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When Single player is way better than multiplayer

in one chapter of The Art of Game Design: a book of lenses. Jesse Schell suggests that "The single-player phenomenon appears to have been a temporary abnormality". well... that's one powerful claim! and I am going to tackle that in this article.

Abdurrahman Khallouf, Blogger

May 20, 2019

17 Min Read

I was reading The Art of Game Design : a book of lenses by Jesse Schell (and by the way if you haven't read it yet, it's an amazing book). and I found many weird ideas in one Chapter, things like : Multiplayer is a useful feature and the only reason not to add it is because it is costly, but if you can add it, it will be worthwhile. So is it true? Is Multiplayer better than solo? Let's dive in. 

At first, is social activities always better than single ones? 

At the beginning of the chapter the book says : "Man is a social animal. Humans generally avoid being alone whenever possible. In most cases, we don’t like to eat alone, sleep alone, work alone, or play alone.

Which I find complete non-sense, because I do love to eat alone half the times. I love to work alone all the times, and I know many others who would say the same, in fact some researchers like Susan Cain who wrote the book Quite: the power of introvert, will say the same things, and argue that one to three people of all the population are introverts and they will prefer to spend most of their time alone. 

Yes, we are "social animals" and I cannot imagine my life without my wife or my friends. Introverts gain their energy from their time alone, then they get to spend this energy meeting others and socializing. Extroverts are the opposite; they recharge by socializing and doing activities with others. 

and before he starts talking about games and play, he even goes beyond that explaining how much it sucks to be alone in everything and say : "Prisoners who behave badly are put in solitary confinement, because although being trapped in a cage with a dangerous criminal is bad, being alone is worse.

But in reality this is because this Dangerous criminal is not really dangerous, in prison he behaves as a normal person and he might actually fun and cool. And if he was actually dangerous and bullying others. Some prisoners would beg to go into solitude! (and it happens). And the reason solitary is the worst is because it's so boring with nothing to do; if I can get books with me, or maybe a PlayStation, I would pick solitary every time! 

Going back to the first statement ,it was building to the next argument at the end of it "… or play alone" which could make more sense than eating and working right?, in the end, aren't all games - like the author argues – originally made to be played with others? 

Are games – by nature – a group activity? 

Games are interactive by nature, human interactions is just one way of having an interactive experience, but the following quote suggest something interesting about this matter :  

"And, if you look back over the centuries, the history of game design reflects this. The majority of all games created are designed to be played with other players, or against other players. Before the advent of computers, solo games, such as solitaire, were rare. " 

According to the book, technology was still growing in the early stages of making video games, and we were unable to create multiplayer experiences, not easily at least. but games had been created to be played with other since ever. And this is true. But also since ever; Escapism, having fun, or being entertained (whatever you call it) were NOT always a group activity. a lot of people did entertain themselves alone, they escaped while riding a horse, they hunted birds and collected bugs, they read books, they listened to music. All of these activities were done in groups or solitaire. Some were even more suitable for alone-time entertainment than others (like reading books or drawing) 

But what about games? All of these entertainment are not games. 

Being an introvert, I played alone , a LOT , and I am not talking about videogames, I am talking about playing with my toys, creating my own board games on paper that can't be played in groups. They just didn’t have the strict rules solitaire and mine sweeper have. Because A) I was just a kid who knows nothing about design. And B) there is no point in making clear rules since these games were not designed for other solo players. It was for me only. They had some rules, clear goals for me! 

A lot of people loves playing with Rubik cube, or 15-puzzle game, even toddlers they like the challenge of finding out a hole that matches the shape in their hand! 

The author didn’t only say that games are better played with others (which I also think is a personal preference) but he said : "The single-player phenomenon appears to have been a temporary abnormality

Like if they were errors in the system, we only created them because we lacked the technology. and someday all games will get back to the ancient ways of us playing together, and solo games will become a rare thing again. 

Even though I think that entertainments are not a group activities all the time, and games is no exception. This include solo games like solitaire, Rubik cube, mine sweeper or 15-puzzle. But what I am going to add is this : yes, before video games; games that were made to be played with others represent bigger percentage – way bigger. Now this has changed, and most games are single player games, and the reason is not because technology wasn’t able to create them easily. But in my opinion; in fact it is the other way around! 

The other way around! 

Games are interactive by nature, a game cannot play itself, it needs someone to play it. And because it is interactive; and we didn’t have computers that can make decisions (we only had toys or mechanical machines) designers relied heavily on human interactions to create games. But now we have powerful machines that can keep track of a million things at a time and give us the interaction we need to invest our time and energy into these fun games. So we started building solo games more. 

