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Splash Damage's Stern: 'Why Are Multiplayer Games A Second-Class Citizen?'
Splash Damage's Stern: 'Why Are Multiplayer Games A Second-Class Citizen?'
July 31, 2009 | By Staff

July 31, 2009 | By Staff
More: Console/PC

Talking to Gamasutra as part of an in-depth new interview, Splash Damage's Edward Stern has been discussing the firm's Brink, suggesting that it's "ludicrous" that multiplayer isn't better integrated into normal play for most games.

Senior designer Stern, who is working on the UK-based Enemy Territory: Quake Wars developer's new Bethesda-published console and PC title, is part of a team trying to elevate the art of multiplayer through some interesting new tactics.

Stern starts by asking, simply enough: "Why do we put up with it? Why are multiplayer gamers a second-class citizen?", going on to list problems with multiplayer experiences in addition to the lack of seamless transitions:

"It's just inane. You get games shipping with separate executables, a completely different experience, sometimes a different control scheme. Why would you ever do that? It's crazy now. There's no reason to do that.

It seems ludicrous that we've got this notion of completely separate online, offline, single-player, multiplayer. That's in the past. There's no reason to put up with that anymore.

There are really, really good games -- we play them a lot -- where you do just move through on a rail, and that's really satisfying, but the same guy comes out the same doorway every single time. There's not much reason to replay that except to make it harder or do a time trial and stuff.

Obviously, from a PC hardcore FPS background, we know both the best and worst time you can have playing a game is online. It can be astonishing four-dimensional chess. It can be absolutely the best thing you could be doing. It could be tactical and brilliant, or it can be just an exercise in soul-crushing frustration and homophobic, racist, misogynist abuse as well.

Now, which one of these things are we trying to get gamers into?... We're trying to get all the good stuff, and that's really our legacy as a studio."

Continuing on the subject of multiplayer games with particular reference to playing on console, Stern adds:

"It is ridiculous that 70 percent of next generation console owners aren't even aware that you can connect those machines to the internet, let alone have done so. Or maybe they tried it, and their first experience wasn't a positive one.

So, promise number one: the only voices you will hear in Brink are the game NPCs and your buddies. Just because you've got a voice, there's no reason to default it to on. That was not a good idea."

The full interview with Splash Damage's Stern is now available on Gamasutra, with plenty of details on plans for the franchise and its approach to allowing single player, co-op and multiplayer to seamlessly occur within the same game world.

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Joshua Sterns
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Multiplayer games are fantastic. Everything Stern talks about I completely agree with, and I can't wait for the further enhancement of console MP games. I do, however, frequently feel that "soul-crushing frustration and homophobic, racist, misogynist abuse." This usual happens in pick up games with people I don't know. As a result I only start to play with friends. When no friends are on I tend to go back to that single player experience. It's unfortunate that so many people on Xbox Live are immature jerks who suck the fun out of MP. It's like the guy who keeps slide tackling in the pick up soccer games at your local park.

Mac Senour
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I love multiplayer games, the best games I have worked on have been multiplayer games... but the sales figures show they just don't sell as well. Or to put it another way, taking the time to perfect and balance a multiplayer game isn't always cost affective. Many times when a game is going off track, multiplayer is the first "option" to be cut.

I talk all about this kind of stuff in my blog...


Adam Flutie
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"And the AI players are really good. We proved that with our last game, [Enemy Territory: Quake Wars]."

Did he just say the AI was 'good' in ET? Wow. They don't have any sense of field of vision, get too close to a radius and they turn right at you and shoot... made sneaking and behind the lines play impossible. the AI stunk. We quit playing it for our lunch LAN game after a week or two tops due to the poor AI and huge levels that required it to be populated with bad AI to break the monotony of getting back to the battle zone.

"It is ridiculous that 70 percent of next generation console owners aren't even aware that you can connect those machines to the internet, let alone have done so. Or maybe they tried it, and their first experience wasn't a positive one."

