Bad Ideas for Multi-Player Games Hat

Bad Ideas for Multi-Player Games

Multi-player games are like ocean liners, but games developers are used to creating speedboats. Consequently, they tend to make their games multi-player by adding more seats. Not only does the resulting vessel fail to capture the magic of a cruise, it also loses a lot what's fun fun about speedboats.

People who want liners should design them as liners.


Image size: approx. 20K.

Richard Bartle co-wrote the first MUD in the late 1970s, and has been involved in the online industry ever since. He has a PhD in Artificial Intelligence, and won't let anyone forget it. He lives with his wife, two children and stable of computers in a village just outside Colchester, England.

Unfortunately, they don't all realise that they DO want liners.

Currently, multi-player games available in shops are, with a few honourable exceptions, of the peer-to-peer type. These are the speedboats with extra seats. Some work very, very well, but most don't cut it. I have stacks of games with "multi-player" and "head-to-head" stickers on the boxes that are worthless when played that way. Nevertheless, the success of the few encourages on the rest. Everyone knows that multi-player games are inherently more fun, right?

Well, they are and they aren't. The games that got "multi-player" the reputation of being an order of magnitude better than "single-player" are the ocean liners. People will (and do!) play the same one for very long periods. "Diablo" and "Command & Conquer" may have had their lifetimes extended because of their excellent multi-player options, but will they last 10 years? I'd bet against. How about "Gemstone III"? It's over half-way there already!

These liner-like games are not more fun simply because they have more seats; they are more fun because you can get up and walk around and talk to the other passengers, or attend events which are nothing to do with the journey itself. It's THIS which makes multi-player attractive. The experience of being continually beaten by people who spend all their spare time honing their skills is completely UNattractive.

So, if you want to design a multi-player game that has more going to it than just seats, what should you do?

Well, that's up to you, you're the game designer. However, here are some things you should NOT do:

Bad Idea #1:

"If 50 simultaneous players is good and 500 is better, 5,000 must be absolutely fantastic!"

No. If people want to be nobodies, they can play Real Life...

To handle these kinds of numbers in a single game, you have to package players up into smaller communities so individuals CAN feel "known" to their peers. A 5,000-player game becomes a 20-community game, where each community is 250 simultaneous players. Write a better game for 250 players, and run 20 copies of it.

Bad Idea #2:

"The strange, acid-burn spots are all that's left of Cooper. Can you discover the alien's weak spot, before it dissolves the entire crew?"

If people can play your game only once, it's a loser. Even if you charge them premium rates, say $30 for 2 hours, your development costs will still take forever to recover. Worse, how do you stop those who have already played from playing it again and spoiling it for everyone else?

Open-endedness is absolutely imperative.

Bad Idea #3:

"Each session is for 50 players, and lasts 1 hour 20 minutes."

Players want to play these games whenever they feel like it, and they want to play for whatever length of time they feel like. If you insist they all start simultaneously or play for a certain period, no-one will play at all. If the game won't work with less than a certain number of players, then it's not GOING to work.

Bad Idea #4:

"A body has been found by the East River. A man in a wheelchair was seen shortly afterwards, tying something to a piece of scaffolding. Was this the victim's missing silk handkerchief?"

Multi-player games involve socialising. If there are barriers to that, you lose the benefit of having a multi-player game. Detective or other investigative genres are particularly renowned for making lousy multi-player games ("Modus Operandi" is the paradigm).

Bad Idea #5:

"File a bug report, we'll patch it after the launch."

When a multi-player game crashes, you have more than one irate player on your hands: you have maybe 200, all of whom are on the phone right now to their friends telling them what a flaky game you have.

When your system crashes, you have to drop EVERYTHING to stop it from recurring. Crash effects are measured in units of players lost/minute.

Bad Idea #6:

"A world so vast it will take you ten hours to walk from one side to the other!"

And how long to meet another player?

Bad Idea #7:

"It's about the environment. It's about peace. It has dolphins. It has baby dolphins. People will love it!"

Multi-player games have to have a shared world which sufficient numbers of people will find interesting enough to spend money on being allowed in. Just because YOU like 17th Century Venetian politics, or Pacific island botany, or Richmal Crompton's short stories, that doesn't mean everyone else does. Multi-player games aren't biased towards SF and Fantasy for nothing...

Bad Idea #8:

"This game uses graphics so state-of-the-art it can't fail."

Until those graphics are no longer state-of-the-art? Gameplay is important in multi-player games: you can't bribe your way past it by throwing people eye candy. If your game denigrates what is "old hat", it won't last when it becomes old hat itself. The biggest-earning multi-player games out there are text-based, for crying out loud!

Bad Idea #9:

"Once we've got one game up and running, we can start on the next."

Multi-player games are not seeds that you stick in the soil and forget about until they turn into a flower. Rather, they're puppies that you have to lavish care and attention and meat-flavoured toothpaste on in order to make them grow up healthy. The income stream is constant and long-lasting, but running the games is itself a commitment.

Bad Idea #10:

"Hello, AOL? Can you give me the number of the person I should call regarding putting my game on your service?"

It depends: how many of your children were you planning to sacrifice?


The pioneer multi-player games which gave the concept its reputation for intensity of experience and addictiveness are not the the multi-player games that most developers are producing at the moment. Eventually, they will be. Make sure you get your game out there first, while everyone else is still having bad ideas...


As always, the good doctor succinctly lays out the fundamentals for designing a great multiplayer game. He and Greg Costikyan ought to collaborate on a game; it would probably make money for 20 years.

Jessica Mulligan

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: tcsf98.htm