L4D - Pleasure and Pain

8 minute read

Left4Dead is ridiculously good. I can’t quite get over how tremendously visceral, tense, hilarious and fun it is. I’m one of those people who tries games, but only latches onto one in a big way every couple of years; I haven’t loved a game like this since TFC or BF2. I’ve already played over 200 hours of it; I can’t stop playing it. It’s multi-faceted; it has different ways of playing to suit my moods.

I love the camaraderie and the shared experience. Many of my friends have bought it and can’t stop playing it. We jabber away about last night’s games like a bunch of dullards. “Haha, that tank that smashed a car through the front door and incapped us all”. “Oh, did you see that pounce I did off the crane that knocked the other two survivors off the edge?”. “haha, when we were all waiting to go up the ladder and a boomer dropped down right in the middle, then we all played pass the boomer”.

It’s a riot. There’s just one problem: we absolutely hate it.

So near and yet so, so far

The premise, art, mood, gameplay and everything about it smacks of quality. However, there’s nothing quite so galling as a flawed genius, and L4D is utter genius and utterly flawed. “What’s the problem?” you ask? Well, the problem is in the multiplayer matchmaking, or the total lack of it. If you’re playing campaign mode (4 players versus the AI) it’s perfectly acceptable. If you’re playing versus mode (the mainstay of the multiplayer), it is utterly inadequate.

The game operates using lobbies. Someone starts a lobby and is designated the “lobby leader”, then other players join the lobby. Once 8 players have been shepherded into the lobby, the game is started.

It all sounds grand so far. Unfortunately, Valve’s lobby system basically pulls in a bunch of random players. Now I’m sure it’s more complicated than that (region, skill, ping and some other things possibly come into it), but for all intents and purposes, it might as well be random. This is because if you have mates - and let’s face it, why **would you play a multiplayer game **without your mates? - you can join a common lobby and take on allcomers.

However, it still sounds reasonable though, right?

Wrong. The problem is that teams of friends versus teams of randoms has one inevitable outcome. One team is likely to rack up the points while the other team gets utterly ruined. Due to the fact that it’s 4 v 4, if even one of the players on the other team is markedly inferior, a skilled group of players will always win. There is no padding as there would be when playing in games with larger player numbers. I’ve played games of BF2 in an unstoppable squad and still lost because there were too many passengers amonst our remaining 26 players (32 v 32!) By consequence of design, this doesn’t happen in L4D.

This wouldn’t be such an issue, but there is seemingly no mechanism for skill matching, nor is there a mechanism for teams of friends to play other teams of friends.

L4D Versus Terminology

This has resulted in two terms entering the vernacular of any L4D player who has even had a cursory go at Versus mode:

Rage Quitter - Someone who leaves a game due to frustration and a build-up of hot salty tears. A rage quit commonly occurs due to:

  1. Their team getting destroyed
  2. Someone else on their team leaving (see #1) resulting in a domino rage
  3. Incompetence on their team (see #1)
  4. Deciding that they don’t like French/Italian/English/Scottish/ people all of a sudden (usually coincides with #1)
  5. Some kind of alleged cheating bulllshit that is going on with the other team (usually imagined; see #1)
  6. Other people on their team being dicks

I suppose calling all quitters “ragers” is harsh. Let’s face it: Most of us play games to have fun. If our team is riduclously bad or there is a huge skill chasm, it’s not fun to be dismantled for the best part of an hour.

Pub Stomper - One person who plays as part of a group of friends/acquaintances.

Again, pub stomper is an unfortunate tag because it doesn’t accurately describe why (most) people play in a group. In my case, I don’t like playing online games alone. I’ve got single player for lone gaming; humans are more challenging to play against and half of the fun in online games is the interactions and replayability that come out of it.

I’m not hugely interested in winning, so I don’t “stomp” pubs for that reason. The stomping just tends to fall out of the fact that I play the game a lot.

I will happily play the game with any of my friends. It doesn’t matter if they’re terrible or a 2 day newbie who thinks the Witch just needs a hug, it’s still fun. However, most of the friends I play with (both real life friends and from the Internets) are playing most nights. If you play, say, 4 nights of the week and those same friends also play a lot, it is only natural that the heaviest gamers will stick together.

