Monday, November 30, 2009

The Multiplayer

I just read this article on Lost Garden. I'm sort of in agreement, except that I'm mostly not.

While I like the overall idea of ditching some of our arbitrary constraints and crufty assumptions, I don't think that the proposition he actually writes is a good one. If you haven't read it, the article can be summarized as being a giant endorsement of A) multiplayer, B) rules to let players express themselves, and C) integrating games into daily life.

I agree with most of these in almost all situations (only (C) is somewhat iffy), but I disagree with his examples. For example, he specifically says that we can "dodge" the hard problem of highly interactive/adaptive NPCs by having other players instead. This only works in certain situations. It is inherently an extremely low-immersion solution, and is almost always implemented in a way that damages any one player's ability to express himself in the game. It very often (although not absolutely always) produces hierarchical player gradients, with certain players being extremely powerful and dominant and others being unable to accomplish anything aside from following in their shadows.

There are theoretically ways to mitigate these problems, but that produces other problems. It is just as easy to dodge the "NPC problem" in other ways: they're all hard problems whose "solutions" have complex repercussions.

To make it clear what I mean, look at any MMORPG. While a MMORPG is perhaps the multiplayer game type, you'll find the majority of player-player interactions are deeply non-immersive. Some of the talk is about game rules (rather than character interaction), and the rest of the talk is blather about the player's personal life and preferences. On the other side of the spectrum, hardcore RPers might be much more immersive, but the high-end game requires you to go meta in order to succeed. There's too many rules and details that need to be accounted for in order to win a raid. Most of those details would be invisible to the character, and the rest don't contribute much to the character's personality or experience, unless you consider "mind bogglingly tedious bookkeeping" to be the experience. In which case you should work and at least get paid for it.

An NPC will be much less adaptable, but there are many advantages to relying on them even so. They have no problem staying in character, they can be scripted to further the story/mood/arc without deviating, and they're always available to act specifically when the player wants to. The limits can be disguised somewhat through clever UI design and scripting.

Both approaches have their issues, both approaches have very wide repercussions, brutal tradeoffs. More than that, I don't mean to sound like a cheerleader for NPCs. Simply put, it is important to realize that there are no easy solutions. As a designer, you must always realize what the issues are about your approach, and what sort of design it necessitates and allows.

NPCs vs players are only one facet. I use them because they're first in the essay. I could write more on the various other topics - such as integrating into daily life - in the same way. But I won't. This essay is long enough.

Please keep in mind that there are no easy design solutions, no perfect template that can be modified. Everything you do will have repercussions, and everything you do will have hard problems associated with it. Your design needs to mesh and tick along well, which often dictates which approaches work well together: the various aspects need to mask each other's issues, support each other's strengths.

For example, his three big suggestions mesh very well together. Each aspect plays to the strength of another aspect. Which is presumably why he focuses on them. But you could make an equally interesting game out of the very opposite assumptions: it all depends on what your design goals are.


Danc said...

I agree with you that there is still a use for AI. In limited situations where humans are unreliable, some form of AI can be quite useful. The result is that AI is a utilitarian robot, much like a washing machine is a robot. It is not and may never be in the near future a replacement for the human companionship missing from an isolated person's life. :-)

I find the immersion perspective interesting. I tend to focus on engagement myself and those minor conversations about everyday life are often surprisingly engaging. Many people desire to create relationships and small talk is one of the ritualistic tools used to form bonds. Such behavior is an opportunity, not a blocker.

take care

Craig Perko said...

I don't really consider NPCs to be "AI", although they may use AI to keep from being painfully stupid. They're very clever set-pieces. I think of them in the same way that I think of scenery, level design, music, etc. They don't serve as human companionship to the player... but they can serve as human companionship to the player-character.

If you're talking about a low-immersion game, player-player small talk is very useful for forming relationships. However, player-player small talk is not character-character small talk.

See, I still think of games as escapist. :)

Patrick said...

