Left4Dead: The Virtual GM Goes Mainstream

A concept I came up with awhile back (and I’m not saying Valve copied me or even know who I am) is the idea of, instead of having a Roleplaying Game made up of static quests that are played out, you make a game where the computer behaves as a virtual Game Master who works like a real GM.

What does a real GM do that’s so different from what we commonly see in games?

Well, if they’re a good game master, they bring both their imagination and powers of observation to the table with an understanding that the goal is to entertain the players.

In terms of imagination, rather than just reading through a pre-made scenario and doing everything by the book, you instead put the players in a setting, perhaps provide a little background story for impetus, and ask the players: what now? Then, the players can take the story whichever direction they want to go. This is the power of dynamic content.

So far, so good, but many MMORPGs have that and it isn’t enough by itself. The world may be there, and the players may be free to wander it, but this does not inherently make it an adventure.  Indeed, many a veteran player simply gets bored, learns where the experience points and gold is, and grinds that monotonously in a tried and true, safe manner.

For it to become an adventure, the world needs to provide “risky, dangerous and uncertain experiences” (wikipedia). Here’s where the GM’s powers of observation enter the picture. They observe their players and judge for themselves when inserting these experiences is appropriate and the best way to go about it.  What’s more, the GM makes sure the adventure sees an entertaining result – adventures should be surmountable if the players are doing their best – going so far as to fudging a roll if it would otherwise lead to an unjustified change.

That a game even allows the player to bore themselves is a real shame.  So, when that veteran player thinks he found a tried-and-true, safe method to grind levels, the good GM forces him to think again.  A particularly uncooperative or lazy player will likely discover their characters bearing the brunt of a fully-justified deathtrap.

So what’s this about the “Virtual” GM going mainstream?

All computer games could be argued to have a Virtual GM who runs a scenario.   An early example of a Virtual GM would probably be a Roguelike game, which randomly generates the maps and monsters.  However, that would be a very poor GM indeed.  Only a few of them provide much freedom, and slim to none actually watch the player and endeavor to create adventure.  Most CRPGs don’t even go as far as a Roguelike game in terms of providing an unpredictable experience.

Left4Dead features a “dynamic system for game dramatics, pacing, and difficulty called the Director” (wikipedia). This basically is the next level of Virtual GM, an artificial intelligence that randomizes parts of the scenario, observes the players, and tries to figure out what adjustments need to be done when they happen.

Playing a bit of the demo, I can see the Virtual GM/Director in action.

  • Once in awhile, a large surge of zombies hits the players: the director has decided the players need a bit more action. If the players seem to be zombie-killing experts, more zombies are thrown at them, and perhaps ammo is provided readily.
  • The goal of the scenario is that the players work together, so when one wanders of, the director doles out the appropriate punishment: one of the super-powerful zombies which require player interaction to survive show up and attack the stray.
  • If everybody stops to heal themselves at once, leaving themselves foolishly unready, don’t be too surprised if the Director decides it’s time for a zombie attack.
  • If the player characters are badly injured, but the players seem to be cooperating well, perhaps they’ll be rewarded with a cache of pain pills.

All of this could happen… or not: the element of unpredictability must be maintained for it seem adventurous.  I have to say, the result is pretty freaking fabulous.  I could probably replay the same two maps in the demo several dozen times without being bored of them. Every play through is different, unpredictable, dangerous, and ultimately: a high-quality virtual adventure.  Would that I could say the same thing about the average MMORPG map!

Speaking of which, another game I noticed is DC Universe Online, being developed by Sony Online Entertainment.  According to a PC Gamer magazine article I read, they’re going to have no static quests you can come across, no enemy spawns laying around waiting to get attacked.   Instead, they feature a “dynamic encounter system” that has adversaries appearing in reaction to the players, and quests manifesting as calls coming over a communicator.  It sounds a great deal like the earmarks of a robust Virtual GM implementation.

As for a third game that does this, well, that’s one of the features I’m working on with my own game using BYOND. A compelling Virtual GM is something I’ve been wanting to see in CRPGs for a long time, and it seems my procrastination has allowed Valve to beat me to the punch.  They put a lot of thought into it, and I see I’ve awhile to go before my implementation is completely fleshed out.  (Currently, I’m mostly working on revamping my code to be more modular right now, dragging my feet to get around to that vital design process.)

There’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of what a Virtual GM would be capable of.  A good chess AI can best the masters.  So, can a good virtual GM AI produce an adventure that rivals the best GMs as well?

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