[Much has been made about how Splash Damage's Brink integrates multiplayer and single player modes into a seamless whole -- and creative director Richard Ham explains the team's approach, alongside comments from Irrational's Ken Levine and Kaos' Rex Dickson.]
The differences between first person shooter audiences who only choose to play single player campaigns, and FPS audiences who eschew story altogether and only delve into competitive multiplayer modes, feel very distinct to me. One side prefers narrative and a self-paced experience, while the other prefers virtual sport and the breakneck pace that goes along with it.
With that in mind, when I saw the Brink developer diary entitled "The End of Genre as We Know It," which talks about bridging the gap between these two kinds of FPS experiences, I was extremely dubious about the idea conceptually, much less how the London-based development studio Splash Damage would pull it off.
My feelings about a divide between the two audiences are predicated more on anecdotal evidence than any concrete studies of player behavior, and so I reached out to some first person shooter developers to get their thoughts as to how they conceived of a divide, if any, between single-player focused FPS gamers and multiplayer-centric FPS gamers.
These were general questions about the audiences, unrelated to any specific queries as to the potential success of other studios' titles.
"I don't know that it's a divide... I don't think there's a divide between people who like action movies and people who like comedies," said Ken Levine, creative director at Bioshock house Irrational Games.
"I think some days you feel like going to see a comedy, and some days you feel like seeing an action movie. And some days I think you feel like getting into a very intense, single player experience, story-driven, and something you can do as a solitary exercise, and some days you just feel like going out there and doing something much more social.
"I think obviously there are some people who really focus on stuff, but I think in general gamers are pretty broad in their tastes."
Rex Dickson from Kaos Studios, the lead level designer for Homefront, put some stock in the idea of a concrete divide. "I have many friends and co-workers who spend almost all their game time playing competitive FPS and rarely play the single player campaigns," he said.
"Others I know, myself included, primarily play games for the single player experience. I can think of quite a few games I owned with a multiplayer mode I never even tried. The bottom line is that the multiplayer audience is more competitive, while the single player audience is looking for a crafted experience. So, while I believe the divide exists, there is a lot of crossover. I would say the majority of the FPS audience plays both the single player and multiplayer modes, although it seems it is shifting towards the multiplayer side over the last few years."
Dickson broke down how he understands the divide between the two audiences in terms of their psychology. "On the multiplayer side, having another player in control of the other characters in the world is something single player can never emulate. It drives the entire experience. That social aspect, the conscious realization that there is another human being controlling the characters on screen is very powerful.
"[A] single player game's big draw is that it makes us feel like the hero, the absolute center of the experience. Everything in the world revolves around our actions. [There] is something really appealing about that to people and is a lot harder to achieve in a multiplayer experience, if at all. I don't want to go so far as to say that divide is irresolvable, but I do think it represents a significant design challenge."
There are ostensibly three different sorts of first person shooter audiences, then: those who prefer campaigns, those who prefer multiplayer, and those who appreciate both. Inasmuch as we could still delineate the differences between campaign and competitive play, I also wanted to know whether these developers thought it was possible to create a unified, core experience that would satisfy both ends.
"I think it can be done, but you have to set out with that as a goal, and you have to be respectful of what you're getting into. I think that's the biggest challenge," Levine said. "Most of the mistakes I've made in my career have come out of not appreciating the challenge, not dedicating the time, energy, and resources appropriate to the level of challenge. And I think if you have the right people and the right time, you can do almost anything. You have to make sure you gauge the challenge level, and the challenge level you're describing is a gold level challenge. It's not a silver or bronze level challenge."
"I'm sure it's possible, but as I said, it's going to be tough," Dickson said. "There is a good reason that most developers create separate single player and multiplayer game modes. It allows the two teams to create features, systems, tune, and make design decisions that cater specifically to the type of experience they want to create. The more those games are the same, the more interdependencies you create. Now, all that said, I believe it can be done."