Friday, March 6, 2009

Co-op/social Dungeon Master: Left 4 Dead as a proof of concept

So, I never did play the original Dungeon Keeper, but before I got into the games industry I did try to DM some modules using the Neverwinter Nights mod tools. There were some cool features for both dungeon construction and real-time DM'ing. But there were a number of hurdles:

  • Content creation was time intensive. The level editor was pretty usable, but it still took many hours to craft an adventure that you might only play once with friends.
  • Too many tools. In the hands of an experienced designer with lots of iterative playtesting feedback, this makes for great, polished, balanced dungeons. As one-offs, with an amateur designer and just a few friends (or maybe the occasional stranger) playing the game, it was hard to generate quality entertainment.
  • DM'ing in real time could be a lonely, unthankful, and potentially overwhelming task. You needed to keep track of one or more adventurers who were navigating your dungeon in real time.
Juxtapose this with some of the game play elements and systems that exist in Left 4 Dead and I think I see potential for a really cool role playing game system that encourages social play -- both as adventurers and as DMs. 

I kind of stumbled onto this line of thinking while trying to break down why spawn times of upwards of 30 seconds (as Infected) or even longer (as Survivor) didn't seem so horrible as a player experience. What I realized, as a game designer/user experience person, is that I could spend this time navigating the level (through other players' eyes, or as a ghost when I did spawn in as Infected) and essentially watching the movie of the game play unfold. 

As an Infected caracter (and like a movie director or Dungeon Master) I could choose to let things unfold, or, through my own actions and communications with my team mates, guide and direct the Survivors' game play experience.

Some revelations:
  • Messing around with, essentially, dev/debug tools can be fun as a game play experience. Another examples of this is "the line" feature in Forza. Originally designed to help debug race tracks, team members (and later playtesters) liked the feature so much that they spruced it up visually and added it as a game play feature. In L4D, you are able to "spy" on the world through other players eyes, move around as "ghosts", see and move through walls, and access areas of the map that are inaccessible to Survivors. In a sense when you play as Infected you are playing the role of Dungeon Master. 
  • Well, more like Dungeon Master's assistant. Someone else (the game developer and designer) has done a lot of the hard work in balancing and polishing the core experience. You get to "tweak" this experience given a limited toolset that is fun to use and accessible via entertaining game play mechanics (instead of through code or script). 
  • Actually, more like a community of Dungeon Master assistants. There can be division of labor, group strategizing, and socially reinforcing "atta boy" chatter.  
In other words, the tight constraints (basic content is already balanced, polished, and fun at its core) and social nature of DM'ing makes for a great experience for all players involved. Players can trip and fall into a fun experience that, when the DMs are firing on all cylinders, can become sublime for both DMs and adventurers.

One constraint that Left 4 Dead must operate under that is worth considering is that players must find playing as Infected or Survivor equally (or almost equally) enjoyable. There is some leeway as players swap sides as part of the campaign, but if people generally hated playing one side vs. the other side, the Vs. mode wouldn't be fun to play (unless preferences were split 50-50 and players were just constantly placed in matches playing for the side they preferred). 

It's also worth thinking about role preferences that might not be evenly distributed -- and that may even be underrepresented by current gaming experiences.

Sure, class-based games (like Valve's Team Fortress and many other RPGs and shooters) and other asymetrical play experiences (e.g., RTS games like Starcraft with different races or Rise of Nations with different national powers) exist to fill these kinds of desires.

But what about game players who want to "play" as Dungeon Master? Folks who are willing to do a little more preparation and behind the scenes work in order to direct other players' experience? And I'm thinking about it more broadly than just in terms of stimulating the creation of quality "user generated content" (e.g., games like Spore and Little Big Planet and, of course, most of Valve's own PC game line up).

I think about DMs much the way I think about content contributors to social computing sites. Some folks love writing reviews, posting to discussion boards, uploading videos, and acting as matron or concierge in chat rooms. These folks derive personal pleasure in doing work that improves the experience of the vastly larger number of content consumers. "Deriving pleasure" means that there is a feedback loop (kudos from fellow content contributors and from content consumers) and that that these kudos outweigh the potential pain involved in creating the content in the first place.

The question then becomes: What can we learn from successful social computing sites that would apply to developing the kind of game (or game platform) that would create great game play for players by encouraging people who love to DM game content to participate?

Some other thoughts:
  • What social/co-operative components are critical to make both content creation and real time (in game) participation fun for DMs?
  • What feedback loop elements are needed (what are the internal goals and desires of people who like to DM? Are there a few prototypical subcategories or personas of DMs? how do we reinforce their goals/desires?)
  • How much freedom is enough to keep DMs interested, but not too much to be either overwhelming or result in unbalanced/unpolished game play?
  • What should be the balance between "away from the game" planning and development (e.g., using content creation and editing tools) and real time participation (e.g., wandering around as ghosts, spawning in as NPCs or creatures)?
Whew. A fun digression.

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