Gun Monkeys is a recent indie deathmatch game from Size Five Games (creators of two of my favourite modern adventure games), and today the developers announced an interesting attempt to tackle a problem that plagues many multiplayer games: a lack of players.
Size Five’s solution is to generate Steam keys for players who sit in an empty lobby for too long, allowing them to gift the game to friends, and presumably then play with those friends in the absence of other players. I’m not sure how well this will solve the problem of a lack of Gun Monkeys players. But what is clear, is that it doesn’t really address the underlying issue: that designing a multiplayer-only game means your game can’t be played without a certain number of players. Because the thing is that making a multiplayer game means that the experience of playing your game is entirely contingent on the people playing it. And that applies whether the multiplayer game in question is a multiplayer-only standalone game, or the multiplayer part of a game with a separate singleplayer component.
The problem Gun Monkeys faces is the most obvious issue with multiplayer: if nobody is playing your game, nobody can play your game. And if nobody can play your game, that’s almost the same as if your game flat out doesn’t exist. That’s a huge problem for anybody who’s spent a whole lot of time making a game. In fact, I’d go so far as to say if nobody is playing your game, you might as well not have bothered. Since multiplayer games can only be played multiplayer, without multiple players, they might just as well not exist at all.
Some games can count on a stable player base for a good long time. People have been playing Gears of War, Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for years, and despite numerous sequels to each of those games, I could still jump into a game with a full slate of players right now. Heck, the original Counter-Strike is still in the top 5 most-played games on Steam, and that’s been around for over 14 years. However, I’m pretty sure that a good 90-99% of video games that exist are not those games. The vast majority of multiplayer games will not have a stable player base, especially months after release. If I want to play, say, Dino D-Day? Or Plain Sight? Or, god forbid, one of the many, many annualised sports games? In those cases I’m almost certainly entirely out of luck. I like those games, but I simply cannot play them, because there is no stable player base. And if you can’t somehow ensure your game will have a stable player base, then the sad truth is it will be consigned to the black hole of unplayability. These are often called dead games, and the moniker is apt.
But even if you can get players for your game, you’ve still got everything about your game riding on them. Now, I’m a big fan of multiplayer games, having spent many, many hours playing Team Fortress 2, the Battlefield: Bad Company games, various Halos, and so on. But the experiences I’ve had in those games have been shaped, first and foremost, by the people I’ve played them with. Anybody who’s played a multiplayer game with friends will attest to how different that experience is from playing a game with random members of the public. And anyone who’s played with random members of the public – or even read YouTube comments on a highly-viewed video – will know, random members of the public are assholes. Maybe the players of your game aren’t! That’s awesome! But it still means you’re dependent entirely on the players to make your game what it is.
Player bases can do wonderful, unpredictable things! They can invent skiing! Or rocket-jumping! They can invent whole new game genres! But they can also be total assholes. And maybe they’ll stick around, but they probably won’t. Playing a multiplayer game means playing with other people, even more than it means playing your game. I’ve written before about how multiplayer games are contingent not only on players, but on the time and place when the game is played, and what the context for that play is. Yes, this is true to a certain extent for single-player games, but for multiplayer games it’s true on a far more fundamental level. It’s a difference something like the difference between a film and a game: while the viewer of a film can interpret what they see, a player of a game can determine what it is they see. Playing a single-player game, what the player experiences is always in context. But playing a multiplayer game, what player experiences is always the context. With multiplayer games, the context is the game, and the game is the context.
Making a multiplayer game means accepting that your players will make your game what it is, more than you ever plausibly could. You’re effectively handing over what your game is, almost entirely. That can be awesome, or it can suck. And, as Team Fortress 2 amply demonstrates, by continuing to develop your game in concert with the community, you can continue to have a say in what the experience of playing your game is like. But the issues that inevitably arise from making a multiplayer game aren’t something that can be addressed simply by giving out more copies of your game.