I recently made a post on our official OML blog about what Adam and I are playing. Taking a look at that list you’ll find that the vast majority of games I play are multiplayer oriented. A lot of biases, inspirations, and design decisions that go into my game designs are influenced by multiplayer games.

When we set out to start One Man Left, my long term goal for the company (beyond making fun games we like to play) was to be known for making fun multiplayer indie games for whatever platform we develop for. Our first game wasn’t a real-time multiplayer game, but you gotta start somewhere, right? Admittedly, I don’t seek out purely multiplayer games on the iPhone often. Searches for “multiplayer” tend to not turn up very compelling options, and it worries me. The few games that are strictly multiplayer tend to have different reactions based on how the match making works and how ‘easy' it is to play alone. For instance, one game was bluetooth/wifi only and had no AI opponent. It had extremely low ratings and the vast majority of them were “please add a computer opponent”. Just reading this you would think that a lot of iPhone users are isolated cases where their friends don’t have an iThing. This could very well be the case, although in my personal experience it isn’t. It may also have been a case of the app description not being detailed enough.

I’ve been prototyping some co-op multiplayer game ideas over bluetooth recently and we’re really excited about the possibilities. I feel multiplayer is an awesome tool in the game designer’s toolbox. It overcomes many challenges more traditional single player games are still struggling with:

  • Want the player to have a memorable experience? Include a friend, and now it’s a shared experience that is easier to remember.
  • Want a genuinely funny game? Add some human players and watch the hilarity ensue. It becomes a breeding ground for memes, inside jokes.
  • It’s much easier for players to evoke genuine joy, exhilaration, nervousness, anger and frustration when playing with human players in close proximity.

Yes, it’s definitely a different spin on things as you can’t exactly tailor an ‘epic' story to many multiplayer games, but it entirely depends on the goals your game is set out to achieve. In the context of mobile games, long and epic games don’t seem to be hitting the mark compared to heavier duty, more hardcore platforms.

So where are all the awesome multiplayer games, especially with a platform that is practically connected 24/7 regardless of location and time? We’ve certainly seen some early successes so far (Words with Friends, Eliminate, NOVA, Archetype, etc), but these seem to be barely scratching the surface on what this platform can do. Now with some ideas on multiplayer on the iPhone I figured there are plenty of challenges and possibly very good reasons why we aren’t seeing many successful indie games based around multiplayer just yet.

Complexity

It’s no secret that networking, and making that networked experience seamless and easy to use is no small task. In fact, if you’re doing a server hosted solution where the game is happening at a central location, the cost and infrastructure is probably cost prohibitive for most indies to be sustainable. Even if it’s a P2P game, the complexities of managing a game over a network where any number of things can hinder the quality of the connection or the progress of the game can become a headache at times. You find you are coding for a lot “exceptions” in game events when things simply don’t arrive, arrive late, or aren’t even welcome.

It’s not common for a game to have multiplayer as it’s front and center offering. It’s usually tucked away as a “but wait, there’s more!” item in some bullet list description of features. As such, the convention seems to be a single player option with multiplayer being “extra”. That just adds to production time as now your game isn’t just a single “mode”.

Appeal

To me it seems the number of people who wish to play a game with their friends would be close if not higher to those that wish to purchase a quick 5-minute game to kill time. But I have no data to really back this up, and as such I think my bias is getting in the way here and I could be dead wrong when it comes to the iPhone game market. Social networking sites have already shown that ‘social games' have a huge appeal, however dubious the game is. So maybe that’s good news?

Opportunity

The other dilemma is the chances the player will have to actually play the game. With a game like “Words with Friends” or “Archetype” there’s always a game at a moment’s notice. Of course, the catch being that you aren’t playing with real life friends (WWF has a slight exception here due to the nature of the game). It’s difficult enough to get players to play your game on their own, but now adding the constraint that 2+ people must buy it AND must be in the same general location to play becomes even more challenging. This drives the game more into niche territory. The question is if that niche is big enough.

The More The Merrier

Multiplayer games are sticky by nature. Players won’t drop your game after a day if they have friends playing it. There’s been a lot of ‘bigger budget' games that are multiplayer driven on the iPhone, and the whole “social gaming platform” vendors (AGON, Open Feint, Plus+, etc) are all betting on the same thing with their leaderboards and social features. So maybe I’m not too crazy to try to create something that requires more than 1 person/iPhone to fully enjoy the game. The iPad is always an option as well, and possibly a safer one if I wish to pursue a ‘multiplayer' centric game idea.