Sponsored By

The Two Biggest Design Traps of Multiplayer Games

Multiplayer is one of the most popular features requested by gamers, but today's post looks at two of the most unassuming ways for designers to mess up when implementing it.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

February 23, 2018

5 Min Read

Multiplayer is one of the most commonly requested features by gamers no matter what the design, genre, or platform. When it works, it can greatly extend the life of a video game, and create fans and consumers for years. However, going all in on multiplayer without understanding the design considerations can easily sink the community.

The Multiplayer Demand:

Multiplayer, as I’m sure everyone reading this knows, has become a major part of sustaining a game’s interest way beyond the release date. A fixture of the “Games as a Service” trend, multiplayer can provide near limitless replayability to a title.

The interaction between players can drive interaction and engagement without the need to keep up with constant new content. Some of the most profitable and recognizable games on the market have done so thanks to a strong multiplayer component.

Despite what fans and publishers will tell you, multiplayer is not always a sure thing, and it’s time to talk about the two major areas that designers can fail when it comes to adding multiplayer.

Scaling Up or Down:

Multiplayer Balance is a multi-faceted topic and can greatly vary based on the design in question. For our point today, I want to focus on building multiplayer out of a singleplayer experience and vice-versa.

It’s important to figure out early on what is the optimal number of players to experience your game. With that said, if you implement a singleplayer option, then your game must be balanced around a single person playing it.

Too often, developers will try to use the same exact gameplay and balance for a solo play as well as a group. The problem is that this never creates a balanced playthrough for either option. If your game is balanced just for multiplayer, then the game will be frustrating to play solo. If it’s only balanced for solo play, then group play will break the game.

As it goes, you also need to be aware that the more people required for a standard experience, the harder it’s going to be to get that set up. Despite how great it was to play Left 4 Dead versus, getting eight people together and organized proved to be difficult sometimes.

When designing single and multiplayer versions of your game, the concept of scaling is vital. Scaling will increase or decrease the challenge of the game based on the number of people playing at one time. What makes scaling critical is that it guarantees that no matter the size of the group that the experience will be balanced.

Sometimes this is not easy to do. If your game features unique mechanics explicitly designed around multiple people, you may have to think out of the box when scaling. With the game Forced, a major component of the title was shifting an energy ball around the field for puzzle solving and buffs. In the original release, you literally couldn’t play through the game due to the mechanic not working for singleplayer.

And that right there is a big blind spot developers sometimes run into: Putting multiplayer only design into the singleplayer mode.

The Infrastructure:

Having a great multiplayer mode doesn’t mean anything if the playerbase cannot play with each other. Setting up the online infrastructure for your game is an important step. For this step, I don’t have a background in networking and online architecture, so I can’t go into too much detail.

However, if you’re designing an online game, you better have someone on staff who is experienced in these matters. Depending on how important the multiplayer is to the long-term success of your game will determine the extent of the online architecture. We could go into more detail about kinds of online services, anti cheat options, and more, but that is beyond the scope of our talk for today.

You should make it as easy as possible for people to connect and play your game if you want to have any chance of building an online community. If you make it too difficult for people to connect, you will only be left with your hardcore fans, and that does not make a community.

The Community Bet:

Multiplayer games run into a very dangerous catch 22 when it comes to success. They must prove to people that their game will be popular in the long term, but if the game doesn’t have a strong launch, the game can be viewed as dead and no one new will want to join.

Multiplayer-focused games can either have a positive or negative feedback loop of growth. For every PubG, Call of Duty, Overwatch, or CS:GO, there are countless multiplayer games that failed to cultivate a community.

In order for your game to survive, you need people at all skill levels to be playing and growing the community. If all you have is a casual and mid-core base, then you won’t have hardcore players praising your game and giving the community somewhere to shoot for. However, without the casual and mid-core group, then there will be no one for new players to interact with and it will become impossible for them to start learning the game.

Not only that, but if your game is built on PVP for progress, then no one new will be able to play your game. This is also true of games with co-op design. If the community dies, how will people be able to play through your game?

Group Dynamics:

Multiplayer is a popular option for video games with many pluses that outweigh the cons. However, it is something that you have to pay attention to when implementing in your game. It is better not to have multiplayer as opposed to having a half-ass mode that people hate. For the games that can create and keep their communities, the potential for continued support is huge.

For you reading this: Can you think of a game that was actually ruined because of its multiplayer design?

Read more about:


About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like