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A multiplayer world

posted on April 25th, 2006 by golden jew

Raph may want to think about updating his pic on his website.

The other day I was listening to the Penny Arcade podcast, specifically The Zone of Breakfast. First off, a quick shameless fanboy plug: although our glorious cult leader (may he always provide for us Kool-Aid), Jay, dislikes these guys, I’ve always been a huge PA fan. In particular, I enjoy their new podcasts because I get to listen to a lot of video game news I ordinarily would not. Rather than do research and reading, I can just listen to the voices from the computer, which is more comfortable to me, because I am illiterate and hear voices in my head. Anyhow, they were discussing a comment that Raph Koster, a designers for both Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies made at a E3 several years ago.

It seems that Raph decided to be a bit inflammatory, and stated that single player games were an “aberration”: eventually, history will view the times we played games alone as a “growing up” stage before we had total connectivity and the internet. Now, Koster’s business might be MMO’s, but I think that this may be a surprisingly valid prediction as it expands to gaming as a whole. A future of easy and pervasive co-op gaming might be closer than you think, and a lot more fun than you might initially predict.

First, let’s take a look at what the requirements for such a multiplayer revolution would be:

1) Pervasive internet, anywhere you go. Every place you might game should have access to the internet. For this level of ease of connection, we’re probably talking wireless. Already, most people’s houses (gamers in particular) have wireless. Coffee shops do, many downtown areas in wealthier neighborhoods, some airports, you name it. I’d say we’re about 80% there now, but total penetration will probably take another 5 years so that every business gets DSL and throws up a router, or something like Verizon’s wireless broadband reduces in price from the existing $80 a month to something more in the $20-$50 range.
2) Wireless enabled gaming devices. Guess what, the DS and PSP are already there. Integrated, easy to use wireless will be a must for this to happen.

This tower is both a symbol of man’s dominance over nature and an integral part of Mario Kart wireless play.

3) Very smart, easy to use, sexy gamer match software. You’re going to need a very powerful method of quickly matching up players with each other: something that not only extends to games, but also to levels within the games.
4) Software that is written to be multiplayer (more on that below).

Assuming we have the first three, and I would argue the first two are there (or already on the path to completion), and one can argue that Xbox Live and PS Online are a good start on the third, you’ve laid the groundwork for enabling rapid multiplayer experience. The next step, however, is having software developers write games that are optimized for this experience.

In this multiplayer enabled world, I can see the concept of games that are enabled for 2-8 players, depending on the game. Interestingly enough, if you look at games now, you already see them heading in this direction:

– Sports games have been and remain primed for multiplayer: modular play (one game), relatively quick games (30 min — 1 hour depending on settings), no persistence
– FPS games fall into the same category
– Puzzle games, depending on the game
– Racing games (I put this separate because I have trouble classifying Mario Kart as a sports game) are another winner

So what does that leave us with? Platformers and RPGs. These are two types of games that will probably be more difficult to crack. However, if you look at platformer games, there are very easy ways to integrate multiplayer aspects. If you look at the types that have modular levels that can be revisited until you “max them out” (see Mario games), you could easily have integrated multiplayer content that extends the level 25-50% more. Then, OCD players (see Horatio, one of our fine writers) could hop on the internet lobby, and either find a friend they know, or another player in need to revisit this expanded content. Boom, right there, you’ve added a huge “optional” multiplayer aspect to the standard platform game. And if you’re an OCD player who has to find every last fucking star, coin, psychedelic mushroom and magical widget or you can’t sleep at night, why play the level twice (once single and once multi) when you could just find a like minded individual on the ‘net and do it once. Boom. Instant multiplayer, internet enabled games.

Will multi player video games ever come this far?

RPGs I have more trouble with envisioning a future setup. Some games, such as Kingdom Hearts, are “modular” in each level, but it’s hard to see how this could be turned into something that would truly be multiplayer. Sure, you could simply make the game multiplayer, but this would still be more of a traditional “at home” option (does anyone really want to join a stranger’s game to play as a lisping duck or a retarded dog who wields a shield?).

Could there be a class of new RPGs, similar to the style of the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles? Is there a way to make an RPG modular, yet fun? Plot advancement at certain points only by linking up with adventurers from “other lands” (see, the internet) to continue? It’s possible I suppose, but I think the RPG market, near and dear to so many of our hearts, as one of the most challenging online integrative games. Sure, there are MMORPG’s, but they’re not the same as a true RPG experience, instead focusing on character development and not plot advancement.

One can argue that we are already in a world where multiplayer is less of a novelty and more of a standard. The current generation of portable devices, combined with pervasive internet is starting to make human companionship and competition in gaming more of the standard and less of the exception. Will we ever reach a time where very few gamers play alone, ever? It’s hard to tell, but when you consider the way the internet has connected the world in such a short period of time, it’s anyone’s guess where the future of multiplayer gaming lies. Start polishing those social skills, because my money is on you needing them.

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  1. Billy said on April 25, 2006:

    There will always be single player games. Always.

  2. Dan said on April 25, 2006:

    Yeah for losers, but I think he has a point. I believe all games will have the option for multiplayer in the future, even RPGs. With a cash cow like paying for online play available, I would find it hard to believe that all developers aren’t rushing to make all games multi-player friendly. While some games will always better suited for the single player, I don’t think that will stop game studios from forcing a multi-player mode into ever game produced in the future.