It's the later for me. Online communities are trash, slander and racist filled swear holes. I don't want to play games that even get me near that sort of community. And if you haven't been on the internet much before you bought that console, it is even a WORSE shock when you do your first online game with chat... I shun most games that focus on multiplayer because I want to enjoy my time playing games which means avoiding online play.

Multiplayer is great when you have a bunch of buddies you know and you can beat up after the game if they play like jerks. But online without any ability of reprisal... count me out.

And it seems to me that the industry is flooded with more and more multiplayer only type games. Where the campaigns are short 4-6 hour affairs with tacked on multiplayer to pad out the investment. yet this article seems to think multiplayer is a dieing breed? Or did I just read that wrong?

Brent Orford
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"It is ridiculous that 70 percent of next generation console owners aren't even aware that you can connect those machines to the internet, let alone have done so."

So he answered his own question right there. It's about the sales numbers, I agree with what Mac said up above me. As an example of multiplayer not working... Shadowrun for the xbox360/pc was a fantastic game! But ONLY multiplayer. They didn't include any single player element at all and it totally flopped as a result.

If the common user was more tech savy, and the common multiplayer gamer was less homophobic/racist over chat, maybe we could meet in the middle and have fun online.

Game balance is also important in multiplayer games. The perfect example is Star Craft II ( If you have a game that requires balance it's a lot easier to tune your AI to play a certain way, such that the game plays fair, then it is to balance multiplayer and get it right the first time. If you don't get it right, and change the game after it ships (WoW -PvP talent respecs, Team Fortress 2 "Meet the XX" as examples), your community may not be receptive to change. At least the side that gets nurfed won't. :)

People like knowing what they're getting when the fork over the money. Online gameplay may change that experience.

Tyler Peters
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Let's also not forget that Splash Damage's last game was MP only, and it flopped after being in development over 4 years.

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Mark Venturelli
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Dave, this is, as anything, a design decision. Multiplayer in Age of Booty, for example, is simple and don't need that much practice time to be fun (when it works).

I'm working on a multiplayer game that tries to bring variety and simplicity to the table. I hope you can enjoy it if you eventually get your hands on it.

Joel Bitar
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In defense of Quake Wars it really was great on PC, and you had to be playing with people who knew the game.

But just like tribes/t2 the whole game was just too complex when the majority of players are used to the simplicity of games like Halo/CS/CoD/TF2.

It wasn't playable on console though without proper strafe/slope jumping and all that to keep the pace up.

Adam: About the AI/fov thing I though they only did that if you were under their radar coverage, just like real players would, but then again I never played much with bots so I might be mistaken.

Joel Bitar
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(by majority of players I mean of course majority of the target demographic for etqw)

Kevin Wei
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I don't like multiplayer because for me it feels like a sport. Too competitive. Those 'cyber-athletes'...ugh.

I don't know if Stern is suggesting that all games should incorporate multiplayer, but not all games work in multiplayer. Wouldn't you need at least two studios working on the game in order to make this work well?

An Dang
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I love multiplayer. Growing up with 3 siblings and 4 cousins living next door, multiplayer games (cooperative being my preference) were gold.

Kevin: You're thinking of competitive multiplayer only. But that's the trend of kids these days. When they hear or say "multiplayer" they're actually thinking something along the lines of a team deathmatch. I personally prefer multiplayer along the lines of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Secret of Mana, Civilization, and side-scrolling beat 'em ups.

Nathan Hill
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I love mp, even more since I recently took the leap into the competitive scene (no not cyber athlete wankery). I think fundamentally mp/custom content/community interaction is the lifeblood of any really good game, it won't make money overnight its a long term investment for dev's, something most aren't prepared to do anymore. Really MP all comes down to community and what that means is for the majority to have an enjoyable experience you need to shard down experiences into smaller scale communities that grow and interact with one another.

