Evolution of strategy in Left 4 Dead

I don’t think I’ve ever been in on the ground floor of a new multiplayer game before so it is interesting to see how Left 4 Dead‘s Versus mode has changed and evolved since its release.

One of the most noticeable areas has been in regards to the witch. When the game first came out we all generally took Eminem’s Not Safe For Work advice and don’t “mess” with the witch. Now people just go right up to her and shooter he with the automatic shotgun and killer without getting hurt at all.

Similarly, people used to just run from the tank and hope to survive. Then people figured out that molotovs would take the tank out. Now the cool think seems to be for everyone to hit it with the automatic shotgun and sniper rifle (maybe the automatic shotgun needs some tweaking?)

The latest tactic I’ve seen is that someone realized that in some cases the hunters do more damage by swiping at the survivors rather than pouncing. The logic behind this is that if you pounce you don’t always do damage and might get knocked off before you start doing damage. If you swipe someone you are much quieter, can almost always get one hit in, and can perhaps get in more without having to wait to recharge the pounce.

Right now there’s a lot of debate over exploits within the game. One that pretty much everyone agrees is an exploit is the minigun jump

I’ve only seen people use this in Versus mode once and it is pretty much a jerk thing to do.

Another exploit that is definitely wrong and a real jerk thing is the spectator glitch in which you can spawn tons of hunters.

I’ve seen a couple people do this and one named Ghost something who I’ve ran into a couple times (of course he spells Ghost all l33t and stuff to show how much he roxors).

The final exploit is more controversial in my opinion. It involves breaking down the door and avoiding the crescendo event on the 3rd (I think it is the 3rd) level.

There are more exploits like hitting things into exits so survivors can’t go past but that has been fixed and only works on the Xbox360 so that doesn’t really count. There’s also hiding under the ramp in the finale which I’ve seen some people do but doesn’t happen all that often and there’s jumping off the side of the building in the beginning but that causes a lot of damage so I haven’t seen anyone do it.

Anyway, I’m not trying to document all the exploits and glitches in the game. It is just interesting to note which tactics stick, which don’t, and how they spread.

Little Big Planet 9?

So I saw a trailer for a movie called 9 that is coming out on my birthday. It kind of reminded me of Oddworld stuff but the main character really reminded me of Little Big Planet. Then I find out that it was originally a short movie made back in 2005. It has this little guy made from what looks like burlap and he has a big zipper down the front. In his world he uses junk to make stuff. Sound familiar? Coincidence or something more?


Where’s my Valkyrie game?

So the film Valkyrie is out. In the film Tom Cruise uses Sientology to build a time machine to kill Hitler or something — I don’t know for sure, history wasn’t my strong suit. But what I do know is that it is a movie about killing Hitler. OMGWTFBBQ! If ever there was a storyline that gamers could get behind it would be killing Hitler. Where’s my Valkyrie game?!?!

Post Christmas gaming

Yesterday I got back from spending a week at my parent’s house. They don’t have broadband. I was totally going through withdraw.

I wasn’t without games though. I played some Peggle and World of Goo. Fun games that run on my laptop. I also spent a lot of time with my trusty favorite Weird Worlds.

Now that I’m back in the land of broadband I’ve been catching up on Left 4 Dead. I still like the game but I am getting sick of playing the same mission over and over. They need to release more Versus maps and people need to play them!

Has a game ever made you cry?

This question is an old one and it is one that is often used by people from other mediums to question the ability of games to really impact the player and to have a kind of emotional maturity. Most recently it has been asked Over at International Hobo. I would bet that if someone were to ask if a game has ever made you cry you would say “no” — and you would probably be a liar.

Up until recently I would have said “no” as well because the question is usually asked in that context of telling a story that made you cry. That is a misleading way to think about it. People do cry over games all the time but they don’t cry over them because of the storylines.

So when do people cry over games? They cry when they lose them. I’m sure that nearly every kid has cried because they lost some board or card game. It is almost a cliche to show an athlete cry when they lose the big game whether it is the Super Bowl or a high school sectional.

So perhaps the problem isn’t that games don’t make us cry but rather that we just aren’t thinking about the reasons why they already do that.

