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What Bringing About the Fictional Zombie Apocalypse Taught Me About Game Design


Credit to Inkthinker on DeviantArt

If youíre scrabbling for the closest shotgun or trying to remember where you stashed that emergency zombie apocalypse machete (mineís in my hall closet), you can relax. I havenít trigged some sort of infection that brings about the walking dead. Fictional is the key world in that title and it references a massive, year-long table-top roleplaying game apocalypse survival campaign my friends and I crafted and embarked upon one year ago.

I know what some of you may be feeling. The mere mention of the word zombie these days can put your eyes into an involuntary roll. Trust me, I feel you. Sometime around when people started inserting zombies into Jane Austin novels and my local comic book shop started selling Zombie Breath Mints, I got a little tired of the genre. But, before Marvel was needlessly turning their characters into those brain-hungry walking-corspes, my friends and I committed ourselves to an epic experiment.

Like any completely nerdy twenty-something college undergrads who spent too much time watching Romero movies in high school, my group of comrades and I spent our free time composing a contingency plan in the inevitable event of a zombie apocalypse. We had complex scenarios planned out involving the local gun-nut weapon shop around the block and stealing some Brinks Security armored vans. We had lofty plans, but we all wondered if we had the chops to back them up. We wouldn't really know until the fateful day we stood at one end of a hallway with baseball bat as some shambling corpse came our way. So, to answer our query, I turned to the only logical solution and constructed an overly complex modification of an existing table-top roleplaying d20 system to replicate the conditions of the fictional zombie apocalypse.

Ladies? The line starts right here.

I know, I know. You may be kicking in another superfluous eye-roll at the mention of table-top RPG games. This often conjures up images of bespectacled nerds wearing capes and wizard hats, calling out magic spells to their near-empty basements. Donít fret. Thereís no LARPing here. No genre-specific costumes or words uttered in Elvish. Just good olí fashioned theoretical zombie killing. The setting was our college town and the players were us. And when I say us, I do mean us. Not some archetypical heroic characters with near-superhuman abilities. We were playing us, the regular dudes, the townsfolk. Our stats were abysmal, our talents worthless and inapplicable (+5 knowledge pop culture never did help me much.) We went in with no prerequisite experience for using firearms or almost any fighting know-how whatsoever. And our weapons? Whatever was in our apartments the night we started the game. We didnít even start with character classes. We sucked to much to get any nice bonuses. Instead, we entered into my home-made system that left the group lumped into a generic survivor category until we leveled up high enough to specify our talents. The prerequisite to gain access to this class? Survive your first night.

Credit to captainosaka on DeviantArt

We lost a few players to the walking corpses in the first month (myself included, and I was running the stupid game). But the group continued longer than anyone expected. We started off with about 12-13 players and slowly wound down to 8 or 9 constant players (And, yes, some of them were girls.) The game lasted an entire year, even. It was an outrageous success, but when all is said and done, it was really only a beta run of the whole system I had built. Though its year-long campaign is still legendary, the whole game was plagued with poor player balance, complications with player freedom, and inadvertently repetitive enemies.

Yes, by now you may be starting to see how this may be video game related.

I recognized early that my players would be, for lack of a better word, shitty at everything. It was true. We were playing ourselves, with all our faults, and there were plenty of them. All the combat rolls were desperate flailing attempts to land a hit. Every player's turn was fraught with pathetic attempts at attacks, frantic escape attempts, and painful failures. Our table, however, was nothing but laughter, friendly jeers, and the occasional cheer of victory. Watching them trying to fight back against even one single zombie was like watching someone trying to fight those crabs at the start of Morrowind. Inches away with a broadsword and nothing but misses.

So, I did my best to provide the players with options to climb out of the pits of starting n00b-dom they toiled in. And climb they did. It didnít take long before each of them had more than enough ammunition to take on the entirety of the undead army themselves. They became so efficient at zombie-killing, that I was forced to introduce the human element as enemies as often as I could to provide a proper challenge, but worked hard to keep the narrative intact. As time went on, the players became no longer even concerned with the zombies. I spiced the hordes up with some Left 4 Dead style special infected (This was prior to the release of the first game, so don't sue me, Valve.) But, in the end, the game organically became a Romero film. The survivors became their greatest enemy. It didn't matter though, the group had a absolute blast week in and week out trying to keep their fictional selves alive for another day.

One of the players with considerable artistic talent was kind enough to render a few of our characters after several months of zombie survival. I'm second from the right. My face hurts.

But something was lost rather quickly as they leveled out of the helpless zone. The frantic intensity slowly evaporated and was replaced with the confident exuberance of killing hordes of enemies. Both of these reactions to gameplay are, of course, great and replicating these sensations over and over without losing them to monotony is something every game designer should chase. But after the game wrapped up a year later, a full 12 months of progressing from mild-mannered college students to full-fledged post-apocalyptic warriors, do you know which moments were still talked about the most?

Everything that happened in those first couple weeks.