I've done some work along these lines (multiplayer character dynamics) and the line of inquiry that I found most promising involved assymmetric information and some kind of mathematical or otherwise dynamic constraint tied to that, so that there is an emergent need to communicate about specific things in order to proceed. Also see Chris Hecker's latest game, he's playing the imperfect information angle as well. Obviously, as you say, every design is unique and imperfect information is no silver bullet, but it can work in conjunction with some kind of context that allows individuals to have implied and possibly divergent goals (I mean implied in the sense of say, The Sims, where your goal is your own).

Hope that wasn't too jumbled.

Craig Perko said...

That philosophy is one I've used before (top entry no longer exists).

I've also created pseudo-LARPs on the same basis. The idea that social interaction is somehow guided or caused by the rules of the game is interesting and can be very useful.

However, doing it in person is one thing. Doing it over the much more limited channel of a computer game... well, that's a much harder problem. Most of the "depth" is lost. :P

Ellipsis said...

The thing that jumps out at me about Danc's chatroom solution to creating interesting interactions is that IM clients, while engaging, aren't clearly games, and it's similarly not clear what the relationship is between the resulting chat and the game when you stick an IM client inside a game.

If I play an MMO with my friends and it doesn't have voice chat, I might very well use skype, ventrilo, or another voip program to chat while playing the game with them instead of having to stop and type messages. At this point, I'm using the same method to communicate I might have if I weren't playing the game, and though the game is presumably going to be the topic of conversation, I'll spend a lot of my time talking about things I like/dislike about the game, or completely tangential topics. Does this mean that the game has, as a feature, my having a conversation with my friend? It seems rather that I'm having a conversation with my friend and that the game is being used as an arbitrary topic the way a video or news article might.

It seems to me similar to saying "if your movie isn't good enough, give the audience a couch and popcorn." Sure, these things will make the audience happier, but it's not clear that what you've done is make a better movie. Alright, maybe that's a bad example just because giving your audience a couch is a pretty absurd proposal, but you get the idea.

Craig Perko said...

I don't know if I agree with that, though. I mean, you could just as easily say, "The game's no good? Here, have some better graphics!" "The game's no good? Here, have some better controls!"

You're treating some of what happens while the players are playing as "part of the game" and other things that happen as "not part of the game", and I don't think that's the case. I think everything that happens while a player is playing is part of the game, including things like him being ill, or having someone yelling at him to take out the trash, or having to keep the volume down all the time to avoid getting caught.

These factors are out of the game designers control, but that doesn't mean the game designer should ignore them. And some things external to the game - such as player-player socialization - CAN be affected by and improved by the game designer.

(This is quite separate from the fact that you can design a game specifically to use the player-player chatting as an actual, in-game thing that affects gameplay...)

At least, that's my opinion.

Ellipsis said...

I agree that it's important, and I'm not suggesting that it's not something that should be considered and included. I'm just saying that giving people the ability to have a meaningful conversation while playing your game isn't the same things as creating a meaningful game. In order for the game to be meaningful, in my opinion, the meaningful experience should be inextricable from the game itself, and a conversation that happens to take place in a game (but could take place elsewhere) doesn't seem to accomplish this.

Craig Perko said...

Well, I don't know that I would distinguish between "part of the game" and "just something players experience while playing the game". But the point is moot: giving people a chatroom doesn't much increase the chance that a game will be meaningful.

However, integrating it somehow... I don't know how you'd do it on the computer, but as an example: I made a pseudo-LARP (half boardgame, half LARP) in which the players' psychic powers had to be "powered up" after each use. The method of powering them up was social (or pseudo-social). For example, one guy powered up one of his powers if someone laughed. Another one powered up one of his powers if he agreed to do something someone asked him to.

While it would seem that these are pathetically "shallow" requirements, they do make for a fun an interesting set of social dynamics that would not have been possible if there had not been multiple players.

It doesn't work in a computer game, though. Social bandwidth's too damn low.