Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 115 / DECEMBER 1989 / PAGE 24



Back before computers, there wasn't but one type of game—the multiplayer game. We grew up with Monopoly, Clue, and Risk. However, in the computer world, single-player games are the rule, and multiplayer games haven't been very welcome. Of the 20 or so mass-market games designed for multiple players, my partners and I at Ozark Softscape developed 6. All 6, taken together, sold fewer than one moderate, single-player hit.

Despite the dismal history of multiplayer games, I believe they represent the major growth field of the future. And I believe that all the previous difficulties with multiplayer games can be explained away.

First, until just the last couple of years, computers were owned primarily by nerds. I'm a nerd (or a geek, as my 15-year-old daughter corrects me), so I should know. Nerds, as a group, are more comfortable interacting with things than with people. Solo games aren't just a more convenient way to play a game, they are a desirable way to socialize: without people.

Second, computers in most homes were hidden away in some inaccessible nook. Frequently, only one person in the household was the computer user. (Is it ironic that the only other group referred to as users are doing something illegal?)

The final reason is probably the most significant factor in why multiplayer games failed previously. They just weren't very good games. We designers were learning what could and couldn't be done.

It shouldn't be surprising that the first group of multiplayer games were derived from standard board games. But, by comparison, board games on computers were generally hard to play, not very pretty, and more expensive.

Thus, multiplayer games failed in the past because most of those games were trash. The few that were good didn't appeal to the nerds that owned computers, and the few nerds who were interested in playing social games didn't care to rearrange furniture just to play.

Today, with everybody getting a computer, our market has changed to reflect society. In this larger realm, the people-oriented people vastly outnumber the nerds. It's also quite common to find whole families using computers and installing those computers in more accessible spaces. Even the most physically isolated computer is electronically connected through a modem. However, the biggest reason for optimism about multiplayer games is that the games themselves have become a lot better.

Most multiplayer-game designers exploit the computer's best characteristics: interaction, animation, and dynamic processes. Varying game environments have replaced most static game boards. The way you interact with a game has greatly improved, too. Most games use a mouse or joystick to offer sophisticated interaction in a friendly way. You seldom have to learn arcane lists of commands and keys to play anymore. In most games, designers have replaced the concept of turns with realtime action. Even the subjects of multiplayer games have shifted from the cerebral and abstract to the visceral and realistic. Some multiplayer games even approach the action and intensity of arcade games.

There are even more options. You can "telegame" with either a single opponent or a bunch of people on a network by playing through a modem connection. Telecommunications services that offer multiplayer games with graphics and sound see major increases in connect time. GEnie has a realtime air-combat game that's so popular that some people run up bills of over $1,000 per month.

And, closer to home, there are still more options for groups playing on one computer. You can play competitively (as in Double Dragon) or cooperatively (as in Ikari Warrior), or sequentially (as in any number of sports games). You can even face each other with the computer in a supporting role (as in Star Saga II).

In wilder moments, I've predicted that people will look back incredulously on the eighties and say, Can you believe we used to play those games by ourselves? Every genre of computer games will improve when more people can play together. Imagine adventure games where players can form their own parties and encounter hundreds of other players roaming the world. Or a space battle-where one group commands a fleet of spaceships, trying to free the galaxy from their evil opponents' fleet. Even the sky isn't the limit on what kind of social interaction computer games will offer in the future.

Dan Bunten and Ozark Softscape have created nine games since 1979, including M.U.L.E. and Modem Wars.