Scheduling for my monthly column at the International Game Developers Association has been more than a little spotty of late. I was once pretty Johnny-on-the-Spot with deadlines, but various things influenced that negatively; meanwhile the organization itself is going through various transitions as well. In the interest of getting myself back on a schedule I present my
not-yet-published April 2012 edition. Not being a big multiplayer myself some of the conclusions I draw may be shortsighted, but in the end I hope to spark some thought on what that form means in the larger cultural context of gaming. Enjoy!
U Know U a Playa
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
After an exhausting 114 hours I finally completed Dark Souls the weekend before last. I haven’t played that much of a game since… well, since Demon’s Souls, I think.
At first, I approached the final encounter intending to do it by myself. To briefly bring you up to speed, both Dark and Demon’s Souls feature a unique multiplayer mechanism in which you can, under certain circumstances, summon one or two players at random from their games into yours, and they can offer assistance until they or the local boss are defeated. You don’t communicate aside from a few gestures, and you have no way of knowing or selecting who you’re going to get. The games feature a few other multiplayer aspects, too: from time to time you’ll see ghostly images of other players in your area, though you can’t interact with them; also, players can leave cryptic messages to one another, selecting from a database of phrases to advise or mislead others.
Throughout the rest of the game I’d used the multiplayer feature a fair amount. If I was in a position to summon help, and if a player had made themselves available for that purpose, I tended to take them up on it. And though I had a pretty good handle on how to defeat the final boss – Gwyn, Lord of Cinder (how’s that for a cool name?) – by myself, in the end I buckled and summoned help. Not because I needed to but because, in the end, that silent cooperation of strangers aiding strangers is part of the game. And it is one of the most unique and innovative approaches to multiplayer that I’ve ever seen.
Multiplayer has been around for a very long time, and historically the innovations we’ve seen in it take one of two forms: game types, such as when Unreal Tournament added Capture the Flag to the traditional shooter deathmatch style; and technology, such as when id Software developed server browsers and robust infrastructure for Quake’s online play. And given the age of those two examples, it’s fair to say that multiplay innovation tends to be comparatively slow.
What you don’t see a lot of is experimentation with new ways to do multiplayer, and that’s part of the reason I find the Souls games so entrancing. They’re essentially single player games, pure and simple, just every now and then you happen to be able to interact on a very limited level with others. Game director Hidetaka Miyazaki supposedly conceived of this silent, anonymous interaction while trapped in the ditch during a snowstorm – other motorists could help each other out, but then they had to peel off right away or else they’d get stuck again, meaning there was no time for thanks or communication. The idea’s simple, but the technology underneath the Souls games’ multiplayer sounds almost amazingly complicated: constantly juggling however many players happen to be in the same region, displaying ghosts, summon signs, and messages, and managing the player-vs-player aspect as well. The simplicity of the multiplayer’s concept conceals what I can only assume is actually a pretty challenging technical implementation.
Thatgamecompany’s Journey may have taken some inspiration from Demon’s Souls, I’m not sure. Journey is even less a traditional multiplayer game – from time to time, during the course of your beautiful desert trek, another player will appear. That’s about it. They appear, they wander with you for a while – again, no direct communication, but it’s been fascinating to see players employ the cheeps and trills their chraracters can emit as a way of getting ideas across – and then they’re gone. In fact, in Journey, you don’t even know if the other player is in your game, or if you’re in the other player’s game. But again what seems like a fairly small facet of the overall experience becomes nearly indispensable in practice.
BioWare had an iffier challenge with the multiplayer in Mass Effect 3.By choosing to tie multiplayer to opportunities and progress in the single player campaign, the company took a risk: Mass Effect has always been a solitary experience and many, myself included, had no real intention of participating in the multiplayer part of it despite the fact that your multiplayer progress impacted your singleplayer game. To BioWare’s credit they seem to have done a reasonable job of making it optional, but in the end I tried it and deemed the multiplayer a pointless waste of resources that should have gone into the single player experience. Still, it was a new idea in a realm that doesn’t see too many new ideas.
Most forms of “play” tend to involve others. It’s not a hard rule, but in general you “go out to play” with others, you play tabletop games with others, you play sports with others. Video games are somewhat unusual in that despite a large and robust multiplayer aspect, multiplayer is still considered by many a feature, not a necessity. Games without multiplayer are common, and a large segment of gamers has no real interest in multiplayer. That alone may be why innovation in multiplayer comes slowly. First, in arcade cabinets, we saw hotseat one and two player games. Simultaneous co-op and versus came a bit later. It’s interesting that early home consoles always shipped with two controllers, even though games of the time increasingly weren’t two-player friendly. While it could be argued that later generations dropped down to one controller simply to cut costs, it’s also not inconceivable that developers no longer thought a second controller was necessary.
Play is a social activity – even single player games have a social aspect, as we discuss our games with friends, share strategies, and so forth. But it’s rare to see the traditional modes and models of multiplay evolving. When you stop to consider how much in gaming has changed since twenty years ago, and then how much of multiplayer is still the same, you see a curious disparity. It’s interesting to wonder, particularly in light of the handful of new multiplay approaches we’ve seen recently, what might be next for the form.
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I think the touch-screen devices are going to become an interesting way to do multi-player. The iPad has a few multi-player, multi-touched focused games that are doing something new, sans controller, so maybe we’ll see more experimentation with that form soon in the multi-player world.
