through the first scenario alone with developer commentary, and maybe 45 minutes co-op on one of the later levels. And that’s enough.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with age or becoming “broken”. I’m confident enough in my taste to believe that I’m not missing anything too important. Maybe I’ll come back to it after I’ve completed Far Cry 2, GTA4, Assassin’s Creed…I have a lot of catching up to do with epic open world games and don’t really have time to pop zombie heads with internet strangers. I guess that’s what it comes down to — I consider L4D is a distraction, while some of the other games I’m currently playing are important

  4. mbg3dmind permalink
    December 30, 2008 12:10 pm

    Well, I played only the demo and felt that´s not a full game, it seems like a tech demo or something, it´s nice but too simple and shallow. The coop stuff is the most interesting thing, but the game is simple and boring, so after playing one level, all the others look the same. If Valve sell it for U$19,90, ok it´s worth the experience, like “turn off your brain and shoot”, a casual game, short, simple but fun.
    With the real price of the game I was expecting for more, much more. I´m 30 years old, loved Portal, COD4, HL2 series, but L4D are too much like a cheap teenager movie to me…. not the experience I was hoping for…

  5. December 30, 2008 1:02 pm

    Maybe we just get jaded with time.

    Consider this; What we see as cliched is a result of the fact that they’re overused in our experience. What may be cliche to a previous generation may not have the same implication to us because the cliche fell into disuse. Someday, they’re bound to be revived by some future generation.

    So maybe we’ve just been fed so much of this stuff that it’s cliche to us. You don’t see horror the way you used to see it because you’ve already consumed so much of it, there’s little that’s new and appealing anymore.

    There’s a little experiment you can conduct with yourself that might give similar results. Go back and go through the stuff that you loved as a child. Your favourite books, the movies that really left a mark on you. Let go of the nostalgia and memory and experience it as if it were something new. Generally they don’t quite work anymore. As the field of games in general gets more saturated perhaps we’re just seeing the same effect.

  6. December 30, 2008 1:05 pm

    I kinda missed out on a point there. About cliches being cyclical, maybe the people who enjoy and are raving about the game don’t have the same kind of history with the genre and therefore see everything within it as new and exciting.

    It’s actually an argument against innovation in games. Sometimes, what’s old to us is still new to others and they deserve a good induction into the fold.

  7. December 30, 2008 6:57 pm

    Thank you, everyone. You’ve given me some good things to consider, some of which I had considered before, but perhaps dismissed too quickly.

    As for my interest in zombie fiction in general, it’s dead. My interests are almost entirely non-fiction nowadays and mostly focused on my two favorite subjects – game design and Irish history (simultaneously, if I can get away with it).

  8. December 30, 2008 10:38 pm

    “Can you design for a hook that you don’t have?”

    This sounds remarkably similar to the question: can you design for a target audience that you’re not a member of?

    The answer has to be yes. Otherwise, among other things, children’s games could never get made (at least, not in countries that have laws to prevent exploitation of minors). The trick is to use lots and lots of playtesters who DO have that hook, and carefully measure their reactions. That, and do a lot of research so you can at least understand where the enjoyment comes from, even if you don’t feel it yourself.


  9. December 31, 2008 7:47 am

    As usual, Ian hits it right on the button.

    I think there are two ways to understand something, intellectually and emotionally. I cannot understand emotionally why ANYONE would EVER play a resource management game such as Puerto Rico, which looks dry-as-dust and which has a fairly serious design defect from a competitive point of view according to what I’ve read, but I can see intellectually why many people like it so much. I have never cared for horror movies, but as an example for my students I designed a zombie game (and watched two zombie movies, and read Zombie Survival Guide), and many people like to play it–even me, more or less.

    One’s emotional way of understanding can change over time, and I suppose that’s what has happened to you (some people would say not, “you got old”, but “you grew up”!). As long as you understand the attraction intellectually, and depend on playtesters to show you whether you “got it” emotionally, you can design this kind of game if you wish.

  10. Carrie permalink
    December 31, 2008 12:19 pm

    I had the exact same experience as you with that game, and it was far more disappointing because I’m still in the middle of my weird zombie obsession phase. One major issue I ran into was the formula reveals itself too quickly and stays the same through all the scenarios; there’s never any variety. That created a kind of metal exhaustion; you KNEW the hoards or the Tanks were coming, and then once they finally popped up you had to focus a lot of effort in sprints to get rid of them. This is vastly different from TF2, where there is an overarching sense of strategy. There are pushes, but they feel different from the super-intense sprints you go through in L4D just to reach the next exhausting sprint.