We did not create solo games because we lacked technology. Old pre-computer games were multiplayer because of the lack of technology! 

also we were actually able to create multiplayer experiences

Looking at history we can say all designers designed multiplayer games. then why did it change when we started making video games? you don't need networking to make fun multiplayer games, you can create amazing games that can be played on the same computer. we didn't even try that much, we were so fascinated by single player games that we didn't care that much (maybe because most programs are introverts but I am not sure)

If so, what about the trends, the percentage of multiplayer games are growing bigger every day, isn't it? 

I don’t think it is, I mean yes more and more games are including multiplayer, but most of these games are single player at heart with multiplayer mode in them. Me and many of my friends all bought and played Xcom 2. We spent hours discussing the game, and I don’t remember we talked once about multiplayer, I remember playing few rounds against my brother in previous Xcom : Enemy Unknown. I watched youtubers playing the game and it was also them playing single player campaign. 

Same happened to me with my favorite games : Mass Effect3 , Total War, Dragon Commander; with all of these games I only played the single player. Maybe tried multiplayer for a few rounds. But it's not why I bought these games and multiplayer definitely didn’t make them any better. it was just an extra fun, not worthy of my money without the single player campign.

just because they have a multiplayer mode. doesn't mean its essential to their core. I know this view is very subjective and can vary, all I am saying is this: we don't need to look on how many titles are including Multiplayer as a feature, we need to look on the time spent by players on both modes. then we can talk about it.

Sometimes multiplayer is just a tool for marketing 

A lot of games are built that way, a single player with multiplayer mod in them, and of course the opposite is also very common, a multiplayer game with a single player campaign, where I (and according to statistics most players) don’t play/complete the campaign, like in Call of Duty. I don’t play single player at all, I just jump right into multiplayer. 

And according to Extra Credits companies make single player campaign because it gives sales a good boost, they can get Hollywood actors to record character voices, and most in-game cinematic will come from a well handmade crafted campaign. And I believe it is the same way when you create multiplayer mode in games that rely heavily on single player. It's just to attract buyers, "we also have an awesome multiplayer on top of all that!" 

Let us find a common ground 

Whether you prefer single or multiplayer games, and there are a lot of people on both sides (you can search for online polls or forum threads about it... believe me there are a LOT). We can all agree to something, and before we do I need to clarify something: 

I love multiplayer games, I played 3K hours of Dota 2, maybe a thousand hours of counter-strike, Team fortress, I played a lot of Call of Duty, Tekken, Twisted Metal and much more. not to mention co-op like borderlands, don’t starve together ... etc. 

But personally, with all the love I have for these games, I would not even compare these experiences, with single player games like Mass Effect , or Fallout 3/New Vegas or older Total War games (which are my favorite games). Games that made my heart beat when I woke up!

Am I saying that single player games are better? No I prefer a lot of Multiplayer games over single player games. All I am saying it is a personal preference. But here is the thing : 

We should agree that there are masterpieces that are single player, and others that are multiplayer. If you think that solo playing cannot be fun, well there is no point continuing to reading this article (and this is not what Jesse Schell said anyway). If not; here is why I think that some games are better solo, and maybe adding multiplayer will ruin them or make them less: 

  1. Feeling of solitude 
    in this meeting with Corey Rollins about don't starve at 4:02, the interviewer asks if the game is going to have multiplayer, Rollins replies that this game is about being alone in the woods, the studio discussed it a lot and they thought that this game is better without multiplayer. 

And here where it gets interesting, I played (and my friends)  A LOT of Don't starve, soon enough Don't starve together was released. And we played a lot of that too, but soon enough I came back to the single player Don’t Starve, and played with it again. To us, we felt like both games are incredible, but multiplayer was not a better version, not by a long shot. I felt the need to play solo, I really enjoy both, and solo is better for me, and I am sure multiplayer is better for for some others. 

And this feeling; "I am on my own, I have no one", is used a lot in many survival games, but it is also used in games like Thomas was Alone, or Limbo, or even The binding of Isaac where being alone is not the main feeling the designer was aiming for, but it defiantly makes the underground dungeon more mysterious, creepier (you buy your items from someone who hanged himself , that's really creepier than any shop keeper alive) 

And making these games multiplayer will surgically remove this feeling. 

  1. Feeling as a Superhero 

In Skyrim, you are the Dragonborn! You are the one and only hero! In Mass Effect you are commander Shepard, the first human specter, a great leader and a soldier at heart!

In an MMO-RPG you are just another player, if the good designer intends to, you will feel special, but no matter how empowered you feel it's not the same as playing The Hulk! Because in an MMO, everyone can be a Hulk. 

In strategy games with grand campaign (like total war or Europa Universals), you can create a legacy, your stories can be written and shared, you get to paint the map with your faction color! 

