Gear up For E3: Multiplayer
By bbsbuzz - Thu Apr 21, 8:37 am
Multiplayer gaming has been an integral part of the wider gaming experience since the arcade days, taking on a new form with each passing decade and wave of technical innovation. In December last year, EA Games president Frank Gibeau declared that publishers can no longer get away with making games without a multiplayer component; indeed, Gibeau made it clear that games that fail to provide this all-important experience are likely to fail. This statement, bold as it was, echoed the thoughts of the wider industry. In an interview with Forbes magazine in June the same year, Square Enix head Yoichi Wada confirmed that every game that the company made from that point on would include some element of multiplayer or social gaming. Square Enix wasn’t the only publisher eager to go down that road. In the past two years, the push toward multiplayer gaming has led publishers, developers, and consumers to rethink the way in which video games are both made and played. Ubisoft introduced multiplayer for the first time in its Assassin’s Creed franchise; Valve launched co-op in Portal 2; Warner Brothers hinted at including multiplayer in future Batman games; and Sony has begun hiring programmers for what could be a multiplayer God of War game.
So where is multiplayer headed? Does it really stand true that games offering only single-player experiences are a thing of the past? Or are developers looking to create a more seamless experience between the two? To find out, GameSpot spoke to some of the biggest names in the industry today, including John Romero, Ubisoft’s Patrick Redding, developers Harmonix and Activision’s Call of Duty team.Why do we enjoy playing games together?
When industry heavyweights like Frank Gibeau say that video games can no longer get away with offering just a single-player experience, they are also echoing the demands of the market. This ever-changing and ever-growing market is united by a common goal: entertainment. Video games, above all else, have to be fun. This is the reason why multiplayer not only makes sense as a gaming experience, but it’s also the reason why more than one type of multiplayer experience has found success. People like to have fun with other people, whether it is in person or online.
But the benefits of playing together go far beyond making a great gaming experience. Nick Yee and Nic Ducheneaut are two researchers working as part of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) PlayOn project, which is focused on the study of social dynamics in multiplayer games. Using Web surveys, lab experiments, and data mining from games like World of Warcraft, Yee and Ducheneaut have looked at the social interactions between players, from examining players who fall in love online to what it means to be a guild leader. Analyzing the unique forms of social behavior that can happen in online games, Yee and Ducheneaut’s research led them to discover that even though massively multiplayer online games are designed to encourage intense group interactions through raids and quests, it is more intimate sociability that keeps players interested in playing. This includes chatting with guild mates while grinding crafting materials, watching others perform fun tasks in the main cities, and the like. For some players, simply feeling part of a world inhabited by other human beings was enough. Based on their research, Yee and Ducheneaut have begun to develop tools to help game designers monitor social activity in online worlds.
With every game having its own sensibility when it comes to multiplayer, Yee and Ducheneaut have split the experience into three categories: a) games that are simply meant to be played with someone nearby, like Mario Kart; b) games that allow players to engage in a match-making system, like Halo or Call of Duty; and c) persistent virtual worlds, such as World of Warcraft.
“I want to be provocative and flip the question around and suggest that perhaps it is the games that are making relationships more salient and important,” Yee says. “As a simple example of this concept, Farmville makes your friends more relevant and important because of the game mechanisms of gifting and helping. In the same way, World of Warcraft uses grouping and high-end raiding as a social means to satisfy game-related goals. Would playing games together be equally enjoyable if you could kill the dragon bosses by yourself? Certainly there are social players, but it?s equally important to keep in mind that game architecture also plays a crucial role in making people want to play with each other.”
“I think playing games together simply makes your accomplishments in them more rewarding and more meaningful,” Ducheneaut adds. “Nobody would care about wearing an epic set of armor if there were no one around to see it! Ted Castronova, a well-known game researcher, said that the presence of other people in online games validates emotions, and I think that?s exactly what?s going on: Doing something in the presence of other people who share the same interests and objectives makes it much more attractive.”
This exhibitionist quality has also been observed by developers, who often focus test multiplayer experiences before a game’s launch. Patrick Redding, game director at Ubisoft Toronto, is often amazed at how big of a role social skills play as a mechanism for negotiation in multiplayer games when he is observing focus tests. He believes game designers need to give players more autonomy in multiplayer, requiring them to use individual social skills to form a collective agency (in the case of co-op) and effectively overcome challenges. For example, observing player behavior in Splinter Cell: Conviction multiplayer, Redding found that players realized quickly that they have a better chance of beating the game if they work together. In this way, players working together are more likely to take risks and try things that they wouldn’t have tried if they were playing single-player.
“Prior to recent years, the attitude was that single-player was different from multiplayer, and in fact, there was an implicit distinction between people who liked single-player (solitary, time-intensive) and people who liked multiplayer (mechanics-focused, living in the dynamics, doesn’t care about the fiction of the game),” Redding says. “What’s happened now is we’ve arrived at a new generation of players who want complexity and depth in both single-player and multiplayer. It has become socially acceptable to want this.”