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The Keys to a Top-Selling Multiplayer Games

A short essay describing the features and philosophy behind creating a successful competitive multiplayer experience.

Greg Lawton, Blogger

October 2, 2011

14 Min Read

The Keys to a Top-Selling Competitive Multiplayer Game

by Gage Lawhon


The game industry does not have infinite room. Only a handful of titles can successfully conquer the market, as players do not have the funds, nor the time, to purchase all the games they might desire. For a new intellectual property to successfully compete, they must offer innovation, but they must also pay homage to the features current champions of the market possess. Halo, Call of Duty, Team Fortress, and Battlefield are prime examples of market dominating titles; however, they not only sell a large number of copies- they continue sales long after release with piecemeal content downloads. These later, high-profit margin sales are a direct result of a fantastic multiplayer experience.

In order for a competitive multiplayer experience to dominate the market, the game must succeed in three areas. First, the game must excite the player. This can be done by offering desirable customization options, healthy variety, and an element of chance and/or unpredictability. Second: The game must successfully addict the player to the multiplayer experience. Well-paced player character development, endless goals of achievement, and consistent psychological reward will succeed in creating this addiction. Finally, the multiplayer service must be maintained: A careful balance of player abilities must be preserved; the realm of the players must be policed; and the game itself must grow through attractive new features. Success in this process leads directly to increased sales, a larger player base, more demand for additional downloadable product, and high sales potential for an eventual sequel.

Excite --> Addict --> Maintain --> Profit

I. Excite

Successfully exciting a gamer is the essential first step in creating a top-selling game. A game must offer enough desirable features to attract a large number of players. But this essay deals exclusively with competitive multiplayer, so will deal only with desirable features within a multiplayer mode- namely, variety and customization; A large amount of variety can go a long way in luring a large player base, while features that allow players to customize their game can provide a sense of ownership in the product- thus increasing their likelihood of becoming loyal fans. A secondary benefit of a large player base is a quick flow of word-of-mouth praise. Gamers are social, and if their friends begin raving about a certain game, they will be motivated to purchase their own copy. So the larger and more diverse the initial player base of a game, the more grassroots advertising taking place.


Providing a flexible and varied experience is essential for a game's success. Players are individuals, and they each have their own unique likes and dislikes. A multiplayer experience with variety will allow a player to focus on their preferences while avoiding features they do not enjoy. Thus, a large, diverse population of players become attracted to the product because they can all find a purely enjoyable experience. Indeed, a competitive multiplayer game is a complicated organism, and variety must be the omnipresent blood that keeps it alive.

A variety of possible playstyles is foremost in importance. There must be at least three different playstyles for players to utilize, but the more the better; Multiple playstyles increase the number of ways players can interact with the game. For example, shooting games often allow for sniping, medium range versatility, and close range rushing. This attracts more players by offering something for everyone, and it ensures that players never become bored. Instead, they can change to a different playstyle to enjoy the same game in a different way.

Player objectives must also be diverse so as to excite a diverse population of players. Different game modes are similar to playstyles in that certain players favor one type over the other, so a variety increases the game's draw. The Halo franchise is well known for its traditional game-types, like deathmatch and capture the flag, but fans and staff have also created unique options like Griff Ball, Zombies, and Rocket Race. When players might tire of even their favorite game type, a plethora of other choices ensures the player stays with the game. The more a different objective type changes the pace, strategies, and essence of the game, the better.

The various realms of the player, often called maps or levels, are also important to game variety. They are the worlds the players inhabit during their multiplayer experience, so variety here is important to maintain a large player base. With the Call of Duty Franchise, post-released maps and levels can breathe new life into an aging game; Also: profit.

The player's world must be diverse in a number of respects. First, layout and architecture must change to offer both simplistic maps and complex labyrinths, single level and multiple, symmetrical and asymmetrical. Second, the colors and environment must change- a simple gray maze and a complex gray maze are still just gray mazes- the color, the emotion, the textures of the game worlds must vary greatly to give a true sense of variety. This will capture veteran players by countering game fatigue, while providing new players a cornucopia of experiences. League of Legends, while successful, fails in this respect, and thus will never enjoy anywhere near the success of games like StarCraft which employ many different maps.

Finally, the game must vary on a round-by-round basis. Every match, every round, must offer unfathomable possibility. Luckily this is naturally created by the players themselves as they compete for victory. Their different playstyles, powers, and the way they interact with the map and each other ensures every game is brand new experience. The game's role is to foster this element of chance and to protect it. Any game mechanic which ensures a match will go a certain way every time must be avoided. The players must be in full control of their worlds, and players only accept luck and skill as their masters- not the game designers- not the A.I.


Allowing the player to express their own creativity in the game world is a powerful way to increase player excitement with a game. If a player is allowed to import his imagination into the game, then a sense of player ownership is achieved. To some degree, the game stops being “that game” and becomes “my game.” It is a significant psychological step. Players with a sense of ownership are more likely to play the game for a longer period of time, thus becoming hungry consumers of post-release content.

Two of the customizable features are actually a boon for the game designers. The first being game mode design. The creativity of the players will always surpass that of the developer through the simple merit of numbers: the odds are a pool of several million people will invent something successful before a single person. Previously mentioned examples of this are Halo's “Griff Ball” and the “Zombies” competitive multiplayer type. Providing the tools of creation to players grants the game a huge base of amateur game designers at nearly zero cost. The only investment required is a small staff capable of observing the player community and picking out the great ideas from the thousands of others. Levels and maps can also be designed by players for a similar benefit. So, while waiting for the designer's official content, the player base is entertained by their own creations, thus lengthening the lifespan of the multiplayer experience.

