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Co-operative Environments: Observing the Happy Medium

I've been thinking lately: how big is too big?

While growing up as a gamer, I've watched multiplayer in games blow up. During the early days of my youth, games either involved one person or two people. If they involved more than two people, you had two options. The first involved passing a single controller from person to person so that the number of controller ports was not at all a limiting factor. An easily accessible example of this method is Worms.

The second option involved buying an add-on peripheral that plugged into an existing controller port, and added several more ports. Most commonly, it'd turn two ports into four. This kind of thing is basically extinct, though, since the main consoles these days all have four ports by default. In fact, if a system shipped with only two ports these days, it would probably be considered old (but not "retro", the good version of old), and it would be heavily criticized.

Of course, it wasn't going to stop at four controller ports. Why, what if we link several consoles together? Then we can use all of the ports on all of the systems! System link/LAN gaming is still somewhat of a mainstay within certain audiences. (Certainly, competitive gamers prefer LAN gaming over my next paragraph, primarily because of the decrease in lag.)

By this point, consoles decided they were going to finally catch up to PCs (and if any PC gamers are reading this, they're probably laughing at the slow progression of console multiplayer), though. Online gaming! You can play with the entire world now! The only real limit to how many players can be in a game is based on what the game can support (from both a design and technical standpoint).

I explain this history not because I think people don't know it, but just to give a frame of reference to my original question: how big is too big?

I consider this progression of multiplayer, and I wonder if there is a point where you go from having a lot of fun with a good-sized group of people, to having very little fun with as many people as possible. My hypothesis is this: the number of people in a game correlates to the amount of fun you have in the manner of a bell curve.

Here's what the bell curve you saw in math class looks like:

To continue, I'll give some of my personal experience examples. These are almost entirely anecdotal, and not exactly what I'd call "bullet-proof." For full disclosure, I obviously haven't played every multiplayer game under the sun, and most notably for this argument, I haven't played Mag. Why? I don't own a Playstation 3.

The far left of this curve is when you are playing with the fewest number of players: one. For the sake of this discussion, the line being directly on the X axis does not equal "zero fun." Theoretically, if you are playing a video game, you are having fun. Certainly, there are plenty of single player games that are fun, and depending on your tastes, will always be more fun than a multiplayer game. I'm sure you can think of a million examples of fun single-player games.

However, let's look at an example of a game that has essentially identical gameplay with one person or several people: Diablo 2. I have spent many, many hours of my life playing Diablo 2. When people ask me questions like what my favorite game ever is, Diablo 2 is one of those games that pops into my head quickly.

As many of you are aware, Diablo 2 has a single player and a multiplayer mode. As far as game mechanics go, there is no difference between these two modes, except that when you add more players, the difficulty scales a bit to compensate for the extra person helping you destroy the minions of Hell. I've tried playing this game completely solo before. Ignoring the fact that it's (in my opinion) more difficult to play solo, it's also a lot less fun. Playing this game with a small group of friends really adds to the experience.

Now then, this is actually somewhat of a sidestep on the curve, but one I really want to mention: Rock Band. Naturally, this game is near and dear to my heart for a million reasons, but one of the reasons it's so popular with so many people is the multiplayer. I certainly have fun playing the game by myself, but for most of my friends, it's strictly a game they want to play in a group. Hell, even playing this game online with my friends is like pulling teeth - it's really a game that begs to be played with four people in one room.

I could go into a million reasons why Rock Band works so well as a multiplayer game (everyone likes music, the thrill of playing a musical instrument (even if it's not real), the fact that each player has a different instrument, and so on), but those aren't really important to my overall point here. The important thing is this: this game is just too damn fun with four people, and everyone feels like an important part of the proceedings. If one person does so poorly that they fail, that's going to stop the game for everyone. The important part here is that other players can "save" that player, making for a very positive gaming environment.

At this point, I don't think we've reached the peak of this bell curve in either example (and while I didn't mention it before, Diablo 2 can max out with eight players). However, knowing what that peak is is impossible, at least for me. It's also very likey that this peak is different when speaking about different genres. At any rate, I'm going to move onto areas that I believe are beyond this peak.

My first example is Halo, a game that exists on both sides of the peak. When I was younger, I used to get together with my friends, and we would link four Xbox systems together, get four televisions, and play Halo in a single room (or maybe two rooms, depending on where we were playing) with 16 people. Sounds cool, right? Honestly, I don't think so.

Most of these 16-player sessions focused around team play, and in the first Halo, you only had two potential teams. As such, you were generally playing in 8 vs. 8 situations. I've held the opinion for a number of years now that that first Halo was not designed to handle 16 players, specifically for the 8 vs. 8 environment (and I believe even the subsequent games don't have a place for 8 vs 8). Sure, there were three main 16 player maps (Sidewinder, Hang em' High (probably the best "huge" multiplayer map in any Halo, and maybe my favorite map in the series, outside of possibly Halo 2's Zanzibar), and the ever popular Blood Gulch), but I never really had a positive experience in those settings.

