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Multiplayer is Not a Magic Bullet

Multiplayer isn't the be all and end all of video games. It doesn't solve every problem, and there are many reasons why someone might prefer to play with intelligent NPCs instead.

These days, it feels like pretty much every game has a multiplayer component. Some games, like Fortnite, depend on them. For others, the multiplayer aspect can seem like a hastily tacked on addition just to stay relevant (...I’m looking at you, Mass Effect 3).

Multiplayer can be great fun, of course, when it’s done right, allowing you to play with friends or on teams, and to interact with other agents that are a bit more intelligent than your average NPC. And therein lies the true benefit of multiplayer games: humans are more intelligent than computers.

For now, anyway.

Some might say, then, that the problem has been solved. That having multiplayer easily available through PSN or Xbox Live or Steam or whatever platform the game uses negates the need to improve computer’s handling of agents in a game - why improve the NPCs when someone can simply play against another human instead?

The thing is - multiplayer isn’t a silver bullet. There are several things that really don’t stack up when it comes to multiplayer games.

Plot and Story Arcs

When you have a multiplayer game, the plot must be different than a single player game out of necessity. For any games with more serious content or more emphasis on narrative (The Last of Us, Beyond Two Souls, etc), a multiplayer simply wouldn’t make sense. For a game that intends to tell you a story, multiplayer doesn’t work.

Why? Because you need a narrative reason for other people being around and acting independently. Why are people running all over the place? You have to explain that or ignore it, and either approach impacts the plot of a game. It’s hard to enjoy a deep, emotional scene when another player is jumping in place or running in circles, over and over, just out of the corner of your eye (and there’s always that guy who does this, as anyone who plays online games will know).

So you need NPCs for these types of games, there’s just no getting around it. You need characters that are going to be willing to just stand at the inn and tell you the latest gossip, or to buy all the zombie bones you picked up in the nearby necromancer cave.

But who’s to say that what we have now can’t be improved? Why not have these NPCs, with specific jobs and purposes, but flesh them out a little at the same time? They could have their own motives, desires and biases, and could interact with the human player based upon these parameters and the human’s own previous actions.

That way the game can change every time you play it, and the strong narrative can become even more fleshed out and real.

Interacting with other humans

Don’t get me wrong - playing online can be fun. But isn’t.

Games tend to have their own sort of culture in their online worlds, attracting different sorts of people and rewarding different sorts of behaviour. And sometimes, this behaviour can be very negative.

I have very distinct memories of the few times I tried to play Left 4 Dead 2 online. I was excited about the prospect of being able to play as the zombies - the way it works for L4D2 online is that there are two teams, survivors and zombies. One team (the humans) tries to get to the end of the level, and the other (the zombies) tries to kill them before they reach the safe house. Then at the end of the round, you switch and go again.

What’s the problem?

People prefer playing the zombies.

At least, in my experience they do, to the point where they will purposefully throw the game as the humans in order to get their turn as a zombie again faster. This behaviour ranges from not saving you when you get nabbed by a smoker, to running into hordes of them recklessly, to shooting you until you die, because there’s friendly fire in L4D2. Yes, I have spawned and tried to exit the safehouse starting area, only to be drilled (in the face) with machine gun fire until I died.

I thought this might just be bad luck, that I was stuck with a guy who was just a bad sport, but through that week, every time I joined, people were the same. Maybe not as bad as shooting me in the face, but not enjoyable to play with either.

Let’s take a different example. DoTA 2. I play against the Unfair AI, which is the highest level of bot available, but I have yet to play online. The reason for this is that I know I can’t stack up to most human players...and human players get very angry with you when you let down the team.

I have sunk a couple hundred hours in the game...and I still can’t play online because I’m not good enough.

For my friend, who has several thousand hours? He also doesn’t play online. Not because he can’t keep up (he definitely can), but because he doesn’t like those angry players either. It’s not relaxing for him to play against other humans because he doesn’t want to deal with them getting angry or engaging in stupid behaviours (like “feeding” the other team or purposefully doing things to make sure your team loses).

He’ll play with a friend, but that’s it. Never in matchmade multiplayer. It’s just not fun.

Protection for young/vulnerable people

Introducing children to a multiplayer space is a dangerous endeavour. Because of the aforementioned poor behaviour, allowing young people into these spaces can expose them to communities full of adults that are unfiltered. I’ve heard racist, sexist things yelled into chats, sexual comments, threats, all kinds of disgusting things, and I think to myself -- what if there’s a minor in this chat?

With NPCs, both speech and behaviour can be controlled to ensure they do not behave so negatively, and they can match the game rating of the ESRB printed on the box. If it’s a mature-rated game, of course there can be mature content and maybe people playing it won’t be worried about things said over team speak, but if a game is E or T? It can be restricted to make sure that people who shouldn’t (or don’t want to) consume this sort of content...don’t.

Better NPCs can improve the richness of a game...for everyone

Improving NPCs would allow people who don’t want to interact with an online multiplayer community to avoid doing so if they so choose, and would still allow them to enjoy a full and complex game with well-playing opponents and allies. It also means that only people who want to play online multiplayer will play online multiplayer, thus reducing the number of unskilled players, or people who are just messing around.

It allows the developers of a game to build a plot completely around whatever characters they need. It makes sure that people only consume the content they wish to consume, and it allows players of all skill levels to play a game that is relaxing and fun, if that’s what they desire.

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