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A Missive From The End Of Genre: How Brink Works
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A Missive From The End Of Genre: How Brink Works

April 25, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[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."

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Maurício Gomes
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I usually frown at those approaches, I really like my SP games...

But I might take a look, if it remain popular after getting cheap (I do not buy games at 50 USD or more... ever. Well, Witcher 2 is a exception.)

Slim Farza
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I think that this approach is experimental but truly interesting, ETQW is a great game as a multiplayer oriented... IF brink honestly combines SP elements to a multiplayer game then i might think on following their lead...

Lance Burkett
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"[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."

I strongly disagree with this idea. Like David Cage said; "In any type of experience, what matters is not so much what you do - it's how you feel. When you see a painting, you don't enjoy just standing in a museum watching the paint; what you like is how it makes you feel. When you go to the cinema, you don't just enjoy sitting in the dark and watching moving images on a screen; what you like is what you feel."

Amnesia for example, scariest game of recent memory and everyone liked it. In Amnesia you play the role of an average person in an understandably anxious mental state. People don't play games like Homefront, because they want to be a hero, they play those types of games because they are exhilarating.

Jacob Pederson
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Your missing a distinction here.

In a game like COD, when you are ranked at the bottom of the list, it is 100% clear that you are NOT the hero. In the male dominance hierarchy, you are dead last and are likely to continue to be dead last for quite some time. To say this is not a good feeling is a fairly hefty understatement.

Now, in a game like Amnesia, there are quite similar experiences of being vulnerable, not in control, ect; however, these experiences DO NOT place you at the bottom of a dominance hierarchy, because all players suffer identical trials. The player is allowed to enjoy the feeling of vulnerability precisely because they are still the hero.

I enjoy almost exactly zero multiplayer games for this distinction. Being a fully functional adult, I don't have the time to put into COD to get good enough at it to make a respectable showing (nor would I waste the time even if I had it). The one exception for me is skill-matched 1v1 experiences. I LOVE Starcraft 2 and Company of Heroes. Why? Because a loss doesn't place you at the bottom of some gigantic pyramid of your betters, and then rub your face in it. A loss in a 1v1 makes you just slightly worse (because of the skill matching) than one other person, a much smaller hit for my poor male ego to take :)

I'm not saying that large group competitive multiplayer games shouldn't be made; obviously they do phenomenally well :) However, I don't think that the "untapped" audience for these games actually exists. Getting stomped on by masses of sophomoric males is never going to appeal to me.

Dave Endresak
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The hierachy problem is very much apparent, although it is not necessarily restricted to males literally so much as a socially defined concept of "masculinity." Basically, it's a matter of how power is portrayed and used. In a hierachy, power is blatantly displayed and used (and often abused), and such elements are not appealing to many people regardless of specific segments of the population who enjoy them. However, most people would prefer to collaborate to create something rather than defeat others. In fact, this is a key aspect of certain cultures and societies where competition may be quite fierce but tends to be between groups and tends to result in everyone enjoying the process rather than only recognizing the "winner."

Matt McConnell
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Dave: Indeed, I believe that certain ideal is the reason why Minecraft has such a large (although still rather cult) following. The majority of testosterone-pumping adolescents, and beyond, would rather follow that method of YOU WIN or YOU LOSE as a means of determining worth in a given match, with the secondary K/D ratio as a more personal quantifier.

But there is another kind of competitive player that likes to work not against other players, but against more ethereal constraints. To build something that is monumental (reconstructions of the Starship Enterprise or Epcott Center or w/e you want in Minecraft) is a whole different kind of challenge, and one that rewards a wholly separate type of player.

But all of that affects how single-player and multiplayer traditionally work.

Jacob, I think that YOU'RE actually the one missing the distinction made by Lance. He is saying that single-player enjoyment is not dominated by a need to be the center of attention, or the hero. Rather, it gives us a level of emotional connection to games that multiplayer rarely delivers. If Amnesia were multiplayer, it wouldn't matter if there were a ranking system to let you know you did the best on your team or the worst-- it would be entirely unable to deliver the same kind of deep-seated fear and exhilaration that it currently exhibits. (At least if it were designed in the traditional COD-deathmatch style you point out.)