    I’m not sure if that made any sense, but either way I really appreciate this post, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who felt this way about that game. (Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for it myself)

  11. Lucas permalink
    January 1, 2009 11:57 pm

    I seem to remember reading that Warren Spector (maybe on his blog, or in interviews?) doesn’t play the kind of games he designs (with significant player-driven choices), but is instead something of a Zelda nut, especially for the dungeon puzzles. He also mentions that his frustrations with games, even the ones he loves, is a key inspiring factor for progressive game design.

  12. January 5, 2009 11:35 am

    “Can you design for a hook that you don’t have?”

    I want to answer this as well, with a resounding, “Yes.” I’ve developed a strategic card game, for example, that appeals to a pretty ‘core demographic that I absolutely don’t belong to. My strategy-game-playing friends, and my poker-playing friends, grok the game completely and happily trounce me whenever we play. I, even though I designed it, feel a bit at a loss at how to win with it, or even fully enjoy playing it.

    As long as you understand the needs of your target audience, and take the time to meet those needs, I think you can absolutely consistently design for a hook you don’t have.

  13. January 7, 2009 4:20 am

    Hey, I feel the exact same way as you do about L4D, the only difference is I have a little more respect for my own opinion, and so should you.

    L4D is a game with uninspired weapons, characters and monsters, in which you shoot AI-controlled zombies that respawn right around the corner. It was designed by the same non-critical-thinking minds that created Counter-Strike (Turtle Rock) and then Valve came in at the end and polished the multiplayer. You have nothing to be ashamed of with finding this game boring. I don’t like it at all.

    • January 7, 2009 7:14 am

      Keith – thank you. You have a very valid point. I am not sure why I second guessed my opinion on this title, but I suspect it has to do with the other opinions that I trusted.

  14. January 7, 2009 7:23 am

    Thank you everyone for all your comments. It appears that I’ve had a momentary lapse of faith in my own ability to judge a game experience coupled with a randomly placed design panic.

  15. Peter Gault permalink
    January 7, 2009 12:33 pm

    After reading all of the comments, it is clear that no one addressed the clear lack of experience – you did not play the game over LAN with friends – this experience exponentially multiplies the fun of the game. I won’t play L4D solo, and even over live it is not fun because I am not really interacting with the other players.
    The strength of L4D are the moments when two of your buddies are down, you’ve got 10 health, the rescue ship just showed up, and you’ve got a tank chasing you. This isn’t as much inherently fun in itself (it is just a simple escape) but it is your buddies screaming for you to escape, your friend sacrificing himself so you can get on that ship. Playing two player is okay, but 4 player, where everyone is in the same room, is what should define L4D.
    I think the reason why, is that a game’s level of immersion is driven by its interactivity – the control the player has over the world. Playing with AI or whatever, you have very little control, only your one character, which is 25% of the total experience. When your in the same room as your fellow players, you can create strategies in the game’s safe room, you can set up positions around targets
    – you can coordinate your attack, so instead of 4 people playing randomly side by side, you really have 4 players working together to take down the enemies. This coordination blooms when your side by side with your fellow players.
    So, in sum, I agree with your assessment of the game, but only insofar as the experience you’ve had with it; sitting down with 3 friends in front of two tvs (no 4 player split screen, bad decision on their part) will reinvigorate the game with a new sense of life.

  16. Monte Nichols permalink
    January 14, 2009 3:10 am

    I have to say that I agree with the post before mine. I cannot play L4D alone with only AI or in a public setting with people I don’t know. I either need 4-8 people over Ventrilo or 4-8 people in a LAN setting. Most of the fun comes from the on the fly strategy made by 4 players, and the true desperation one can hear from the guy who has a Hunter on his back (and the insane laughter from the adjacent room, as the player of the Hunter hears his friend’s cries for help.)

    The game is very simple in many aspects, and if you are looking for a game with in depth on the fly strategy, and really diverse weapons/ gameplay then L4D is the wrong place to look. TF2 is a much better example of true teamwork and on the fly strategy, but I see L4D as the “casual game” for the competitive gamer. It is easy to pick up and play with friends, having a low learning curve, easily understood progression, basic weapon systems, and repetitive, predictable game play. All in all, I think that many were looking for the wrong experience in the game. The true experience comes from the person to person interaction.

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