9 min read

Sociology, Game Design & Multiplayer

Shamelessly responding to Gamasutra's "Call to Blog" about local multiplayer, I've jotted down my thoughts on the recent resurgence of games supporting exclusively local multiplayer, game design's play into it, and player critic psychology.

I was recently pointed to a call to write blogs regarding Local Multiplayer posted by Gamasutra, and I find it to be crazy well-timed as I’ve been in a discovery resurgence of great local multiplayer indie titles.  I’ve thought about why these games aren’t online, and being a self-proclaimed game designer myself, I’ve gathered a few thoughts on why there is this accepted resurgence in a world trying to be completely in the cloud…

We Live in a (Dis)Connected World

Let’s face it; we live in a world where it’s completely okay that we don’t necessarily have to talk to each other to talk to each other.  We don’t have to be next to each other to see each other.  We don’t have to be on the same continent as each other to play games with each other.  In a lot of ways, this is an incredible thing.  People may say that this kind of “social” evolution through technology is disconnecting us at a relationship level.  I can’t believe this for a second, since as a child I only knew the people on my block.  I would never have known that you could communicate with people across the world by the time I was an adult.  It’s quite literally mind-blowing when you stop to think of just how much ground people have covered as far as communicating with others.  I’ve met plenty of humans (and I say this to reaffirm that people you meet online aren’t fake…well most of the time)  from all over the United States and even from other countries thanks to online gaming and social settings on the internet. 


While all of this is fine and dandy, there’s something that this interconnectivity shouldn’t be affecting…

Good, Solid, Thoughtful Game Design

First and foremost, I think it’s worth pointing out that game development isn’t this magic thing.  You don’t just say, “Hey this idea would make a great game!” and *POOF* you’re enjoying the fruits of your magical labor.  I’ve failed enough in creating games to know this not the case.  People envision a game, and what’s the first thing they want?  Everything.  No game would be good if it had everything!  No person is perfect because they can’t be great at everything either.  We do have excellent humans that are good at specific things though.  Games that specialize in a certain aspect of art, performance, music, and importantly design tend to be more successful than those that don’t.  Games that have the player character horizontally jumping great distances and dropping them in numerous vertically escalating levels is poor design.  Having the player character needing to solve complex puzzles to reload their gun in a fast-paced first-person shooter is poor design.  Having a game where the premise involves twitchy, lightning fast, decide-your-fate-at-the-drop-of-a-hat gameplay that includes being played in an environment where dropping frames is an inevitability is…you guessed it…poor design.  A game developer’s biggest goal is (or should be) to deliver a fun experience to the player.  It takes good design to begin that journey, and sticking to that design to ultimately end that journey.  People may want everything in their games, but someone has to draw the line in order to ensure a fun experience in every scenario, in this case that’s the multiplayer environment.

Envisioning the Difference

*You’re playing Samurai Gunn with your friends in your living room.  Everyone is on the edge of their seats, spouting all manner of trash talk.  It’s getting down to the wire; everyone is reasonably within winning range.  Swords are flying in the game while peoples’ arms are flailing in the living room.  Your buddy closes for the last kill and fires his last bullet!  You expertly swing your sword at the last moment and score the game-winning kill by deflection!  But wait…*SHOWDOWN!* and everyone clamors to their controllers as you struggle to get back to yours after some manner of victory dance.  3 people are in on it, and the screen goes dark.  All you see is the slashes of your enemies’ swords in the darkness, as all your friends tense up around you.  You can feel the concentration exuding everyone in the room.  When suddenly…*SLASH* and it’s all over.  You sit dethroned from the former victory as your friend relishes in his comeback!  Oh the humanity!  But you jump right back into another match.  No hard feelings, laughing hysterically over everyone’s actions and reactions from the previous battle.*

Aside from the obvious reasons of frame-dropping, varying internet speeds, and connection reliability that define why a fast-paced game like Samurai Gunn is not online, it’s the kind of environment described above that gives it all its glory.  You can’t physically interact with everyone like that online.  You can’t see the look on your friends’ faces as you strut your best victory pose, and they can’t see you after taking it back.  That kind of scenario is exponentially more difficult to replicate in an online environment, and if I’m looking for have the most fun while playing that game, I couldn’t think of any other way except for local multiplayer.  I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be calling hacks over a headset, sitting there hunched over in a chair, staring at my monitor in dim lighting, just waiting for the next match to start if I wasn’t actively involved in every game.  There’s this unseen aura that accompanies a local multiplayer environment that makes playing the game infinitely more fun, especially in this setting.  And why would a game designer want to give you the option to not have the most fun you could possibly have while playing their game?

Target Audience & Everything

The other thing that people want besides everything these days is “everywhere.”  We might as well throw this into to mix too: “If I can’t have it then it’s not good.”  This ideology pops up a lot recently and it’s honestly quite irritating.  When developers create a game, they know from the get-go that they are making this game for specific people.  There are lots of ways to diversify who your game is intended for.  One of the hardest creative decisions is based on genre.  This is the idea that a game is intended for people who like certain styles of play.  Let’s say Activision is changing it up and comes out with a puzzle game up the alley of PopCap’s Bejewelled franchise.  One of the first reviews on a fictional blog site somewhere is from “FPSFreak88” who, after browsing his achievements collection on Xbox Live holds trophies for every Call of Duty game out to date and nothing else, is posting about how the new game is horrible and Activision needs to get its act together and start releasing 3 new CoDs every year instead of 2.  This person tried the game likely because he is a fan of Activision, but didn’t like it because it wasn’t a part of the genre we know him to enjoy playing.  This is not because Activision “needs to get its act together,” it’s because Activision was targeting an audience that he is not a part of.  But because he’s not getting everything everywhere, there is some inherent problem.

This scenario does not only apply to genres in games.  One of the other primary audience targeting concepts revolves around platform.  This is not on the creative side as much as a game’s genre, but players out there still want everything everywhere.  A new Final Fantasy game is exclusively coming out for the PS4 and every Xbox One owner just bought a one-way ticket to forum town to demand everything everywhere (and no worries, Wii U owners will get some crazy spinoff where the main character is a chocobo). 

This is all kind of beating around the inevitable bush that I’m standing next to and pointing at vehemently: multiplayer is part of audience targeting too.  When a game comes out with “online-only” play the first thing people want is everything everywhere.  When a game conversely only offers “offline-only” play the first thing people want is everything everywhere.  When a game developer is envisioning their game, they have to think of who will have the most fun playing it, what they’ll be having this fun with, and how they will be doing it.  Game design requires a crazy amount of balance, and if the person doing the envisioning believes that their game is best suited to only support local multiplayer then let them express themselves in that way.  If you believe that this game would be great online then go try it yourself.  Walk in their shoes, and find a way to express yourself through the “magic” creation of games.  They put a lot of thought into what their genre and target audiences are, let them express it.

Painting with Everything Everywhere

As silly as it sounds, if the industry’s players and critics were fine art critics walking through a museum and everyone took them seriously, the end result would be a museum full of puke-colored canvases.  You can only put so much “everything” into something before it isn’t what it was meant to be.  Local multiplayer paints an incredible picture in today’s remote access world.  It offers a chance to interact on a level that is impossible with an online experience, and when a game is designed to harness that capability from the beginning, the result is truly remarkable.  I fully support this resurgence in local multiplayer and hope that if developers believe their game to be best-suited being played surrounded by people plugged into the same machine then all the power to them.

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