Is multiplayer a required feature in a strategy game? Galactic Civilizations II does not have multiplayer. And while it has averaged 4.5 stars out of 5 (or better) on the major game sites/magazines, most of the reviews have lamented the lack of multiplayer.
I talked to Bruce Geryk at length on this issue. Bruce reviewed the game for both 1up and Computer Gaming World. He and I have talked about multiplayer for a long time and in fact he and I played head to head The Political Machine. He was, by far, the toughest opponent I played -- better than anyone internal at Stardock even.
Bruce and I have come full circle on the issue. When he was younger, he was primarily interested in single player games. But as he's gotten older and busier, he wants his game experiences to be social. By contrast, when I was younger, I would play multiplayer games like crazy. I would buy games and not even bother to play them single player.
From Warcraft to Total Annihilation to Rise of Nations to HOMM3, I was a junkie for multiplayer. In Total Annihilation I'd spend my days hanging out on TEN looking for people to play. I was even in PGL. But as I've gotten older, I've become less patient with having hours wasted because my anonymous opponent would disconnect or do something incredibly lame to wreck the game.
My multiplayer experiences over the years could be summarized as follows:
- 40% of games end in the first 20 minutes due to the player doing some formula early game tactic (like rush). If their tactic failed, they'd disconnect. If they succeeded, the game was over. Either way, very unsatisfying.
- 30% of the games would end randomly due to a disconnect, crash, or the player having to leave.
- 20% of the games would end with the player leaving way early simply because they recognized that they would eventually lose. In most strategy games, if you're pretty good, you know you're going to win or lose long before it happens. So those players would simply drop out if the win wasn't almost a certainty. No attempt to even try to make a comeback. Not very satisfying.
- 10% of the games would actually play to their conclusion and be very fun.
And for that 10%, I would stick it out. But now I'm older, I don't have time to waste a Sunday afternoon playing people on-line all day in order to find ONE game that wasn't a disaster.
Some on-line advocates, such as Bruce, have friends that they play these games with. I envy him for that. My friends who play games are either playing totally different games from me or if they are playing a game I might like are at a totally different skill level. As much as I might like playing a 3 on 1 Rise of Nations game or Warcraft 3 game, I'd rather have a 2 on 2 game or a 1 on 1 game where both sides are reasonably equal. (Battle.net does a decent job of matching people but the percents I mention above are still about the same).
On Bruce's blog he writes:
Brad makes the comment in his post-mortem that he wants GalCiv2 to be the kind of game the you could buy and play two years from now. But I can tell you one thing: without m/p, there is no way I'll be playing GalCiv2 in two years. Frankly, I won't be playing it in two weeks. Without m/p, my interest in playing it past the review period is nearly zero.
I asked him why challenging computer players wouldn't solve this. His response, to paraphrase, was that when he's on the computer he wants to be interacting with other people, not playing a computer game alone. I can respect that. But it's totally the opposite from me. I spend all day interacting with people on the computer, I absolutely love playing Civilization 4 and other strategy games single player. I don't want to play a total stranger at a turn based strategy game and I don't know enough people who are good at turn based strategy games who have enough time to dedicate to playing one to the finish.
Troy Goodfellow, who wrote the 4.5 star Computer Games Magazine review writes:
Galactic Civilization II doesn't have MP, Civilization IV does. Both are great games, but guess which one will have a longer life on my hard drive? (And not just mine.) I've been a single player gamer for almost my entire life, but I have finally come to the point where a lot of gamers were a couple of years ago, seeking out multiplayer in every game. Good MP experiences have also made me hungry for real world human contact in gaming. Board gaming, DnD...anything to keep the rush of shared competition going between computer game cycles.
By contrast, Bad MP experiences have made me hungrier for good single player experiences. I think if we sat down and did an inventory of strategy games that have come out in the past 5 years that the multiplayer fanbase has gotten served quite well. By contrast, people like me who want to sit down and play against computer players have gotten, in my opinion, the shaft. When I see my friends in person, I generally play board games with them if we're going to play a game. Ticket to Ride, Twilight Imperium, etc.
If I had a ready set of friends willing to spend 8 hours straight on the computer playing a turn based strategy game, I could see the temptation. But that's not the norm. If I want to play Civilization IV multiplayer, I'm stuck hanging out on GameSpy's multiplayer system looking for total strangers and then we're back to the %'s. And even if I could solve the problem for myself, I know I'm not alone in this problem. And that's the point - multiplayer people have got tons of games to choose from. How many strategy games in the past 5 years have made a serious effort to have a strong single player experience?
The irony is, I am not against multiplayer. Every other game I've developed for Windows has had multiplayer. GalCiv's the only one that doesn't. But every time we do it, we come away disappointed. Disappointed at how few people are using is and disappointed at how many features and changes has to be made to implement it. I suspect in some future expansion (though not in an expansion for 2006) we'll add in multiplayer. But if we do, it's not going to be done in the traditional way. I'd like to do something that creates persistent games -- your games exist on a server that you can come and go back to as you please with your friends over minutes, hours, days, weeks, months. But that's for another discussion.
What got this discussion going was that the game had gotten punished by some (not Bruce though he laments no multiplayer) reviewers. I had commented on Quarter To Three that no one was taking points off of Oblivion for not having multiplayer -- an RPG after all. Bruce's response to that was that RPG players who want multiplayer have lots of choices. Turn based strategy gamers don't have as many good options for multiplayer. But it's not our responsibility to be all things to all people. And besides, Civ 4 has the best multiplayer of any strategy game I've ever seen.
Does that mean that some future GalCiv III won't have multiplayer? Odds are, it'll have multiplayer. But we won't make sacrifices for it. The single player experience will always take precedence. The reason we didn't have multiplayer in GalCiv II is because as a first-time publisher we had to have a price point of $39.95 to get decent shelf space and that meant not having something as expensive as multiplayer (make no mistake, you're paying for multiplayer in that $50 game regardless of whether you use it or not). A GalCiv III will probably be a >$40 program. But that's for a looong time into the future.