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Tuesday, 2 July 2013

A Basket Full of Social Eggs

Anybody that knows me will tell you I tend to dislike people.

This isn't personal. It's not the person I dislike, usually at least - it's the dominant discourse within today's culture that says I have to talk to them. The one that says I should share stuff with them, and invite them to do otherwise. Frequently I am bemoaned by my friends for not answering my phone, or letting it run out of battery, or burying it in a small pile of clothes in the bedroom. But this is my prerogative is it not? I don't need to be accessible for idle conversation all the time surely? Is society really going to break down into anarchy because I let my email go unanswered for an entire 24-hour period?

This extends to my attitude towards games as well. Gaming time is sacred, relaxing, chill out time, to be shared with others on the rare occasion a game has a worthwhile co-op mode. Other than that, I want to sit down and immerse myself in something that isn't real life, from a twisting and turning plot through to a rich, deep fantasy world. 

I recently stumbled upon an interview with the CEO of developer Gogogic, Jonas Antonsson, with the somewhat inflammatory title "Single-Player is a gimmick, says mid-core developer". Ignoring the issue of the term "mid-core", which is frankly, utterly redundant when the use of 'hardcore', 'core' and 'casual' as demographic-defining terms feels fundamentally base and outdated, this title poses quite a bold claim. Critics have called the 3DS' 3D screen a 'gimmick'. They called motion controls a 'gimmick'. A gimmick is something attached to an already established entity to try and make some speedy money, or quickly bring in new consumers. To suggest that single-player gaming is a gimmick on this basis seems somewhat misguided.

I think that it is worth to note that the single player mechanic is a gimmick - games are meant to be played with others and it doesn't matter if it's in-person or online. The first games were designed as multiplayer experiences . . . Playing a game is a multiplayer activity and can easily be seen as such when you watch young toddlers play by themselves. They invent someone to play with, someone that they talk to and interact with. [Antonsson in Radd, 2012, para.3]

No.

Don't get me wrong, I can see precisely where he is coming from with this statement, but it is thoroughly too narrow in its scope, while simultaneously being too broad in its definition. Gogogic are, according to their tag line, creators of games "for social networks, web browsers and Apple devices". In the world of Mr. Antonsson, games are indeed, meant to be be played online, with other people. This is not the case outside of the social sector - the clue is in the name itself. His reference demographic is too narrow, yet as we will see in a moment, his definition of multiplayer is also far too broad and all-encompassing.

As one response to the original interview notes, some of the most successful and widely played games are single-player in nature. Take Solitaire, for instance, or Tetris, or Sudoku, or the humble crossword. All of these games are entirely playable without having to get your social face on, and are no worse off for it. In fact, I would argue it is the solitary nature of them that actually make them so relaxing. If not relaxing, then other fundamentally single-player titles like System Shock, Final Fantasy, The Elder Scrolls series, or the majority of the Zelda series are certainly highly immersive and engaging games, and a multiplayer aspect would make little difference to that fact.

Can't beat a bit of classic Windows-based Solitaire...
My current research includes a lot of reading around the field of player motivation; what drives players to start playing, and then to keep playing a game. Much has been written in this area, but there are some key drivers that come up time and time again, such as agency, presence, empowerment, discovery/exploration, achievement and escapism (see works such as Murray (1997), Ermi and Mäyrä (2005), Calleja (2007) and Lindley & Sennersten (2008) for in-depth discussion of some of these topics). All of these factors can be achieved in a single player context. More importantly, I can see no real situation in which multiplayer scenarios would increase any of these motivators significantly. In fact, arguably factors such as agency and presence, and especially escapism from the real world, would potentially be damaged by the introduction of more human players.

Antonsson does note that there are multiple different levels of multiplayer, and in fact starts his interview discussing the likes of the asynchronous multiplayer in games like Demon's Souls. But this raises the issue of what is considered multiplayer and single player. Sure, my game may be gathering data from other players and using it in my game, but my experience - me as a player sitting in my lounge playing my game - remains a solitary activity, and is all the better for it. Multiplayer is not some mythical elixir that can be smeared across any game in any genre and instantly improve it, which is ultimately the impression that Antonsson gives, even if his definition of said 'multiplayer' is incredibly broad.

