If Farcry 2 , Left 4 Dead, and STALKER are anything to go by, the big buzz word here to have a bash at stealing “open world’s” crown is “procedural”. While the two are sometimes linked – in the case of Farcry 2 for example, Gabe Newell, writing on Edge, believes that the future will be in procedurally generating the play experience every time you play a FPS. Certainly, Left 4 Dead is just the beginning in terms of level development, and Farcry 2 in that of narrative. In a genre starting to grow turgid with lack of innovation, I think developers would do well to heed Newell’s wise words.
I think this could be an electrifiying feature for the FPS. Think about it – how many times do you replay a FPS. I’ve played through Half-Life say 3 times. Half-Life 2 twice. The episodes 1 apiece. I can’t really bring myself to play them again to be honest, since I know exactly what’s going to happen. Bringing new experiences to the table every time is exactly what FPS’s need to gain the replayability of strategy games; particularly the gargantuan Total War series.
I would actually point out that we should look to the past in terms of level design and AI. Aliens Versus Predator for example was infinitely replayable, even though each campaign had only a handful of levels. This was because the AI spawned totally randomly; ala Left 4 Dead, but it was also capable of navigating most of the levels. To test this, you can use cheats to spawn some friendly marines for example. Just go about the level as you would normally, and you will find them at the other end of the level, having fought their way through. Unless the equally intelligent aliens get to them first. Why no other game has captured this yet until Left 4 Dead is beyond me. In Half-Life for example, how about instead of the Combine being preplaced, maybe they could have a “Tactical Director”, adapting their placement based on the player’s preferred weapons; if the player is taking their time, using the crossbow, the enemies will place more snipers to counter the threat. If the player is trying to sneak their way through, they’ll deploy hunters to navigate the level and flush them out.
In terms of narrative, it could be excellent. How about creating levels where sometimes a bridge will be out, forcing the player to find another route? How about “floating” objectives that you have to locate before completing them. Maybe sometimes your enemies will completely lock you out of certain sections of the level, making the player seek alternatives; and by missing out certain paths, you could limit the player’s knowledge of the narrative. Sometimes, you just wont know quite what happened in the places you couldn’t go, giving the player a reason to try going down a different route. Certainly this would place more strain on level designers; instead of creating a linear path, the emphasis would be on creating one where you can never be sure which path the player will take. A dynamic, multipathed solution would certainly increase replability many times over though. Similiarily, the writers will need to make sure that the plot intersects at certain points, restoring balance.
Whatever the path taken, I think the message is clear; developers would do well to learn from what Gabe has to say here. In case anyone missed it, the link is here.