Posted on Dec 31, 2010 design
I had a thought recently, I’m not sure how original it is, but I thought it would make for interesting reading and a much needed update to the blog.
First a bit of background, In most modern MMORPG’s you have ‘instanced’ dungeons which are parts of the world which exist outside the shared space of the rest of the world in which only a small number of players can participate, pretty much a small single player game embedded within the greater multiplayer game.
So essentially the idea I had was this, turning the instanced dungeon idea on its head, wouldn’t it be interesting for a single player game to have multiplayer ‘instances’ to make the single player game’s public areas seem a bit more lively?
So we have a traditional single player game, but in certain areas of the gameworld are shared spaces (such as a futuristic space market where spaceships and ship components are bought and sold), where other players playing the same single player game can wander around this market and buy and sell items from AI shop keepers and also see and interact with other players.
Ok, so without too much thought a few problems with this idea come to mind, the first and most obvious of these being that if all the players are playing as the hero in the story, wont these public areas look pretty strange with a bunch of identical hero’s running around, all trying to save the universe?
Well yes that would pretty much shatter any suspension of belief among the player that they were a unique and special hero. However what if we bring a few of the ideas from the previous blog post regarding subjectivity into the mix. Just because I am the hero on my own PC, doesn’t mean that other players have to see me as the same character, why couldn’t I appear as a random space pirate to them and vice versa. so now all the hero’s around me can be viewed from my perspective as a bunch of regular NPC’s wandering around and from the other players’ perspective, I too am just another pleb going about my daily business.
Okay so lets assume that other players appear to me as normal people, it would be pretty weird for them to start talking about how they were on a quest to save the universe from tyranny as well. So its obvious that we’re going to have to limit the interaction between the players in these instanced multiplayer areas if we want to maintain any sort of suspension of belief or cohesion in the story. It makes sense therefore to limit the possible interactions to those that benefit from having real people taking part in these areas instead of AI’s and removing the interactions that spoil the story’s continuity. This is a pretty fine balancing act because if we remove all meaningful interaction there’s not much point in allowing multiple people to share the same space anyway right?
So lets go back to the space market example, what benefits do we get in this scenario from having real people wandering around this market as opposed to NPC’s? Well the other players could be buying and selling items to the various shopkeepers in the market, adding an interesting supply and demand mechanic to the market, some shops with in-demand products will have queues outside, while other stalls will not be so prosperous, essentially the human element will add to the dynamism and unpredictability to the market that could not be modeled as well purely though AI.
The main downside of having real people in this market however is that you don’t want to know that the intergalactic badass standing next to you only has half an hour left to play before his mum forces him to go to bed, or that the space ranger at the weapons store has to leave the keyboard because its his turn to do the dishes, it ruins the singleplayer illusion.
So bringing these points together we want to allow players to interact in such a way as to make the commerce aspect of the market more interesting, while limiting what they can communicate to each other directly, so why don’t we transform the market somewhat so that the majority of the trading of items isn’t done between the player and AI stores, but players trading with other players. The communication between players is limited to an interface which shows which items that player wants to sell, or are wanted to buy, and a means of haggling, bargaining, and bartering for items. Now we have a situation where there is a very compelling dynamic market in place due to the human interaction rather than the static economy of a more traditional singleplayer market, and since communication is limited to the commerce interface, the story’s continuity can be maintained.
Unfortunately there is one problem with the multiplayer instances idea, in that most singleplayer games have limited replayability, so over time the number of real people playing the game is going to decrease meaning this market could get pretty empty a few months after the games release. The only real solution to this is to pad out the NPC’s with AI’s when real players aren’t around to occupy the market. Sure its not ideal, but the whole idea of the instances idea is that its simply a nice extra, not a fundamental aspect of the game, its nice to have, but its absence shouldn’t spoil the game.
I think this idea has some merit and we’re now starting to see the addition of online dynamic content to single player games e.g. in Spore you can see creatures created by other users populating your single player game world. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg, single player gaming will always have its place but can be enhanced through the use of clever integration with online features.