Does Multiplayer Need to be so Massive?

I was watching a documentary on Mojang that is well done and very inspiring, I highly recommend it. It got me thinking about Minecraft.

There is no shortage of information on the Internet regarding what Minecraft is, how it works, and why it is appealing. I’d also refer you to the documentary itself for more insight into those topics. What struck me about Minecraft as I watched the documentary is the Multiplayer aspect of the game, and how its particular brand of Multiplayer reminded me of when I used to play games on BBS systems, particularly TradeWars, a space trading game that I found quite addictive back in my day. Games such as TradeWars provided a multiplayer, persistent world where players could either collaborate or compete as they saw fit, just like what we now get with multiplayer Minecraft.

These days, most of the multiplayer offerings available to casual gamers through Zynga and other Facebook game developers offer multiplayer, but only in the superficial sense: everyone is really playing a single-player game where their friends occasionally visit their instance of the game, or act as NPCs to compete against. There’s no going into another’s space to mess around, no depletion of resources by another player before you can get to them, or careful navigation in case you come across a stronger player.

Contrasted with MMO games such as World of Warcraft, you still often find yourself in a different kind of Multiplayer. There’s always going to be plenty of things to kill, everyone can complete a given quest, even the big bad guys will respawn shortly. Outside of a PVP server, the other players often feel like complex NPCs, with most of them just passing you by on a road here and there, and in a guild or on raids, you’re interacting with a limited number of players regularly. Most MMO games can certainly feel massive, and they are multiplayer, but for a number of reasons they are not truly “massively multiplayer” in the sense that hundreds or thousands of players would be interacting simultaneously.

In fact, the need for the world to persist prevents people from seriously impacting each other or the dynamics of the world. Imagine a massively multiplayer Minecraft for a moment; if there were thousands of people playing at once, you could never have a long-term persistent world because someone would TNT significant chunks of it in short order. Instead, most people are content to play on a smaller, more intimate server that may occasionally get recycled (or at the very least they can walk several KM away and start fresh). It was the same with TradeWars, you would play with at most a couple of dozen people, and when it looked like things were entering a static state, you would start over again.

I think there’s a potential future middle-ground market here for game companies: building and maintaining an MMO is an expensive proposition, but for a good number of players it may actually be overkill anyway. Instead look at building moderately-sized world (most likely procedurally generated) where players can interact, build, explore, grow, etc. Either host the games or allow for self-hosting, and allow for players to invite a relatively small circle of friends to play with (or against) eachother. It is significantly easier to host a large number of small instances than a small number of large instances, and I think most players would enjoy both equally well.

Personally I believe this is a direction that Facebook itself could benefit from pursuing. Currently a game developer needs to not only develop a game, but also build and support infrastructure for hosting the game itself, as Facebook provides only the page wrapper around the game, but no infrastructure resources. As a result, a lot of what we see on Facebook are simple Flash-based games that involve repetitive clicking, and no real multiplayer. These kind of games require fewer server resources and are therefore easier to build and support. If Facebook built out scalable multiplayer server resources it would lower the barrier to entry for a new generation of more truly multiplayer game experiences among a circle of friends. It would be much more interesting to get a notification that someone had invaded your territory than to find out they had completed a quest to click on 20 cows. Facebook could in return collect a larger percentage of the monetization from a game, with such games likely generating greater revenue in the first place thanks to their advanced nature.

Personally I would love to see the return of the small-scale persistent world multiplayer concept, somewhere that gets you logging in regularly to keep ahead of your friends and to make sure they haven’t gotten the drop on you since you last logged in. A multiplayer game concept that falls between the traditional MMO and the deathmatch game that only lasts as long you you’re all logged in and playing. An approach where someone can eventually pull well ahead of the others and in doing so affects the balance of the game, requiring either a restart or a combined effort by the remaining players. It was compelling back in the BBS games, it’s compelling in Minecraft (though the game’s mechanics don’t really support the idea of game inbalance), and I think it could be compelling in a number of genres today.