Interesting article Steerpike.
I’m of the opinion that the limiter in computer gaming hasn’t been the number of players available; but, rather, the interface through which players engage computer games: television/monitor. With other forms of games (pen/paper, card, board, dice) players experience the game directly through game pieces and personal interaction. In computer games (with 1 very exciting, recent exception called Johann Sebastian Joust, qv. http://penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/four-move-controllers-one-laptop-countless-bruises-we-play-johann-sebastian ) the only way to experience the game is through a display of some kind. Usually this means 1 display per player. All multiplayer innovation has to deal with that limitation in a practical and profitable manner.
Building a robust technology like that behind Demon Souls may not be the most practical or profitable gamble for a developer that has a limited budget and unique intellectual property to flesh out. The benefit of innovation for those developers that can afford the R&D has got to be minimal at best, given that they can make a handsome profit by simply updating a popular franchise.
Do you think that peripheral advances (controllers, multi-touch, motion detectors) can overcome the inertia of a single display tied to development budget concerns in a way that brings real innovation to the gaming industry?
Good topic Steerpike, and one that can be approached from many angles.
One thing that strikes me is the dichotomy between multiplayer as a means of increasing the lifespan of a game (or the perceived value, if more content equates to value) and the reality (I think) of games having a shorter and shorter lifespan.
If more and more games exist with an online component as the major or sole focus, then the tendency to abandon one and move on to the next, new, shiny multiplayer object increases. Then the need to have an online game not just be a modest success but a huge one increases as well, given all of the added costs of maintaining servers and what-not.
It all seems unsustainable to me. I know, it’s a pretty nebulous thesis and I haven’t really thought it through completely. I don’t play online at all, except for those games Steerpike mentioned in his article that do their own unique thing with the online component, so what do I know.
I think you’re right, Botch. The idea that multiplayer extends the life of a game sort of flies in the face of the fact that everyone is always looking toward the horizon for the next big thing.
Certainly games like WOW, if it had been released as just a standalone, single player RPG along the lines of Skyrim or Amalur, wouldn’t have had the immense market share it’s enjoyed. But that doesn’t necessarily imply that multiplay is better or even preferable; they’re just different. Similarly, I think a game like Mass Effect 3 wasted resources in pointless multiplayer that brought little to the game and will be forgotten in a matter of months… when those resources could/should have gone into crafting a better singleplayer game.
A lot of publishers are very suspicious of game pitches that don’t include multiplayer, and as such many games are saddled with it unnecessarily. The investment to make it work is considerable, and there are plenty of games that have it but don’t need it. One wonders whether the several-million-dollars spent on adding multiplayer to a game, like, say, STALKER is worth the bullet on the back of the box.
What I find interesting is that multiplayer models rarely innovate. From play styles to technology, multiplayer evolves a lot more slowly than singleplayer. We are in a new cycle now, as developers experiment with social media powered multiplayer (as our friends in Kermdinger Studios are doing). After that phase is over, it could be a decade before the “next” thing hits multiplay.
I’m with you on the pointless MP Steerpike. It’s even a bit of a pet peeve of mine to see games include multiplayer that seem to have no business doing so.
I really have no feel for what percentage of consumers prefer MP or SP or some combination. I just assume that, being mostly interested in SP games, I’m in the minority. Most of the people who play games that I run into in person always seem to be more interested in MP. Publishers, at least the big ones, certainly seem to agree, based on your comment. Is it really the case though?
As for MP innovation, when I was a kid we would run around the house playing “war” with toy guns. If you were shot, you’d fall to the ground for a few seconds and then get back up (respawn?) and resume play. I don’t play war anymore. MP, in the most common sense, seems like the same thing to me and it’s just not that compelling.
Lots of interesting thoughts.
@Botch: I used to play war a lot when I was a kid as well. I think over the years I’ve likened ‘war’ to standard deathmatching where the focus is just to kill others, and while I enjoy shooting people in the face as much as the next person, the competitive MP ‘shooting’ games I’ve enjoyed most in recent years (Brink, Quake Wars, Battlefield, L4D) have a lot more going on in them besides shooting. Standard deathmatching just doesn’t have the same draw as it once did when link cables and LAN parties were the only way of playing with friends.
For me the biggest multiplayer innovation over the last few years has been the rise of the social media/portable multiplayer game. With the proliferation of smartphones and iThingies, playing with friends whenever and wherever has never been easier. As somebody without one of these wunderbricks and as witness to my girlfriend playing several games with several friends on hers, I’m a little envious. Thankfully Frozen Synapse and Solium Infernum are, as yet, unavailable for them.
Which leads me comfortably on to another point: multiplayer time. Arranging a multiplayer session with friends on a game that requires simultaneous involvment is, quite frankly, a logistical nightmare that’s only compounded with each additional player. With Frozen Synapse and Solium Infernum, they’re turn-based so it’s just a damn sight easier to play consistently with a group. Turn-based multiplayer is a blessing.
And finally there’s the issue of multiplayer games that try to relay story to players. This, I’ve found, is a disaster if you’re not playing with the right players. Dead Island lost all its single player magic in co-op because there was too much group momentum constantly pushing forwards leaving the story, atmosphere and any context for your actions behind. It didn’t feel like a survival horror anymore it felt like Borderlands with disposable zombies. Your vulnerability was gone, the threat of the zombies was diminished, the sense of place was gone, and all that was left was a pretty messy co-op action game.