Another disclosure: I am absolutely terrible at first-person shooters. There are probably various factors as to why that is, but I think the main thing is that I don't have the reflex necessary for most combat in the games, and when it comes to something like sniping, I'm just not good at it. I can't even pinpoint why (which is probably why I also can't improve).

So, when I have seven teammates on my side working towards the same goal, I feel more like a cog in the machine than a member who has any significant impact on his team. Many times during these sessions, I would find a quiet out-of-the-way location (especially easy on those giant maps, although less so on Hang 'em High), leave my controller, and go get a slice of pizza, or a drink, or whatever. When I came back, the worst-case scenario was that I was killed a couple of times. In a capture the flag setting, this was utterly meaningless. In a team deathmatch setting, this was a minor setback, but nothing that my teammates couldn't overcome. Naturally, if too many people on one team did this at once, then it would become a huge liability regardless of game mode, but for a single person to leave his or her controller, it didn't really matter much unless that person was some sort of "star player."

At this point you probably think I either hate the game, or I suck so bad at it I shouldn't have been playing it at all anyway. The truth is, I did enjoy the game, and could hold my own in certain roles (it's not really the kosher version of the game, but I always had an affinity for the Team SWAT playlist in Halo 2). When we removed half of the players, so that we were in a 4 vs 4 team setting, or eight players total, the game suddenly became more fun. A single "star player" might still be able to change the outcome of a battle, but now I felt like what I did mattered. If I was slacking off, it was probably going to have a harsh impact on my team, even if I wasn't necessarily getting killed by the opposition. In fact, if I was out there getting killed over and over again, it meant that someone was killing me instead of killing one of my more skilled teammates. Not exactly the finest tactic (and not one I'd rely on in a deathmatch round), but whatever way I could help was nice. In some ways, it actually got me to try a little harder, and I at least had an illusion in my head of being a better player. I also was really good at those post-death grenade kills, but that's neither here nor there.

My own worst case scenario, though, also happens to be from a game I have spent literally months of my life playing: World of Warcraft. When I was working retail in days long gone by, I was very addicted to WoW. Not to the point where it consumed my entire life, but it did consume most of it. I only played before the two expansion packs came out, so my knowledge is a bit outdated, but I do feel it is still relevant.

There are (well, were) several tiers of player limits depending on what you were doing in WoW. Solo, 5-man parties, 10-man raids, 20-man raids, and 40-man raids. Solo is still solo, so I'm going to skip that for this discussion. 5-man and 10-man parties both fit into the "fun for me" area, mostly for similar reasons to what I explained with Halo. I honestly don't have enough experience with 20-man raids to develop a full opinion on that level (Zul'Gurub was added very shortly before I unsubscribed, and I only ran it a handful of times), but I want to focus on the 40-man raids anyway.

When I first started playing the game, 40-man raids sounded so cool. That's a really grand scale of players who are all working together for the same goal. Of course, one of the benefits that the designers have when making for something that takes 40 people is that it's basically creative license to make the most insane enemies possible. That first fight with Onyxia felt like nothing I had ever experienced in a game before. (Side note: when I heard that it was possible to solo Onyxia after the expansions, I died a little inside.)

A friend of mine who had spent a lot of time playing WoW, but who quit after hitting the level cap thought 40-man raids were a complete waste of time. I disagreed with him and said that it was so cool that every person had a role towards that one big goal. He argued that essentially this same reason is why 40-man raids sucked. When you got to that scale, you were basically just a cog in a machine, doing some menial task for the greater good. You were completely replaceable, and you generally had very little impact as an individual. If you lost an entire class (except for rogues...poor rogues were practically worthless in the Molten Core days), then there might be an issue, but losing a single person was no big deal. Hell, if you had Molten Core on farm status, you could probably get away with bringing only 30 people. 25% less than the expected amount of players is reasonable to accomplish this goal? Ouch.

At first I didn't want to accept this. I thought that if I stopped spamming frostbolt for even one encounter, it was going to really matter. As it turns out, I was very, very wrong.

I knew the mage class fairly well, and was pretty good at the game, so I sometimes took on the role of directing the mage class during Molten Core raids. When it comes down to it, our guild master/raid leader was kind of an idiot, and making his life difficult wasn't something I was above doing (it is a video game, after all, and I'm going to have my fun one way or another). During one raid, he was complaining that our damage output just wasn't high enough, and we weren't moving through the instance quick enough. One of the other big problems of those 40-mans is that they took hours upon hours upon hours for most people, and getting 40 people who are able to meet on the same schedule is pretty difficult, especially for a "casual" (and boy do I use that term lightly) guild like I was in. There was a large desire to get through raids as quickly as possible (and that right there should have been a red flag, really).

