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What Games Are: The Multiplayer Singularity

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He has recently moved into managing developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

My whole industry rests on the invention of the single player video game. From the early days of pinball through to Donkey Kong on the NES to Call of Duty: Ghosts, the single player game dynamic defines most modern gaming. You could say that single play is the most important invention of the video game age, and even go one step further: Single play was a singularity moment.

Why so? Because if you look at what games were prior to them, nobody could have predicted that a whole medium would arise around players playing against machines. Someone from 1913 transported to today would look at a player alone with a joypad whizzing around a game uncomprehendingly. It would be unfathomable to them, and unfathomability is the key trait of singularities (such as the wildly popular idea of the technology singularity).

Single player is very successful for a couple of reasons. It tends to be the most convenient form of game that you can play. It tries to accommodate your expertise, such as through difficulty levels. It tends to be the best mode for games to absorb the player in the fiction of a game world, such as in Gone Home. It allows the player to play without social judgment or pressures.

And finally, crucially, in single player mode every player gets to win. There are no losers really, just those who win, those who walk away and those who will win one day. While we think of that as a little thing because we’re so used to it, it’s actually an enormous thing. Prior to mass single player gaming most games did not let everyone win.

Yet for all their virtues single player games are often considered to be a stepping stone. Many designers share a futuristic vision of gaming in which games move beyond player-versus-machine into something much more exotic. The details  vary from one to the next but the general gist of the vision is that one day video games will go fully multiplayer. 

The Next Singularit(y/ies)

I don’t just mean the sort of multiplayer games that exist today like massive multiplayer, social or competitive first person shooters. They would certainly be considered as indicators of things to come, but in their own way are also considered limited. The big vision calls for something grander.

The best way to describe the multiplayer future is that it’s like the experience that players have with Gone Home, but magnified by the power of millions of players. “Imagine”, an enthusiastic designer might say, “a future in which we all play the game together for the long term and have meaningful experiences.” Or some variation of that.

In that future there would be a layer of meaningful group interaction possible through video games that we don’t yet see. Players of the future would participate in long-running meaningful cultures wrapped up in a game. And that that experience will be as deep as any book or movie or album. But getting there requires some sort of big leap, a Multiplayer Singularity as significant as the single-player one we already saw. The question is what that looks like. 

There are essentially four lenses of game maker, that is to say four schools of looking at and interpreting games. Depending on how they value emergence over experience, and fictional roles over abstract rules, all four tend to see the future of games and what they should be differently. In the neat quadrant graph that emerges you get narrativists like David Cage, simulationists like Will Wright, behaviorists like Jane McGonigal and tetrists like Shigeru Miyamoto.

At their most extreme each lens advocates a future of video gaming that moves them from where they are today toward becoming something else. Game makers often talk about games as being immature, in their infancy compared to other media, and they they have a lot of growing to do. That idea of growth is usually tied to a singularity moment.

Narrativists believe, for example, that technology will one day bridge the gap that prevents games from being good storytelling vehicles. Somebody will overcome the uncanny valley problem. Someone will figure out an engine that ascribes emotional as well as literal value to game objects. Simulationists foresee the invention of infinitely algorithmic games that lead to eternally interesting realities. Meanwhile behaviorists see a few where games and life intersect for real (not just in a points-means-prizes way) and players ascribing value to gamelike activities.

All these visions sound cool on paper, but I’m often critical of them because they’re hazy. The technology singularity is a tangible goal but the multiplayer singularity is more a hazy one-day-when kind of thing. It’s a whole set of technical feats all coming together in one vast confluence and therefore arguably  a solution in search of a problem rather than a thing the world is crying out for.

And they tend to forget the players.

The Problem Is Not Technology

There are obvious disparities between where games are and where designers think they should be.

Players often play multiplayer games literally rather than in an intended spirit. They commonly revert back to playing single-player games upon finding the multiplayer aspect of a game too competitive, too harsh, too racist and so on. It is not uncommon, for example, for the regular multiplayer population of first person shooters to only comprise of 5% of the people who bought the game. Heck, even massive multiplayer gamers far more commonly play in an effectively-single player fashion than with others.

It’s easy to frame the problems of the future as having much a-do with technology. It becomes a discussion all about network concurrence and access, geography and time zones and what we imagine sophisticated AI might do to help bridge those gaps. Mostly the problem we obsess on is copresence. How do I acquire and keep a large-enough player population such that the game is exponentially better for all of them?

Copresence is one of those problems that’s slowly going away. We have better devices with faster connections and notification layers. We have clouds that can connect games together in ways that we’ve already seen happen in apps. We’ve come around to the idea that a game might not have to be built solely for one platform (via tools like Unity 3D). We’re even starting to think of building games purposefully across multiple devices on the assumption that players will own them as a matter of course.

Granted, pervasive games are still pretty early, and in all likelihood the successful ones will not look like classic video games. They’re not World of Warcraft on your phone or EVE Online on your iPad, but more like playing Candy Crush across Facebook and your phone. They probably need to grow from simpler beginnings.

But while solving for copresence maybe demands a different kind of game, at least that kind of game is one of which we could now conceive. In a sense copresence is the easy problem. The harder problem is codependence.

