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Single vs Multi-Player

It seems that the video game industry is constantly dealing with the conundrum: what is more important, single player or multi-player? It’s my impression that, by their very nature, video GAMES have more to do with people playing together than individuals playing solo. If you gave someone a pack of cards, sure, they can play solitaire, but those cards were invented to play games like poker. The earliest video games were designed for at least two people to play together. When people think of the “first” video game, they usually think of PONG – which is a two player game. Few know of an earlier video game called “Space War!” that actually linked two machines together. By 1971, a game based on Space War called “Galaxy Game” became the first coin-operated machine –  that enabled multiple machines to be connected together for up to eight player matches!


Space War!

When people say things like “multi-player doesn’t belong in video games” I get a little defensive. One of the first video games EVER was an eight player arcade-LAN machine! But that’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the benefits of a good story-driven, single player game. I think there is room for both, and here are some of the things I like about single and multi-player games:

Single Player

When I think of a good SP game, I want something with a story and characters I can relate with. I also want a decent amount of freedom and control. Graphics and sound are nice, especially if they enhance the setting and really enable as much immersion as possible. “Immersion” is probably the key to why some players prefer SP games. Other people can definitely be a distraction to a good game playing session. I know some people enjoy playing a SP game while other people watch, usually a significant other. This is one of the unique qualities of video games, and I appreciate that. Similarly, some players can enjoy a good co-op session and still maintain that immersion – if everyone is on the same page. Perhaps that is the problem: the people watching or playing with you can’t be distracting, or it changes the experience. Some would say it “ruins” the experience.

tomb-raider-3The other problem with single player games is that they tend to be finite. They have an ending. All that immersion will be over eventually. When I chat with other gamers, I’ll bring up some of my recent, favorite games, and the discussion is usually the same. In just the past few months, for example, I’ve beaten award worthy games like Far Cry 3, Crysis 3, Tomb Raider, and Bioshock Infinite. We’ll go on and on about how awesome they were and how much we loved them – and how we’ll probably never play them again. I feel like I should repeat that: these aren’t just great games, they WIN AWARDS. Playing through their epic adventures was the very pinnacle of immersion, with bar-raising graphics and characters that we cared about – we just don’t care enough to KEEP playing.

I think developers are aware of this situation, and some try to give some incentive to replay or keep playing these SP games. Far Cry 3 and Tomb Raider, for example, allow you to keep playing after the credits have rolled, to find all the secrets and treasures hidden on their virtual islands. Crysis 3 also has its share of secret items to find, and you can even select individual chapters of the story to replay and find them all. But, that’s still finite. After finding all the secrets, replaying chapters, or replaying the entire game, there’s not much left to do. Other developers just extend the entire experience, 20, 30, or even 40 hours or more, just to finish the game. Action-RPG games like Skyrim and Fallout provide a much larger sandbox to play in, lots of immersion and freedom, but those nearly infinite hours sometimes come at the cost of characters and stories we don’t really care about. But, at least, we keep playing – until we get bored or something better comes along.


crysis-3-mechThe main quality of multi-player gaming is that it is unpredictable. Enemy AI in SP games, even really GOOD AI, will have predictable patterns that, with time, lower the challenge to good players. The best developers can hope to do is escalate that behavior, so the player is at least meeting slightly more challenging enemies as they progress through the story. This can be accomplished by purposely lowering the AI in the beginning, so the player faces stupid enemies, adding more and more enemies in each encounter, or both. However, even those games that provide that progressive challenge are ultimately finite. Multi-player is unpredictable and, theoretically, infinite. I especially appreciate MP games with a staggering list of maps and game modes, that also provide the ability to customize and tweak settings for personal matches. Games like Halo provide a nearly infinite combination of game modes and settings, so I consider them to be the high bar that other MP games should aspire to.

Not everyone feels the need to compete. I understand that. It’s hard to feel immersed in a virtual world, or enjoy the freedom of movement and player control, if you are unexpectedly killed by other players. Psychologically speaking, the appeal (and frustration) of multi-player gaming is that constant give and take of risk versus reward. I can hide or “camp” in this room and stay alive, or I can look for other players and risk getting killed. But I could get the drop on another player and kill them first, and win more points. I can walk slowly and carefully, aiming down my sights so I can shoot quickly, or I can sprint across this open space and get to a better vantage point, but that means my gun is lowered and I have no cover to protect me. Some players will feel the thrill of winning, or earning more points, but others will feel the frustration of not getting to do what they wanted.

judgment2An interesting compromise is providing multiple players the chance to cooperate, or play co-op games. These are sometimes story related, so there is a different level of immersion than one would experience in competitive MP. You still have to deal with other players, but hopefully they are friends or people you know. Even strangers can cooperate, which is one of the qualities I appreciate the most about video games. Unfortunately, like SP games, co-op games will have predictable AI opponents and are rather finite. Gears of War 2 provided an alternative co-op “Horde Mode” experience, that eliminated story telling in favor of escalating random challenges. This provided more variety and unpredictability, and has since been copied by other games. Again, I consider Halo (Reach) the high bar for co-op, as the entire campaign can be played with up to four players and individual chapters can be selected and modified with challenges. Further, it’s version of “Horde” mode can be customized like the competitive MP modes, altering enemy types and difficulty, weapons and shields available, and so on.

Competitive Co-Op

An interesting hybrid that deserves mention, is the practice of scoring these co-op sessions. Players cooperate and help each other to beat AI enemies and/or reach a goal, but they also earn points and can compete for higher rewards.  Even if the waves of enemies are predictable, scoring provides some replay value, in the same manner old coin-op games did so long ago. Other players help keep each gaming session unique and unpredictable. This also allows some flexibility, as there can be a range of interests and goals among the players – they don’t have to be on “the same page” as some may care about high scores and others only care about having fun or completing the goal.

Massively Multi-player Online

marin1-fullUltimately, this comes down to why I prefer playing MMOs. A good MMO will be full of the freedom, control, and immersion of a lengthy, relatively “single” player experience. It could take hundreds of hours to complete everything, solo, in an MMO. A good MMO also provides cooperative experiences and even competitive co-op for those that care about earning more points or better rewards than their peers. Of course, competitive multi-player, PvP or Player vs Player, is also available. Some MMOs feature PvP beyond anything other MP games are capable of, with massive matches featuring hundreds of players at a time. A great MMO will provide all of this in a seamless experience, maintaining my immersion in their virtual world even as I move from mode to mode at my leisure. The best MMOs have it all, a combination of the best features: immersion, player freedom and control, great graphics and sound, infinite replay value, unpredictable challenges, customization, single player, and competitive and cooperative multi-player. Just think, it all started with a few moving lights on a computer screen, and now we can play alone or with hundreds of other players, all over the world!


One comment on “Single vs Multi-Player

  1. Peter Richard
    March 30, 2013

    Oh, my heck! Add historian to your resume’! Wow! I am really impressed!

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This entry was posted on March 30, 2013 by in My Views and tagged , , , , , .
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