So, since we were moving so slow, our leader tried to encourage us to really ramp up the damage on the easy enemies (the so-called "trash mobs") so that we could get to the important fights quicker. We were about to fight an enemy that was a fire elemental, so it was completely immune to all fire spells. In a private chat just for our mages and warlocks, I told them all to cast nothing but fire spells for the encounter, to see if our buffoon of a leader would even notice. They all liked the idea, so we went ahead and did it.

The result? After the battle, our brilliant leader told us at how impressed he was with the increase in damage for that encounter. I just neutralized two main damage-dealing classes for that encounter (which was probably around a quarter of our team, give or take a couple of people), and he thought that our damage increased. Needless to say, the mages and warlocks had a field day with that in our chat, and that was basically a free pass for us not to do anything at all, ever. I never told our leader. As far as I know, he never found out.

For that reason, and various other reasons (like the mentioned time commitments), my friend was right - 40-man raids are just too many people for anyone to really have fun. Sure, killing bosses for the first time is fun, but it's just as fun on a smaller scale; winning is always fun. What I was doing during these raids really didn't matter, and whether I was there or not was meaningless. Sure, it's important to have a decently-geared warrior, and a competent healer or two, but everyone is really just a moving part which is pretty easy to pop out and replace with someone new. What any one person did in these raids rarely mattered. Personally, that doesn't sync up with my definition of "fun." Not to mention, all of the UI mods you needed for these raids really cluttered up the screen. I can't imagine playing a healer where I'm much more focused on 40 health bars (or I guess healers usually only cared about chunks of 5-10 unless someone died?) than I am anything that's actually happening in the game universe.

Of course, 40-man raids are now extinct in WoW. I guess their designers already figured out my hypothesis well before I did.

This entire idea isn't really anything new, I think. Even the old saying of "too many cooks spoil the broth" plays into this, I suppose. I guess I just get weirded out when people complain about games "only" supporting 16 players, or whatever number they have deemed is too small. I don't feel the need to play a single game with literally everyone on my friend list at once. I'd much rather enjoy more focused, smaller-scale games. I understand the draw to having that huge number of people playing at once, but I don't think it translates to an enjoyable player experience. Since I was little, I've been conditioned that when I'm playing the game, I'm the hero. I'm the guy who saves the day, who has the superpowers, or whatever else. If it wasn't for me, the world would probably end or something. When I'm playing alongside so many people at once, I feel more like some random extra in a war movie who may or may not survive until the ending credits.

(In my free time, I like to analyze basically anything that I'm exposed to in my life, gaming or otherwise. This entire essay is basically an exercise at developing a hypothesis. For all I know, this point may be entirely proven and published elsewhere. It may also be 100% wrong, so I am very interested in feedback. This is the first point of two points I want to make, both related to the same topic. I'll publish my second point at a later date. Honestly, this is probably the more interesting point anyway.)
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About Alakaiserone of us since 1:32 PM on 03.15.2010

The name's Tom. I used to work as an industry guy, and am currently on the hunt for my next paying gig. In the meantime, I'm working on a bunch of different projects that don't help me pay my bills. I write a lot. I'm a musician, although certainly not of the professional variety. I like trying new things and meeting new people. I'm still somewhat new around Destructoid, so sorry in advance if I don't know something I probably should.

About my blog:

I update daily (not really, but I like to pretend). Generally, my updates get pretty long-winded, but hopefully not to the point where they're unreadable. I'll wax poetic about whatever's on my mind, like current events in my life, things that are happening in the video games I like, or whatever happens to pop in my head that day. With a few exceptions, I write my entries the same day I publish them, so they're pretty fresh content-wise. It also might help explain the occasional typos. I do my best to avoid any errors, though.

About my work:

I worked at Harmonix Music Systems as a tester on a year's worth of DLC, The Beatles: Rock Band, Lego Rock Band, and Rock Band Network. Feel free to ask me questions about it, but remember: I'm still under NDA. Also, if you know of a job opening, please tell me about it. I'm flexible.

About my contact info:

Want to collaborate with me on something, big or small, related to the site or not? I'd love to. I like working on any project that I'm even remotely capable of working on, and would love to help you in whatever way I can. Feel free to PM me here, or otherwise send me an email at alakaiser(at)gmail(period)com. Even if you don't want to work with me on something, I'd love to just chat. I'm a pretty friendly guy!

What happened to that thing you did? You know, that one thing?:

I wrote an article that ended up getting promoted to the front page of the site, which is pretty damn cool. It removes it from my cblog archive, though, so I'm throwing a link in this here sidebar for the sake of an archive (and in case I lose the link myself).

The Great Escape: One Foot in Reality