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The Rules of the Game: Multi-Player Lobbying


September 4, 1998
 

The first big problem in getting a multi-player game going, from the user's perspective, is gathering the team. This can, as all such things can, end up much trickier than it first appears. There are a number of different gathering strategies and each should be considered for its pros and cons when designing your game. Here are four common ways to gather a team:

1) Next on the Bus -This strategy is basically first come, next served. The game is like a ride in Disneyland. Games are filled by people in order of appearance in "line". If it happens to be friends, great, but more likely it is just a shared experience by a bunch of strangers. The advantage is there is minimal waiting for the next game to start, and no hurt feelings. The disadvantage is that friends can't chose to play together and there is no balancing by skill level.

2) Pick-Me Style - The far more common approach is the Pick-Me style. Most of the games, including Diablo work this way. Unfortunately it brings back unfortunate echoes of schoolyard horrors everywhere, with a few people waiting to be picked for what feels like their entire lives. Th Net tends to bring out both the best and worst in people, so small kind impulses are usually translated into inclusiveness and slightly jerky tendencies seem blatant. (More on on-line chat psychology in the next installment.) The advantage of this method is that friend groups can easily get and play together. The disadvantage is that games often take a long time to get going as people continually drop in and out of the group. This is not as bad with games that can start with a flexible number of players. But, it was a horrible problem for games with a set number of players, for example, with the old Imagination Network's bridge games. Just as you'd get the fourth person to commit, the second would drop out to join another team. When you'd finally get started, one player would be dropped from the Net, and the whole game would be screwed. This would definitely result in a high frustration factor.

3) Wander and Team - Some of the persistent environment games have introduced the concept of wander and gather. That is, just start playing, and if you run into someone you like, play along with him or her. This works much better in some form of RPG. AOL's old D&D game, Neverwinter Nights was like this as well.

4) Once more into the Breech, Dear Friends - This is most common in the Doom-like games. Just walk into a room filled with gun toting bastards and shoot anything that moves. If you die, you come right back in to play again.

I wanna play NOW!

One of the big issues that affect the lobbying experience, obviously, is how long do you have to wait to get into a game. There are two solutions to this. Either have so many people ready to go and such a smooth system that a train is leaving the station every 30 seconds, or, more likely have a game that allows players to join mid-stride.

Persistent gaming is a different beast. Its lobbying issues are much more of finding people to act as good partners or guides. Most gaming is more a question of getting a quorum so the game is fun. One of my least favorite things in the world is playing a game of StarCraft, getting stomped by the one computer player in the first 5 minutes (because the sucker decided to go rampaging with 6 Space Marines), and then having to wait an hour for the rest of the people in the office to finish the damn game so I can rejoin in the next round.

This is a big issue, particularly with local multi-player gaming. How do you let the losers have something to do while the winners fight to the death? When I was working for PF. Magic on the modem for the Sega Genesis, the most fun part was designing multi-player game experiences. One of the things I worked on was a four person chess variant called Chaos Chess. The board was two squares larger on either side, and each player started in a corner position. The basic rule was that once your king was taken, all your pieces changed color to be part of the army of the person that defeated you. But then the game would go on for a while without you, and you had to just sit there twiddling your thumbs while you waited for the end. So we introduced the concept of the Chaos Knight. When you lost your army, you came back as a randomly placed Knight on the board. Basically, you got to be a pain in the ass to everybody left. When you'd get taken, you'd lose a turn and then just pop up somewhere randomly again. If you happened to take someone else's King in the process then, boom, you're back in the game.

So the question is, how do you design something for the losers to do that keeps them engaged with the game while the winner is still being determined? Why? Because you want to keep them engaged in their current game so that when the winner is determined, they will be excited to start a new game with a chance to win again. Otherwise the winning becomes hollow for the winner and winning becomes less desirable for the losers. When you get to the top of the hill, don't you want to wave to all those at the bottom?

My Buddy. My Target.

And finally, to end this first installment of four columns on multiplayer game design, the issue of team games vs. world full of targets.

In a world full of targets, like most of the Quake variants, the purpose of the Lobby area is threefold. Strut, Taunt, and Group. Strutting is the cowboy who walks into the Wild West Saloon and saunters up to the bar with the "Yep I'm bad, don't screw with me" attitude. Taunting is the guy that's already sitting at the bar with his hat pulled over his eyes and who says, "You supposed to be some sort of tough guy?" to our friend walking in. And grouping is when the lesser gun fighters realize that maybe there's a fight bout to break out and maybe they'd better pick sides. The interactions you're going to get are, and should be, much cockier and nastier. That's the flavor of the game. And you probably need to set up some magic bar doors that don't let the inexperienced into a place where they're going to get their asses kicked, or the tough into the newbie areas to go on giblet melees.

The issue of gathering teammates is much trickier. Here you need to match a blend of skill levels, so someone in the group can act as guide. (It's much more fun for all involved, and cuts down on tech support big-time) Here you need to create an environment that lets people gather together, and makes it clear who wants to play what for how much time. (It's no fun to gather a team only to find ten minutes into the first game that half the team needs to go.) And you want to give people a chance to chat with each other so they can get to know the other players. Chat is where we'll start again next issue. The wonderful world of getting to know your opponents, and letting them learn all about you.


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