Finally, the customization of the player character is an important element of the gaming experience. Whether it is in abilities, appearance, enhancements, or all three; allowing the player to own their own character is the single most powerful factor of customization. A player character is the gamer's avatar in the game world, and the more they feel in control of it, the more it feels like a precious possession. This feature alone has made the Soul Calibur series able to attract gamers who do not usually play fighting games. Deep customizations options also allow the player to customize their own playstyle at will, deceasing potential game fatigue while increasing ownership. This has proven successful in Call of Duty's load-out system and World of Warcraft's talent system. Both games maintain huge player populations, due in no small part to the power players enjoy over their own characters.

II. Addict

Once the game is played for the first time, the successful multiplayer game will attempt to addict the player to the game experience. This is accomplished through rewards, player character development, and marks of achievement. Short term reward, those given out for basic performance in each game, positively reinforces the player at all times. Meanwhile, long term rewards provide incentive for a lengthy career of play. These rewards result in the player character's development and customization- transforming arbitrary points into tangible prize. This gives meaning to the rewards and provides players with long-term goals. Finally, player achievement allows the player to continue setting personal goals long after the player character is fully developed. This system provides an endless form of advancement for the player (Their gaming ego is rewarded).


It is best that rewards come small and often, then punctuated by larger rewards with greater fan-fare. Naturally, the more exceptional the performance the greater the treat. Ideally every action, every item, every objective, every task results in some form of reward. A player whom is rewarded for playing the game feels validated by their choice of playstyle, and is simultaneously drawn to experimenting with other playstyles for their rewards. Similarly, both the losing player and the winning player must be rewarded for their time and effort. The winner will naturally be eager for another conquest, while the loser should feel that they accomplished something even in defeat so they will not be discouraged from playing again. Such a system is employed with success in League of Legends: Even players utterly crushed by elite foes gain reward, giving them the heart to return to the battlefield.


The rewards become tangible when they can be utilized by the player to modify their avatar or even their playstyle. Not only does this increase the sense of player ownership, but it gives the player a feeling of progress and accomplishment. They are not just playing a fun game- they are getting somewhere. Various unlockables should be provided to the player as she/he continues to play. These prizes could be new abilities, new items, or even simple cosmetic changes for their avatar or profile. An even spacing of these rewards can string the prizes out for a long time, thus encouraging long term play by the gamer. An obvious example of well-paced development (and of the following achievement section) is Call of Duty's Modern Warfare 2. Thousands of players play that game every day, thousands of players buy every post-release content offering, and hundreds of thousands are waiting eagerly for the next entry in the series.


Still at some point, every player will either finish or tire of their steady rewards and character development. This moment can be delayed for some time by skillful design, but it -will- happen. Providing the player with a nigh-endless list of tasks and potential accomplishments is a great way to maintain veteran player interest. In-depth statistics for performance, item use, ability use, and even how often the reward/development cycle has been completed can encourage a player to continue playing until the next content patch arrives and beyond. The longer they linger, the more purchases they are likely to make.

III. Maintain

Finally, the multiplayer experience must be maintained for the players, otherwise the gains from the excitement of release might be lost- thus losing potential consumers of later downloadable material. A small team must be employed to ensure the game remains balanced, the game world policed, and that new game content is created and added. It is an unavoidable expense for any game seeking to become a top player in the market, and remember, the more people who enjoy the game for a long period of time, the more potential purchasers there are for the next game.


A well-designed game with multiple playstyles, abilities, and objectives can still fail if not properly balanced. One playstyle can never be overpowering to any other, the players should never find a single ability to be the most effective, and no element of the map, level, or game type should give one player dominating advantage over another. It is essential that the game feel fair at all times to all participants. Failing in this respect will result in the rapid loss of players, and the game's essence will be perverted beyond recognition of the designers. Balance makes or breaks the multiplayer experience, it MUST be accomplished.


Even if a game is meticulously balanced, the more vile elements of the player base will seek ways to cheat the system, either through hacking or exploiting bugs missed by play-testers. A team must be on hand to combat these seditious efforts in the game world because honest players will be driven away from the game. Modern Warfare 2 experienced such an event in 2010, and many players, notably Penny Arcade's creators, stopped playing the game. Though such exploits were eventually fixed, they still caused lasting harm to the game's health. To a lesser extent, inappropriate player behavior could be met with discipline as well, but players are generally good at dealing with non-technical issues amongst themselves. Though providing the players with an easy-to-activate mute function is always a good idea.


Finally, the goal of the above efforts: the ability to create and market additional content for the original release. This new content enjoys a much higher profit margin in comparison to the lengthy development of the entire game, so the painstaking effort of creating an excellent multiplayer experience will pay off handsomely. However, this does not mean content can be thrown together and tossed onto the market- downloadable content must meet the same standards of excellence players have come to expect from the full game. Ideally, the new content will be of even higher quality. If the players deem the content as high quality and desirable, the next content release will be met with equal excitement. Thus a stable market is maintained until the release of the next full title- restarting the process.




Exciting the player, addicting them, and then maintaining the game- these are the proven steps to creating a top competitive multiplayer experience. The current market leading games are of varied designs and themes, but all share a similar formula to their multiplayer components. Any new intellectual property would do well to follow their example in the creation of their own games, as nothing maintains market presence like a successful multiplayer experience.



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