Tuesday, March 29

On Writing for One or Many

Being a fairly solitary kid, I never owned many multiplayer games, and those that I did own had the multiplayer as an attachment, and very rarely as a focus.  For instance, the multiplayer in Goldeneye was well loved, but the game was primarily a single player shooter, whereas Super Smash Bros. was about the multiplayer much more than the single player modes.
Multiplayer, especially online multiplayer, is becoming extremely popular as a way to squeeze longevity out of games with little on their own.  Writing a multiplayer game needn’t be terribly difficult either, utilizing options like the secondary character otherwise being computer controlled (Gears of War), or by making the other character only there in terms of gameplay (Halo), or writing an entirely different series of events based on the multiplayer option (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory).  However, the best multiplayer tends to be human VS human, because facing down a computer with limited thought is one thing, but trying to kill an actively thinking human is another.
Can you feel her adorable scorn?
 That leads us to the problem of whether a game with multiplayer should have a single player mode with just as much effort put in, or as Yahtzee Croshaw puts it, “Every game should be able to stand up on single player alone.”  I like saying that, but again, it’s because I don’t have many friends, and when you start saying what art should and shouldn’t do then you’re going to get a lot of unkind glances from behind sunglasses and under berets.  However, the question of how to write a human VS human multiplayer game is an interesting one.
An article on The Escapist first brought this to mind, from an interview with Brink’s head writer, Edward Stern.  Brink is a shooter game coming May 17, set in 2045, when the icecaps have melted and the seas have risen, where mankind survives on isolated artificial islands.  Different factions vie for control and blah blah blah.  What is interesting is having the storyline play out for players who must choose different sides in this world.  I’m going to quote the interview directly:

"If you play the Security storyline, we've got credible intel that there is a bio-weapon lab. So you go, 'That's what that map is about,'" Stern said. "You play that [same map] from the Resistance side and they say, 'They're stealing our vaccine.'" Once you realize that vaccines are made from viruses, which could be used as bio-weapons, a simple mission suddenly has a lot of grey area morality that will hopefully engage players."

While this does have something to it, I found myself underwhelmed.  I thought perhaps this would be something marvelous, some method of letting players interact with each other and still create an advancing, interesting story.  It would be difficult, but it can be done.  I think we can actually look to Guild Wars II for some inspiration.  The game’s not out yet, so I’ll be going by what’s been said in interviews and press releases.  The basic idea is that the designers didn’t want the players to feel like they weren’t having an affect on the world.  Usually in an MMO, player hear of a farmer besieged by wolves, and must kill a specific number that are simply lounging about in a certain area.  But in Guild Wars II, the wolves would actually be attacking the farmer’s land, and the quest could be failed and the land destroyed, or the wolves driven back and the farm saved.
It is here that we see the potential.  If the different factions of a multiplayer game are entirely human, and can actually affect the game world, it can greatly improve players’ investment.  Separating the whole battle with an ethical question can make the fight all the more fierce, and leads not only to continued interest as the issue is quite literally battled out, but to some possibly beautiful poetic moments as players are locked in firefights and shouting back and forth through their headsets, not with a constant stream of swear and pseudo-slurs, but with intelligent rhetoric.
Like this, but with more assault rifles.
That’s… probably not going to happen, at least not to that extent, and I can already think up problems with that kind of system, like players only choosing one side, or mostly choosing that, making the game incredibly unbalanced.
But now, would this hypothetical game have a single player campaign to match its multiplayer?  Would any of its hypothetical budget even be allotted to the single player department?  Should it?  This is a dilemma impossible to equate with other media, since there really are no multiplayer movies or music.  Unlike the writing concerns of games, there’s really no place to look for even a starting suggestion.
I see no problem with games being solely multiplayer affairs, since the social gaming movement has proved that the methods can be used to great effect.  Extra Credits boasts that the free in-browser game Echo Bazaar accomplishes this quite well, if you’re interested.  I haven’t had time yet to give it a whirl, but I plan to at some point, if for no other reason than it’s steampunk themed.
But how to write a story for one player or many?  In games, especially MMOs, this could be akin to the Holy Grail.  I think the key is not, in fact, to try to make each character stand out.  In these situations, the player must be part of something larger, with the potential to be important.  Players, like all people, need a goal, some method to succeed not only in the society they’re placed, but something by which the can measure their own improvement.  For instance, players’ ranks could be not only determined by their prowess in combat, but votes from other members of factions.  Players less able at combat become medics or tacticians, to round out the entire force.  Team Fortress 2 is a blueprint for great design ideas.
So, not an entirely feasible idea right now, even with game budgets as bloated as they are.  The key to take away is the transfer of importance between single and multiplayer games.  Making the world feel affected by the actions of how ever many players there are keeps those players interested, keeps them wanting to do more.  It’s all fun and such to ricochet a sniper bullet eight times and take down a man around several corners, but the real meat of experience, in achievement, is change.

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