Single Player vs. Multi Player Games

Here is my little theory: single player and multi player games are fundamentally about different things. The idea that every game should have both a single and multi player mode is flawed at the core. Both types of games aim at fulfilling different needs of the players.

Multi player games are usually competitive and goal oriented. The game play is usually designed around player vs player competition, where you can pit your skill against that of other human participant and cooperation, where you need to pool your resources to achieve some common goal. Your main source of enjoyment is interaction with other people: pwning someone, being pwned in hilarious ways, bickering on voice chat and of course winning and/or losing by a small margin. The setting and the story are important but they are not why you are there. You play them to have fun with other people. If you take away the social aspect, and replace other players with bots, the game suddenly becomes much less interesting.

There is also always a goal you are trying to achieve. There is always something you need to do, and you need to do it urgently: kill the players on the other team, capture a flag, hold an objective, defeat a dungeon boss, etc.. There is no time to stare at the scenery, take in the sights, talk to NPC’s or screw around and just explore the map. If you are doing any of these things, you are playing the game wrong and dragging your team down.

It is not a coincidence that MMO players use the expression “run the dungeon” to describe completing multi-person instances. It’s because that’s exactly what you do: you run them. First time you beat any given instance in a MMO, it’s all basically a blur, and you don’t really get to see all the cool stuff that is inside until you grind it for a while.

Multi player games are more similar to traditional board games rather than to their single player cousins.

Single player games are the exact opposite. By nature they are solitary experience. Instead of focusing on goals and competition/cooperation they focus on telling compelling stories. They are all about the journey, and experiencing interesting challenges, visiting cool places and etc.. This is why they employ techniques such as cut scenes, audio logs and often expose the player to optional walls of text that fills out the lore and provides background information. Single player games are ultimately about escapism – about becoming someone else for a little while: a brave hero, a special agent, an alien, a mage, etc. They let you experience thought provoking scenarios, find yourself in fantastic settings and make difficult decisions.

Single player games are a form of interactive storytelling. Yes, even the dumb brown FPS games do this – they tell you some story, and expect you to suspend your disbelief and get into the character. They expect you to care about the in-game world, and the characters around you. They fill the same entertainment niche as books and movies, but add an interactive element into the mix.

This is especially evident when you play a game that tries to combine these two game play elements – for example MMO’s. When you are playing by yourself adventuring in the world, you tend to identify with your character. You read the quest text, you gawk at the cool scenery every time you reach a new zone, sometimes you take detours just because you saw something cool in the distance. Half the time you don’t even think about trivial stuff like your gear score, or the amount of damage you are dealing. But as soon as you join a group, the tone of the game shifts drastically. All of a sudden you are on the clock and you are running everywhere, grabbing quests without reading them, looking shit up on Wikis and metagaming. Instead of talking about why you are going to take down the dungeon boss (cause he is a vile villain, he kidnapped the princess etc..) you talk about gear, aggro, DPS output, the skills that got nerfed in the latest patch and etc…

Unfortunately, MMO’s usually don’t provide you with good single player experience. They are not that great at telling stories, their worlds are usually static and not as interesting to explore as those of single player games. They can provide you with interesting exposition, and background fluff, but you will be skipping over all of that as soon as you group with someone. So most MMO designers use that kind of stuff sparingly. This is sort of what killed Borderlands for me. It was a multiplayer co-op game that offered less solo content than your average MMO. At least in most MMO’s you can go exploring the world, but Borderlands was uniformly brown and bland no matter where you went. There was just not much to do in it without other people.

I guess my point is, you can’t marry single and multi player games. It just can’t be done. If you want to tell a story and get your player invested in the setting and the characters then you have to go single player route, otherwise people will be meta-gaming and not paying attention to the exposition. On the other hand, if you want good multi-player experience you should probably cut out most of the exposition, cut-scenes and audio blather. Most people just want to jump straight into the action, especially since multi player games have great replay value, and they have already seen that cut scene about a million times.

Single and multi player games are just different animals, and should be treated as such. Most single player games don’t need a mult-player mode, and most multi player games don’t need a single player story mode. It’s probably a better idea to invest all that time and resources into polishing the game play and rooting out bugs than using them to tack on a weak death match mode, or painfully linear and contrived story mode.

