With the recent success of so many multiplayer/social games and the emergence of the gamification of services it’s worth thinking about what makes multiplayer gaming so powerful. Games can be applied to anything and in many ways humans often make games where none existed just due to our amazing pattern recognizing abilities. Games and play are an old form of communication almost certainly pre-writing, possibly even pre-language, one could hypothesize that games themselves might be one of the oldest forms of cultural communication (especially when you see animals learning through play). In the case of multiplayer games they provide a shared space for play and learning. Not only are you learning the framework of the game but also how other players approach the game. Multiplayer games are also where teamwork and camaraderie emerge creating a community and culture around the game.
Multi-player video games have always been more challenging and fun for a longer period of time than single player games because humans make much better opponents and teammates than computers. When playing against or with people the motivation to learn and adapt is much more dynamic and often relentless. One of the challenges of course with multi-player games is that people who play them a lot will soon outclass other players and speed at which many players in competitive multiplayer games learn becomes a barrier to entry for novice players.
Many of the best experiences I’ve had with multiplayer games were actually on LAN games at internet startups after hours. These include Age of Empires, starcraft, warcraft, CounterStrike, and TeamFortress, all played by a small group that knew each other and essentially learned the game together. It was an incredibly compelling experience that often had people playing until the wee hours of the morning. What was compelling about it was certainly the game but it also came from the group dynamic that formed between the players.
In most internet based multiplayer games there was a learning experience was not shared but an individual struggle playing against all comers of all levels. Lord of the Flies comes to mind in many cases but there were some rare exceptions that hinted at a more collegial atmosphere. One example that sticks in my mind was from playing Quake online and after a pretty sound thrashing an opponent that was clearly bored with the weak competition offered to teach me the “rocket jump”. I then spent about 20 minutes getting shown around the map identifying previously inaccessible locations that you could get to by pointing the rocket launcher at the ground and a well timed jump.
In many ways the MMO’s and social games benefit tremendously from this shared learning experience. Look at examples like WOW, Minecraft, and even CityVille, these all enable shared learning experiences that connect the players above and beyond the game itself. There is a team dynamic or camaraderie that comes from these shared learned experiences but also a kind of competition that can only come from knowing the game deeply.
The guys at Zynga have benefited from this dynamic and in CityVille (I have not played the others) have provided a platform for an asynchronous multi-player game that provides some of the benefits of multiplayer without the need for synchronous activity. This is not unique to Zynga, asynchronous gaming was part of Facebook’s platform from the beginning, enabling annoyances such as zombies, werewolves, and vampires.
The interesting thing about CityVille though that in addition to asynchronous multiplayer gaming it also simulates synchronous multiplayer gaming. To give you an example I could visit someone’s town anytime and do some tasks like collecting rent, supplying shops and watering farms. When this player logs in they will see my icon over some location where I took an action and when they click on it my icon will travel around town doing the tasks I did when I was there.
Social networks themselves are in many ways like big multiplayer games and I think there are things to learn from the way in which people can connect through shared learning experience. Anyone thinking about design in this emerging social space should consider how features can blend asynchronous and synchronous aspects of the experience and the mechanics and how they apply to group dynamics and learning.
My earliest experience with multiplayer gaming started back with an Amiga 500, which had an extraordinary fighter pilot game, which had a deep single player game itself but also had a head to head option. Basically you needed two Amiga 500′s connected by a 9600 baud null modem cable (this took some footwork, no internet yet). I was in the Army at the time in Germany and luckily had a neighbor below me in the barracks with an Amiga so we got the cable and hung it out the window. With the machines connected you shared an airspace with the other player and played a head to head dog fight, it was thrilling to play against a real thinking competitor.
Anyone have other multiplayer game experiences to share? I’d love to hear them.
Also on the subject of multiplayer gaming I’m working on a twitter metagame and really interested in finding forward thinking designers and players to be involved.
I have some other posts on gaming you might like to check out as well: