This is an idea that I originally had for The Last Federation, our upcoming title, but which I think could be applicable to all sorts of games, including our last title, Bionic Dues. Right now it is just a for-future-exploration sort of idea, but I wanted to put my thoughts out there and see what sort of response players have to it.
So here we go:
Some Games Just Can't Do Traditional Multiplayer
Bionic Dues just isn't good for multiplayer for a lot of reasons, despite the fact that I absolutely want co-op in every game I make. As I've said in the past, I believe that every game should have co-op (for social, not "check mark on the box" purposes).
The Last Federation also is a case where traditional multiplayer just would not work in a satisfactory way. Both combat and the solar system map are pauseable realtime, with also a fast-forward function. The combat flow is vaguely like Faster Than Light in the sense that you may want to pause and get your bearings rather than just plowing through. And the solar map is vaguely like SimCity in the sense that sometimes you want to be paused for a long while, do a bunch of stuff, and then run on fast forward until you hit some sort of key event you are waiting for.
Neither of those things are conducive to traditional multiplayer, because the flow of time is so fragmented and so player-dependent. Depending on what the player is doing, they may want time paused, running normally, or running fast.
A traditional RTS does not have this sort of problem (generally time just runs, period), but there are other examples of games that have this problem: Civilization IV and V, for instance. I absolutely adore both games, but I do find that a lot of the enjoyment is sucked out of multiplayer thanks to the fact that I spend so much time waiting for other players to do things, even when we are playing simultaneously. I read quickly, and know the game well, and don't do a lot of combat, so typically my turns are short and sweet. If someone else takes several minutes on their turn, I'm literally sitting there reading a book until the "next turn" beep hits.
So I mean, multiplayer in Civilization does work, but it feels somewhat frustrating (to me) compared to the incredibly-addictive solo play. With TLF or Bionic, it doesn't even work at all, just from a design/usability/fun standpoint. Or SimCity, for that matter, if you were trying to have two people in one city.
Thoughts On Co-Op In RTS Games
I play almost all RTS games in skirmish mode with co-op on, and Arcen's own AI War: Fleet Command is designed solely around this mode of multiplayer. In a literal sense, what is happening is that there is a constant flow of time, and all the players are mixed together, and in some respects it's no different from, say, playing an FPS game.
I mean, in an FPS game, all the players are in one arena and running around shooting one another in realtime. In an RTS game, the difference is that you have lots of little guys running around shooting or stabbing each other, and you control them indirectly. Right?
Here's the thing, though -- and maybe this is just me and how I play, so this is part of why I'm writing this long post to feel other people out on the idea -- in an RTS game, unlike an FPS game, for practical purposes the players are mostly "alone together" even though the space is shared and realtime.
What I mean is that I have my town/base/whatever, and you have yours. You mostly focus on yours, and your resources and whatnot are all separate from mine. Throughout the bulk of the game, we don't directly interact in a sense where we really need to be in the same realtime locale as one another. If you really think about it.
There are exceptions: during battles we likely mass our forces. In one battle I might position my guys to block guys from hitting your forces, so that you can regroup. In another battle we might flank the enemy and come at them from two different sides. If my town gets wiped out, I might retreat my last villagers to your town and set up a pathetic little camp that eventually becomes something useful, under the umbrella of your protection.
Those exceptions are admittedly really cool, and some of my favorite moments. But the fact remains that the bulk of the time is players independently managing their own affairs, and coordinating verbally/textually with one another to have complementary strategies that ultimately result in victory.
What I posit is that for THAT aspect of multiplayer, the players do not need to be in a contiguous arena, nor in a timescale that flows the same for all players. (Aka I can pause my part of the game while you are fast-forwarding, and we don't get in one another's way).
The Negative Gut Reaction
Obviously the gut reaction to this sort of thing is "that's not really multiplayer!" And I'd have to agree, in a lot of respects.
Though it is considerably more multiplayer than, for instance, Super Mario Bros. 3, where players play until they die, and then the other player has their turn. The only thing shared between the players is their joint progress on which levels they have completed (one player completes level 1-3, and the other player then can't/does-not-have-to). But that's old school. The way more fun, modern, way of doing Mario multiplayer is with everyone playing at once. That was what made Chip And Dale: Rescue Rangers on the original NES so fun, too.
Networked Single Player Games
Because of the negative gut reaction, my inclination is not to call this multiplayer, or to advertise "this game has co-op!" since people would get really angry if they thought it worked one way and then found out it really worked another. Instead, I'd call this "linking up single-player worlds."
And I'd be really literal about that, too. You have your world, and you play it alone as much as you want. While I am also around, I can take a single player world I am playing, and network it with yours. During this period, we can collaborate in some way. We don't directly enter one another's worlds, but we can take complementary strategies and pass each other goods and goodies, for instance.
It's the same as in a lot of RTS games: I take up production of resources X Y and Z (because I'm in a good position to do so, let's say) and pass a bunch to you, so that you can focus on some military objective that otherwise would be extra difficult. Then you focus on production of some sort of awesome military craft that I need, and hand me these big guns that I otherwise could not use, which I then use to wipe up part of my sector. And so on.
It's "alone together," and we each have totally disconnected worlds with independent savegames (I save my game and it does not affect yours, and vice-versa). But it has the co-op advantages of being something where you and I can each play the game in a fluid and just-as-good-as-solo fashion (because it IS solo), while at the same time talking strategy and working toward mutually beneficial goals so that we each win our respective games thanks partly to the help we provide one another.
Pros And Cons
On the negative side, there is no escaping the fact that this is "alone together," and some people will not like that. It may be a marketing fiasco if not handled properly (aka, I'd never say "yes this game has multiplayer). But I think that if it was expressed properly ("ability to link single player worlds together") then the subset of people who find it interesting -- myself included -- could really enjoy it.
Also negative, it's something that people could use to cheat/farm, since their savegames are independent, and one person could just save prior to gifting a resource to their ally, then reload and repeat. But let's be honest, there are lots of ways to cheat in games, and some games (AI War included!) even explicitly include cheat codes for people who just want to mess around. So while this does bug me to a minor degree, I think it's unavoidable and the flexibility it grants is worth it.
On the positive side, if my wife and I want to sit down and do some gaming together, we can crack open Bionic Dues or TLF. Or, heck, we could play Civ V without me needing to bring a book to read.
Also positive, this is really straightforward to code under the hood -- it's something that requires a network connection, and then there are just occasional data exchanges. This is trivial to doing something more complex like synchronized RTS-style multiplayer, or constantly-resyncing action-game-style multiplayer. There is no need for syncing at all, just occasional gift transactions. This makes it a feature that can be added with a much lesser cost to the developer, thus meaning that even if it appeals to a smaller subset of the target audience, it still might be a net win in terms of value versus cost to create.
Then again, on the negative side, it does require a game design that actually allows for meaningful passing of... something. So that's a potentially-nontrivial design task, and potentially nontrivial interface design as well. So that does drive the complexity back up somewhat, though not nearly as much as doing full multiplayer code under the hood.
Examples Of This
Sim City 4 -- You can set up multiple cities in a region, and those cities then trade things back and forth. This is optional, critically, compared to Sim City 5. Unfortunately two players can't be playing in the same region at once, so this is only a partial example. But if you altered things so that I could play in my city while you played in yours, then Sim City 4 would suddenly become a great example of this concept in action.
Pokemon -- This is only a semi-okay example, but the ability to trade Pokemon that you have found is definitely collaborative networking and something that is not "true multiplayer." If the link was persistent and you could do more interesting things than just trade pokemon themselves, then this would be a better example.
(Hypothetical) Bionic Dues -- Each of us could be playing in our own city, but when linked up there could be missions in my city that could affect your city. I could do an assassination mission or a lion's den mission that affects your city instead of mine, for instance. The Bahamut Missions could grant us both epics, rather than just one of us, so that we could divide and conquer that sort of thing. We could pass each other parts, pokemon-style. And that's just with the game design as it currently stands. Other kinds of missions or events could be thought up that would allow for even better collaboration, while still being useful in completely-solo play.
This would also work for TLF in a similar sort of vein, although since people are less familiar with that I won't bother going into a hypothetical example.
I'm curious as to what the reaction/interest in this sort of thing would be. To be clear, there's nothing in the short term that I plan to do with this either way, but it is something that -- if there is interest -- I would personally have great interest in integrating into both Bionic Dues and TLF at some point.
Here's the forum thread where the majority of the discussion is likely to take place.