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Ian Bogost

July 1, 2011

4 Min Read

In the autumn of 2004, I wrote a paper titled "Asynchronous Multiplay" for the Other Players Conference on Multiplayer Phenomena, which was held at IT University, Copenhagen in December of that year. To give you an idea about how long ago 2004 was on the timescale of game development and game research, consider a few facts:

Facebook was incorporated in the summer of 2004, and the service was available only at Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Yale.

The "Other Players" conference was the first computer games conference ever to perform peer review on full paper submissions.

Xbox Live existed, but only as an add-on for the original console; the Xbox 360 with its integrated version wouldn't be released for another year.

The first Nintendo DS had just been released, offering peer-to-peer handheld play, which was unique at the time. 

At that moment, "multiplayer games" referred almost entirely to MMORPGs. It wasn't even clear that a conference on "multiplayer phenomena" would be interested in anything other than those games.

I wrote the Asynchronous Multiplay paper as a kind of intervention, suggesting that the then-current obsession with real-time massively multiplayer games obscured the equally and perhaps even more interesting promise of smaller-scale, more casual, asynchronous multiplayer games. You can download the full paper [PDF], but here's the abstract:

Big budget, high commitment 3D MMORPG's have generated significant revenues and theoretical bounty. But these games still alienate most casual players. This article offers a promising future for multiplayer experience, especially casual experience, in the form of asynchronous multiplayer games, or games in which small or large numbers of players play a game in sequence rather than simultaneously.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Certainly I got a lot right at a very high level; this is just the sort of game that did indeed became even more popular than MMOs on Facebook. But before you race ahead in your eagerness to note the irony of the creator of Cow Clicker apparently predicting the social games phemomenon I would later revile, note that I missed a lot of details too, details that make today's games very different from the ones I envisioned.

This week at the 2011 Foundations of Digital Games conference in Bordeaux, Mia Consalvo presented a paper, "Using Your Friends: Social Mechanics in Social Games." It's a version of research she's shared elsewhere, including at the 2011 GDC Social Games Summit.

Mia's paper points out the design patterns that are common to social games, most of which have more to do with spread and influence than they do with asynchrony: friend bars, gifts, and neighbor visits are ubiquitous, while player-to-player challenges and communication are limited.

I'm not sure if the 2004 paper counts as claim chowder or not, but it's certainly an eye opening read for me, seven years later, after so much has changed. I offered four characteristics of asynchronous play in the paper:

  1. Asynchronous play supports multiple players playing in sequence, not in tandem

  2. Asynchronous play requires some kind of persistent state which all players affect, and which in turn affects all players

  3. Breaks between players are the organizing principle of asynchronous play

  4. Asynchronous play need not be the defining characteristic of a game

Of these, I think it's characteristic 2 that's least embraced by today's social games. In that respect, my recent financial blackmailing of Cow Clicker players offers a unique (if perverse) version of this sort of social mechanic precisely because it offers a condition that all players affect and that affects all players in turn.

Secondarily, characteristic 3 above hasn't been taken seriously in most Facebook games—or more accurately, it's been taken seriously only as exploitation. In my critique of social games, I've cited enframing and compulsion as two features of the current crop of asynchronous multiplayer games, and features that ought to bother us. These are perhaps the features that make these games least likely to focus on the aspect of asynchronous games that interested me in 2004: an increased connectedness of intra- and extra-game player attitudes, or asking the question what happens in the gaps between gameplay and real life?

Cross-posted from Bogost.com 

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