Multiplayer games and how they sustain their player population has always mystified me. Especially as a huge fan of independent games and game studios, and the common struggle to keep a low-brow indie title retaining players when it is necessary to the game’s overall health (i.e. a multiplayer game).
Being a first person shooter fan for most of my life as a gamer, this is by far and away the field I have the most experience with. When Quake came out, the hobby of hacking game files and creating maps for the older 2D FPS games had grown into something more as players started banding together to create bigger projects in the form of modifications, or mods. Quake mods encompass some of the most popular game types today, including Capture the Flag, Rocket Arena and of course Team Fortress. In those days, finding players usually wasn’t hard even if the players needed fairly advanced knowledge in order to get Quake and the mod up and running, and then configuring Quakespy, MPlayer or whatever server browser they used to find games. Still, even though they faced these technical barriers mods grew and flourished, some even surpassing the popularity of the original Quake deathmatch. Most modifications in this era were simple changes in the games rules. Although there were some “total conversions” (mods with custom artwork, audio and other assets); most fell into the more simple category, even the very popular ones. Mods are usually multiplayer as well, since they are created by people who are passionate about the game, and at this point those players are usually much more interested in the multiplayer aspect of a game.
Today, mods are better than ever, with some mods even matching retail games in both graphics and features. Mod teams often go on to pursue jobs in the game industry as a result of the skills they learn, and the mods they create are as fun, balanced and unique as ever. Accessing mods is a breeze as there are many websites that link them and mirror their files for download. Playing them is as easy as playing the game they’re a modification for. So why, then, is it so hard for mods to retain players when in the past they would retain a huge player base even when it was more underground?
One potential reason for the decline in activity – even after the rise in quality – of mods is that there simply isn’t an influx of players anymore. When Quake mods were big, Quake was big, and when Half-Life mods were bursting at the seams, Half-Life was winning awards at a staggering rate. Half-Life itself was even over-taken by one of its own mods which has since turned into a retail game: Counter-Strike. In fact, I believe it is now more responsible for the ebb and flow of mods than Half-Life itself. Now that the Counter-Strike player base has stabilized and is no longer growing at a fast rate, we have seen mods on the decline. Players are happy to stay where they are, rather than when they were new to the game and open for playing new mods. Thus, even though mods are at the highest quality the players have ever seen and much more easily accessible, it is harder than ever for them to retain players.
Mods aren’t the only multiplayer games that have seen issues, however. It has become increasingly hard for most games, aside from the few most popular, to retain multiplayer player bases. Ironically, the games that do the worst in this regard usually advertise themselves as multiplayer only - which should ensure that the multiplayer is better than other games. However, history has proven that the games that often get popular usually boast both a single player campaign as well as multiplayer, even if it means that the multiplayer will obviously suffer in some form as a result. More sales simply means more potential players, and players are much more willing to invest into a compelling single player experience than an unproven multiplayer game, even if the single player aspect of a game only lasts for the very beginning of its lifespan. Id Software even considered their multiplayer only game Quake 3 a failure, when it proved to be one of the best multiplayer FPS experiences to be had, even to the point of the Cyberathlete Professional League re-implementing it after trying other newer, more modern FPS games which all ended up failing. Of course, mods are a different story, but are also hard to include in this comparison since a healthy mod player base depends entirely upon the game it is a mod for – one could argue that Counter-Strike is a multiplayer only game and sees massive popularity, but we must remember that it started out as a mod for Half-Life, a critically acclaimed single player game.
Perhaps having single player is necessary if only to advertise the game to players, as if to say “buy me, at least you can be secure in the fact I have a single player campaign”? Although, this makes no sense as, again, the single player is simply a short storyline incursion usually halfway between a movie and a novel. A game only becomes truly long-lasting when it has a multiplayer component. So why does it seem that games need to have a single player component, and why are players so afraid to purchase multiplayer only games, even in this new age where having a computer basically assumes having an internet connection? This brings me to my next point, the MMO genre.
As if to prove everything I’ve said so far wrong, MMOGs came into existence, whose acronym says it all: Massively Multiplayer Online games. These games almost seem to ensure high player numbers simply by employing a subscription based model (even after purchasing the game box), as if to say “pay us money and we will continue to provide a multiplayer service”. While it is true that most MMOs see a much larger cost and development time (and thus should see larger player counts due to hype, advertising, etc.), the fact remains that to the untrained eye they are simply below-average games. Only very recently are we starting to see MMOs that break the mold and tell stories in compelling ways similar to single player games (however, ironically, the one that performed best in this regard, Age of Conan, was considered a failure mostly due to other issues), yet still MMORPGs have grown to having unimaginably large player bases almost without any rhyme or reason. The quality is almost a non-issue in comparison to “normal” games. The genre insists a subscription model, which many gamers claim they refuse to play on principle alone: “If I buy a game, it’s mine; I shouldn’t have to spend more money just to continue playing it”. Yet still these games manage to bring in immense numbers shadowing other genres. Even stranger still is that this genre is almost entire computer-based, when we are in an era of console domination.
Age of Conan was much friendlier to a non-MMO player, yet still failed to see great success compared to other more “ordinary” games in the genre
In almost every way it appears that the MMO genre is a complete anomaly when it comes to gaming trends, but of course there are very compelling reasons for these players to be there such as social aspects and a true sense of progression. Interestingly, FPS games are starting to implement some of these features in the form of friends list and actual rewards for playing the game for longer periods of time (such as Call of Duty’s system for unlocking new weapons and perks).
Another anomaly in multiplayer gaming that must be mentioned is a Warcraft 3 map that seems to break all of my aforementioned rules. While it’s no mystery as to why Blizzard’s RTS games retain large numbers of players, it is interesting that Defense of the Ancients (DotA), a custom map for Warcraft 3, has become a huge phenomenon. When refreshing the “custom games” browser in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne at nearly any time of day you will find an overwhelming number of DotA games populating the list. This game-in-a-game has grown so big that the playerbase devised its own set of rules and regulations (for lack of a decent set in the rather poor options playing a “custom game” gives you), even to the point of creating custom programs for this game, and the developers have even announced that they are creating an entirely new stand-alone game in the same vein as DotA. So how did this happen? While DotA was not the only interesting game type to expand and eventually grow from Blizzard’s RTS line-up (you just may have heard of a little thing called tower defense), one can’t help but wonder how it came above all others and not only survived, but flourished in the worst of conditions: unlike FPS game servers, where even they have a hard time supporting new games, Warcraft 3’s game hosting is abysmal in comparison, and DotA is a game that is very unwelcoming to new players. Yet still it has managed to flourish to the point of being a real world tournament game where players compete for money.
DotA sees commercial-like success as nothing more than a Warcraft 3 map
The mystery of what attracts players to multiplayer games is no less clear now than when I started. There are certainly some historically-proven safeguards a company can take to hopefully ensure players will play their game, which is a very important aspect when the enjoyment of said players relies on other players being online. Companies seem to be getting more in tune with what games need to support a community of players as well. Yet still, even today new communities spring up seemingly out of nowhere in the strangest of conditions where none of the modern selling points for games may be present. Some companies even seem to be harnessing this aspect of randomness, such as Valve releasing Steamworks, a new way for modifications to get more recognition via Steam. This actually works in their favor as, being that the mods are applications for Valve games, they will in turn end up getting more people to purchase the games needed to play the mods on if they rise in popularity. While on the same token, more and more multiplayer games are released still-born such as Savage 2 or Shadowrun. It will be interesting to see if this is a hurdle that can be overcome in the future or if the safe method of creating a single player game with multiplayer will continue to be the standard.