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6 Responses to Single Player vs. Multi Player Games

  1. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    Exception: arcade games. They are fun (well, if you like them, obviously) to play alone yet they are fast and have little text. There isn’t much scenery or background story in Hamsterball ;)

    Of course, arcade games can be considered multiplayer games where you play against yourself.

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  2. k00pa FINLAND Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I hate the fact that many games have both single player and multi player… News about Mass Effect 3 and multiplayer didn’t sound fun.

    I expect that a multiplayer game gives lots of game time and very good and stable gameplay. From a singleplayer game I expect great one-time experience.

    When sp and mp are combined into one game, usually one of them sucks. Stalker: great single player, but boring multi player. Bad company 2: great multi player, but mediocre campaign.

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  3. Luke, have you seen this presentation about game AI? Playing to Lose: AI and “Civilization” He places different computer game AIs on a scale between “good” AI (behaves like another human) and “fun” AI (creates an environment). A competitive game that is best suited for multiplayer will typically use good AI, and games designed primarily for singleplayer will typically use fun AI. In cooperative multiplayer situations, it’s typically fun AI — like your MMO dungeon example.

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  4. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I can’t say I agree with your views of what makes single and multiplayer games. I don’t care about the story when I play X-Com or other strategy games. Roguelikes like DCSS and games like Dwarf Fortress are single player only, yet there isn’t even a hint of story. I doubt many play FPSs in single player for their stories.

    Even limiting the genre to RPGs, I find games that I enjoy and replay are not the ones with the best stories. Fallout’s story isn’t very good, but exploration, character development and multiple paths possible for each quest was what made it entertaining. Most free-form RPG’s stories tend to be quite bad, because they have trouble hooking on the player and suffer the random pacing leaving control to the player implies.

    In fact, games with good stories are usually pretty terrible as far as gameplay goes. Planescape: Torment’s is much worse than the lighter Baldur’s Gate’s. Anachronox is interesting but the JRPG mechanics are annoying. The Longest Journey would be much more enjoyable with less pixel hunting and obscure puzzles. Good stories, but not good games.

    Some manage to marry single and multiplayer quite well. Usually this involves games with good gameplay, and the single player campaign is both a vessel for the story and a gigantic tutorial before the real challenge begins online. Example include both old games like Starcraft and Jedi Knight, and more recent ones like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Dawn of War.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ IceBrain:

    Ah, good point. I didn’t really think about these challenge based arcade games. Mostly because I sort of tend to view them as idle entertainment. For example, if I’m standing in line, waiting for a table or at the dentist office might play some Angry Birds to kill time. It’s just that – idling.

    When I play Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Fallout, etc I get something more out of it. I play them for immersion, escapist, experiencing some interesting setting.

    These two types of games are quite different.

    @ k00pa:

    I actually did not know STALKER had multiplayer mode. I never noticed that…

    @ Chris Wellons:

    I have not seen it, but I will watch it right now. Thanks for the link.

    @ Zel:

    Ah, very good point. But I think it doesn’t really matter how good the story is. I guess the point is that the story is there.

    Fallout 3 had crappy writing for the most part but I still enjoyed it. I liked doing the quests, talking to people, etc.. That’s what made it’s world real to me. If it would only be about running around, exploring the wasteland and shooting people it would be much more boring. It would be like Borderlands.

    Most strategy games I have played did have a story driven single player campaign – not always a good one, but it was there. I’m talking about stuff like StarCraft, Command & Conquer, Warhammer 40k games, Homeworld 2, etc.. Most of these had characters and events that pushed the plot along. Of course if you are playing quick matches against the computer, you are really doing a multi player thing – only with bots.

    Stuff like Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft don’t really have any story but they do offer great deal of immersion though. They let you build, expand and be creative – and you get attached to the stuff you create. You make your own stories.

    So I guess it is not as much about “story” as it is about immersion.

    Single player games are made to be immersive and provide you with interesting experiences. Multi player games are usually about social interaction and challenge.

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  6. Karthik UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    It has been a long standing wish of mine that publishers release a singleplayer-only version of their game for $15 less than the regular one. I would buy many more games at launch if they did this.
    Often the multiplayer component of a game is handled by an entirely different studio utilizing the same assets. If they diverge so much, I don’t understand why they can’t release the two separately for less (as well as in a single package, at say $30 each and $50 for the regular one). If I had to guess, I would say this will increase sales.

    I don’t play multiplayer games; gaming to me is about immersion and escapism, not competition. Hearing about Mass Effect 2 multiplayer got me fairly agitated!

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