Rather, Brink is trying to bring a level of emotional connection that COD and even Starcraft and CoH etc have been unable to offer in their multiplayer. They want to offer a role that the player can fill, character-wise. In that sense, Brink will hopefully be an RPG in the sense of actual D&D-inspired role-playing. But that remains to be seen.

Also, "Being a fully functional adult, I don't have the time to put into COD . . . I LOVE Starcraft 2 and Company of Heroes." If you have time for those two time-sinks... haha ;D

I definitely understand what you're saying about sophomoric, male-dominance deathmatch rituals, but that doesn't mean there's not room in that style of play for a deeply-engaging story.

Lance Burkett
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Jacob: I think that depends on whether you are playing on a competitive or recreational basis. If you are playing competitively than this distinction is quite valid. If you are playing out of recreation, than you wouldn't even be caring about the leader-boards.

I think I play multi-player games on a recreational basis. I am absolutely terrible at CounterStrike, but never-the-less I still find it enjoyable.

Dave: That's an interesting way of looking at it. It sort of explains some of the rivalry that can arise even from co-op games, especially Portal 2 co-op(when GLaDOS makes rather overt statements of favouritism). Also the sense of collaborative effort might help with single-player portrayal. The whole Revolution/Evolution rhetoric is fueled by the collective effort and recognition of such efforts.

Michael Joseph
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"One side prefers narrative and a self-paced experience, while the other prefers virtual sport and the breakneck pace that goes along with it."

I think that's close but not quite. Narrative is the all important glue for both the single player experience and the virtual sport experience. The distinction I think is that single player description can be distilled to the survival experience whereas multiplayer death matches and capture the flags and such are virtual sport. The mechanics are the tools the player can use and the rules of the game universe.

Without narrative the acme portal mechanic is just a cool novelty and a straight forward series of puzzles. Trap the player in rooms governed by a crazy computer and you have a brilliant survival experience.

Without narrative counter strike is exposed as a rather sterile competition (like that blitz tank game). Define the players as diametrically opposed enemies and you've got an exhilarating contest. It's all just variations on the cowboys v indians / cops v robbers we played as children.

Left 4 Dead is a great example of what this article is talking about.. merging the typical single player survival experience with multiplayer by putting the humans players on the same side fighting against all odds an army of undead.

Narrative is important because otherwise you're just lining up cross hairs with a mouse while dodging the cross hairs of others.

Matt McConnell
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Any game can be distilled to a base of "shoot portals", "shoot bad guys", "solve puzzles", "infiltrate HQs", the list goes on.

That does not mean that the only differentiating factor is narrative.

If you look at the actual mechanics of the different games in any given genre, you will see that they offer VERY distinct styles of play, not governed whatsoever by narrative. Adding mechanics, gimmicks, visual elements, what-have-you, layer after layer after layer is what brings any game to a cohesive whole. Not "slap a narrative on a line-up-the-crosshairs-game".

Use Portal, for example. Valve offers a cohesive mesh of narrative and innovative gameplay mechanics to make it such a meaningful experience. The reason the 2nd one stands head and shoulders over most games I've played recently is a lot of the added mechanics, and how they're introduced with great respect to the narrative (just look at the ending, for example). They add faith plates, blue walkway things (whose name escapes me), tractor beams, three different types of goo, as well as the old standbys of portals and turrets and companion cubes and switches, ALL of which need to be used in conjunction to solve many of the puzzles. Tack on a multiplayer that is a standalone game on its own, but also goes beautifully with the single-player, and you have a winning formula.

So no I don't think narrative is the be-all-end-all. It is highly important to integrate story with the mechanics to make a highly-regarded game.

Michael Joseph
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I don't think we disagree really. I think maybe we disagree on what narrative is. In my mind it's a very broad thing. Narrative shapes the art direction, audio direction, the basic premise of the game, the tone, and even the mechanics that will be employed. To me narrative is nearly equivalent with the high level design and the best games are the ones that realize that. Narrative asks "What experiences, ideas and emotions do we want to convey?" Story then is crafted to serve it and to deliver it.

