Tuesday, March 5, 2013


I'd hate to be one of those people who refuses to get with the times, fighting progress and trying to force the things I've become accustomed to on everyone. But there is one place I have been accused of this, and where this accusation againt peeps in my position is accepted. That place is multiplayer gaming.

You see, I'm not really into multiplayer that much. I don't play a lot of multiplayer games, I don't discuss a lot of them on this blog, and I don't enjoy games with watered down singleplayer campaigns. This really should not be a problem. After all, multiplayer gaming is not the next evolutionary step from singleplayer. It is something fundamentally different.

Look at casual games like Angry Birds, a singleplayer game that has amazing sales figures. it has gone on to have an influence on our generation's culture, possessing almost universal appeal. This and other casual games are clear evidence of the fact that singleplayer games still have a place, power, and artistic capacity.

The idea that multiplayer is the direction games need to take has its roots in two places. First, publishers don't understand game design. They understand sales figures. So even when multiplayer doesn't fit a game they influence the development of, they reason that "a game made money that had thing X in it, so lets put thing X in all of our games so that they make money." These publishers are stuck with a simple cause-effect fallacy that cuts the number of successful titles down and hurts the artistic integrity of the medium by stagnating its diversity.

Second, most hardcore gamers seem to love them some multiplayer. N00b p'wning, fun with the bros, l33t skill building, and a game you can play regularly and learn like a musical instrument or martial art are all attractive to them. I do not find these attractions in multiplayer games. I prefer the complete, beginning to end, personal, and free from human interaction experience that only a singleplayer game can provide. However, it would seem that I am in the very small minority as one able to fight the urge present in every human to assert that their preferred style or genre of a particular art medium is the best.

If we as an industrial medium would stop focusing on trying to create games based on catering to only a single audience and ripping off other titles, there would be better financial profit and interesting art pieces over time.



  1. There is an ongoing internal conflict of interest for the professional programmer because, while the businessman inside him says, "Find out what the most people want and be the first to give it to them;" the artisan says, "Find an interesting problem and solve it in an elegant fashion without subjecting yourself to boredom." These conflicting goals influence which languages a programmer chooses to learn (first), where he work and even *whether* he works, at least in his capacity as a programmer. It also manifests in professional relationships, where the highly "skilled" professional programmers who can "write more lines of code in a day" look down on the prodigious master craftsmen who eschew the "barbaric" practicalities of moneymaking. The result is that you have software/publishing companies like the kind that demands "multiplayer" games, juxtaposed with the Open Source community.

    Of course there are outliers who can make money with products like Facebook, but I (or at least, the software companies) will guarantee that they aren't making as *much* money as someone who maintains his core competency and his primary market.

    To understand the conflict of interest more clearly, let's consider the quintessential salaried hacker. She endlessly complains about "unreasonable" deadlines, having to (write and!) maintain shoddy code, and that her bosses "don't understand software" - even if if she works at software a company. Worse yet, she probably earns less than another programmer at the same company who designs less elegant solutions, simply because he codes faster. Our programmer innately understands the plight of "starving artists" and professional musicians, who have equal difficulty finding a way to "get paid for what they do."

    I've gone back and forth in my head, justifying the businessman (who can say that the efficacy of his coding philosophy is proven by numbers in the form of money) and the artisan (who can say that the efficacy of *his* coding philosophy is proven by the universal adoption of free software like Chrome and Ubuntu) in turn; but, at the end of the day, I have to admit that the first person who can mediate a resolution in this war will probably get rich.

    1. It's not just about doing what makes the most money vs what is artistically satisfying though. People buy art for one thing, and even keeping the art out of this we can still see this kind of MO hurting the industry.

      Of course companies assert that they're doing the intelligent thing given their goals. There is a difference between knowing what your audience wants and selling it to them, and spending a hundred mil on a COD clone without understanding its core engagement factors though. That's why I brought up Angry Birds, which did not have competitive multiplayer, realistic high fidelity visuals, a successful game with similar mechanics, or a number of things considered necessary to sell in business circles. There is also Minecraft(to break the multiplayer mold and address the core problem.) In order to create a hit product, you have to do more than rip off a few ideas from another success and throw money at it. What a lot of these companies are doing is basically gambling with millions of dollars and making their bets based on misapplied stats.

    2. You pointed out that understanding engagement factors is probably the hidden art in selling games... and you're probably right in saying that most of the popular market models don't measure those factors.

      However, I disagree very strongly with the idea that "you have to do more than rip off a few ideas from another success and throw money at it." Look at the top 40 music charts; look at movies like Avatar, Wall E, and The Dark Knight... it doesn't take a market mogul to figure out that the majority of the population is not artistically discerning, and that even the most awkward combination of the common elements (Abraham Lincoln's Doctor's Dog) in the most widely-purchased products can be directly converted into money. Even the existence of Pandora proves that no human creativity is needed to accurately predict which new songs an individual listener will want to hear, given a sufficient statistical sample of his or her listening preferences.

      The reason Call of Duty itself never interested me is because it is one in a long line of first-person-battle-field-simulators-in-a-box that started (in my subjective experience) with Mech Warrior 2. Who knows what *that* game was based on... and yet it is a stunning commercial success.

      My pet theory is that, just like in the broader software world, the success of a game has more to do with the success of its publicity than with any of the factors reviewers consider important (playability, story integration, graphics quality, etc).

      That said... since most gamers are "nerds," they are increasingly entrenched in ideological fiefdoms surrounding specific, high-profile reviewers like Gabe and Tycho, which means that game-makers who pay attention to the evaluation criteria used by high-profile reviewers will end up ahead of the market. And while I can't agree that the statistics are being misapplied today, I definitely agree that it would be a serious business mistake to continue using them over the course of the next 3-5 years... or at least until future research starts to reflect the influence of these primary publicity sources.

      I'll round off my comments on this topic by circling back to an example of the "businessman's perspective" I mentioned in my earlier comment; note how the article strongly implies that money is a sufficient measure of a product's quality (particularly with the quote, "Personally, I love revenue at this stage because it’s the best validation that we’re delivering value for which customers are willing to pay. It’s a five-star affirmation of our existence"):


      This statement flies in the face of the artist's claim I made earlier, that the majority of the population lacks artistic discernment, and that true quality isn't always 'whatever the most people will buy;' but at the end of the day, I [can't bring myself to disagree] with either of these contradictory positions.

    3. I won't deny that measuring common elements in successful products can be an effective way to create another successful product. The issue is that in the games industry companies lose money by not measuring enough of them deeply enough. If people bought game A which had thing X in it, a company will put thing A in their game. But when the people bought game A because they liked the way thing X mixed with thing Y, that company will get the short straw financially as well as artistically.

      Also, if people bought game A because it had a ton of really intelligent marketing, then you can rip off and throw money at as many pieces of that game as you want without getting the same sales figures.

      And I would like to point out that the Matrix and Star Wars were both big budget popcorn flicks AND artistic story pieces. Everyone might not have seen those movies for the art and story, but by including such art and story they expanded their audience and became even larger successes.

    4. And of course, getting someone who can figure out why the other game was a success can be part of throwing money at a ripoff too I guess. ;)

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