My first serious online multiplayer experience was in college when Quake 3 Arena came out. I was terrible at it. I had never played a first person shooter before with a mouse and keyboard, but playing online with the other guys in my dorm was incredible. That feeling of playing with a bunch of friends and a community of strangers stuck with me. But I have seen many games where the online play just doesn't seem to click for some reason. I am going to break down the elements of what I feel leads to stronger online games.
First of all, the game action needs to be intrinsically fun, even if you are losing. This goes back to what Shigeru Miyamoto created in Super Mario Bros. The action of Mario running and jumping is inherently satisfying in all the Mario games. The levels exist to provide interesting challenges to use those movement skills. You don't need elaborate story or puzzles because the moment to moment gameplay is just that much fun. It is why you may die over and over, but keep coming back to play.
Quake 3 Arena is very similar to Mario in this regard. It has great movement plus really cool architecture to run around in. It is fun to run around a map with no other players. I am sure it is no coincidence that you spend most of your time running and jumping between different platforms, just like Mario.
The big addition is, of course, the weapons. The sounds and animation when you fire your weapon really makes you feel like you just did something big. Quake could be a stationary target shooting game and still be a lot of fun because the simple act of firing the weapon is very enjoyable.
Finally, the graphics, sound effects and music create a whole world with an atmosphere that you just like to spend time in. There is a spectacle element to just seeing something that looks really cool. This is probably the most subjective part of it, obviously different people have different tastes.
Once you add all of this together, the movement options letting you jump around the arena in interesting ways, the gunplay that is very engaging and the atmosphere surrounding you that you like spending time in, creates the baseline for a magic multiplayer experience. Lesser games will inevitably fail at one or more of these parts and just be forgotten over time. But these points apply just as equally to single player games, so let's look at things multiplayer games uniquely have to do.
A multiplayer game also needs to seem fair. Beyond just not letting players actually cheat, the full rules of the game have to be made clear to all the players. Fighting games often have this problem. New players simply don't even know what the moves of the characters are, so they are severely handicapped against someone more familiar with the game. So while there is no cheating involved, the game doesn't feel fair to the new player.
There are many ways of dealing with this. First of all, make sure new players run through a tutorial system of some kind so they at least know what the actual game is. They should be able to practice somehow, whether that be a private server with some bots or single player campaign of some sort. This will at least make sure players know the full rules of the game. That is, what actions they can perform on others and what their opponents will be able to do to them.
That sets a baseline for fairness, everybody knows the rules of the game. Now, if the player base is large enough, you can try to have a ranked match making system to not put beginners and pros in the same match. This is probably more important for 1 on 1 or 2 on 2 type games where a new player will simply be destroyed by an experienced player to point where they won't be able to learn from it. This part is particularly important.
In a larger multiplayer game, new players might as well be mixed in with experienced players. Since they won't be the singular target, they can watch and learn from the more experienced play style and more quickly develop the high level skills than they would be playing only against other newbies. Especially if it is a team game, as long as there is a good mix of high level and low level players, it can usually balance out nicely. The better players will naturally take the lead and new players can essentially provide some kind of back up while learning the game.
Looking at Quake 3, it had a single player campaign that taught you all the maps and guns by playing against increasingly difficult bots. After playing through that, you felt fully capable of going online to any server and you could play competently. There were different modes so you could play a team game or a free for all, and there were enough players so you could mix all different levels of players together and still have a great time. I was never all that good, but I learned a lot by studying the tactics of the great players. I would see ways they were moving around the map that I hadn't thought of, and then I could go and practice trying to do the same thing. It always felt like I was making some progress, even though I was never going to be as good as some others.
Once the actual gameplay is fun and the multiplayer game is basically fair, we get to the community aspects. This is, I feel, the most important aspect for any online experience. Playing a weak game with a good groups of friends is going to be more fun than playing a strong game with a bunch of strangers. So the trick is get people playing the game to make friends with each in some manner, which will happen naturally if you follow the golden rule. Keep players playing together for as long as possible.
