multiplayer and the machine

Game Design / Wednesday, June 7th, 2017

The standard for fun multiplayer games was set long before anything digital existed.  Playing cards around a table, shooting pool at a bar, or enjoying a board game night with friends are social activities that effectively use multiplayer design in games, while avoiding screens.  However, in a world that is increasingly online, especially for games, it seems to me that designing for multiplayer interaction has stagnated by often simply putting other players in a space that could be occupied by AI.

Consider the arcade game Mario Kart and the popular shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which both include modes to play against AI characters in the positions where humans would be included in their multiplayer modes.  Or, look at MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and open world games like the Grand Theft Auto series, which allow many players to play together online, but do not specifically require multiplayer play for progression, and can create believable enough AI characters that act like other players to populate the virtual world if it seems empty.

Certainly, these are valid ways of designing a multiplayer game, as they solve the problems of a small online player base or players not wanting to play with other real players.  However, simply replacing AI with players (or being able to do the opposite), or providing players with an opportunity for true multiplayer interaction without requiring it, does not take advantage of the fun and satisfaction we intrinsically get from interacting with another human.

Games that can use AI should not rely on replacing AI with human players for an interesting multiplayer experience, and conversely, games designed for many human players should not be able to effectively replace them with AI.

Therefore, it’s most interesting to study the design choices of games that require multiple human players.  The following innovative multiplayer examples have been designed with a good understanding of their platform and the nuances of human interaction in gameplay.

1. Cooperative Multiplayer: Cho’gall in Heroes of the Storm

Cho’gall, the two-headed ogre controlled by two players, charges into battle using Cho’s ability “surging fist”, in this Blizzard promotional image.

Cooperative multiplayer is nothing new, and in MoBAs like Heroes of the Storm, there are many avenues for cooperative and competitive gameplay. In two teams of five, each player controls a hero and teams work together to take down the enemy’s defences. Teams can be randomly formed with online players or a group of players who are working together, maybe even in the same location or more likely on voice chat. This is all standard multiplayer design, common across competitive eSports or local multiplayer games.

The two-headed ogre Cho’gall is an exceptional addition to the hero roster for Heroes of the Storm, as it requires two human players who play cooperatively to control a single body on the playing field. The design that went into Cho’gall must have been complicated and interesting, because playing Cho’gall (as either Cho or Gall) well requires a hefty bit of communication between players. Only one player (Cho) controls movement, but it is the other (Gall) who controls speeding up if you want to run away from trouble. In addition to positioning, direction, targeting and timing of abilities that all have to be synchronised for maximum impact, Cho can send out a bomb, which explodes when Gall activates it. This requires both players to be observant and makes it near impossible for a Cho’gall partnership to succeed without constant conversation between the two players. This is despite excellent sound design where Cho and Gall both shout out prompts like “bombs out” or “run away” to signal what ability has been activated to their partner ogre player, as these sound cues are often lost in the sound of the surrounding battle.

When teammates are in sync, playing Cho’gall can feel extremely powerful. With a beefy health bar and powers that are roughly double the power of single player heroes, you can beat up on smaller heroes and truly feel like the mighty ogre you are in the game, which is great. However, not being in sync with your partner makes Cho’gall one of the most frustrating heroes to play, because you are reliant on someone else for half of your abilities, and, if you are Gall, for your movement. This is probably why Cho’gall is not a popularly picked hero, but this is not necessarily a bad thing nor an indication of bad design. Cho’gall is a good example of innovative multiplayer design because the hero enhances the teamwork aspect of the game by providing an additional layer of interaction with another teammate. Cho’gall gives players new forms of gameplay through human to human communication and collaboration, by forcing two players to work closely together and share triumphs and defeats.

Design question: When multiple players control one entity, how do you balance abilities between them to make both players feel that they have equal control and power, without interfering with utility?

Not many games have two players controlling one character, because designing this is difficult. A common mistake is splitting duties down the middle, for example having one player control the right side of the body and the other the left, or one controlling hands and the other controlling feet. This makes for really frustrating, complicated and unintuitive gameplay. On the other hand, having one player control all movement like with Cho’gall, may result in the other player feeling bored or out of control of what’s happening. A big challenge must have been giving Gall enough control and enough fun things to do while Cho had to control movement. This was achieved by low cool downs on Gall’s abilities, which are ranged and can be used while Cho is moving the character, such as throwing out a “dread orb” or casting “shadowflame”.