A big problem is people can't get the shard experience they want because customisation is increasingly stripped away as consoles provide top down portals into homogenised experiences or developers retain a monopoly of functionality for say legal reasons due to middleware. Basically everyone connects through same portal, same rules, every game fundamentally same grindy/campy experience that is ultimately unfulfilling or just plain frustrating to be on the receiving end. Sure it may require the end user being more tech savy but everything seems to be to quote a common slanders term 'dumbing down' experiences. I didn't have a proper computer until 2004 (Apple IIsi *cough*), well I learned a lot really fast because I was encouraged by the communities I interacted with and in turn gave back. People just want stuff without any effort or preparation, gaming is a hobby and like all hobbies that requires some kind of user investment.

Ultimately the internet while connecting people gives people the illusion of equality and anonymity, which unregulated spirals into the cesspits of racist/homophobic drawl. What is needed is sharded portals where people sacrifice anonymity, be it a name, a centralised gamer account number or whatever into a system that is actually moderated by automated services and humans for humans. If you want to be a racist homophobe, join the portal and interact with like minded people, don't like swearing? join the appropriate portal. Prefer custom maps? Join the portal. Competitive, social, regional, etc. MP gaming needs to scale back, think in sociologically smaller increments and build upwards rather then attempting to funnel the experiences of the last couple of decades down onto a surging new pool of unshaped and frightful users.

Competitive gaming while a tiny minority with a bad rep if you take it back further to the immensely constructive, social large scale laning roots is what mp should aim to emulate. Social experiences, global unification of similar ideals all pushing to what users define as fun, but not at the expense of others. Abusers axed. If you offend the competitive community you do so in the knowledge there will be repercussions and that fundamentally ensures the vast majority of users are unified by a singular code of expected conduct.

Jamie Mann
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I think there's something of a hierarchy around "required effort" for leisure activities. Watching TV is a passive activity, barring the occasional channel-change. Reading a book requires a little bit more imagination, plus the ability to turn the pages. Playing a single-player game requires active involvement from the player. Multi-player requires active involvement from the player and co-ordination from other players who must be equally involved.

Put simply, each step up the chain requires additional energy, and as such, the number of participants will decline.

There's other factors too - I can pick up a single-player game and play it for an hour before putting it down for a day, week or month. You can't do that with a multiplayer game - or at least, not without losing at least some degree of continuity. Whether that matters or not depends on the game, but taking the current MMORPG model as an example, it's all too easy to find yourself falling out of sync with your friends.

There's another question as well: is multiplayer always a good idea? For every game like Halo, Counterstrike and Quake III, there's hundreds (if not thousands) of titles where a few thousand people may try the multiplayer mode for a few weeks before switching their attention to something else, leaving a few latecomers hanging around deserted servers. Is it really worth the effort to develop something which will be so under-utilised?

(to be honest, this is a rhetorical question. It may not get used, but the presence of both single and multiplayer modes is vital to the game's marketing! Still, it's a shame that so much effort is put into something which so often ends up being pointless)

John Mawhorter
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It's only worth developing an MP mode if you're gonna do a great job with it (or at least spend a lot of time trying). There are so many releases with trash multiplayer (Crysis, etc.) these days and then there are the Call of Duty 4's which according to stats only 10% or some other low number even completed the single-layer campaign. If you take the time to get it right a good MP mode will sell your game alone. Then again there is something to be said for the Shadowruns and ET:QWs of the world that getting a single-player campaign made (even a short one) could have boosted their sales and MP numbers a lot even if they were MP focused.

Mark Auer
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Diablo's 1 & 2 are a magnificent example of a game that seamlessly transitions single and multiplayer experiences. The only difference with multiplayer diablo is addition of random map layouts, which actually enhanced the experience and replay value in many ways. It may not be the most profitable, but it is one of the most played games on PC even today. I agree with what Stern is saying, multiplayer needs love.