But when I played Travian, or Clash of Clans no matter how awesome I feel destroying armies and helping my clan, I will always be just a member of the clan, a leader of one clan out of hundreds or thousands of other clans in best case scenario. 

If the game was not an MMO, like borderlands, the feeling of being of a hero is way stronger, maybe the less number of players the more stronger this feeling get, but even if you have one hero at your side he will take half the credits. There is only one Batman, and one dragonborn. 

  • Mark of the ninja 

This game has both feelings mentioned above; you are THE ninja, the best around, and you are also working in the shadows all alone, the game feels so silent and so dangerous. am I saying this game is better than a co-op ninja game? Not at all, all I am saying is that this experience, cannot be delivered in a co-op, that’s another game, if you add co-op to Mark of the Ninja, without changing what is fundamentally fun about it, it will get worse. 

  1. Horror games. 

Do I really have to explain this? Should I even compare the feeling of your hand shaking before clicking the icon that will start the game (happened to me playing FEAR 2) when you are alone in the dark, to the "Whoooaaa! , dude that totally got me!" Followed by a nervous laugh ? 

I think I'll leave it there ...

  1. Immersion 

Playing borderlands 2, I noticed two things : A) it is far better game when played with friends than when I played it alone. B) I was much more immersed in the story when I played alone. I can say the same about my friends too, I mean they didn't even notice Claptrap stairs joke! And this was because we were laughing and racing to get weapons and fighting about stealing weapons from each other. And I think it is really hard to role-play when you are playing with 3 other players, they keep reminding you that you are a part of the real world with their laughing, cursing, jokes, and pausing the game. 

In Dragon Age Origins , you get to destroy or keep the Anvil of the Void, it was this huge philosophical question, that made me argue for 2 hours with my friend, will you destroy one of the greatest genius inventions that will actually help you with the war? Or do you want to stop enslaving spirits into golems ? We went on and on discussing if you will destroy nuclear bombs, or if this example here applies to nuclear bomb. We talked about politics and ethical dilemmas for having a great dangerous weapon . etc.. 

This was fun and rich discussion, but say we were playing the game together when we reached this dilemma together, we will have that discussion on the spot (and I would love to see games experiment with moral decision making with your friends). But this will take you out of the experience, to real life, and when you make the decision it will be influenced by your friends, tweaked by social pressure, and not by your love and hate to in game characters nor taking the in-game situation with the same seriousness as you took it before the discussion. 

  1. More attractive challenge for some 

In many  competitive games, the player get to blame the team if he loose, or doesn't feel the most skilled when they win. My friend who is not a hardcore gamer, loves Counter-Strike so much, but he never gets the feeling of being number one on his team, because.. well... he never is. Not a long time ago I let him try Super Meat Boy, and I didn't think he'll like it but man, what a blast he had! He only played the first chapter and he felt like the most skilled player in the world! Because how much challenge it gave to him. And how rewarding it was to see all his tries play together. He kept screaming at the screen, when he wins a level after 50 tries (even though the average player will win after 10)  and see himself improving, he would look at me and say, "you thought I would never beat this! Give me more!" 

What about 1 vs 1 matches, that when you win, you will get the same feeling and when you lose you can't blame others? that is true, but there is a big difference here; a skilled player will always beat up the average player (in highly competitive games), and because every match is a new challenge on its own, that player cannot replay the same challenge over and over to get better and feel good about his victory in the end. And even when you get frustrated you can cool down and get back later to that challenge. In fact I noticed by playing Down of War II , Age of Empires II, Generals and other competitive games, most players will host and join 2 vs 2 or 3 vs 3 games or more. And I'll be speaking about myself when I say this: because 1 vs 1 is just unbearable pressure!

Yes, a highly competitive player will love that challenge more than anything, after all its about improving a real set of skills that can be used in all situations, this is why they like reading guides, watching pros playing the game, etc... but whether you are a hardcore or casual gamer, if you are not highly competitive, and you wanted a hard challenge, Super Meat Boy is more enjoyable to you. 

In the end, it's Up for the designer 

Both types of games are great, some people clearly love one over the other, others loves to play both games, but a single player game can surely provide a lot that multiplayer can't. And this is true for multiplayer as well. These are just examples of where single player can shine the most, maybe I missed a lot covering this (please add any ideas you have). And without a don't there are places where multiplayer games shine like a star! It's up to the designer to define the experience and to pick one type over the other. 

a while back I made a board game (still work in progress) called Negotiation , it really focuses on.. well... negotiating. it played by 6 people to be the most fun. and I wanted it that way. but say for example I wanted a game that focuses on calculating the best outcome skill. do I really want other player to interfere and convince you to for example to buy some house from them by sheer charisma?? 

I think there is a very valid reason not to add multiplayer in this case...

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