Players couldnít stop reliving their greatest moments and it wasnít sniping rogue milita survivors with expertise as they defended their safe-heaven. It wasnít discovering the massive survival camp turned Barter Town-esque city formed around Mid-Western religious zealots named New Bethlehem. Instead, it was the time a player had pulled the pin on a few grenades and turned his speeding car into a makeshift missile. It was when a player had gunned down some women and children after a particular nasty fight with other survivors, forever breeding mistrust of his character. It was when I used a broken shard from my replica Lord of the Rings sword to stab a zombie in his cerebral cortex. What the players really loved above all the attempts at interesting narrative turns and twists was the pure frantic chaos of being ineffectively armed and inadequately prepared to stay alive.

It was easy to see why, too. Without a some ultimate weapon in their hands to rely on, the players had to use all parts of their brains to find solutions. One player shoved a mattress out a third story window to escape a handful of zombies breaking down a door. Players needed to rush to the aid of the comrades just to defeat a single enemy. Without a simple solution, like holding a double-barreled shotgun in their hands, the players were forced to do things like examine the environment for solutions, find makeshift weapons, and sometimes just grow some balls and take a zombie on hand-to-hand.

What became quite clear as I tried to compensate their early weaknesses with better guns and talent trees that offered them exciting combat abilities, was that though players are programmed to seek out power, they actually have the most fun before theyíve obtained it. Beloved Anthony Burch nailed this point in his rant on gamer choice in video games. If you haven't watched it, go do. It says everything better than I could about how players need to see opportunities to make their own game experience engaging.

My players took every opportunity to enhance their abilities, of course. Who wouldn't? It's natural instinct to seize power when available. But gamers go a step further. They don't simply want to be acceptably good at being a part of the game. They want to be the best. When presented with a series of options for leveling, they will carefully weigh all the strengths and weaknesses until they've found the most beneficial option. So much so that players will seek out ways to exploit the system to become even stronger. Anyone who has listened to a World of Warcraft player declare the best talent tree to choose will know what I'm talking about.

Because, when it comes down to it, players look for the simplest path to a solution. This is because we're problem solvers. And we've been placed in a maze of infinite problems. Whether itís kicking turtle shells into anthropomorphic mushrooms or determining where and when to toss a grenade, we are constantly searching for solutions. So when game designers present us with an easy out, a single weapon efficient enough to defeat a group of enemies, we grab it and never look back. But when a game leaves us ill-prepared for a fight, we search for alternative solutions. A well-placed explosive barrel. A stack of loose shipping crates. A hard-to-reach cloud in the sky that allows us to skip entire levels. These are the elements of game design that speak to our creativity and ingenuity. We relish in those moments, especially when they're successful, because they are the moments of greatest interactivity.

A game designer's job is to provides us with a steady increase in power. This goes almost without saying. Because, without it, we'd get bored pretty quick of using a crowbar for every boss fight. Whether a player enjoys those early, helpless levels or not, they all want to become more powerful. But combat strength should not be given without some work first. Because itís those moments of challenge and creative perseverance about which gamers will forever reminisce.
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About AwesomeExMachinaone of us since 6:13 PM on 07.28.2009

Twenty four years ago I was adorable. Now I'm inquisitive and hilarious.

I have a plastic tooth to replace one lost in a mosh pit during my more ridiculous high school years. I speak shitty German and I ride a bike. My Xbox gets so much use, I'm sometimes embarassed. But I'm unemployed, so my time is spent writing blogs on the internet, reading good literary fiction, and playing video games.

In the grand scale of things, I'm a late-bloomer. My parents banned all consoles from my house as a kid. See what you've done? Now I game constantly to make up for years of lost time.

I won't list my favorites, because you've probably seen ten lists like it before me.

There's a life-sized Boba Fett standee in my living room.

No Clip Series:
Grand Theft Auto IV
Fallout New Vegas
Red Dead Redemption

The Slapstick Cephalopod: An Interview with the Octodad Team
Chicago Night Fights: Marvel vs Capcom 3
Inventing the Paint: An Interview with Author Tom Bissell
Top 10 Greatest Tiny Video Game Characters

Front-Paged Monthly Musings:
Groundhog Day: The Liberty to Pursue
Teh Bias: Critical Errors at Surface Level
Alternate Reality:Time for a new job
Something About E3: Imaginings from 20 Years Ago
The Great Escape: Tiny plastic guitars and wiimotes
My Expertise: Latent Racial Bonus
The Future: Overdoing the Over-the-Top
Love/Hate: A Gentleman's Baffling Love for Collecting Furniture
Nothing is Sacred: Games Taking Themselves Too Seriously

Worth reading:
We Are Destructoid
Writing on the Wall: How Graffiti Builds Universes
Combating Lawlessness in the Wild West of Red Dead Redemption
Being a Coward on Purpose
What Bringing About the Fictional Zombie Apocalypse Taught Me About Game Design
Why Video Game Designers Need to Watch the Road Warrior
The Needless Shit We Gamers Do

Xbox LIVE:The Disco Pony
PSN ID:The Disco Pony


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