There is a very high probability that Mike Booth’s fingerprints are on one of your favorite games. He is one of the original founders of Turtle Rock Studios and creator of Left 4 Dead. At Valve he worked on CS:GO and Team Fortress 2. Westwood Studio’s classic RPG Nox? So is Booth. After spending some time working on VR games for Facebook, he is currently the Chief Creative Officer at Bad Robot Games, the game-centric spin-off of JJ Abrams’ film and television production company Bad Robot. Not content with just having one job at a time, Booth has also worked at Resolution Games on the VR tabletop role-playing game Demeo.
An optimized version of Dungeons & Dragons with high production value, Demeo won many “Best of” awards in VR game round-ups. But soon it will be time normal old PCs, with early access starting next week on February 7th. I spoke to Booth about Demeo, but also the future of co-op gaming. He had quite a lot to say.
“If you look at the whole line of my career, it really was an online multiplayer innovation and I think Demeo is a prime example of that,” he says. For Booth, the cool thing about VR is not only that you’re completely in the virtual environment, but with VR co-op you feel like you’re there in person with other people. With Demeo, Booth wants to capture the fun social moments he really enjoys – playing TRPGs with friends or game nights where people get together and play card or board games.
“With something like Demeo, you just turn it on and there’s the whole dungeon layout, on the table in your basement, and you’ve got your polyhedral dice to throw, and each one has their miniatures to move around, but the game handles all the details for you,” he explains. “We can have all the effects, explosive fireballs and acid sprays and arrows that actually dart across, which you can’t do — well, that is very difficult to do on a real table surface.”
However, there are a number of games – VR and otherwise – that attempt to replicate the authentic tabletop experience. Demeo does a few things to try and capture that authentic “standing around a table” feeling. For example, the team decided early on that the miniatures representing the player characters and enemies would not be animated (apart from a few rare circumstances). Something Booth said he was very adamant about was the dice. “We have to have a die, it has to be a polyhedral die, you have to roll the dice, they have to bounce around and then land so everyone’s looking and saying ‘whoooooooaaaaah-Oh!’ and you get this expectation, what will it be?”
The team also tested the game for three years before launch to find the right balance, including the AI. “I’m a big believer in building it fast, committing to getting your hands on it, playing, and then iterating and finding the fun and really honing, really polishing,” says Booth. His most famous AI creation is of course the famous director of Left 4 Dead, and for Demeo Booth says that he mainly instructed the lead game designer how to build an AI for this type of game.
“I’m a big believer in building it fast, committing to it, getting your hands on it, playing and then iterating and finding the fun.”
“Here’s a little tidbit that everyone gets wrong, and Resolution got it right,” he adds. “You don’t really want to be throwing dice behind the scenes. You want to make a virtual deck, shuffle it, and deal it out.” Here, Booth mimicked the actions in question with an invisible deck. “That way it’s not possible for the terrible thing to happen 17 times in a row – I know it’s very unlikely, but it’s possible [with dice]. If it’s in a deck and it’s only one card, it can only happen once.”
However, will the mysterious Steam algorithm be even more forgiving? Demeo may have won multiple awards in VR, but whether those carry over to PC remains to be seen. However, Booth is confident that the non-VR version of Demeo won’t lose much in translation. Resolution has added new camera controls to move and look around, and the PC version also has crossplay with VR.
“I think we took a really good first trick. It plays really well and I think we’re having as much fun as we did in VR,” says Booth. “Because your friends really matter. That’s, especially in this day and age where it’s a bit difficult to meet up in person or to travel to meet up around a tabletop game like this… I think that’s really valuable no matter the platform.”
For now, we have a moment for online co-op play. There’s Back 4 Blood, The Anacrusis, Arkane’s upcoming Redfall… Booth said he’s also played a lot of Deep Rock Galactic (“Rock and Stone, Brother!”), which he believes “hit the Left 4 Dead’s sweet spot has” with a great story, cool environment and interesting creatures. I asked what game he would have liked to work on, but he didn’t, and the first thing that came to mind was Minecraft. “One day “I really want to make a game that’s so procedural that I don’t know what’s going to happen when I play it. Minecraft isn’t that game, but it’s like… that direction.”
I suggested this might be a trending round. It’s tempting to point to the pandemic as a reason people want more socially distanced online co-op gaming, but Booth said he thinks the recent pandemic has just accelerated something that’s already happening. People these days spend most of their lives online and spend a lot of time in online communities in a variety of ways. It’s a trend he believes will continue; It was only made worse by people’s inability to be physically with each other in recent years.
“You know, we’ve talked about some of my previous titles, some of which were 12 years ago,” he says. “Now we have gigabit broadband internet connections to each other. The things we can do now are crazy. It’s just wonderful, technologically speaking. I think people say, ‘Well, why can’t we do this? let us do that?’ And the answer is: It’s complicated. It’s hard.” He pointed all the way back to people having team deathmatch sessions in Doom and Quake, and that this is a gateway to today’s online multiplayer — but people want more, and there will be more games to play with Provide structures in which players can experience their own adventure.
But, he says, it’s a mental shift for developers: “Game designers have to think like this and make things replayable. For example, I just played The Last Of Us 2, which was absolutely glorious and beautiful in every way. This was a beautifully crafted linear narrative. But I think for what we’re talking about here, you need to do things that are more procedural and repeatable, so you have a destination that people keep coming back to, like a hangout. I think there will be more and more demand for these types of games in the future.”
“There just aren’t enough co-op games out there yet. There is still not enough.”
I asked Booth if he thinks what people expect from co-op games has changed over the years. “You know, my gut reaction to that is no! There just weren’t enough good examples to play them,” he says. “I think the challenge is that it’s difficult to make a co-op game. It’s hard to make a good co-op game. Because you have to build the game from the start, assuming that it’s co-op that you have to work together to win the game, and not in a punitive way the way players want it, and it feels great, is a fundamentally different way of thinking and designing a game around it,” he explains. “And there’s just not enough. There’s still not enough.
“I’m going to keep pushing this stuff. I’ll continue to build co-op experiences,” he says. “Because there is nothing more powerful than going on an exciting adventure with crazy intense moments with your friends! And everyone’s like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe you did that!’ or, “Dude, what, you opened that door, we agreed not to do that!” All these things happen and you get these great stories, and that’s the most valuable thing to me.”