The Megatrends of Game Design, Part 3

By Pascal Luban

[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.]

Introduction

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.

New needs in quality control

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.

Development of cooperative games at the expense of competitive modes

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.


Gaming on mobile platforms

The marriage of the decade may not involve glossy paper celebrities at all, but rather video games and mobile platforms. This includes cell phones, but also handheld consoles and touch-screen hardware.

As such the iPhone/iPod Touch is the game platform nobody expected. The hardware is good, Apple has integrated the distribution method into the hardware, and the revenue sharing scheme is significantly better than for other mobile media.

Even if the machines themselves are powerful, the design limitations of mobile platforms do not appear to be quite compatible with our current gameplay mechanisms -- the screens are small, and the keyboard does not allow one to play with more than two fingers. Touch screen-based phones offer a much more comfortable screen, but don't solve the control issue.

However, as always, specialized game mechanisms will surely appear. The use of the accelerometers in the iPhone is a smart way to circumvent the control issue and explains the success of Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart on this platform.

We can wager that new forms of games will emerge that circumvent the weaknesses of mobile phones: role-playing or strategy games that do not require complex graphics and can work with limited interfaces.

WAP-, SMS- or MMS-based games, applications complementing more traditional games, games utilizing integrated cameras, co-op puzzle games where each individual holds some of the pieces, gambling games, social games, etc. While these examples are only speculation, I want to emphasize the fact that innovation always arises where we least expect it to.

Mobile games are probably the next horizon of multiplayer gaming as it is the only platform that, in the medium term, can open multiplayer gaming to the true mass market.

The downloadable content breakthrough

I already addressed this trend in a previous article. Its impact on game design and on the economic model of game commercialization will probably be significant. Fiction? Hardly. It is already the case with massively multiplayer games, as well as with the numerous free games relying on microtransactions to generate revenue.


EA DICE's Battlefield Heroes

This business model has been pioneered by Asian publishers and developers and is likely to sweep our shores. It is, in fact, the path taken by EA for Battlefield Heroes, one of the forthcoming titles in the Battlefield series developed by the talented Swedish studio DICE.

Single player games are making use of downloadable content: new equipment, levels, missions, game modes, settings, opponents, etc. There's every chance this will become increasingly extensive.

We can easily predict the impact of this development on the economic model for publishers; that is to say, significant revenue generated by a game will no longer necessarily stop with the initial distribution of the box.


Development of online gaming on consoles and a switch in the use of the PC

Consoles have been lagging behind the PC for multiplayer gaming. There are many reasons that explain that and many more to argue that the situation will change.

Xbox Live has already attained over 14 million subscribers. Sony, with its PS3, PSP, and PlayStation Network, is now offering the right hardware and network infrastructure. Nintendo is developing its online offerings in a very smart way. Broadband access is spreading fast, including in China and India.

In a few years, consoles are likely to become the leading platforms for multiplayer gaming as we know it today (on mobile platforms, we are more likely to see the emergence of new genres of casual multiplayer gaming). Shooters are far from restricted to the PC anymore, and strategy games will probably make a breakthrough on consoles as well.

New control mechanisms and viewing modes will have to be defined but most publishers have projects in that direction. Ubisoft's voice-controlled Endwar could show the way. By the same token, MMOs will probably proliferate on consoles as well, since most of them now offer mass storage devices.


Ubisoft Shanghai's EndWar

Will it mean the death of the PC as a multiplayer platform? Not at all. The PC will probably cease to be the main platform for hardcore multiplayer gaming, as it becomes an important one for casual and social gaming. The PC is also a hotbed for creativity. New multiplayer game concepts are likely to appear on the PC first.

The challenge of gamer behavior

The experience of playing online has little or nothing in common with that of solo gaming. The main difference lies in the behavior of the player's opponents -- or his allies, as the case may be. Whereas AI behavior is strictly controlled by designers in single-player games, the online player is potentially confronted by the whole broad spectrum of human behavior.

What sorts of things must the player contend with in such a situation? Here are some typical scenarios, no doubt quite familiar to network gaming aficionados:

  1. Cheaters who abuse a game's bugs or design errors
  2. Bad players or sore losers who log off during a session and leave their team-mates hanging
  3. Pro gamers who have mastered a game so thoroughly that their presence leaves no chance of survival to newcomers... or to anyone else!
  4. Players who lack the team spirit necessary for tactical play
  5. Thugs with rude or even outright xenophobic or racist behavior

Online gaming is sometimes like a jungle. Anonymity, coupled with an absence of regulation or any real consequences, tends to encourage all of the excesses of behavior characteristic of humanity. If multiplayer gaming is to become a mode of play accepted by all, it will have to become more civilized in the process.

Design solutions to such behavior problems are not so obvious. On Xbox Live, Microsoft allows players to rate each other, but this is effective only against the most blatant kinds of abuse. Another possibility lies in developing games that are reliant on cooperation, rather than on having the players confront one another.

Lastly, games should feature ranking systems only if they target hardcore gamers. Only these players really care about leaderboards. Experience has shown that ranking mechanisms tend to incite the most aggressive and least honest of players to cheat and take advantage of all of the exploitable quirks present in a game.

Innovative solutions for dealing with the gap between newcomers and veteran players will need to be explored. Here are some of the possibilities:

  1. Implementation of handicaps (negative or positive).
  2. Automatic detection of a given player's level, and subsequent integration of the player into an appropriate level group
  3. Interfaces and control mechanisms adapted to a given player's skill level
  4. Determination of accessible equipment or missions according to a given player's skill level

Multiplayer gaming: a public health issue?

There is a sub-genre of multiplayer games that will probably increasingly attract the attention of the media and the medical profession: the massively multiplayer online role-playing game. These games have the unique characteristic of being exceptionally addictive, for three primary reasons:

  1. They take place in a persistent virtual universe -- the game has no ending, per se.
  2. The game system relies on the endless improvement of the player's avatar. In other words, the game offers an inexhaustible source of challenges to motivate players.
  3. Their multiplayer dimension: it is far more stimulating to chase after a dragon with a bunch of friends than on your own.

The experience in Korea, where these games are immensely popular, demonstrates that a significant portion of MMO gamers may become completely and utterly intoxicated. The same issue is emerging the western world. In France, for instance, the Marmottant hospital, a leading institution for the treatment of addictions, has opened a therapy for treating the increasing numbers of addicts of this new "drug".

Thus a question arises, which affects both game design and publishing strategy: is it ethical to conceive such powerfully addictive games? Many gamers will tell me that only a fraction of players become victims of MMOs. True enough, but would these very same gamers feel the same way if such an addiction seized their own son?

Many players are still too young to have children, and consequently to understand the joys and torments of being a father or a mother. But there is also a growing number of gamers that do! I think this public health issues truly warrant a public debate. It is better that we talk about problems before they get out of hand rather than wait for legislators to enforce regulations upon us that will hurt the industry.

If this problem is taken into account by game publishers, game design solutions for limiting the potentially harmful effects of MMOs could be found. For example, we might reward avatars that sleep, i.e are idle for a certain amount of time, or somehow penalize those who do not get enough rest.

The case of players with multiple avatars might be dealt with by developing some kind of in-game parameter common to all of a given player's avatars: i.e. if one of his avatars consumes too much of this energy, the player will not have enough left to use his other characters to their full potential.

Next article

In my next and last chronicle on the megatrends of game design, I shall address three less obvious trends that are nevertheless rife with potential for future paths of development:

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