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Why Gamers Love to Play Alone...Together

Taking a look at the different sort of multiplayer experience Fuel introduces to mobile games, and some of the precedents set by "traditional" gaming which we can apply to mobile with this new environment in mind.

[These last few months I've been working at Fuel, a mobile multiplayer SDK startup. Not quite my first time touching mobile/social but it's my first full-time gig in the space - so it's still new and exciting - and I've been busy writing for our dev blog, by way of which this is cross-posted.]

Why Gamers Love to Play Alone...Together

It’s easy to be skeptical about the merit of a game that is as successful as World of Warcraft, but the first time I heard the term “playing alone together” was in the nascent days of WoW. A number of MMOs since have been equally well-designed but have not pulled WoW's population away. As of 2013, about a decade after launch, 7.8 million people have active subscriptions - it's been as high as 12 million in the past.

What’s so special about this MMO? Well, to put that 7.8 million number in context, consider how many people play Starcraft 2 - one of the most popular and critically acclaimed RTS games on the market: the number seems to be around 200,000.

Quality is not on the table as a variable - these are two games produced by the same company and held to the same standards. The games are both complicated experiences. However, for many WoW players it is their first “real” game and I’d hazard a guess that a significant portion of the 200,000 SC2 players are long-time RTS fans. Game design complexity is not a real barrier to entry for new players; human beings are great learning machines - the best the world has ever seen, actually. The real difference between the barrier to entry with these two games is stress.

When I was working on an RTS it was evident during team play tests that even many developers were intimidated by the real-time synchronous play, especially head to head. You’re put in the hot seat in these games, and while the experience is a great challenge for a certain type of player, it is absolutely punitive when mistakes are made. Learning is done in RTS multiplayer by failing over and over until you begin to understand how other players are beating you. It’s the same with most staple multiplayer games, both digital and analog - from chess to backgammon to Counter-Strike. If you’re trying to reach a market as wide as “everyone who owns a phone”, these sorts of intense confrontational experiences are not exactly desirable - as much as we may consider them deeper and more complex as game developers, in the context of mobile, they are going to appeal only to the same sort of “gamer” subset we find in traditional gaming ecosystems.

Of course the game is actually populated with players interacting in real-time, but players are effectively having their own private experiences around and beside other players. Often, participation in actual confrontation is optional, but players seem to find it psychologically appealing to engage in their own activities in an environment with others - without necessarily having those other players play an active role in their experience.

What has me excited about what we do at Fuel is that we fall on a similar band of the multiplayer spectrum. It’s not your traditional asynchronous multiplayer as, say, e-mail chess would be - with players finishing a turn and sending it off to their opponent to finish, ad nauseum until the game is finished. Instead, we take what are effectively single-player games and allow people to play them against other people. It’s an unusual thing to say, but I’ve found it to be the best descriptor. Confrontation occurs at a meta-level, apart from input in the gameplay itself - and this is a good thing.

It is at once the player’s private experience, and activity in a multiplayer ecosystem where they are capable of being seen and challenged by others. It is still confrontational, but you are one step removed from your opponent, which greatly reduces the sort of stress that accompanies a competitive multiplayer match. Players never invade one another’s games. Keep in mind that for most people their mobile devices are first and foremost phones, which incidentally have the capability to play games and run applications. These are the private, personal devices of the modern world - and the vast majority of people using these devices are not looking for the sort of cerebral, high-intensity challenge that a game like Starcraft provides. People are playing mobile games on the bus, on the train going to work, in bank lineups, on park benches, in airports, and on their couches.

We also seem to be witnessing the “abolition of the gamer” as a demographic stereotype. When the sort of numbers you’re looking at skip from 200, 000 to 7.8 million, you also begin to blur the demographic lines. It’s possible that we’ve been witnessing the slow dissolution of either the reality or the perception that the people who play video games are some sort of special subset of the population. Candy Crush Saga has a staggering reported DAU (daily average users) of 93 million. This is far and above the WoW numbers, and suggests that what mobile has accomplished is this: People we have previously considered to be non-gamers are playing lots of games.

WoW has had players playing alone together for over ten years. Yet strangely, given that they have access to immense audiences a game like WoW could only dream of - many mobile games are solitary, disconnected experiences. There is little sense of the presence of the millions of other users interacting everywhere in the world. But this is vital for the formation of communities (just observe people reading or working alone around other people in coffee shops, for instance) and for users to feel like the game they’re playing is populated and healthy.

Make no mistake, WoW is a giant in the MMO space because of the natural self-reinforcing social networks its users have formed. Bungie’s Destiny may grow in much the same way, (although the nature of being a first-person shooter will reduce its chances of ever being a WoW-sized world). But it is much the same in terms of playing alone together; other players speed by on their own quests, occasionally stopping by to assist in clearing an area of enemies before continuing on their way.

It’s not a huge leap to consider that multiplayer interactions in games reinforce player activity. To continue to use WoW as an example (as they have been doing this for a long time), player friend-groups and clans keep people in the game. As a former player myself, not a month goes by without having a friend ask if I’ll be returning to the game sometime soon to play with them, or receiving a prompt from the Blizzard mailing list to return with some gift offered as an incentive. Communities are what give your game mindshare - something advertising giants have been scrambling for forever.

A healthy community will incentivize itself to continue playing a game. This is something that traditional sectors of business and the old guard of PC gaming have been striving for already; but the mobile games market largely confronts an ecosystem of transient players who must be lured back in some byzantine way.

It seems to me that if we want to build multiplayer ecosystems for potential communities as large as mobile offers, the last thing we want to do is fragment populations, unwittingly create niches, or worse, let a game die in order to move on to the next, and leave its player-base wondering whatever happened. Support community in a way that is amenable to the mobile audience, and that community in turn supports you.

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