Sunday, July 06, 2008

Nobody's Playing

There's a problem with the recent trend to emphasise online multiplayer in games, and it is this: nobody's playing.

On XBox Live today if you want a multiplayer game of Halo 3 or Gears of War, you'll be cocking your weapons within minutes. But if it's The Darkness or Crackdown you're after your chances aren't so good. Heaven help you if you were hoping for a ranked match of Catan or Doom.

Catan, it should be noted, has no local multiplayer. So if you've just shelled out your $10 or whatever on Live Arcade and discovered that all you can do with it is challenge some rather lame AIs you'd probably be right to feel more than a little cheated.

These things have critical mass. If no-one is playing Mario Strikers Charged Football today, then no-one is going to be playing it tomorrow. Waiting in an empty lobby in the hope of someone showing up is not fun; and if no one is willing to wait for an adversary to arrive, then no matches are ever going to be made.

Multiplayer content takes time and money to develop. That's a cost that's explicit, in that it's passed on to the consumer by way of the purchase price, or implicit, in that it diverts time and resources away from the single player experience. When something with a reasonably well fleshed-out online mode like The Darkness simply has no multiplayer following, that's a massive waste.

Multiplayer content also decays. What may have a reasonable community at release may well have no-one less than a year later. While the Halos and Counter-Strikes of the world may stay strong year after year, they're the small minority. Try getting anyone to play The Ship or DefJam Icon. Achievements in these games that require multiplayer action grow more unreachable with every passing day.

One solution is passive matchmaking. This means that matchmaking occurs while players are engaged in other content. In Crackdown it works reasonably well, where you can be on the look-out for players who want a co-op game while you're working your way through the single player story. In World of Warcraft, though, it works poorly, where the Looking for Group interface is badly supported and ignored by the majority of players.

Before committing to developing online multiplayer content, developers should seriously ask themselves who, exactly, will be playing. Where will the boundless hordes of players come from, and why will they keep coming back for more? How will you stop them from having to wait around in empty lobbies? And what will you do, eventually, when it turns out nobody's playing?


Josh said...

Sadly, this is also why I think most multiplayer mods are doomed to failure. It's hard enough to get anyone to play them once they're out, much less get interested in helping test them during development.

Nismo said...

Naturally as an achievement whore, this problem affects me a fair bit too. As you mention games like Gears and Halo are easy to find matches in and therefore gaining their multiplayer achievements are relatively easy. A game like Prey or (as you also mentioned) The Darkness though and there is no chance in hell.

It's why I hate how most games have multiplayer achievements of some sort. I can understand why they have them but if people can't obtain achievements legitimately purely because it relies on other people being there, then that is unfair and dare I say it, pathetic. The achievement side of this discussion is a topic for another day, though.

Achievements or not, having multiplayer components of games being dead is not a good thing. Obviously people are going to go where the quality is so Halo, Call of Duty 4 and the like will always have a community of some sort. I guess people are also going to go where the people are, but that just goes hand in hand really. But, what if you're a fan of a reasonably niche title and feel like playing it online? No one to play with results in disappointment, boredom and a lack of motivation to bother trying again and that's a shame. No player should ever be disappointed with a game for reasons that are out of said player's control, but with the increased popularity of online multiplayer these days it happens and by the looks of things, developers either can't do much about it or don't care enough.

You could argue that the multiplayer mode(s) should have been more compelling to play, or net code should be refined better to decrease the lag or any other reason but to me, these arguments (while valid) are just copping the blame so that the blame is shifted from the bigger and more important issue. What that issue is exactly, however, remains to be seen while developers/gamers continue to not understand why they can't play their game of choice online, or while everybody is too busy playing Halo to care.

Greg Tannahill said...

Bots. Always, always add bots. This was what sold me on the original Unreal Tournament, as well as any manner of TimeSplitters and GoldenEye titles, and I just can't believe it's not industry standard yet.

Nismo said...

Heh, I totally forgot about bots but now that you have mentioned it, I totally agree. Bots have helped me pick up some achievements (whore!) in Perfect Dark over the recent months and yeah, it would be great if every game had them. Are they hard to implement, though? I wouldn't have a clue...

Greg Tannahill said...

Well, you have to write an AI; presumably your game can already handle this if it has any kind of single player component. I, honestly, don't even demand a particularly good AI. Easy bots are fun.

And the system has to have the spare processing capacity to run the AI scripts. That can be more of an issue, but again if you have a single player campaign you're presumably running any number of scripts for the enemies in there.