[Veteran designer Pascal Luban (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory) continues his series on the "megatrends" of the gaming industry, this time tackling multiplayer - from co-op and griefing to addiction. To read his first article in the series, click here. To read the second article, click here.]
To claim that multiplayer gaming is a major trend of our industry would be to state the exceedingly obvious. Nevertheless, the consequences of this trend are deep enough to warrant an analysis of the phenomenon. As such, let's review the areas affected by the whirlwind that is multiplayer gaming.
In single-player games, progression is linear; the player "wins" the current level and reaches the next one. Everything (the scenario, the promise of new weapons, etc.) is set up to encourage him to continue onward. The player therefore spends little time in each level.
This situation is inverted in multiplayer modes, wherein the same levels are likely to be played hundreds of times -- often by the same players! Any bugs and/or weaknesses in level design quickly become apparent in such a situation.
The need for extensive testing and playtesting will increase as publishers will be compelled by the market to release impeccable products. What might be the consequences of this on game design?
Playtests are likely to have more influence on the design of game than they currently do. Playtests carried on at early stages of the game development can bring major benefits to the production of the game. Playtesting not only offers the opportunity to correct design errors, but also the possibility of giving birth to new design ideas while there is still time. Playtesting therefore represents an opportunity for improvement and risk reduction.
Having set up and managed the playtesting cell of the Ubisoft Annecy, France studio for the development of the multiplayer mode of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, I was able to directly measure the contribution of playtesting to the quality of the final game. Playtest management is likely to become a specialized function as it requires specific skills.
The first multiplayer games tended to place players in opposition to one another. True, pretty much all of our card and board games work that way, after all... but this form of gaming was soon limited largely to skilled players. A novice or ordinary player generally cannot hold his own against a seasoned gamer. Constantly losing is surely not the best way to spend an evening!
Microsoft/Epic's Gears of War
The arrival of cooperative gaming modes has allowed players of different skill levels to have fun together. I think it is one of the main reasons for Counter-Strike's success, where players of any level are playing together as a team. A game like Gears of War owes part of its success to its option for allowing two players to fight alongside through the single player adventure.
If a multiplayer game wishes to please the mainstream, it must definitely support one or more cooperative modes. This is even truer in certain cultures where cooperation is more valued than competition.