The More the Merrier?

I recently made a post on our official OML blog about what Adam and I are playing. Taking a look at that list you’ll find that the vast majority of games I play are multiplayer oriented. A lot of biases, inspirations, and design decisions that go into my game designs are influenced by multiplayer games.

When we set out to start One Man Left, my long term goal for the company (beyond making fun games we like to play) was to be known for making fun multiplayer indie games for whatever platform we develop for. Our first game wasn’t a real-time multiplayer game, but you gotta start somewhere, right? Admittedly, I don’t seek out purely multiplayer games on the iPhone often. Searches for “multiplayer” tend to not turn up very compelling options, and it worries me. The few games that are strictly multiplayer tend to have different reactions based on how the match making works and how ‘easy’ it is to play alone. For instance, one game was bluetooth/wifi only and had no AI opponent. It had extremely low ratings and the vast majority of them were “please add a computer opponent”. Just reading this you would think that a lot of iPhone users are isolated cases where their friends don’t have an iThing. This could very well be the case, although in my personal experience it isn’t. It may also have been a case of the app description not being detailed enough.

I’ve been prototyping some co-op multiplayer game ideas over bluetooth recently and we’re really excited about the possibilities. I feel multiplayer is an awesome tool in the game designer’s toolbox. It overcomes many challenges more traditional single player games are still struggling with:

  • Want the player to have a memorable experience? Include a friend, and now it’s a shared experience that is easier to remember.
  • Want a genuinely funny game? Add some human players and watch the hilarity ensue. It becomes a breeding ground for memes, inside jokes.
  • It’s much easier for players to evoke genuine joy, exhilaration, nervousness, anger and frustration when playing with human players in close proximity.

Yes, it’s definitely a different spin on things as you can’t exactly tailor an ‘epic’ story to many multiplayer games, but it entirely depends on the goals your game is set out to achieve. In the context of mobile games, long and epic games don’t seem to be hitting the mark compared to heavier duty, more hardcore platforms.

So where are all the awesome multiplayer games, especially with a platform that is practically connected 24/7 regardless of location and time? We’ve certainly seen some early successes so far (Words with Friends, Eliminate, NOVA, Archetype, etc), but these seem to be barely scratching the surface on what this platform can do. Now with some ideas on multiplayer on the iPhone I figured there are plenty of challenges and possibly very good reasons why we aren’t seeing many successful indie games based around multiplayer just yet.

Complexity

It’s no secret that networking, and making that networked experience seamless and easy to use is no small task. In fact, if you’re doing a server hosted solution where the game is happening at a central location, the cost and infrastructure is probably cost prohibitive for most indies to be sustainable. Even if it’s a P2P game, the complexities of managing a game over a network where any number of things can hinder the quality of the connection or the progress of the game can become a headache at times. You find you are coding for a lot “exceptions” in game events when things simply don’t arrive, arrive late, or aren’t even welcome.

It’s not common for a game to have multiplayer as it’s front and center offering. It’s usually tucked away as a “but wait, there’s more!” item in some bullet list description of features. As such, the convention seems to be a single player option with multiplayer being “extra”. That just adds to production time as now your game isn’t just a single “mode”.

Appeal

To me it seems the number of people who wish to play a game with their friends would be close if not higher to those that wish to purchase a quick 5-minute game to kill time. But I have no data to really back this up, and as such I think my bias is getting in the way here and I could be dead wrong when it comes to the iPhone game market. Social networking sites have already shown that ‘social games’ have a huge appeal, however dubious the game is. So maybe that’s good news?

Opportunity

The other dilemma is the chances the player will have to actually play the game. With a game like “Words with Friends” or “Archetype” there’s always a game at a moment’s notice. Of course, the catch being that you aren’t playing with real life friends (WWF has a slight exception here due to the nature of the game). It’s difficult enough to get players to play your game on their own, but now adding the constraint that 2+ people must buy it AND must be in the same general location to play becomes even more challenging. This drives the game more into niche territory. The question is if that niche is big enough.

