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INSIGHT: The untapped potential of “hybrid” single/multiplayer games

INSIGHT: The untapped potential of “hybrid” single/multiplayer games

Back in 2016, Dino Patti departed the beloved indie studio Playdead – the creators of Limbo and Inside – which he had co-founded ten years earlier. Three years later, the developer revealed what his next venture was going to be; a new cloud-based system called Coherence that was designed to make building multiplayer games easier.

Writing for PCGamesInsider.biz, Patti explains why more game developers should explore combining single-player and multiplayer gameplay mechanics, as well as why he founded Coherence.

By and large, we tend to split video games into one of two categories: single-player and multiplayer. In a single-player game, your efforts exist in a bubble, isolated from the outside world. In a multiplayer game, you play with or against your friends and randoms, typically in explicit cooperative or competitive modes. Yet I believe there’s so, so much more potential for how to integrate multiplayer into what we typically think of as a “single-player game”.

We’ve seen this a bit here and there over the last several years with what I’d deem “hybrid” single and multiplayer games. This would encompass something like Journey, a game where you wander the desert in what seems like a single-player light puzzle platformer, only you’re able to encounter other players who are independently venturing through their own pilgrimage. From there, the two of you can organically decide whether to collaborate through your trek together, ignore one another, or simply offer a wordless greeting before moving on with your day. Both myself and many others, found this quietly moving, as it’s so alive. Since these are avatars of real human beings you’re encountering, these chance meetings aren’t scripted and can go in any number of unpredictable ways.

There have been other games to tinker with these unorthodox multiplier approaches. Dark Souls offered a system in which players could leave notes for one another, Nier Automata let you find the bodies of other fallen players and even a game like Animal Crossing: New Horizons provided a single-player experience that naturally let you share that experience with a friend.

While I wouldn’t say that every game needs multiplayer, I’d encourage developers to try it out more

What I think is really important with these types of games is that the multiplayer element never deducts from the experience and only adds to the world-building. These encounters don’t have to have a huge impact on a game’s systems or mechanics to be meaningful. Simply observing others going about their business offers a feeling of connection. I’ve spent so much time playing single-player games, only to feel disheartened when there’s no seamless way to share my experiences or work with other players of the same game. Sure, there are streaming and video capture options to post to social media, but these aren’t organic and offer no form of meaningful feedback or connection.

If I spend 80 hours crafting a bustling metropolis in a classic game like SimCity; I may be able to post a still image or video on Facebook or Twitter, but will any of my friends not playing SimCity have any connection to what they’re seeing? Probably not. But if other SimCity players could travel around in-game and see what others have built, it would add a strong feeling of community. We may never speak or know each other’s names, but simply seeing others toiling away building their own man-made cities is a gentle reminder that we’re all in this together.

For me, immersion is the key to a good game, so being able to witness others going about their way in real-time is infinitely more powerful than exiting a game to watch others on a stream. Even exiting to a lobby, where you have to wait for others to join, completely breaks the immersion for me. It’s a reminder that I’m playing a game, not in a world.

Encountering other players in a hybrid single/multi-player game dynamically can also lead to a beautiful feeling of uncertainty. Among the reasons, the experimental multiplayer open-world shooter DayZ was such a phenomenon was due to its completely unscripted sandbox approach to player interaction. There were no lobbies or game modes dictating whether any other player you encountered would be friend or foe. Maybe they’d shoot you on sight and steal your gear. Maybe they’d ally themselves with you and explore the wasteland as a team. Or maybe they’d collaborate with you for a while, then betray you the first chance they get. It was anyone’s game.

Amusingly, my favourite experience with DayZ was something that couldn’t have been planned for. My colleague and I decided to play together, but since the game didn’t offer any way to spawn in next to your friends, we had to manually find each other. Since you begin each session without a map, this was easier said than done. To figure this out, we “cheated” and got on voice chat where we were talking to each other, calling out landmarks to help us triangulate the other’s position. “I’m by a lighthouse”, “Do you see a farm?”, “I’m by the water”, we’d holler to one another in this search to come together. A typical multiplier game would spawn us both into a lobby making the legwork easy, but here we inadvertently found ourselves on a scavenger hunt for… each other. We created our own mission in a way the developer designed the framework and limitations and it’s all due to the devs experimenting with unorthodox multiplayer integration.

What I think is really important with games like Dark Souls or Animal Crossing is that the multiplayer element never deducts from the experience and only adds to the world-building

That’s why I founded Coherence, a platform that makes implementing net code for multiplayer significantly more user-friendly and cost-effective than before. Right now we’re not seeing a lot of these hybrid single/multi-player games because implementing the multiplayer part and what comes with it is so resource-intensive. Lots of indie devs don’t have the time or money for that, while larger publishers are risk-averse and wary of spending so much on a feature that’s quietly in the background instead of the main attraction. We want to make this technology easily accessible to all, because we want everyone to experiment with this.

While I wouldn’t say that every game needs multiplayer, I’d encourage developers to try it out more. I don’t want us to go back to the days where every single-player blockbuster had some gimmicky deathmatch spin-off mode attached to it, but rather find new ways to implement the very concept of multiple people playing the same game at the same time and sharing that experience in a meaningful way. There’s a lot to love about single-player games. In fact, the two previous games I worked on, Limbo and Inside, were entirely single-player. But there’s a way of keeping all that makes a single-player game enjoyable, while still adding a slight layer of multiplayer integration that can really enhance the experience. It can make the adventure feel less isolating, the world more alive and offer entirely unique encounters that you’d never have without another person in the mix. It’s an all-new way of thinking about gaming and the possibilities for it are endless.


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