Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Killing zombies in the name of user experience

Like most user experience folks, I'm a geek. Sure, we're not geeks compared to most of the developers we work with, but they are not a very good baseline for geekdom. I suppose it makes us feel good to know that on the geek scale, we're George Clooneys in comparison to developers. But compared to, you know, normal people, we're somewhere between Michael Bolton and Matt Farrell.

Anyway, my point is that I'm a geek, and nothing says "GEEK!" like expressing my masculinity by sitting in my recliner, drinking a beer, and killing virtual zombies on my XBox 360.

Enter Left 4 Dead, which is remarkable in lots of ways, but mostly because it was designed from the ground up to be a four-person collaborative online game. You can play with fewer than 4 people, but it's something you only do when none of your friends are online and your trigger finger is getting twitchy.

But this isn't a review of the game (which is great and you should go buy it now). One of the interesting aspects of Left 4 Dead is that it's very, very short. There are 4 campaigns that you can play, and each campaign takes about 90 minutes (depending on the difficulty setting) to complete. These campaigns are all independent from one another, so most people will play through one entire campaign from beginning to end each time the play the game. And due to endless variety in zombie spawning, each time through a campaign is unique.

This led the Left 4 Dead crew with a problem. How do they teach people how to play the game? Most games have an initial "training stage" at the beginning of the game to teach people the basic game mechanics. But going through a training stage at the beginning of every 90 minute campaign would get annoying quick. What to do? Fortunately, the folks who created Left 4 Dead have a blog and explained their innovative solution: creating an entertaining intro movie that teaches the important aspects of the gameplay.

Because Left 4 Dead is a new property for us, we wanted to provide some basic player training prior to the start of the game. Traditional in-game training mechanics didn't make sense for Left 4 Dead, because they would take away from the sense that players had been immediately dropped into a very real, very dire zombie apocalypse. We didn't want a slow ramp-up in gameplay to take away from that tension. As a result, we decided that it would make sense to begin the game experience with a non-interactive introductory movie that could get players revved up and subtly cue them to important gameplay mechanics such as "light disturbs the witch" and "car alarms attract the horde."

Starting a game with a movie was a new approach for us, but luckily we have built up some moviemaking expertise in the past few years with the Team Fortress 2 shorts. In this blog entry, we'd like to share with you some insight into the process that led to the intro movie that shipped with Left 4 Dead. To do this, we will show four different versions of the first half of the movie from various stages of production.

Great work, Valve.

Now my trigger finger is getting twitchy...