Multiplayer “Fun” in Videogames
I’ve been trying to figure out for a while what I see as the distinction between two different multiplayer experiences. In one, the player’s enjoyment comes from systems that are simultaneously being interacted with by multiple players. The other type of multiplayer game is such that fun is derived from depriving others of that same experience; the player is only enjoying themselves when another human player is not.
I thought about this while playing Stunlock Studio’s Battlerite. The mechanics of Battlerite itself are serviceable; it’s a MOBA, in the actual sense of the term Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, and not in the popular shorthand for Lane-Pushing Games it has become. You pick a hero character, square off with a teammate (or two) and fight an opposing team to the death, using a variety of skills. However, the actual mechanics of playing your hero are not inherently fun, compared to, say, driving a jeep in Battlefield 1. This doesn’t make either game worse than the other, but they are different competitive experiences. If we think about a real-world example, it’s like comparing a game of chess to a match of soccer. The mechanics of manipulating chess pieces are mundane. It’s not fun to move pieces around on a game board. However, the game of soccer (depending on your views on physical activity) also includes the fun of movement, of kicking a ball, of being on a sporting court. There is an intrinsic mechanical enjoyment to the gameplay.
As a genre, lane-pushing games don’t include much in the way of mechanical fun. (Note: Of course, everything I’m saying here should be read as my own, subjective, opinion about game mechanics). Farming creeps is mildly satisfying, but it isn’t fun, in how drifting around a corner in Mario Kart is fun. Moving a courier to the shop isn’t entertaining, except when you have the mild thrill of glimpsing an enemy chasing it. Certain heroes have their moments, when cooldowns and lane conditions align, and there is genuine joy in throwing a combo at your opponent. But again, the joy is derived from your own ability, mechanical competence, being pitted against theirs. This is why I feel much more tense playing Battlerite, League of Legends, and Dota 2, than I do from playing Battlefield 1 or Overwatch. Moving around as Tracer is fun, whether I’m ganking bad guys or blinking back from spawn. The competition is still the main purpose of the game, but there is fun here on a more fundamental level.
DICE have fully embraced this level of fundamental fun. In all the material released by DICE, they are actively encouraging Battlefield 1 players to view the game as a sandbox, where you choose what you find fun and pursue it. The in-game videos solicited from popular YouTubers have a conversational tone; “If you feel like grabbing a hill and sniping some enemies,” or “If you’ve got your hands on a tank, this is how you use it”. This style of sandbox play is often at odds with the score-focused nature of the game-modes, although more work has been done to reward players for healing, spotting, resupplying, and playing in vehicles. It is entirely possible to play Battlefield 1 and spend most of your playtime reviving allies and repairing vehicles. The tickets system of the Conquest game mode actively encourages reviving and keeping allies topped up on health. Losing men, and therefore tickets, means losing the game.
I wouldn’t say these types of “fun” can’t be brought together — even in Battlefield 1, each person you haughtily roll over in your tank leaves another player staring at a respawn screen. But the penalties for death for the team are smaller, and the return to action quicker.
I wonder if it is possible to bring this sort of mechanical fun to an LPG. Battlerite comes close, with shorter round-times and the removal of farming and the (sometimes) tedious task of item progression. But too often in Battlerite I’ve found the heroes feel ‘same-y’, due to balancing considerations. In fact, these two types of fun are drawn from two competing desires. To be the best, and therefore enjoy your (relative) systemic mastery, or to have a good time, and compete with others.