2. Asymmetric Multiplayer: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

Players at PAX 2014 work together to defuse a bomb in Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes in this picture from an article1.

Most games that support multiplayer require all players to be using the same platform, and typically have players doing the same kind of thing in game, whether fighting, racing, or playing a musical instrument. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes defies standard multiplayer design by having one person using the virtual reality headset and one or more other players with a physical bomb defusal manual. The player in VR needs information from the manual to defuse a bomb, and has to describe what the bomb looks like to the other player(s), who frantically thumb through the manual to provide verbal instructions for the VR player to try and defuse the bomb within a time limit.

This interaction is highly satisfying for both parties, and requires clear communication about what the bomb looks like and what to do within the VR scene. Suffering through the frustration of trying to explain to another person something they cannot see is a feeling we can relate to in our ordinary lives, and makes the human interaction of this game very engaging. Through making both sides reliant on each other to win the game, the designers developed a solid asymmetric partnership where both parties do different things, but are equally important to the outcome. What’s more, they gave players a reason to play the game again, in the opposite role.

Design question: How do you develop new multiplayer experiences to overcome the limitations of new platforms?

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is a clever use of virtual reality by only having one person in VR. As VR is a relatively new commercial platform, it is expensive, and it is smart to assume that a group of friends would only have access to one headset. Additionally, handling multiplayer VR is tricky and there’s no standard on doing this well yet. By including the physical manual, the designers manage to provide real life multiplayer merged with digital gameplay, playing to the strengths of both VR and physical interaction with the manual.

3. Secret Multiplayer: Journey

Journey includes another player that seems like an AI, but somehow players are compelled to try and interact with their companion throughout the game.

When it comes to multiplayer design, Journey breaks many rules, most notably of which not letting the player know that they are playing with another real person. In this regard, it’s possible for AI to replace the other human player, but the true innovation of Journey with multiplayer mechanics is in this head fake itself. On the first playthrough, players most likely think that their companion on the journey to the mountain is AI, but the supposed AI behaves unpredictably. Playing Journey, you can’t help but wonder about the other character, and try to interact with it. This design for human connection without explicitly mentioning it made interesting gameplay, and is a great example of considering how players naturally interact with other supposed “living” entities in a game environment.

Certainly, while playing Journey for the first time, I have witnessed players feeling bad for leaving their friend behind (though they didn’t know it was another person), or trying to help or follow the other character. Despite the limited in-game actions of sending out a chime sound and doing a little twirly jump to attract attention, there’s still a strong desire to communicate with the only other living thing that is clearly not an enemy in the vast game world. At the end of the game, players are often surprised that it was another person, and this leaves a huge impact at the end of the game when the player IDs of your companions are revealed in the credits.

Design question: Is it still multiplayer if it’s a secret, and how will players interact with a character they don’t know is another person?

Despite not knowing that you’re playing cooperatively with another person, it’s clear to me that Journey is a multiplayer game, even that its unique multiplayer mechanics have been designed with an understanding of human interaction and motivation. Multiplayer is a focus of the game, and it’s meant to make the player think. Little clues, like the other character looking like you, being able to make musical chimes and movements like you, and starting and ending the level with you, all reinforce the “humanness” of a character that may initially seem like another AI. Journey is great at getting players to consider the impact of interaction with another person without the use of words, by revealing that it was indeed another person at the end of the game. While in game, interaction with the other character comes so naturally and often has the goal of wanting to help or follow or work together, that highlights human nature in a way that few games do.

We should design our game interactions for the real human players in “multiple players”, or “multiplayer”.

It’s only striking me now that all these examples have to do with cooperative multiplayer experiences, though I’m sure there are some unique ways of dealing with competitive multiplayer to keep the interaction between people the central focus. I can’t think of any at the moment (leave me a comment if you do think of some examples!), though maybe that’s a topic for another blog post.

Multiplayer is a good starting point for design, though I would personally like to see more innovation in the way we handle true human interaction in video games. There are many reasons that playing board games with friends is so engaging, and sometimes those reasons have less to do with clever game mechanics than they do with interesting interactions between players. Trying to develop game mechanics that support this invisible effect can be daunting for game designers, but I think we’ve already found several cool ways to do so, and it’s time to keep on experimenting.

References Cited

  1. Chris Kohler. “Defuse a bomb with friends in this brilliant Oculus game.” Culture. Wired, 1 September 2014. Web. 7 June 2017.