Ideally, once you join a game you should keep playing with those players until you disconnect. Shared experiences are inherently fun. There will inevitably be funny moments, natural rivalries will form, good players will stand out and be recognized, worse players will get better and suddenly become a major threat. These are the stories that people are going to remember for years to come.
I'm sure everyone has had the experience of forcing yourself to play another round because you don't want to let down the other players on the server. Have you ever noticed how often once one player quits for the night, half the server quits too? Everyone was pushing themselves to play a little bit longer because they liked the group they were playing with and once one person gives them permission to leave, everyone does. That's the power of community. For this same reason, there should only be a short pause between rounds to look at the scores and chat with the other players, otherwise the game design itself encourages a natural stopping point where people will disconnect.
And so it astounds me that there are games that somehow break this. Quake 3 did this so well, you would join a server, play a round, load the next map and play another round with those same players over and over. And, generally, if you played on the same few servers around the same time of day, you would keep bumping into the same people. Over time you would recognize the names of a lot players and you would immediately say something like "Oh no, that guy is really good" and you would push yourself to play at your highest level.
Let's compare that to the new Quake Champions, where you don't pick a server to play on and after every round, all the players are kicked out and the next game you join will be with a completely different set of people. You would be lucky to remember anybody's name after seeing them only once. It also makes it impossible to study another player if you only get to play one match with them. Not to mention that once a match ends, it seems to take forever to get into another one instead of the 30 seconds it took in Quake 3. So you lose your momentum and you're just as likely to quit as continue playing. And you will never push yourself to keep playing with a group since every time is with a completely different set of people.
World of Warcraft used to have separate realm servers where you only played with the people on that realm. Even though millions of people were playing, your experience was unique to your server of maximum 2500 people. You would naturally see the same people that were playing at your level day after day. There's countless stories of people meeting in WoW and later getting married or just becoming very real friends. The bonds developed in a game are, in fact, very real social bonds. For some reason Blizzard started letting servers play with each other so that the community expanded to the full millions of people playing the game. This just killed that original community feel people loved so much.
Rec Room Case Study
A recent example of a game doing this right is Rec Room. Despite having a completely different aesthetic, its Laser Tag and Paintball games are carrying the lessons forward of Quake 3 Arena far better than has Quake Champions. It is clearly designed around building a community first and foremost. One of the developers even said that their main goal isn't building a super competitive game, but rather a fun game to play with friends. It has the benefit of being made in virtual reality, which has opened a whole new level of interaction with the people you're playing with. The voice communication and body movements you get in VR just makes the connections that much more engaging.
If we break down the components, it has replaced the complex movement system of a Quake or Mario with the overall VR experience, but it has done a nice job with the weapons, much like Quake. Each weapon has a satisfying sound and animation when fired. The aesthetics are subjective, but most would agree that it has created a charming, cartoonish world that is fun to just hang out in. The games are simple enough that it only takes a few minutes to get a pretty good concept of how to play, but there is enough depth to allow more advanced tactics to develop for more experienced players. The skill ceiling does, in fact, appear to be quite high.
They leverage the VR aspect amazingly well. Since you can see everybody's movements and talk throughout the matches, it's immensely entertaining to see people's reaction when they get hit by surprise. You are cleverly given a couple of seconds before you respawn and will often see people wave or give a little hat tip to whomever just killed them. Through these little interactions you immediately get a sense of the person's personality. So many times you end up laughing as you keep running right into someone and you both kill each other.
Most importantly, they properly keep everyone playing together. Once a match ends, everyone goes to a little gathering area where everyone can see the scores and talk about what just happened. It lasts just long enough to give everyone a breather and hang out for a minute and then continue together to the next round. Much of the magic of the game would be ruined if they made everyone leave and go to a completely new room after one game.
So I think all of this boils down into a couple of ideas that developers of online multiplayer games should consider during development.
- Is each mechanic, isolated, still fun to play?
- Is the atmosphere (graphics, music, sound effects) conducive to staying in the world for extended periods of time?
- Are the full game rules taught to the players adequately?
- Are players encouraged to become a community by exploiting the fun of playing in stable groups?
If you can say yes to these questions, you have the foundation of a good online game.