If I were to suddenly stop typing this blog post and fancy a game of L4D, it’s more than likely that 2 of my best L4D buddies would be available to play. The fairweather L4D friends would not. They’d be off doing something else, like running through a meadow, doing charity work or cooing at kittens.


I’m sure you can see the problem with the clash of the two groups. The problem is exacerbated because it’s a form of mutally assured destruction. Just as it’s no fun having your random team systematically decimated by a bunch of autonomous friend-bots who second guess your every move, neither is it fun to get 5 minutes into a game, only for the other team to all rage because it’s a total mismatch.

To give you an idea of just how bad it can be, in one campaign, my friends and I went through 50+ players on the opposite side. The campaign lasts much less than an hour in a one sided game, and yet we still had 50+ folk who joined and left. That’s the team filled and re-filled about 12 times over (look at the steam friends “recent games” player list if you want to see this).

I thought L4D had reached its nadir with the No Mercy 1 ragers (NM1 is like Counter-Strike’s “de_dust” in that it’s probably the only map a lot of people ever see…), but I was mistaken. In the last week, my friends and I have started countless games on the new maps (mainly Dead Air). We’ve completed about two of them. In every single other instance, the whole team quits after maybe 2 rounds. It usually goes like this:

Dead Air 1: They play infected; we make it as survivor. They play survivor and die at the first plank. One or two of them leave. Maybe the spots are filled, maybe not.

Dead Air 2: They play infected; we make it as survivor. They all leave.

This is not an exaggeration. Sometimes they all leave after a single round. We then go back and start a new lobby and the process repeats itself. We play the same maps time and time again, rarely even getting to play infected twice, let alone see the third map.

So, what can Valve do?

Firstly, and this should’ve been in from the start: introduce a better matchmaking system! This should be cater to two main groups:

  1. Randoms. Some people have no L4D friends and no time to make ‘em (or they have a few friends or acquaintances, but don’t spend a lot of time playing with them). If 4 random players can be matched up against 4 other random players and the game isn’t a total mismatch, then that’s good enough. Whether this is done by win/loss percentage, average score per round or some combination of multiple things, I don’t care.

  2. Friends. If you have two or three mates and want to have a fair / challenging game, then this would allow you to create a lobby with four people, then look for a matching group to play against. This is a very simple idea, but it doesn’t yet exist. Somebody made a good post about it on the Steam forums and it received widespread support, so let’s hope it happens.

Regardless of who is playing, Valve really needs to encourage people both to stay in games and to be nice to one another. I don’t care how good someone is; if they are abusive then it is no fun playing with them. Case in point: Last week, a random joined my friends and me for a game. This guy was an OK player, but he spent a good 10 minutes berating a friend of mine. Now, the person he was spouting abuse at doesn’t play too much, but at least he doesn’t act like a moron on the Internet. We votekicked the abuser which was a decent fix, but some other unfortunate team were no doubt landed with him shortly thereafter.

If someone is repeatedly kicked from games or constantly leaves after a single map, it’s usually a sign that they’re not worth playing with. I’ve been friends with a few people like this in the past and their outlook is that they’re right, everyone is against them and they must gob off at every opportunity. Instead of speaking to people in a respectful manner, they just resort to abuse. It has become their default setting. A lucky shot or acquired skill becomes an instant cheat accusation. Any kind of misunderstanding turns to flames. It’s no fun to be around and, given a choice, nobody wants to play with these people.

Valve already delists servers that offer a bad player experience so I’d be very interested to see how they’re tackling the problem. Could they apply many of the same principles to players? Could they delist or at least categorise players that offer a bad player experience? I think they could.

Valve can change your access levels to games when you cheat, but what about when you’re a twat? Will they actually do it? It’s debatable. I’d love to see it happen, but the system would have to be robust, else folk would just game it.

The bottom line is that whatever happens, things have got to improve because it’s getting harder and harder to have fun. It’s taking the shine off a remarkable game.