  3. jay said on April 25, 2006:

    I agree with both of you. Some single player games will always exist but at the same time there is great pressure for developers to include multiplayer options. Their publishers want the options because they tend to mean more money, and nearly every video game magazine complains when a game isn’t multiplayer, which I find asinine.

    Single player games won’t die because not everyone plays for competition. I am completely content playing my single player RPGs with no one else in the house and there will probably always be a decent sized minority of loner gamers.

    I think at the very least, the connectivity of the world will lead to all two player games being playable online without any gameplay changes. For example Culdcept, Soul Calibur, or even Gladius could be played exactly the same way, only the second player isn’t on your couch but in Germany (watching scat porn as he plays).

    The idea of gameplay itself changing to fit the idea of multiplayer is both scary and exciting. The platform game ideas Golden Jew threw out sounded pretty cool, actually, but I don’t want to be deprived of awesome single player games as a result.

  4. pat said on April 25, 2006:

    interestingly, the new york times reviewed elder scrolls last month and the thrust of the article was that oblivion is the last bastion of single player fantasy games. i can only assume they meant pc games (they never explicitly said so) or they completely made it up. either way, im a little concerned about dimishing titles for single player since online subscriptions are such cash cows. if single player games are ever phased out, its going to take a long time.

  5. Billy said on April 25, 2006:

    [Comment ID #172 Will Be Quoted Here]

    Dont worry there will always be single player games, you cant seem to jam as good plot/story into a multiplayer game on a console as you can in a single player game or a game with very limited multi-player function.

  6. jay said on April 25, 2006:

    Yeah, the Times was probably just pretending it knows something about games. Japanese RPGs are huge and almost all are only single player, plus Bioware’s Dragon Age is a high profile Western single player RPG. If they want to say DA may be of the last single player Western RPGs maybe I’ll buy that, unless another big one is announced between now and when DA ships. As it is, it’s sort of like saying “platformers are dead, besides that new Miyamoto designed Mario one coming out in a few months.”

  7. Stefan said on April 25, 2006:

    My take on this (to jump in out of nowhere) is that RPGs will be the last to really replace single-player with multi-player. Platformers don’t really need it, but they don’t exactly suffer from having multi-player mode either. RPGs – if they are to be more than experiences in leveling and exploration – require a good story, and that requires interaction with a world that appears to be dynamic, which is something that current MMORPGs don’t have. In WoW, you never actually save anyone…they have to remain in peril so that the next player who comes by can complete the same quest, and that means that your character can never change the world, which is (at least for me, and here I extrapolate that the rest of the world is like me, which is almost certainly not the case) why RPGs are played…you can’t feel like a hero if you don’t get to change the world.

    So until environmental and npc AI gets good enough to offer a continual stream of _new_ quests arising from player and NPC actions, all of which impact the world in a lasting, or at least temporarily meaningful way (however small), that feel of leading a party of heroes to save the world will remain firmly in the domain of the single-player (or at most limited multi-player cooperative) RPG.

  8. Tony said on April 25, 2006:

    Most of the time, I could care less about multiplayer and I don’t think it’s going to push out single player games. Deathmatch and capture the flag gameplay has been around a long time (since Quake 1), and there are still plenty of single player shooters out there. I think online co-op modes and downloadable content should be the next big thing.

    With programs like Valve’s Steam, I was hoping retail physical versions of games would be phased out in favor of a download and play model. I can see companies moving to a “pay for extra content” system before I see them all moving to a subscription service like MMORPGs. I’ve never been and never will be a MMORPG fan. F-U if you want me to pay $40 for a game and then another $12 a month so I can grind my character up until you release the next $30 expansion pack. I’d much rather get a good single player game with the promise of extra levels and chapters being released in downloadable format later on. Especially if that game has an online co-op mode.

  9. pat said on April 25, 2006:

    video games are about the only thing i do where i get to choose who, if anybody i do it with. work, basketball, going to bars (about all i do) other people get to choose to do those things also. games i can play by myself or get a couple friends together, but its really up to me. this may be a symptom of social anxiety disorder or some other pathology, but i really dont want to be forced into playing well with others.

  10. Golden Jew said on April 26, 2006:

    An important part for everyone to remember is that while none of us want to be ‘forced’ to play with strangers, most of us already voluntarily play with our friends. If anything, to me it would be an incentive to get games that my friends are playing.

    Maybe coming out and saying it forces everyone to recoil in disgust, whereas what will actually happen is a series of awesome single player games with very cool and fun cooperative multiplayer (perhaps even RPGs) will come out and be hailed for their innovation and fun. The rest of the industry will subsequently copy them, as always, and before long you’ll take for granted that you need to link up with 3 pals from your gaming friends to beat Omega Weapon in FF15.

  11. Horatio said on April 26, 2006:

    I think in theory the concept is really sound… but the stupidity of the average person may prevent this from becoming a reality. i certainly agree we will see a lot of increase in extra content in games that may be multiplayer, but given how much i hate pick up groups in world of warcraft, i’d hate having to be dependent on these same people in *every game* i want to play… and being the ocd completionist that i am, i would hate to have to search for hours, or days, for a group of 3 people that are as good and dedicated as i am in order to beat omega weapon in ff15… its ok with mmo’s only because i play at most 1 mmo at any given time, so i only need to find one group of people to play with. but extending that to every game i want to play seems like a pain in the ass and could easily be more frustrating than fun.

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