Left 4 Dead Review and Reflections

Through Valve’s SourceU program that the class I’m teaching tells I’m lucky enough to have gotten Left 4 Dead for free and I’ve been playing the heck out of it. It is a really fun game. The AI Director (or is it Director AI? I’ve seen both) might be a sign of things to come if it can be adapted to other games. Basically it means that the era of enemies being in the same place every time you play the game is over. The AI Director decides when, where, and how many enemies appear in the game so that “It’s never the same game twice.” If they put this into Half-Life 2 Ep 3 then it could be really awesome.

That isn’t to say that the game is perfect, however. From a design point of view tey made some interesting choices. I’m tempted to say that it suffers from “console-itis” but I’m not entirely sure that is the case. The first and most noticeable thing is the matchmaking system. It is braindead. They don’t let you pick your own server unless you use a console command. Is it some attempt to make people friend each other so that the Steam friends system has tons of people using it? Is it some plot that Valve can build up their friends database as a selling feature to get other game developers to use Steam features?

There’s also the fact that even if you get together with your friends you still can’t pick your own server. There’s not even any way that I’ve seen to pick a local server only. They also don’t represent your ping as a number but rather as cell-phone reception-like bars.

Once you get into the game there are also some interesting design choices. They worked really hard to make people play cooperatively and engineered in ways to encourage that. When you reload your character shouts out “I’m reloading.” When you heal your characters yells out “Cover me. I’m healing.” Valve started this with TF2 where players would automatically thank the medic for healing them and this brought it to a new level by these kinds of things as well as having your character say things like they are hurting or that they hear a zombie near and goes so far as to having characters say things that are purely character-related such as having Francis the banker comment on how he hates things such as tunnels, vans, and airports. This is quite a difference from the silent Gordon Freeman.

I’ve talked about the meaning of “cinematic” before and this game is one of the first that I think really does make things explicitly cinematice. Each of the four chapters has a movie-style poster that appears on the screen as the level loads and even have witty tag lines. Then the actual beginning of the level has an overhead shot that zooms back that is not only cinematic but serves to give a short overview of what the player is in for. The final level at the airplane is especially film-life in that it shows a smoking plane going overhead and eventually crashing in the distance as a start of the level. This film metaphor is carried through to when you finish the mission by having the scrolling film credits serve as a way of showing player stats. If a player doesn’t make it to the end of the mission the credits begin with “In memory” of that player. The credits end with a nod to credits for films featuring animals by stating “X number of zombies were killed in the making of this film” which cleverly serves as a way of telling you how many zombies you killed in the game.

One final thing which Valve did in both this game as well as Team Fortress 2 was to nail down everything. On of the aspects of Half-Life 2 that got a lot of attention and hype was the physics and that you could pick things up and do things with them. Half-Life 2 DM was all about throwing toilets and cast iron radiators. In both Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2 everything is nailed down. You can move very few objects. On some TF2 levels there are barrels you can break but they seem to have no impact on gameplay. In L4D there are very few things you can move. While I can understand why they did that – it opens up potentials for griefing and exploits – I wish they hadn’t done it. It places restrictions on gameplay and it disrupts the believability of the world when kitchen chairs are immovable objects.

There are more interesting game design choices in the game but these are some of the ones that I didn’t see mentioned elsewhere and that really jumped out at me. As time passes it will, as I alluded to earlier, be interesting to see how this game influences subsequent Valve games.

*Shock* Craig Anderson Publishes a Paper on Media Causing Agression!?! *Shock*

A study was published in the journal Pediatrics that got a lot of press this week. Among lots of places it appeared on with the title, “Violent Video Games Linked to Child Aggression“.

Even before I read the story I suspected that Craig Anderson was involved. Anderson has never done a study where he didn’t find that something caused aggression. He sees aggression everywhere. Now I’ve read an interview or two with him and he sounds reasonable. He certainly doesn’t seem as if he wants to go all Jack Thompson or anything.

The problem with this Anderson’s work? At least in the papers of his that I have read (and as seems to be common in certain academic fields his name gets attached as coauthor on a lot of papers so it is hard to read all of them) he never offers a clear definition of “aggression.” This article is no exception.

