Massive attack: the rise and rise of mingleplayer

Destiny world building

Bungie’s Destiny seeks to mix single- and multiplayer play in unprecedented ways.

Mingleplayer, the broad notion of mixing single- and multiplayer in seamless and mutually beneficial ways, is a hot topic right now – which makes you wonder what it was for the many other years it’s been around. What, beyond everyone’s apparent need to put the ‘next’ into ‘next generation’, has brought it to the fore? If Destiny can be made for consoles almost eight years old, is there anything really ‘next gen’ about it at all?

The word itself was invented by Splash Damage to describe its wildly ambitious FPS Brink, and was used, according to CEO Paul Wedgwood, until “someone far senior to us banned it”. Why they might have done so is important, and we’ll come to it in a moment. But first let’s establish precisely what the term meant for a studio born in the fires of playing and modding Quake –- born, dare it be said, next to modern multiplayer itself.

Back then, as Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena came to embody online multiplayer, the solution to your friends going offline, leaving you ‘alone in the zone’, was offline play with bots. “People immediately assume that’s going to be a boring, bland deathmatch experience,” says Wedgwood, “and you want to say that a game is more than that: an offline experience that’s like playing with humans.”

Mingleplayer, then, is “the idea that you can mingle in singleplayer with co-op buddies, and if they all lose their connection then it doesn’t matter because you carry on playing on your own. You could drop into multiplayer and you can make that transition very smoothly. And there’s no distinction, so you progress through the entire game in any direction at any point, and anybody can be human or AI in any proportion, and it shouldn’t matter or affect the experience at all.”

‘Mingleplayer’ was a term invented by Splash Damage to describe its wildly ambitious FPS Brink.

Much of Brink’s problem upon release, he says, is that it was compared to modern shooters. “I should have found a higher and better schema, like racing games. They’ve done story modes for years where you’ve had an online game that’s been great, and you’ve been able to play offline in story mode and have a garage, collect cars, upgrade them and everything else – and in many ways that’s what Brink is.

“Its structure is exactly like a racing game, with an online mode that you can play with friends, where in a great match you can’t tell the difference between the two. And then, when you play offline in story mode, AI fills in for the people that are otherwise absent. One of the challenges with Brink, and with this as a whole, is that there’s a lot of pressure to describe your game by using other games as a comparison.”

Maybe that’s why the word ‘mingleplayer’ was banned. Features and modes have been the vocabulary of game marketing and discussion since before there even was an online; and if there’s one thing we now know more than ever, it’s that a feature you can’t explain can be worse than no feature at all. Dig up Brink’s reviews and you’ll spend more time reading about what it is – which, in many cases, reads like someone’s best guess – than how sporadically its army of bots pulls it off. This is poison to a marketing team.

Brink was hardly alone in trying to make offline gameplay relevant to increasingly connected consoles. Wedgwood himself admits that “if Left 4 Dead 2 had a fun asynchronous tablet connection – Valve has slightly more integrity than that, but imagine – they’d basically have done everything that people are saying is going to happen in every meaningful way”.

Furthermore, other models were emerging that, despite interfering much less with that vital messaging, felt just as portentous. The most obvious, when you think of how it’s essentially as old as gaming itself, was the asynchronous score-chasing of Geometry Wars and Chair Entertainment’s Shadow Complex. As its ephemeral Metroid-like stylings and value for money are forgotten, the simple fact that Shadow Complex compares your scores to those of your friends as you go is its legacy.

Shadow Complex played its part in the revival of social singleplayer.

All it really does, of course, is revive the social gameplay lost in the rush to take console gaming online. The most important development of the current generation has been challenging the assumption that multiplayer should be global just because it can be – that being schooled by strangers is a viable stand-in for playing with friends, or even part of the same equation.

That’s not how Matt Southern, game director at DriveClub maker Evolution, ever wants to play again. “I think everybody had similar thoughts at one point about removing the barrier [between singleplayer and multiplayer]. But of course it only removed the in-game barriers; it didn’t address how inadequate that would make you feel.” For Evolution, preproduction of MotorStorm: Apocalypse is where things started to change.

“’Use me as the guinea pig,’ I said, because I remember playing Pacific Rift and, if I had to summarise my experience, I wasn’t trying to finish first but trying not to lose, and that doesn’t feel nice,” Southern says. “Online synchronous gaming was becoming more mainstream, and I guess by that point the FIFA crowd had joined in, a broader audience. If anything, it made the abuse even more acute, because it wasn’t just your Quake-heads playing those kinds of games.”

The idea of switching from knockabout games against friends to elite competition against strangers is no more appetising or sensible to Southern than, his metaphor goes, walking straight from Sunday five-a-side football onto the pitch against his favourite team, Everton. In what he calls “the online wilderness” of global multiplayer, all that anyone has in common are the commandments of play that, generally speaking, involve chalking up kills with prejudice. This is a world apart from playing with friends where the rules are no different to co-op or singleplayer: enjoy moments, tell stories.

Splash Damage is using aspects of asymmetrical multiplayer in Batman: Arkham Origins, too.

