The Secret to Multiplayer Success

May 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

The large majority of multiplayer games are unsuccessful. They come tacked on to a single player game, and lack any innovation that would make them worth playing. Worst of all, when a single player game comes out that doesn’t include a multiplayer component, there will always be a minority in the community that will complain, regardless of how good a multiplayer game it would have made. Escape From Butcher Bay had this problem, resulting in multiplayer being added to the pseudo-sequel/remake Assault on Dark Athena and more recently Bioshock offended a group of gamers intent on playing every game under the sun with friends.

Multiplayer components are costly, carry with them the majority of a game’s bugs, and more often than not don’t add much to the game as a whole. How many of you even played the multiplayer component of Metal Gear Solid 4, or The Darkness for more than a couple of days? Were the games better off because of the inclusion of one more mode in the menu?

Problems arise with multiplayer for one of two main reasons. Firstly the game in question may not be ideally suited to online play. Take Metal Gear Solid as an example. Before Guns of the Patriots the games’ controls did not allow them to be played as shooters, you needed to enter into first person view in order to accurately aim, and when there movement was impossible. These problems could be overcome with special care and attention being paid to multiplayer, such as the modes included in the Splinter Cell games in which a group of spies would take on a team of gamers playing from a standard first person perspective. Such a feature was fun and a worthwhile addition to the game, without losing the spirit of the single player portion. Sadly however in most cases this doesn’t happen, which leads us to the second reason most multiplayer modes fail.

In most cases the development team working on multiplayer has but a fraction of the resources of the single player team. They have to make do with less time, less manpower, and generally less money to produce something which is arguably harder to make. Call of Duty 4 showed the world how to do a multiplayer component properly. Right from the beginning of development an equal amount of time was given to both multiplayer and single player, and this paid off in spades with an online game that was innovative, polished, and a tonne of fun to play. Yes the single player was shorter as a result of this, but it’s impossible for a game to have its cake and eat it in this respect.

One can only assume developers include multiplayer offerings in an attempt to chase the elusive ‘long tail’ of game sales. Ordinarily a game will blow its load within its first month of being on sale, and as such this is the time within which a game will either live or die. With a long tail of sales however a game will sell consistently over a long period of time. Some games achieve this with sustained levels of advertising such as Nintendo with Wii Fit and Brain Training, but Nintendo have also done it with hardware pack-ins, such as with Wii Play. Most companies simply don’t have the funds to go such a route and so a multiplayer component can be used to over time accumulate sales. The aforementioned Call of Duty 4 remained in sales charts throughout much of 2008 because of such an inclusion, and though Valve don’t release sales numbers from Steam, one can only assume much the same has happened with Team Fortress 2.

But are there any hard and fast rules for how to achieve such success? Invariably of course there isn’t, but it’s clear that advertising plays a big role in the success of such products. This could take the obvious form of television ads, or it could be more direct and speak directly to gamers. Team Fortress 2 is a good example of this, with blogs such as Kotaku constantly reporting on Valve’s inclusion of new features to the game. This also reassures gamers that support for the game will be long and sustained, after all you don’t want to spend time getting good at a game’s multiplayer only to have the next game in the series come out and undo all your practice. Above all though, any multiplayer game must have it’s own unique feel to entice people into playing it. It’s no longer enough to do what Quake did a decade ago, your game now needs levelling, a different art style, or unlockable extras to give it the legs it needs.

Of course if all else fails you could just remake Battlefield 1942 and hope for the best.

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