In one paragraph the authors write,”‘Aggression’ also is defined differently by behavioral scientists than by the general public. Social and developmental psychologists typically define ‘aggression’ as behavior that is intended to harm another person who is motivated to avoid that harm. In other words, aggression is an act conducted by 1 person with the intent of hurting another person; it is not an emotion, thought, or intention.” (page e1068)

However, in the next paragraph they contradict the statement that agression “is not an emotion, thought, or intention” when they state, “Existing experimental studies demonstrate that playing a violent video game causes an immediate increase in aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive emotions.” (page e1068)

So does “aggression” include thoughts or emotions or not?

Regardless, both the Japanese and the USA groups involved self-reporting of “aggression” which puts the results in doubt and there’s no information on why the participants in each group were chosen (the Japanese group was actually data from another study) so there’s no way of knowing if games make kids more aggressive or if aggressive kids play more games.

Finally, the study was funded in part by the National Institute on Media and the Family (page e1070) which also calls the results into question since they are an outspoken group about the evils of videogames.

So what does this study show? I’m not a psychologist but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t show much of anything.

Are all MMORPGs the same?

I’ve only really spend any amount of time playing two MMORPGs: City of Heroes and now Lord of the Rings Online. I did play Anarchy Online for like 5 minutes when they first went free and everyone there was also playing for the first time and none of us could figure out where to go so I uninstalled it. I never paid for any MMORPG. City of Heroes had a free trial in a magazine and has given me free weekends 3-4 times a year ever since and I got a 7 day trial with Lord of the Rings Online. So I haven’t had all that much experience with MMORPGs.

However, I’ve come to a conclusion: Even though City of Heroes and Lord of the Rings Online are allegedly different backdrops (superheroes and magic and elves) they are the same game. I kind of realized this when I noticed that my technoblaster and my dwarf hunter were both basically the same. They both shoot the bad guys from a distance. I also tend to not play with other people and just play to get new powers and armor. They are both just about running around, killing stuff, trying to complete objectives and are all about stat and abilities.

So what makes one MMORPG better than others? What is the difference? Is it just setting? Is it all a matter of style?

One of these days I’ll get around to playing World of Warcraft and maybe I’ll figure out what makes it so great…

Videogame Ethnography class

I thought I would give an update on the videogame ethnography class I’m teaching:

The class I’m teaching on videogames is going quite well. The discussions are pretty good but could of course always be better. I’m a bit concerned that I’m not emphasizing the ethnography aspect enough though.

Gameplay-wise I have been moving them from single player Half-Life 2 to the eventual goal of Team Fortress 2 with various digressions along the way. Because not all students are videogame experts I’ve gone slow, trying to make sure that they can get used to the controls before I throw them to the wolves. Balancing playing time with enough time to discuss the readings is difficult. I can’t really ask them to play the games on their own time since some don’t have computers at home good enough to play the games. I’m thinking about holding a mini-LAN party to simulate the real thing.

Authenticity in games — coverville?

A few years ago I saw Molly Hatchet play at a county fair. It was only after I got home that I went online and found out that at the time there were no original members left in the band. So the band that I saw — which spent at least the first set playing songs from their new album — had little or nothing to do with the band that wrote Flirtin’ With Disaster. In essence, they were a cover band. So could I actually say that I saw the “real” Molly Hatchet?

I’m wondering how or in what way authenticity applies for videogames. Is there a notion for an “authentic” Mario game? Is there anyone working on Mario besides Miyamoto who worked on the first Super Mario Bros? Does that matter? Is there anyone who would say, “Well, Madden 2009 isn’t a ‘real’ Madden game because no one involved with the original game made this one?” Would that even make sense?

Similarly, is there a such thing as a “cover” of a game or is “remake” the same thing as a cover?

It does seem as if the one place where authenticity is taken into account by videogame fans is when it comes to emulation. If the game doesn’t have perfect emulation then it does feel as if it isn’t “really” the original game. I know that in some version of Tetris I’ve played if you can’t move the piece over one spot just when it lands then it doesn’t feel right.