I was just talking with my co-worker about possibilities of building a big multiplayer game into a website. We had tried a bit on Hotwheels.com last Fall but it was a disaster because it was missing some critical elements. It doesn’t take a complicated game for people to be compelled to come back everyday to play. I’ve been messing around with SuperPoke! Pets on MySpace, coerced by some lady friends. It’s a simple pyramid scheme type of system which rewards you with in-game cash for coming back everyday — the more friends you get to join, the more cash opportunities you have within a given day. Then you can buy crap to decorate your little room and gift items to your friends.

My co-worker then went to go on about strategy games like Settlers of Catan and M.U.L.E. , which take this kind of gathering concept and create a goal that you can compete with others for. Instead of just building up “bling“. I’d heard of M.U.L.E. before but never knew anything about it. Apparently it’s a 4 player turn-based strategy game for 80s computers. I decided to look up on it and learned about the designer Dani Bunton Berry. A designer, apparently way ahead of her time. Unfortunately, she died in 1998 while working on an online version of M.U.L.E.

I ended up finding her website still intact with a GDC speech from 1997 on multiplayer game design. What is surprising to me is how relevant it still is, over 10 years later. Halo 3 covers most of these bullet points very well… The “pacing needs variety” part reminds me of the time in the lobby between games — usually “good game” or trash-talking time. The “Legends must grow” element was a big feature of Halo 3, which automatically records game matches to your hard drive and allowing you to upload them online and allow others to spectate a past match. The “Leave room for ads” part has grown increasingly relevant as now I’ve begun experimenting with in-game advertising. Dreadful.

So here’s the listo…

Good Multi-player Design Elements

Excerpt from a Lecture for the 1997 Computer Game Developers Conference, Copyright 1997, by Dani Bunten Berry

Here comes my annual punch list of things to consider when designing multi-player games updated and expanded from last year based on what we’ve learned:

  • Build in the “Norm Effect” if at all possible. This is named for the character from “Cheers” who when he enters the bar is greeted by everyone calling his name in unison. Pitiful old IRC chat-rooms can provide some of this effect so surely we can find some way to welcome people into our game environments.
  • “Zero sum” is bad. Games where I win and you lose are bad. Worse still is “I win and all the rest of you lose”. Notwithstanding the current cultural obsession with endzone strutting by winners, losers do not enjoy themselves and if you can help take the sting out of it, you should. Alliances, cooperative play, ranked “winners” rather than “A winner” with a bunch of losers are all options.
  • Pacing needs variety. Slow periods should follow intense ones and forced “time-outs” can offer opportunities to socialize, catch your breath and anticipate things to come. Remember, the players no longer have a “pause key” as they did in a solo-game.
  • Strategies need “wiggle room”. People have different personal styles and when playing against each other it’s great to let them “do it their own way” rather than a single approach that all must follow. If possible you should balance the game such that a strategic planner for instance might not always beat the joystick jockey or the detailed tactical type. A game that allows for diverse people to play diverse ways is always best.
  • Legends must grow. Provide ways for players to carry their experiences with them. “Game films” are an excellent (and reasonably cost-effective option) in games where what’s sent between the player’s computers is a stream of “deltas”. Saving that stream and running it back through the game engine provides an opportunity to review what happened during the game. This turns an ephemeral, fast paced experience into a story that can be used to “save face” if the player lost, to learn how to win or just to chronicle their accomplishments. At the very least, try to include ongoing statistics or character attributes outside the environment of a single game execution.
  • Court your newbies. Nothing will destroy a player’s interest in your game quicker than being humiliated a few times when they are just trying to figure out what to do. If possible build in inducements for advanced players to help newbies in order to get something to advance further in the game environment — like taking an “apprentice” might be the only path to “master rank”. At the very least try to make starting as safe on player’s egos as you can. Continue Reading…