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One of the best things about System Shock 2 was the cooperative multiplayer game.

These days most games I come across are either single-player, plot-driven (games like The Sims being the exception) or multiplayer interaction-driven. And when I say single-player games are plot-driven, I mean it to include a broad range of plot complexities. Some of these plot-driven games have rather pitiful plots, i.e. Earth is being invaded by aliens and you, the last super badass are all that stands in the way of total destruction.

I get the impression that most plots are strapped onto what is essentially a technology centered game. Id guess that a lot of studios or publishers feel one must have some sort of story in a single player game, but as long as the graphics are pretty enough, it doesnt need to be much of one. In multiplayer game the theory seems to go: if you put enough people in a game together, they will make their own story and we dont have to worry all that much about it. Or, if a story isnt appropriate for the given game, at least having human opponents will keep the players entertained for a while.

Social Gaming Roots

Which is why the cooperative multiplayer aspect of System Shock 2 shined so brightly in my eyes. I have been a gamer my whole life, and my most enjoyable experiences with games have been social ones, even though I’ve really enjoyed some single player games too (and I like a good book). I starting playing GURPS, Vampire, and other RPGs in junior-high, and I’ve never lost my love for them. These were all games that were plot-driven, cooperative multiplayer. My friends and I got together and formed a team that was essentially there to play a variation of that ancient standby: pretend. Or cops and robbers. There is, I suspect, a very good reason these games are ancient standbys.

Even my experience with the consummate episodal game, Counter-Strike, reinforces this theme in my gaming life. I loved Half-Life single player, and it was even fun in free-for-all multiplayer sessions. But its at its best when I’m playing the CS mod with a group of friends as a social gathering. We plot, we plan, we talk about the game, we create a team logo, a team persona. We plan a trip to paintball after a night of working together to have fun. Id bet some good money that part of the success CS has enjoyed over its predecessors and many games that have come after it are essentially social in nature. In CS you form a team that must really work together well to have staying power–the fan sites and clans that have developed around the game may be demonstrations of this idea.

System Shock 2 was a special treat, because I got the chance to play through a really fun plot with a group of friends, working together. It became an eagerly anticipated social event. We would talk about the game between sessions and review the parts we enjoyed most. It was an experience that has never been matched by the best movie because I got to both participate in the plot as a character, and I got to enjoy the experience with a team of friends who, through their interaction with the game expanded the plot and meaning of the game.

What About MMPOGs and RPGs?

MMPOGs have hoped that given a game world and a bunch of people, plots and engaging game play will sort of just appear on their own. Keeps costs down, and it seems like a great idea on the surface, but I havent seen it happen. 100,000 people dont seem any better at writing a story together in a MMPOG than they would be writing a book, and if you form a subgroup of 4 people in the game world and start making your own game of it, the MMPOG turns into more of a distraction to your game than an enhancement. Not to say that MMPOGs wont find their own unique style of play that will be a ton of fun for a lot of people, but they havent yet captured that special something that I and a lot of my friends are looking for in games.

The latest generation of computer based RPGs like Vampire: Redemption and Neverwinter Nights have tried to harness aspects of the social dynamics of gaming by providing gamers with tools that resemble traditional roleplaying tools. This doesnt seem to be working all that well either. I suspect the problem relates to the large amount of time one must invest to fully realize a game session. With a pen and paper RPG, you need only design the plot, the major characters, and maybe some basic maps. The rest is left to expand upon though the collaborative efforts of the game master/story teller and the players. To game in a similar manner, but augmented by a 3D FPS environment, one must explicitly create all the visual and auditory details that make up the world. All of them. This just takes too friggin much time and technical+artistic talent.

Cooperative Multiplayer and Old School RPG Worlds

All this has gotten me thinking about what kind of games I would like to make someday. I somehow managed to neglect to mention this here, but a major reason I want to make SS3 is to have the opportunity to take the great cooperative multiplayer experience they created and expand upon it. I’ve also started to think about what a great resource pen and paper RPGs could be to gaming. These games have been helping gamers play in non-linear worlds for years. The writing and materials are well adapted to that purpose and their writers have unique experience in writing materials for the non-linear game environment. But more on that soon. :)

Updated on October 2nd, 2013

Some of the links were broken. I replaced them with working links to pages with the same or similar content as before.