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Thursday, April 10, 2014

H1Z1: The cure for the common zombie game?

For those who don’t spend all their time refreshing gaming news sites SOE has recently announced an ambitious MMO zombie game called H1Z1. Boasting a deep crafting system and massive world the game apparently hopes to fill in the gaps games like State of Decay and DayZ have left unfilled. Despite it being released by SOE, whose history has just enough black marks to make me a wary consumer, the enthusiasm I've seen for the game could fuel a thousand hype trains.

Some of the news is very interesting, such as the revelation that the game will have a heavy focus on fire and light, allowing players to use fire to kill zombies or burn down obstacles. They also stated that the game would be very dark at night, necessitating finding light sources and making the risk/reward decision of using light or staying dark. I’m all for darker nights in games, but that’s a personal quirk. However in the same article they mentioned the possibility of being “ganked” by another player, and immediately my ears were ringing with alarm claxons.

If DayZ (or the Censer of Eternal Agony in WoW, most FPS games, GTA V’s multiplayer, or every open-world PvP game ever) has taught us anything, it’s that any game in which you can kill other players will rapidly turn into a massive free-for-all slaughterfest. DayZ could have easily been named “People Hunting Simulator 2013: Zombie Edition”.* When death is a passing inconvenience and free-stuff is just a trigger-pull away most players lose all inhibitions about violence. Even players that would otherwise be happy to cooperate end up having to cultivate a shoot-first mentality just to avoid catching a lead train to Respawn-ville.

The net result is that players, like myself, who would love to see a game that captures the Walking Dead feeling of being an estranged group of survivors scraping by, have yet to find a home. H1Z1 may try to fill that gap but it’s not an easy gap to fill. See the characters on Walking Dead fear death; it’s not a temporary inconvenience, it is the end. Obviously a video game can’t necessarily do this, especially when the modern developer has business-people in her/his ear whispering constant reminders about limiting the amount of time the player is not playing. After all, a player that isn’t playing is more likely to log out. The same voice warns of things like permanent death or consequences of death as if they are anathema to fun. And if he/she hears the word "metrics" one more fucking time...

EVE made it clear that you can’t expect players to have a true “avatar” in a game world. Try to impose consequences for bad behavior and players will just create new avatars or new accounts. A world where you can clean your slate at a moment’s notice doesn't encourage, in fact it discourages, pro-social behavior. So I don’t think we’ll ever see a game that captures the “Walking Dead” feeling of being wary of other survivors just as much as you are the zombies.

So if you want people to invest in their character, you have to give them a reason to. You have to prevent players from murdering everyone they find then turning around and making a fresh character the moment their security rating (or whatever anti-PK mechanism you have) kicks in.

If you want players to cooperate you need systems that easily facilitate it and you need to give them reasons to and/or reward them for doing so. One of DayZ’s primary failings was that once a player had found a solid weapon and supplies there was nothing left to do besides hunt people. Perhaps if H1Z1 gave us the ability to build ever-expanding shelters (or even small towns) and protect them, or gave people rewards for surviving longer (and healthier?) we might see more reason for people to work together.

Because in the end it’s not a real world and players know this. So I don’t care if you’re unarmed, I’ll shoot first because you might be dangerous and the only way anyone is getting my can of beans is if they pry it from my cold, dead hands.

*Focus groups also considered: ”Handcuff People and Make Them Drink Detergent Simulator 2015: With Zombies!” and “Shoot everything that Moves Simulator 2015: Zombie Boogaloo”

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