I’m going to veer off topic even earlier than usual in this column and address directly those among you who are developing quick, arcade-y style games for some kind of online format. Yes, you. You know your high score table? You know that thing you do where you record the best scores from all the players worldwide? Ditch it. Now. In the bin.
Nobody one would want to spend any time with trapped near the buffet table at a dull party gives a shit about who has the best score in the world. People being what they are, the number one score on any global high score table – even just a city-wide one – will either belong to a hacker or someone who has the necessary brain defects to want to play the same bloody game all bloody day and land the top spot in order to silence the bodiless laughing women that only they can see. At which point everyone will just assume they’re a hacker.
When I finish a round of one of the many little timewasters I have on my phone the only thing I want to know is how my score stacks up against the previous scores of me and some people I know and/or live with. Mainly me, ‘cos I can gauge how I’ve improved, but if there’s gloating to be done I want to be able to see or at least picture the tears rolling down their stupid defeated faces. That’s what’s going to keep me replaying your game and shelling out for the non-free version.
I bring this up because the classic high score table – especially the arcade kind that only let you enter three initials, although as a kid I’d always put ‘BEN’ and feel inordinately satisfied with myself – is historically the first example of what I have heard termed ‘asynchronous multiplayer’, and it’s a topic that I’ve been finding greatly of interest lately. In case the name doesn’t make it clear enough, it refers to playing against or alongside other human players but not at the same time. I know I’ve made it amply clear that I’m no fan of the whole join-server get-shot-by-douchebags whoops-kicked-from-server rigmarole, but I’m not completely adverse to other human beings. Being locked within a single-player universe where I am the only intelligent life-form, surrounded by the hollow adulation of artificial intelligences, does feel limited at times. And I can’t deny that I was sucked into World of Warcraft despite never interacting with other players just because their mere presence gave the world a greater sense of depth and enormity.
Asynchronous multiplayer is already the bread and butter of turn-based online games like Words With Friends, or the Facebook timekill genre that includes Cityville and suchlike, where gameplay is based around trading between other players and slowly losing the entire contents of your credit account to the micropayment death of a thousand cuts. But Dragon’s Dogma presents an interesting case of that sort of thing being implemented in a triple-A console release. Multiplayer that not only doesn’t require you be online at the same time but also doesn’t require you to interact at all. And that’s just about ideal for us misanthropic gamers.
The main benefit a game reaps from multiplayer is a theoretically endless variety of gameplay experiences, but asynchronous multiplayer allows for that benefit without the inherent problems, that is to say, dipshits. It’s like exclusively interacting with people through a brick wall dividing your prison cells or with semaphore from opposite rooftops. There’s no chance of physically griefing one another but the sheer novelty of finding any social interaction on this level makes things somehow automatically cordial. A good lesson for dealing with people generally, actually: if you want them to get along, keep them apart as much as possible.
The sole mandatory communication between players in Dragon’s Dogma is what gift your pet NPC comes back with when they come back from a job, or ‘trick’ as I believe is the term, and whether they bring back a super potion or an interestingly-shaped rock it gives some impression of what the client thought of them. And I’m certain it wouldn’t be as endearing if you actually conversed with any of these people.
Where Dragon’s Dogma kind of misses its potential for me is that there isn’t enough variety in the NPC whores. They’re all one of essentially three classes, spouting essentially the same dialogue lines and chances are they’ll all be wearing the same clothes and silly hats that they pretty much all wear at a certain level, the game could conceivably replace all the player-owned NPCs with randomly-generated ones and no-one would be the wiser. With a greater degree of creativity in terms of attitude, abilities and appearance, people could compete to create a truly memorable sidekick. Perhaps it would have been wiser to go in an even more Neopets-y direction and base the game around pimping monsters. You could customise all the colors and body parts, like in Spore, and perhaps buy and install interesting character traits, like a tendency to break wind during tense moments.
Triple-A games could take a lot of cues from the Facebook-style asynchronous gameplay, and it’s relatively simple to add. Another example that comes to mind is Demon’s Souls and the ability to leave messages for future players, but the missed potential there is that there’s no incentive to write the things. Take the idea further and add a mutual benefit. If you’re playing a shooting section in a game and you’ve got a bit of ammo to spare or some of those grenades you never use, drop a small cache where you stand. Randomly-selected other players will find those caches in the places you left them, and if they take them, you get an XP reward. Perhaps even a bigger one if the other player really needed it. Everybody’s happy and gameplay is magically more emergent and replayable.
But you needn’t just help each other, you could enhance each other’s gameplay with challenges, too. Picture that supervillain sandbox game idea I’ve banged on about in the past. Maybe one of the things you have to do is set up a base. Pick from a variety of room layouts, and then buy doors and security measures to lay out in such a way that you yourself can still access the vital contents, but intruders have a harder time. Then, as a side mission, you’re randomly given other players’ bases to raid with your gang of goons. The other player doesn’t lose anything from this, but they get some kind of bonus for each of the intruders’ goons their security measures manage to block or disable.
It’d be like the custom levels in Infamous 2 except you’re actually required to do it as part of the single player. It’s easier to get people to create this kind of emergent gameplay for others if there’s something in it for their game, too. People are still shit, you see. Nothing will change that. But just the evidence of their presence can add a new dimension, where their actual presence would just detract. It’s the difference between getting a flirty wink from a classy dame on a passing bus and having to sit opposite her while she picks her nose.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.