The More The Merrier

Multiplayer games are sticky by nature. Players won’t drop your game after a day if they have friends playing it. There’s been a lot of ‘bigger budget’ games that are multiplayer driven on the iPhone, and the whole “social gaming platform” vendors (AGON, Open Feint, Plus+, etc) are all betting on the same thing with their leaderboards and social features. So maybe I’m not too crazy to try to create something that requires more than 1 person/iPhone to fully enjoy the game. The iPad is always an option as well, and possibly a safer one if I wish to pursue a ‘multiplayer’ centric game idea.

8 comments

  1. Great post, I feel basically the same way. I’m currently prototyping a multiplayer-only split-screen iPad game that’s a lot of fun, but I’m really not sure what kind of market there is for this sort of game.

    I wonder how well it would work if you made an iPhone game where a paid game was the server, but there was a free app to be the client, or something along those lines.

    I remember Mario Kart DS did a similar thing, where you could play multiplayer with someone who didn’t even have the game, but they would get a limited version with only one playable character.

    1. @Matt Rix It certainly is an interesting situation and I’m wondering if there were a bunch of ‘silent failures’ that tried these very ideas and the market simply didn’t support them.

      @Noel My initial prototypes months ago were actually asynchronous game designs as I fully agree these games sing on mobile devices and it’s something I want to explore further. My desire to see a good synchronous game on the iPhone stems from the experiences had on PC and console, but as you said there is an instant gratification that can’t be had as easily. From my own experiences, I’m finding more and more instances where a synchronous game could have worked, but in the end those situations may not be numerous enough to be worth the effort.

  2. Great post, even though I fall in the opposite camp. If I want a *synchronous* multiplayer game, I’m most likely to play it on the PC or a console. On the iPhone, I want instant-gratification games when I have a minute to kill.

    On the other hand, *asynchronous* mutliplayer games are a great fit for me on the iPhone as I get to play with my friends and still do it whenever I want. That’s one of the reason those social FB games are so popular I think.

    Then again, kids in a classroom might feel very differently, having having all the classmates with an iDevice would make it much easier to play.

  3. One game on iOS that nails the multiplayer perfectly is Carcassonne. Granted, it’s a turn-based board game, which simplifies things a bit, but you can play it in offline push-notification mode, have it turn into real-time chat-enabled multiplayer on the fly automatically if your other opponents happen to come online while you are taking your turn, and the game will automatically drop back into offline mode if your opponents drop offline again.

    It’s a nice seamless multiplayer implementation for iOS.

    1. @Brian It sounds like Carcassonne really pulled it off by giving players best of both worlds. I have only played it on 360, but I may have to give the iphone version a go 🙂

      @Dad yes, I stand corrected. Certainly, these days it’s much cheaper to be able to run a fully-hosted server based game.

      @Mike Thanks a lot for that info! I haven’t seen too many stories on multiplayer-based games. And yes, even my own habits dictate that I tend to want something quick and easy on the go than something a bit heavier. This feeling is much less potent when I’m in front of my ipad though, so that may prove to be a better venue. And even though I prefer multiplayer games, it may still have to be “feature” to a good, solid single player game that can garner an audience. Sadly, with limited resources those types of features are usually the first to go.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with Noel. The VAST majority of iOS players want an instant “fix” and quick play. Multiplayer-only games do not provide that (unless asynchronous). I’m sure this is one of the reasons my own first game, Face Race, flopped. Requiring that someone be in the same room with you is a huge barrier that most iOS users won’t bother to try and cross, unfortunately. Which is too bad, because I love multiplayer games too!

  5. I can hypereasy connect 2 of the issue you describe and have a solution 🙂

    1) you want more multiplayer bluetooth games
    2) you’ve been prototyping bluetooth networking for games

    just put your bluetooth gaming code on github, make it really easy to use and more people will make multiplayer games 🙂

    cheers, Marin

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