Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Multi-player Games

Today I read an interesting article linked from the Penny-Arcade site. It basically says that single-player games are an anomaly which will go away over time. The article is full of logical holes and the authors own bias, but the stance he took is still intriguing.

My first instinct was to disagree with the author. After all, there are some really great single-player games. Most RPGs fall into that category, and they are still coming strong with upcoming games like Mass Effect. But it begs the question, "Would these games be better if they were multi-player, or at least had multi-player aspects?"

As we consider this idea, it is useful to throw out certain counter-arguments which are either beside the point or will become defunct over time. So let us run with the following assumptions:

  • Technology will improve to better accommodate (or even effectively eliminate) issues such as frame-rates, network connectivity / latency, memory, etc.
  • Just because we are adding multi-player to these games, that doesn't mean we are getting rid of single-player entirely. I seriously doubt that single-player games will ever disappear entirely.

So with that said, the first big problem I see is how to make a good multi-player RPG. And by this I mean a game like Final Fantasy. Let's take a look at some examples of RPGs that have multi-player aspects. In some games like Secret of Mana, additional players can take control of party members not in control by the primary player. This can be fun, but really the other players have little control. The party is always stuck together and typically the primary player makes all the important story decisions.

Another example would be World of WarCraft. Every player gets to control their own character. They can login, logout, and play independently. But in this case story is sacrificed. Yes, there are a lot of story elements that you can read and even some to participate in, but the player is rarely ever the main participant. The world is not changed by your actions. You may have killed the evil overlord... but he'll be back next week when the servers reset. The player must actively seek out most of the role-playing story elements in this game.

So how do you make a multi-player RPG? Something that has a gripping (or I'd settle for decent!) story and can be accessed by at least two players independently (even if they must play at the same time) without having to repeat content? I imagine the complexity of such a game would be a developer's nightmare. Even in a traditional pencil-and-paper game of Dungeons and Dragons this would be difficult. In that case you have a human GM to weave a story together and handle the unexpected choices of players. But even then, a good GM will typically restrict characters in various ways to keep them together and on track.

Someone will make a big pile of money if they can figure out how to make a game like that.

Putting aside the problem of RPGs, what of other games? What if we added multi-player to a game like Ninja Gaiden? The first obvious idea is to add a head-to-head mode where player ninjas fight each other. That's fine and all, but that's really not the same game as the single-player. Many games turn out this way, like Ghost Recon (G.R.A.W.) or Halo. Not to say the multi-player in games like these is bad... it's just different. So you basically have two separate games, and thus you arguably haven't really added multi-player at all!

So how about co-op? Going back to Ninja Gaiden for the example, how do you modify the game to add a cooperative mode? When this is done in most games the multi-player follows the same path as the single-player. For some games, like Gears of War this works very well. (In fact, I think the campaign mode of that game was tailored for co-op rather than single play.) But does this make the game better? Personally, I think it does. You can always play single-player if that suits your fancy, and the option is there to play with someone else.

I've barely scratched the surface of my question, but my rambling thoughts seem to be heading into a few main directions:

1) Many games could benefit from adding some sort of multi-player mode.
2) There are lots of games where multi-player cannot be added without fundamentally changing the game.
3) Adding multi-player to some games (especially RPGs) would be almost too complex to handle.

This topic will obviously require more thought, but I'll leave it at this for now.