We Have All Become Parallel Gamers

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Learn Or Die: A Primer

Editor’s Note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of the leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.

If you really want to become a hated figure in GamerVille, predict the doom of single player games. Say something about how they will fall before some form of multiplayer future, about how always-on connectedness, social game play or gaming-meets-life-ification will see us all playing in some giant game. And for good measure announce that PCs and consoles are dead. Then sit back and watch Reddit explode in apoplectic rage.

This is territory that Frank Gibeau, labels president of Electronic Arts, inadvertently strayed into this week when he declared that he now only commissions games that connect to the cloud. The gaming press in general read this as EA saying it would no longer make single player games like Mass Effect. This in turn led to a hasty clarification from Gibeau: He didn’t mean that single player games were dead, but rather that he wanted them to have online and connected components from now on.

These days, gamers often feel threatened. They think that somewhere between Wii, Facebook and mobile games many studios have lost the mission. They think of new platforms and formats as fads, and at a time when the rest of the tech world is talking up post-PC and clouds, many gamers are going back to the PC as a device of choice. With mouse. And keyboard. And big graphics cards. Seriously.

And many gamers cherish that single player experience. They don’t particularly enjoy multiplayer games on Xbox Live with 14 year olds goading them. They really don’t like the whole Facebook thing, especially the games on the social network. They sort of like/hate massive multiplayer games, and while they’ll begrudgingly admit that there are some semi-decent iOS games (like 10000000) out there, they will tell you in no uncertain terms that Angry Birds is not one of them.

And yet Gibeau is right. Single player gaming all by itself is slowly slipping into the past, to be replaced by something else. Not some half-dreamed half-TED-talk fueled craziness about constant gaming in the future instead of life, but something connected nonetheless. Something hard to pin down, but definitely real. Some sort of ambient connection which brings the game together for players and makes it just that little bit more of a world.

In two words: parallel games.

Single, Serial, Multiple, Parallel

Parallel gaming started in massive multiplayer games like Everquest, but it’s everywhere now. It’s in adventure games like The Walking Dead, in PS3 games like Journey, and in cult games like Realm of the Mad God. It’s sometimes competitive, collaborative or creative, or even a mix of all three. Sometimes its very light, others heavy-handed and awkward.

But what is it?

Ask any game designer about game mechanics (which is itself a loose term, but never mind) and they will start to talk about loops. “Loop” is basically a convenient term for saying “I do a thing, I see what happens, I win or lose and then I do another thing” and all games are based upon them. Social games are all about retention loops, action games are all about action/reaction loops, and board games are all about turns and other more obvious loops.

Broadly, there are four kinds of loop: single, serial, multiple and parallel.

Single loops are actions you take that are between you and the game world in your own time. Planting a tetromino to make a line in Tetris, for example. Serial loops are actions you take in your own time, but need someone else’s response before it’s your turn again. Draw Something is an example of a serial game. Multiple loops also use actions rely on other players, but are resolved in (usually) real-time, like in sports or Counter Strike.

But parallel loops? They use actions that you take which don’t really need other players’ input. And yet they all happen in the same kind of timeframe as a multiple loop game. World of Warcraft, CityVille, EVE Online, Realm of the Mad God and Journey all use parallel loops.

Parallel Gaming Is Not…

Parallel gaming is not cloud gaming. However parallel gaming is connected to the cloud. Whether for purposes of finding play, such as poker lobbies, or cooperation among players in trying to take down a big beastie in Realm of the Mad God, you have to be able to connect your game to somewhere else. You just don’t necessarily have to always be operating there.

Parallel gaming is also not absolute. It is often best deployed as a wrapper for shorter bursts of single or multiplayer gaming, in the time between bouts or sessions. Online poker is a multiplayer game when you’re at the table and making bets, but you can enter and leave so easily that it is largely parallel. Meanwhile Journey manages these transitions so beautifully that players often don’t realize that their companion has left or changed.

Another thing about parallel games is that they are not time-dependent. Turn-based games always struggle to achieve long-term traction because they rely on players to come back and take their turn. This is why we all have masses of orphaned games in our Draw Something apps, and will never go back to them. However in a parallel game player memory and availability is not a factor.

Here’s another: Character-building (or city, farm, bonus, coin or spaceship building) is important, but the kinds of social obligation commonly seen in Facebook games (hire your friends or pay cash) is decidedly not parallel. Not because it’s mean (which it is), but because it requires other player input. As with all serial loops, that input is unreliable.

Three Laws of Parallelism

Parallel games work really well with engagement models designed to drive long-term value. Niche strategy role playing game Erepublik, for example, lets the player choose whether to take part in a perpetual war. He can even get involved in governance and laws and so on with other players, or not. This results in a lot of complex emergent behaviour, and that kind of human-driven variation in-game content make for a game over time that can hook players for years. So parallelism is a key to truly social games, better long-term revenue and growth.

Parallel play has three immutable laws for success:

1. Drop-in / Drop-out

It is essential that players are able to come and go. No critical mass of players should be required, no turns should need to be taken, no obligation should be imposed. A parallel game has to be delightful for the player who wants to play ten times a day, the player who wants to play once a week and the player who may only check in once a month.

2. Connection Leads to Progress

As I mentioned in my Zyngapocalypse post, the value of social is in being able to progress faster than by working alone. In Minecraft you can build immense structures more quickly with friends. In The Walking Dead you can get a better sense of what the road less traveled looks like from a summary table of others’ choices. In Journey a parallel player refills your energy, and can lead you to secrets. But you don’t have to engage if you don’t want to.

3. Persistence

The ultimate quest should never end. The Poker table should never truly be finished. The adventure may close, but the larger goals go on. The race may be multiplayer, but the league continues. Persistence is vital, not just because of geography (half the world is asleep when you play), but because of all that drop-in/drop-out. Resets, reboots, restarts? Bad idea. Persistent characters, goals, things I’m working toward? Often very good.

Conclusion

Single play is the greatest invention of the digital gaming age, and is the key reason that we have a massive games industry today. It often offers the most chances for success, the most positive feelings and the greatest sense of mastery. It is fun without judgment. You never really lose, only win now or win later, when you master the skills you need, on your time. That dynamic is what gamers do not want to lose.

Parallel is just the next phase of single. At its least imposing it’s every player playing along her own line, vaguely aware that others exist. At its best, it’s players collaborating, competing and creating together on their own schedules. It’s fun because it aligns with who players are and how they play. And it’s where we are, and are going, with games.