The data-based model of asynchronous multiplayer is worth further consideration however. Demon's Souls' method of bringing player experience together, whilst retaining a single-player immersive experience is worthy of praise, and something more developers should be considering. This was one of the few aspects of Microsoft's E3 2013 press conference that caught my eye, in the form of Forza 5's adaptive AI. Not only did the AI adapt to the individual player's racing style (already very intriguing in itself) but it also acquires data from the cloud (this was my understanding of it anyway) and uses this data to provide either different opponents with different racing styles, or to form more data to drive the sophisticated AI itself. That might not be an entirely accurate understanding, but the game certainly uses data from other players to improve the single-player experience.

A screenshot from Forza 5's E3 2013 trailer highlighting the AI decisions on-screen.
My biggest issue with Antonsson's stance is his over-generalisation. He lumps all conceivable forms of multiplayer gaming into one writhing mass of social tedium, essentially placing synchronous, in-the-same-room multiplayer gaming on a level footing with a passive high score table. These may all be 'multiplayer' elements by name, but their impact on the gameplay experience couldn't be more dissimilar. For instance, I can ignore a high score table. It's existence is something I am aware of, but I need not engage with it if I don't want to. Forcing me to invite other players into my game in order to solve certain puzzles however is something I cannot ignore, and actively works to annoy me. Take LittleBigPlanet as a prime example. There are numerous areas only accessible to parties of 2, 3 and 4 players. However, are there also areas only accessible to the single, lone player? Are there heck. This serves to make the single player feel cheated out of content, and worse, makes them feel that they are playing an inferior version of the game. "There are no areas designed especially for me, so clearly I am not the game's intended audience".

Again one has to take the interview in context - the man is the CEO of a social game developer, after all. However, the industry seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what 'social' means, and this is evident in the PlayStation 4's 'Share' button.

Sony's "Annoy All Your Friends" button...
Now I can only hope that Sony have the forethought to allow any notifications attached to this button to be turned off, but as it is one of their unique selling points (which, alone, says a lot about the state of the industry) I am not overly hopeful. I already have the occasional pop-up message mid-game telling me that JoeBloggs88 is now online, or, even better, people inviting me to play games that I don't even own. If my PS4 starts pinging me with messages that said Mr. Bloggs has just shared a picture of his "epic boss takedown skillz", any hope of a solitary, relaxed gaming session is well and truly eradicated. 'Social', despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, does not mean the ability to barge into someone else's personal gaming space with inane 'news', or requests for a Red Gem or a Box of Oranges or a Thingy-Shaped Turnip (bonus points for getting the reference there). Socialising is a two-way exercise, that in the real world requires mutual agreement. The current form of 'Social' gaming may be better described as 'Needy' gaming. Players only feel justified in their existence if others justify it for them, and this can only be achieved through asking others constantly to give them stuff, buy stuff from them, or tell them how wonderful they are.

Not all games, on all platforms, have to have social or multiplayer elements. Honestly, they don't. Gamers couldn't shout much louder about this subject if they tried, yet the majority of developers and publishers gleefully stick their fingers in their ears amidst cries of "I can't heeaaarrr yooouuu!" and running in the opposite direction. What happens when players stop humouring these types of games? What happens when the likes of Dead Space 3 is released in future, and instead of players begrudgingly opening their wallets and buying it anyway, they instead just say "No". A basket full of social eggs is not something you want to be carrying if they turn out in a few years to all be rotten.

Or, even worse, they all turn out to be Velociraptors.

References

Calleja, G. (2007). Digital Games as Designed Experience: Reframing the Concept of
Immersion
. Doctoral thesis: Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Available online at http://www.gordoncalleja.com/GordonCalleja_Digital_Games_as_Designed_Experience.pdf 

Ermi, L. & Mäyrä, F. (2005). Fundamental Components of the Gameplay Experience:
Analysing Immersion. Proceedings of DiGRA 2005 Conference – Changing Views:
Worlds in Play
, [14 pages]. Retrieved from DiGRA Digital Library.

Lindley, C. A., & Sennersten, C.C. (2008). Game Play Schemas: From Player Analysis
to Adaptive Game Mechanics. Proceedings of the 2006 International Conference on
Game Research and Development
, 47-53. doi:10.1155/2008/216784

Murray, J. H., (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Radd, D. (2012) "Single player is a gimmick" says mid-core developer. Retrieved from http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2012-10-25-single-player-is-a-gimmick-says-mid-core-developer