Sunday, September 25, 2005

A lack of multiplayer games?

This is short ramble into multiplayer gaming containing random and a possibly unrelated set of ideas. It mainly applies to multiplayer games over the Internet. Some of the arguments are not fully fleshed out. If you have a specific questions or comments let me know and I'll think up something up. Or change my mind. Whatever is easier. And, although I refer to computers specifically in this article, a lot of the things here apply to console gaming as well - I think.

My primary concern: there aren't a lot of internet multiplayer games and, in my opinion, there certainly aren't many as there should be. I'm not saying there should not be any single player games - having a lone gaming session is still very important for reasons I won't go into here. But sometimes I think we certainly haven't explored the multiplayer game arena to much extent at all.

For example: generally, the available shareware multiplayer games break down into simple games (card games, puzzle games, etc) and more immersive games. However, there are very few of either to be honest. I guess this is because doing multiplayer games isn't easy, especially with the latencies over the internet making things much more complicated. However, even the number of commercial games that are multiplayer is limited. Agreed, making a multiplayer game is totally different and changes the game and development dynamics - whether they are competitive or co-operative.

I'm mostly interested in 'immersive' games. For the current purposes, let's say there are two class of immersive games:
1. Games like Doom, Quake, Unreal or Neverwinter Nights where a limited number of players game together. Let's call these team games.
2. Massively multiplayer games, usually MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), which have usually greater than 100 users. The difference with the recent MMORPG over old days MUDs is mainly they are fully graphical - usually some form of 3D or fake 3D.

Maintaining a MMORPG as shareware or freeware is a tall order - even for commercial companies it's difficult. From a running point of view I guess most MMORPG typically require a single server* that is constantly running with a fair amount of bandwidth. Although totally peer-based persistent worlds are possible, it's cutting edge stuff that's difficult even if we assume no one is going to cheat. (* I know quite a few commercial MMORPG run multiple servers)

(Perhaps another alternative for persistent worlds for shareware/freeware is lots of little servers with less bandwidth that only run a small section of the map. Think of a network of web pages where the whole web-site is run over multiple servers. Of course each system operator would need some sort of gate-keeping so that only certainly things pass over the borders of their land. Character advancement and object management would be a challenging problem. )

Even designing team games add many different challenges. They require stories that suite multiple players for co-operative games or equalisation of game play for competitive games (e.g. no greatly better weapon). On top of this nearly all team games have a single player mode - a story to play. This itself requires much tuning to make into a good game. Therefore you really have two games. One of the reasons for needing a single player mode is finding people to play with. Of course, there is a solution; quite a few games have lists of currently active games you can play with others. This solution is only half a solution: most of the games have very experienced players which the average player has no chance against. Therefore it becomes no game. Perhaps some system to put similar players together? Additionally, these are people you don't know - and hence have no connection to. In a MMORPG you at least build up relationships with people as well.

The two types of games are obviously very different. MMORPG have theoretically infinitely more variety than team games. But there are limitations. One of them is that the players have much less control over the game than you do when playing a single player game or a team game with friends. Playing occurs constantly and people you know who play for more time are at a serious advantage. Also most games also charge a fixed fee by the month - ruling out a lot of casual gamers getting their moneys worth. Additionally a lot of MMORPG rely on character advancement rather than story or even exploration as a pull. Constant character advancement is only a driver for so long. Of course, some players are good at (real) role-playing - usually without assistance from the game code or world at all. This provides an infinitely more convincing driver for players. When programmers learn to code that into a game they will have a winner.

Oh a footnote: I'm focused here on internet multiplayer games over the other two modes - local connection (e.g. LAN) and multiplayer games on a single computer because both are significantly inferior to internet multiplayer games. There are good games in this category, of course, e.g. Bloodwych, but generally it adds much more dimension to the game when you don't have to be physically together with the other players all the time. Generally Internet games can be played with a local connection (or at least can be easily designed to). Playing multiplayer games on a single computer can be good - but generally it's a bit of a pain - and have limitations - e.g. you can see what the other player is going (although with a co-operative game that can be fun - like watching reality t.v. but better).

Anyhow, enough babbling.


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