Playing with me, myself, and I.
I’m a bit weird about multiplayer games. Many games designed around the concept or with it in mind do not appeal to me as games for multiple players. MMOs, for example, never really strike me as multiplayer games. Sure, everyone is playing in the same universe with tons of enemies to fight, complimentary skills, and guilds, but I always feel as if I’m never really part of a team. We’re all heading towards the same goal, but making our contributions separately. MMOs, and action RPGs, never connect with me on a multiplayer basis because they fail to create that sense of a unified team. Here are some of the ways they fail:
No common target
Plenty of games let players complete the same quest, but they don’t often provide a common target. Things needed to complete a quest, such as collecting an item or defeat certain monsters, are often divided amongst multiple targets. The players may need to slay 5 squirrels to advance, so they separate to maximize their squirrel killing capacity. Rather than create a joint quest, this breaks up a large quest into a number of smaller quests that the players pursue independently. The quest transforms from “kill five squirrels” to “everyone kill a squirrel and meet back here to collect the reward.” The quest is accomplished without needing the team together making it feel like a more efficient version of a single player quest rather than a team experience. Some games make this even worse by geographically dispersing the quest targets meaning players have no chance of interacting with each other while engaging in supposedly team based activities.
Don’t build a conversation
Party with a random person on a server and you could engage in a semblance of team play, but it’s always limited by your inability to converse with your teammates. Players are doing what they think is best, but their strategy is limited to just themselves. One of the core elements of a team, having a joint strategy, is missing. Even when friends get together and can talk, the game may not provide enough complexity to necessity a conversation about it. To build a team strategy, the game needs to inspire something worth talking about. There needs to be some element of the game with enough depth to talk about during and after a play session which also keeps players committed to improving themselves and their team dynamic. These conversations help bring everyone together and keep them focused on the game. It also makes the multiplayer experience more interesting by creating conversation during the game.
Leaving out the dependence
In a single player game, the main character must have an answer to every problem the game presents. If they don’t, then the player can’t progress and the game effectively ends. In a multiplayer game, those answers can, and should, be parsed out among all the players to promote interaction. When each player is capable of winning on their own, then the value of their fellow players diminishes considerably. There’s little reason to band together or talk strategy when each player is capable of handling problems on their own. A lack of dependence may actually harm the multiplayer aspect by encouraging players to strike out on their own if they feel they’re better off without others. When players must rely on each other, they have a forced bond which promotes teamwork. They need to develop team player or they’ll have trouble progressing in the game. Furthermore, dependency allows plays to play the same instance of the same game rather than distinct instances. A lack of dependence is a common problem in multiplayer games designed with single player in mind.
Making the story exclusive
Multiplayer games, and MMOs in particular, often have trouble reconciling the story with the many player characters. Sometimes players are arbitrarily selected as the “story” player or a game will even try to run a separate narrative for each player. Neither solution satisfies. With arbitrary lead characters, every other player feels left out. They’re watching someone else play their game leaving them less committed to what’s happening on screen. On the other hand, by creating distinct stories, the game divides the players’ experiences. Beyond involving the players in different plots, distinct stories also create differing start and stop times (wait around while a player finishes), the need to travel to areas that are useless for most but necessary for one, and separate plot quests that incentivize breaking up the team. A story should create a shared experience where all team members participate. Trying to recreate the single player experience in a multiplayer setting undermines the team based nature of the game and is unsatisfying.
I enjoy multiplayer games, but only when the developer commits to the concept. When I’m truly sharing the game with my fellow team members, it feels like we’re creating a bigger experience. Developers should focus on the multiplayer nature of their game, and leave the single player content to the games that specialize in it.