Lead developer on the "Killing Floor" mod, for Unreal tournament 2004.
Team Lead on "Depth" - UDK indie.
In the twelve years I have been a developer, I’ve mainly focused on developing online experiences. The idea that you can get on the internet with a group of strangers and go frag some monsters together is pretty captivating. There’s this feeling of camaraderie and excitement you can get from playing a really good online game that even the best single player experiences fail to recreate.
Well, I’m done trying to make multiplayer games.
Social engineering has somehow crept into game development. Questions like "how do we minimize toxicity" and "maximize player retention" are questions that every developer of a multiplayer game MUST have an answer to. Statistics and player psychology have gone from being distant considerations to being at the forefront of how multiplayer games are developed. It is common to see games with complex systems of drip-fed bonuses that reward players for good behavior and subtly punish bad behavior. Did you stick around for the whole match? Good job! You unlocked a Sparkle Pistol! Only TEN more matches and you'll get the Sparkle Shotgun! Oops! You left a match early! Now you have to sit in the low priority pool you naughty boy!
Now, I realize that these aren't new concepts. I would be surprised if these weren't considerations back when UT99 or Quake 3 was in development. Good developers recognize that they are not just creating games, but also communities, and that a healthy community makes for a healthy game. You want to keep people invested, and to do that you need to dangle a carrot on the end of a stick. The problem is that this mentality has created a community of gamers who EXPECT rewards. Games without these systems are given less attention, or passed over completely. It's a little like slipping bits of filet mignon into your dog's food bowl for years, and then asking him to eat a bowl with nothing but kibble in it. In an effort to attract and retain players, developers have conditioned entire communities of gamers into the mindset that they need to be constantly rewarded for playing.
So what’s wrong with that though ?
Well, for one thing it puts pressure on developers to focus on statistics. “What was our max concurrent player count for the month we introduced the Spark Shotgun drop?” “How many daily unique players did we see when we did the Kwanzaa themed map”? “Were they buying any DLC?” To interpret all this information could easily be a full time job for a single developer , and for small development teams this means that there’s less manpower focused on what traditionally might be considered the “important” stuff. Y’know, fixing bugs, refining core gameplay mechanics, adding meaningful content. And you’d better believe players expect that too.
What I take issue with the most however, is that it insidiously moves the focus of game development away from art and toward a social science. It’s no longer enough to implement a mechanic because it would be “fun”, or because it serves to further an artistic vision. That’s naive, old fashioned. A waste of resources. Every mechanic needs serve the meta goal of seducing players to invest their time (and money) in your game, instead of the competition. We need to have unlocks, but we also need skin drops, oh and we need achievements of course, but we also need tiered matchmaking so players can only play with people of the same skill as them. Then we have the seasonal events, but also the weekly events. “We’ll give you a bonus if you participate in both! Do you like our game? We made it for you to feel good. We love you! Do you love us? Please play our game. Please.
It’s cloying, it’s cynical, It’s pathetic, And if you want to make a multiplayer game in 2017, you’d better believe it’s necessary. None of this is to say that single player games don’t try to push the same psychological buttons - they do. But the nice thing about single player is that it’s a discrete, self contained experience. There is typically a beginning, and there is typically an end. Because of this the focus is less on creating a perpetual reward bubble for the player and more on creating memorable experiences across its duration. Oh, and you don’t have to worry about how to apply “soft punishments” to a guy who spends 4 hours a night griefing everyone in the server. If you want to be a dick to some AI enemies, go right ahead pal. They aren’t going to uninstall.
I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that making a single player game is a free pass to ignore player psychology. That would be a big mistake. I have also seen this pattern of “games as reward dispenser” reflected in many modern single player games. Assassin’s creed and Far Cry are notorious for their completionist pandering world maps, and there has been a pretty big surge of “roguelike” games that try to trap you in addicting loops of rinse of repeat. But , at the end of the day you are focusing on the needs of a single gamer. You don’t have to worry about how he’s going to feel when somebody with 5,000 hours under his belt joins the server and smashes him into the dirt before saying “l2p u fucking scrub”.
The truth is, there’s really no easy answer to that stuff. People are dicks in the real world, and they’re dicks online. You can try to apply subtle pressures to force good behavior out of them, and it can even work, but it’s a black hole for time and resources. Unless you’re a huge studio with a mountain of statistics and a small army to interpret them , you’re going to struggle.
I guess it’s just not a battle I want to fight. I don’t derive much enjoyment from finding new ways to force people to use less abusive language, or ragequit 10% less. It’s not why I got into game development. I see games as an art form, and I develop them because I want to realize a vision that is capable of pulling people away from the world for a few hours a day. If you are a developer who sees games as more of a science, this will probably come across as a whole lot of melodrama, which is fine. I don’t expect everyone will share this perspective, I just wanted to put this out there for discussion and explain why I’m currently staying far, far away from the world of multiplayer development!
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