Saturday, January 28, 2012

Online Multiplayer Developers Could Still Learn A Few Tricks

This Christmas, my family's gift giving could almost be considered counter-cultural. Despite being a family that enjoys its games, not a single wrapped gift was a video game. Instead, the boxes were much larger, and heavier. They were board games.
Don't get me wrong, video games are great (so much so that I have these blogs...) and for single player experiences... well, I'd rather play a Final Fantasy game than try and play Dungeons and Dragons by myself.
But as I sat happily at a table playing another round of Dominion or Catan I realised that as a social, multiplayer experience, I have never experienced a game as pleasant online as a board game (or the rare pleasure of a local video game like Smash Brothers on the Nintendo Wii).
It's not the games themselves. In fact, sitting on my PS3 I have great renditions Risk, Catan, Uno and Magic the Gathering. On the PC I play Magic the Gathering: Online, and the similarities between the core mechanics or World of Warcraft and the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons make playing either on the basis of familiarity easy.
But in all cases, the online experience (and thus, the games themselves, despite typically looking better than a static board and playing pieces) paled compared to sitting around a table with friends and family. Part of it is due to the physical separation and relatively limited means of social interaction. This unavoidable trait of online gaming turns social games like Catan or Uno into focused competitive activities. That ruins the core value of these games - it would be like taking Monopoly, removing the money, and expecting people to enjoy playing it.
But the real reason I believe online gaming is an inferior experience to the humble board game is the lack of control you, the player, have over the experience once you hop online.
When I play a game I don't want to be sworn at by a 13 year old, but invariably I will be if I connect to a Call of Duty server. When I play Magic the Gathering: Duals of the Planeswalkers online I don't appreciate when people quit moments before I can claim victory - but there is nothing stopping a mean-spirited player (and there are a lot of them out there) from ruining everyone else's fun, and using an anonymous handle to breach social etiquettes.
When I play a social role playing game, I want to role play. I pop onto a World of Warcraft server and almost instantly I'm hit by advertising for shiny, flaming swords by an avatar 'lolling' all the way to the bank. Which is not how Tolkien's elves talked, for the record.
Of course, there are ways to avoid all of that. It's possible, through Invites (and Friend Codes - failed in execution, but nice concept by Nintendo), to control who you play with, though co-ordinating this with someone 18 hours away can be a challenge. It's possible to choose an role playing World of Warcraft server, but this still means you're more likely than not to come across people who role play differently to how you and a group of friends would around the table.
Online multiplayer games test skills in a way no AI could hope to achieve, and provide a competitive environment that has given rise to professional gamers - a very good thing for this industry. But there really hasn't been a case where a developer has come up with a system that adequately captures the social side of multiplayer gaming.
It's simply too difficult to properly control the online experience personally. At best you can control some of the parameters (turning off voice, for instance), but that in the process shuts down some of the game's social value (being able to talk to who you're playing with).
And until those accessibility issues are addressed, and it is possible to jump online and gain an experience similar to that of a social board game, I do feel that online games are missing some big opportunities. On the plus side, that is keeping the board game industry alive, and giving me an easy list of Christmas present options.


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