It is virtually impossible to get large groups of players to play in the spirit of a game for any length of time without human moderation. Multiplayers usually render a game down to its most mechanical form and have a lot of fun doing so, but their activity detracts from loftier design goals. A multiplayer version of Gone Home, for example, would likely be far inferior to the single player version because of the distractions of other players. They would spend all their time chatting and talking about where to find clues and locks and miss the theme.

Players are also pretty unreliable. It’s very common for your Words With Friends buddies to forget to take their turn, for example, leading to a sense of futility. Players also tend to quit games when they sense loss points (the moment when they realize they can’t win). Both winning and losing players tend to feel dissatisfied.

Finally there’s the issue of culture. The overarching character of most successful online multiplayer game environments is competitive but competition is a double-edged sword. More players tend to prefer the idea of cooperative games, the idea that we all play together toward a common goal. Yet in practice competitive players tend to be the ones that stay around longest in a game. 

Of course these descriptors of player behavior are simplified, yet still. There are few truly multiplayer games that don’t eventually become competitive and don’t turn into niche subcultures that are hard for outsiders to understand. There are very few large consensual story games (ARGs and such) that don’t devolve into puzzle-hunts that ignore the rich detail in the quest for clues.

There are few (if indeed any) multiplayer games that resist becoming games for a passionate minority while failing to engage with the majority, and those that do tend to pull back from multiplay as much as possible. Asynchronous social games, for example, are mostly single player games that support tangental communication at best. When games become codependent then a whole slew of negative, social, literal and other factors surface, and those are people-problems rather than gadget-problems.

The World of Sports

While the narrativist, simulationist and behaviorist ideals of games tend to go toward big leaps, tetrists tend to think differently. For tetrists the future of games is more about being true to what they already are, about finding that one amazing mechanic that fuels a lifetime of loyalty, about small ambitions leading to great things. The more fundamentalist tetrists tend to lionize the past for this reason, when games were perceived as simple and better and less distracted.

However forward-thinking tetrists tend to see a multiplayer future for games too, just not one that requires a lot of kit and kaboodle. And in many ways I think their idea of the multiplayer future is much more likely to actually turn into reality because it’s based on tangible things we already know.

Video game designers often forget about sports. The stereotypical reason is that they don’t tend to be sporty kids when they grow up and view the culture surrounding sports negatively. Yet sports and video games have much in common given that they are both mostly real time and constrained types of games that test a balance of player skills and smarts. Video games like Quake 3 Arena for example, are basically sports.

Sports are huge drivers of modern culture. They encourage tribal participation. They generate their own heroes and legends, their own legacies and sense of meaning. But rather than being vastly complicated they tend to be based around simpler interactions: Run around a ring faster than any one else. Kick a ball. Rush a ball over a goal line. That kind of thing.

Sports also have a huge sense of theatre. They are played in amphitheaters where the crowd can look on and cheer. They encourage vicariousness by the many watching the few. And they can be broadcast around the world, which is why they are so influential in modern culture. Far more so than video games. The average sports fan watches and supports and believes, living a kind of vicarious existence through favored players. But she does not play, and thereby avoids all of the negative stuff associated with being bad at playing a game. 

The tetrist idea of the multiplayer future is essentially a digital version of the sports experience.

A Different Singularity

The assumption with the grand multiplayer vision of videogames is that everyone must play, but increasingly I find myself asking why. Why is it important that everyone deal with the difficulty and confusion and social judgment of being bad at multiplayer games? Why can’t they tag along, support, being a part of a great player’s network (so to speak) without having to have the actual skills themselves? 

What if, for example, we had pervasive games in which the smaller single-play actions of a fantasy sports style of game contributed directly to the kit of a favored player? What if followers could watch as favored player takes to the stage? What if that whole Twitch-powered stream-casting let’s-play phenomenon could be pushed that little bit further? What if it didn’t matter that everyone took their turn, just the ones who wouldn’t quit?

In a sense I’m asking what if the Multiplayer Singularity is actually about social co-ordination around sport-like activities rather than far-off dreams about everyone creating their own group online culture dream world? If it is then we’ve already seen strong indicators for that future.

We have the example of how South Koreans play Starcraft mixed with streaming and let’s-play videos. We have apparently very large numbers of people tuning in to watch others play games. We have some famous players like Daigo Umehara and the emerging world of e-sports. All it takes for that kind of future to emerge is for someone to figure out the broadcast aspect and the economics, and how to market it. It’s much more expressible, a real singularity moment whose impact may be unfathomable, but which anyone can grok.

Is it next? I think so.

Conclusion

While the multiplayer dream that some designers love to theorize is romantic and aspirational, it assumes that people will change, overcome their social and think different. Experience has consistently shown that this is never true. All the best games tend to figure out how to work with people as they are, for all their flaws, and find a way for them to experience the joy of achievement without incurring the negatives.

A future of multiplayer e-sports watched by millions is not some far off dream that requires a re-ordering of humanity to achieve. It’s tangible, something that we can actually aim for and which will one day change how we think of video games. We already see the signs of it happening today and don’t have to extrapolate too far or assume too much about people for it to occur. And when it does we have no idea how far it will go, but it’s very exciting no?