For anyone out there who has ever envisioned fighting hordes of zombies throughout UMD’s campus or on the Aerial Lift Bridge, you now can.
For the past four years, the project, headed by UMD graduates David Marcaccini and Jozef Conaway, has progressed from simple tinkering through level-editing software to a set of fully realized and recognizable locations in the Duluth area.
Marcaccini and Conaway, both musicians and gaming enthusiasts, first realized their vision of undead mayhem after hosting Kurtfest, a local music festival, during the summer of 2010.
“It came about as Dave and I were living in Duluth after graduating from college at UMD,” said Conaway when asked where the original idea came to them. “We had both been messing around with Left 4 Dead’s developer, Valve’s, tools and crafting our own levels in other games by that company. After hosting Kurtfest we realized that we could have a lot of fun with a large-scale project that could further showcase the inspired work that Duluth’s artists have to offer.”
“To be specific,” said Marcaccini, “we were sitting around the very table that is in the first floor of the end house of Act I: UMD.”
Drawing from contacts they’d made through music groups they’d met, Marcaccini and Conaway assembled a team of fellow artists and designers to work on the project.
Members include Cody Paulson, their web designer, Laramie "Rage" Carlson, a photographer who helped them scout out locations and design 3D models, Jeremiah Larson, who also helped transition the photos into virtual space, Jess Triska, a render and texture artist, Billy Wagness, one of the writers for the Left 4 Duluth specific dialogue, and Troy Ness, who helped debug the mod.
Through years of dedicated work, the Left 4 Duluth team designed and built levels for their project, which resembled iconic portions of Duluth.
“I preferred to sketch out the entire level first,” said Conway on the level design process, “whereas Dave would make a set piece and build around that. We would both give each other design feedback to get the levels to feel less like a recreation of a real place and more like you are playing Left 4 Dead 2.”
“It just came down to what we thought would be most interesting to design and for people to experience, buildings and locales that could be called landmarks: UMD, Lakewalk, Fitger’s, the Skywalk, and Canal Park. And of course, they had to be places we liked—for instance, I really love the Skywalk System in Duluth. It is so interesting and winding and complex, kind of like the Fitger’s Brewery.”
“Being the engineer that I am, I wanted to bring things to life,” said Marcaccini. “Naturally the first thing I thought to make was a working version of the Aerial Lift Bridge. In the process of making the Canal Park map the two main locations were the bridge finale and the DeWitt Seitz building which is a building who’s architecture I’ve always admired. Since Joe’s Skywalk map ended at the DECC, I included the DECC into Canal Park as a natural continuation. For my UMD map I wanted to capture some of the memorable places around the campus that I’d spend the previous three-and-a-half years as an undergrad."
On the subject of art, locations in Left 4 Duluth like the Tweed Museum and the Skywalk System are stocked full of art, photographs, and music. The art was provided by both fans of the project and artists in Duluth’s art community through an art submission feature on the project’s website. The music featured in the campaign all comes from local bands, most of whom were connected to Marcaccini and Conaway through their own musical careers. Some of the bands include: The Farsights, Portrait of a Drowned Man, Trampled by Turtles, and You Can't Hug Your Children with Nuclear Arms.
“I would love to take credit.” Said Conway on whose idea it was to include the music. “And I do. But truly, using the project as an arts and music showcase was our master plan from day one.”
“Don’t listen to Joe,” retorted Marcaccini, “it was all me. I thought of everything. In all seriousness though, when we first thought of making Left 4 Duluth, we were weeks away from putting on Kurtfest 2010, which featured many local bands as well as the legendary host band p-gnewmatikz. Being hot off the heels of another successful K-fest, it was only natural to include all of our friends’ music in the project.”
Even Duluth's own mayor was included in the game. Don Ness recorded dialogue for Left 4 Duluth, giving emergency addresses, calling in airstrikes on Fitger's, and even piloting a helicopter over Canal Park. The idea to include him came from Marcaccini, who said that the mayor was a great sport about the whole project and had a lot of fun recording his bits.
The project hasn’t always progressed smoothly though. The design process was fraught with bugs resulting from the programming with Valve’s Source Engine to power the game’s graphics, physics, and general world rules.
“Bug fixing is a friggin’ gauntlet to get through,” said Conaway.
“Yes. Definitely. Debugging and dealing with limitations of Valve’s Source Engine has been a challenge,” remarked Marcaccini. “Since we didn’t write the engine ourselves we often had to learn though experimentation how to get things to work properly, this can be a long and tedious process.”
“Seeing it all come together is by far the most satisfying thing I’ve done to date,” said Conaway toward the end of the interview. “I love the design process, but it is great to have a finished project that everyone has worked so hard on and can be proud of.”
“With Left 4 Duluth, I think I accomplished everything I wanted to artistically with Source Engine mapping,” said Marcaccini. “In the next project we will have much more control over the workings of the game since we’ll be writing all the code ourselves.”
“We’ve got big plans for our next project,” said Conaway. “but I can’t tell you much more than that it will be on our own proprietary game engine, and that we are very excited about it.”
Recently, LakeVoice editor Zack Webster and I (Ben LaBerge) played through the full version of Left 4 Duluth and recorded our impressions of the game. In it, we point out major locations in UMD, Fitgers, the Skywalk, and Canal Park. We talk about the art, Duluth winters, breaking down doors with guitars, and how Superior Street appears to be bigger than the freeway from the Skywalk. We eventually make our way to the Park Point side of the Aerial Lift Bridge where we discover that zombies are far from your worst enemy in the game.
Here is a playlist of all the videos in our full playthrough. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLZ0IuzaXa8jc1EdY9-rBkANhceCQBRelx