Before and after Brink, with its Enemy Territory games and now the multiplayer component of Batman: Arkham Origins, Splash Damage has used asymmetrical multiplayer to reconcile the worlds of e-sports and social play. Proper roles, contextual military objectives, embedded fiction. “For a long time we’ve been able to tell stories in multiplayer games, and for a long time we’ve known that players don’t get bored with playing that in sequence,” Wedgwood says. “Their player stories start to overtake the game story in a really meaningful, interesting way.”

So why now, this rush of games like Destiny (Bungie’s scaling sandbox that alternates chance encounters and epic firefights), Tom Clancy’s The Division (an instanced massively multiplayer shooter with PvE and PvP), Ascend: Hand Of Kul, DriveClub (Evolution’s long-gestating social racer), and The Crew (a persistent online racer from Test Drive Unlimited veteran Ivory Tower and Driver creator Reflections)?

Partly it’s safety in numbers, with developers offering such a tidal wave of exotic new online features that players and the videogame press have no choice but to suss them out. Wedgwood suspects that “in some ways you could release Brink now and people would just get on with enjoying it. It’s a given. It was always a requirement, but people just weren’t giving fans what they needed in their games.”

The more compelling reason, then, is written throughout this feature: research. The mingleplayer trend started in racing, of course, where Bizarre Creations swapped sports network (Project Gotham Racing 3’s Gotham TV) for social network in Blur. Where asynchronous multiplayer has grown throughout Codemasters’ racers as the need to come first has diminished. Where MotorStorm 3’s XP and betting system (you pick a rival and thus only have to beat someone) evolved into the private challenges and intelligent leaderboards of MotorStorm RC.

Project Gotham Racing 3 introduced Gotham TV, Bizarre’s first dabble in mingleplayer.

“I used to work at a university on a games course, and the industry would accuse us of ivory tower research with very little relationship to reality,” Southern recalls. “This would frustrate me because it’s not a university’s job to apply theory, it’s that of the creatives and business development people to figure out if something can be applied or used. And the research we did into asynchronous multiplayer and connected singleplayer was a blend of academic research, marketing expertise and practical experience from other companies. Next gen needed that: solid thinking as well as just faster processors.

“One of the things the industry suffers from is that it doesn’t do its homework. Designers base all of their judgement on things they’ve played and nothing else. There was a lot of cynicism surrounding the very idea of learning from Facebook or, dare I say it, Zynga. But it was a case of saying, ‘Look, we don’t want to emulate these guys, but they might offer us lessons about future design and development’.”

In hindsight, it should have been quite obvious. At its core, Facebook is precisely what mingleplayer has been promoting for years: a virtualised circle of friends. It’s a place where people feel online even when they’re not, where users think nothing of the fact that just a handful of friends are ever actually signed in. Everything feels voluntary, and no one has to worry about being at the right place at the right time.

But the journey from this to, say, the terrific Autolog service pioneered by Criterion’s Need For Speed titles, has been tough. Most of the thinking behind it – a key text for Evolution and SCEE was the book Grouped by Paul Adams, the hotshot Google and Facebook researcher behind seminal study The Real Life Social Network, which identified the gap between virtual and actual social circles – was written for media and marketing communities. Early interpretations in gaming were then sullied, Southern recalls, by “our designers seeing grotesque spam on their Facebook and Twitter feeds fired out by various games. People were essentially saying, ‘We must never use these methods again; our social and gaming habits must stay separate because they compromise each other’.”

Criterion has contributed to the rise of mingleplayer, too – its Autolog added asymmetrical multiplayer to EA’s Need For Speed series.

The resistance was short-lived, the spam made targeted and voluntary. User-experience experts were invited into the fabric of tomorrow’s games and consoles, helping designers to ‘think social’. The rise of iPad, furthermore, where there’s no such thing as synchronous multiplayer, has given developers in every genre a mass of case studies.

For shooters, Wedgwood now predicts “the rise of the massively multiplayer shooter – except that, unlike World Of Warcraft, you can’t have a dungeon with 50 people in it because there just isn’t the bandwidth for that single instanced connection. So you’re going to see a rise in shooters that have instanced co-op or PvP segments with smaller player counts to maintain low latency and high bandwidth per player, and a rise in the number of holding cities where people can spend real money.”

Will this worsen the existing habit of shoehorning modes into games where they don’t sit comfortably? Not for Splash Damage, it seems, for which Batman: Arkham Origins sounds like something of a catharsis. “Historically we’ve got a habit of thinking like 15-year-olds. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars was like that. It ended up taking us four years, and at one point it was a full-blown realtime strategy game in firstperson, still with base-versus-base combat. We haven’t given up on the concept of mingleplayer, but our next game will be a hell of a lot easier to explain to people than Brink was. And my advice to aspiring developers is: try not to invent mingleplayer at the same time as, you know, direct-control free running and objective-based co-op multiplayer; and drop in and out support for transitioning from singleplayer to co-op to multiplayer; and a completely new gameworld and IP.”

The risk for them, he warns, is that “when marketing teams do problem detection studies, they’ll find a vocal minority who want a thing and then it quite easily becomes the thing they think solves what a game needs for the next iteration. Developers will be under pressure to add singleplayer to their [multiplayer] games, but for the most part it’s not a healthy pursuit.”