To me you can start a game and without touching any of the controls and before advancing into any of the story, you can sense the narrative.

The narrative really is the be all end all in the sense that you can't really have a game without a narrative but you can have one without a story. A painting on a wall has a narrative but it doesn't have a story. You might make up a story based on what you see but that story you imagine will be heavily influenced by the narrative of the painting.

To me story is a much narrower thing but which serves the desired narrative. In the TV series 24, part of the narrative is that the world is a dangerous place and sometimes you need to become the enemy you seek in order to defeat him. The stories are just the plot details of any given episode and the changing relationships and conflicts and arcs. The main character's background and personality is designed to fit what the narrative calls for and will eventually expect of him. The constant back stabbing of the supporting characters serves the part of the narrative that wants to prove just how dangerous the world is and how we can't trust anyone.

A strong narrative makes it much easier to write a good story. Starting with and thinking about the narrative will help to determine where the story starts and where it should end up. Narrative is like a slide upon which the story rolls down.


I want to write a story about the seductive qualities of power and how it eventually turns you cold and paranoid and how no matter how much you get it'll never be enough. Ultimately it'll cause you to hurt those around you and end in your own destruction. To make it personable and relateable to the largest possible audience I want the story to take place within a family that immigrates and starts off with next to nothing in the slums. And if you stay on that path and don't repent and make things right, your sins will be passed onto your sons and daughters.

Obviously I'm reverse engineering the narrative from the Godfather but that's all we the viewers/players can ever do. We all aren't always able to correctly grasp what the designer or author intended to convey... sometimes it's the authors fault and sometimes it's because the viewers/players lack certain life experiences needed to connect the dots . I digress. So I'm not saying that's how the Godfather story was originally conceptualized, but I'm saying that defining your narrative, defining what it is you want to say before you open your mouth is key to writing great stories.

Any game designer can come up with a narrative. Counter-Strike has a narrative but it doesn't have a story. For Counter-Strike that's good enough.


In fact, I think when you think of games in the broader historical and anthropological sense, various games and styles of play are designed to teach very specific skills and lessons or impart knowledge and specific ideas and concepts. Story is the sugar that makes those lessons paletteable or more easily understood. (holy books, political speeches, film, tv, video games, etc)

Michael Joseph
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Though I wonder what the narrative of a slot machine is? LOL.

maybe something involving a lot of empty promises...

Glenn Storm
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Slot machine narrative might look something like:

Anticipation that builds with each pull of the arm. It's 'work' that feels like it should translate to satisfaction. There are certainly lots of cues telling the player satisfaction is possible at every pull, even eminent. The chance of small effort and cash leading to highly efficient payoff, slowly gives way to the prediction that through the continuous effort the payoff is more likely. Run out of money, and its a cautionary tale, hit the jackpot early and its a fairytale, hit it later and its a hero's journey.

This was an awesome interview, btw.

Lance Burkett
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"I want to write a story about the seductive qualities of power and how it eventually turns you cold and paranoid and how no matter how much you get it'll never be enough."

A videogame adaption of MacBeth, sounds like a good idea. I think you could implement a good narrative with diplomatic strategy game-play. You start off as a child gaining friends in a playground, then over time you end up gaining national alliances. Start wars, etc.

It could prove to be a really powerful story concept actually. Imagine after the war ends and the protagonist walks around crumbled streets to find the bodies of people he once called friends.

Roger Klado
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Really if it wasn't positive commitment to "play" in the story using my own imagination. I would have to say that the surrounding character art, audio design ( n music ), And exceptional environment art exist with no attempt at story otherwise. Not so bad for myself, being crazy with imagination and immaturity.

But months later the backlash seems to stong to have survived without immersive story elements. The servers are empty. What was needed was more story innovation introduced with dlc. ( If the engine allowed for it? ) In-game narration triggers? NPCs fleeing fer cover? Female characters? Vehicle play with story suggested by radio broadcast? The level of work done so far makes for a very impressive base. Someone is not showing love for that vision. finicky gamerz? Timid developers? Unfaithful publisher? Brink would be fine with more content delivery and someone fighting for as much.