Galactic Civilizations: The case for no multiplayer

Published on Monday, January 16, 2006 By Brad Wardell In Galactic Civilizations II

Galactic Civilizations is the only Windows game I've ever worked on that isn't multiplayer. 

The first Windows game I developed, Entrepreneur, had multiplayer. It included a built-in chat area and match-making.  Stellar Frontier also had multiplayer -- up to 64 players on a persistent world.  The Corporate Machine had multiplayer.  The Political Machine had multiplayer.

In short, I've worked on a lot of multiplayer games.  Moreover, I play multiplayer games. As was pointed out on-line, I played Total Annihilation, Starcraft, Warcraft 3, and several other strategy games a great deal on-line in a "Ranked" capacity.  I've tried out nearly every major strategy game from Master of Orion 2 to HOMM 3 to Civ 3:PTW/Civ 4 multiplayer.

From this, I've concluded two things:

1) Some strategy games really benefit from a multiplayer component. Multiplayer extends their "fun" lifespan.

2) Some strategy games don't benefit from multiplayer and the sacrifices made for multiplayer lessened the overall experience.

To people who don't develop games, multiplayer may seem like a simple checkbox feature.  Indeed, many developers I've spoken to feel pressured to put multiplayer in because some reviewers will give the game a lower score if it lacks it despite the fact that for most strategy games, the percentage of players playing on-line is very low.

But multiplayer brings sacrifices that many people may not be aware of. Galactic Civilizations II was developed so that multiplayer could be added later (i.e. it passes messages back and forth).  But the gameplay was not.  We were not willing to sacrifice the single-player experience for multiplayer.

I'm going to give three reasons why multiplayer does not make sense in Galactic Civilizations as part of the base game.

#1 It sacrifices single player features.  Ask any game developer whether they be at Ensemble, Paradox, Firaxis, or Big Huge Games, most people play strategy games by themselves on a single computer.  What % that is depends on the game. But on a TBS game, I would wager that greater than 95% of players never play a single game on-line even if the option is available -- that includes Civilization IV.

But developing multiplayer is incredibly time-consuming and expensive. In our last game, The Political Machine, a full third of the budget was for multiplayer. The game was ideally suited for multiplayer, published by Ubi Soft it would sell a ton of copies.  The game came out and sure enough, only a tiny percent of people played the game multiplayer.  That tiny percent didn't justify the 33% budget dedicated to them.

My favorite game of 2005 was Civilization IV. It has multiplayer in it that is as good if not better than any implementation in the history of turn-based games.  But what was sacrificed in exchange?  There's no campaign.  There's no in-depth scenarios.  No in-depth random events.  You can only trade certain items and techs back and forth no matter what.  Do you think this is a coincidence?  No random civil wars based on certain criteria?  No war-causing assasinations? No crusades? Not even once in a long while?  I suspect that there were a lot of concepts and features that Civ IV would have had if it didn't have multiplayer.

When we were making Galactic Civilizations II, we took a poll on multiplayer. Only a small percentage of GalCiv I players cared about it.  We took additional polls since multiplayer advocates were so vocal.  Same thing.

So instead, Galactic Civilizations II got ship design and a campaign.   I think most people would agree that we could have taken GalCiv I, slapped a 3D engine on it, given it multiplayer and been in good shape.  But can anyone who's played the beta imagine the game without ship design?  And when you play the campaign, I think you'll find that was worth it too.

Moreover, players get a lot more single player experience.  There are rare events that players may only see once in a great while but they're worth it -- a religions war that breaks empires in pieces. New republics formed from remnants of shattered civilizations.  Civil wars. Precursor ships found on worlds. Powerful artifacts that slowly increase the power of a given civilization so that everyone has to team up on them. Terrorists. On and on.  In multiplayer, this would all have to be turned off, but then again, if there had been multiplayer, whey develop any of this at all if it wasn't always going to be used?

Similarly, there's diplomacy.  Last night, I played as the galactic arms dealer.  The Drengin and Torians were at war and I was supplying both sides with ships for money. I then took that money and slowly bought up the worlds of dying civilizations.  That kind of flexibility in diplomacy would be a nightmare in multiplayer, you'd have to put all kinds of restrictions in the name of balance.

#2 The majority ends up subsidizing the minority. Outside some game reviewers and people who have friends who are really into this stuff, most people don't know other people on-line to play these games with.  And let's face it, playing a turn-based strategy game with strangers is an excercise in frustration (I am not sure I've ever actually managed to complete a TBS on-line without the other player either dropping or quitting prematurely).

Galactic Civilizations II is $40. Not $50.  That $10 may not seem like a lot to some people but to many gamers it makes a difference.  Check out the prices on the latest multiplayer strategy games -- they're $49.99.  Part of that price is to subsidize the multiplayer component that only a tiny percentage of users will play.

If there's sufficient demand for multiplayer, we'll do it -- but as an expansion.  Those who want multiplayer can then buy it and those who don't aren't forced to pay for it.  And everyone wins because they saved $10 in the first place.

Because of the Metaverse, GalCiv II already has multiplayer plumbing.  We even have a multiplayer design.  But it'll cost money and time to implement it. So if there's demand, we'll do it. But it has to be demand in raw numbers, not just vocalness of the people who want it.

#3 It would have changed the design priorities.

When you design from the start to be a good multiplayer experience you have to make sure the game is streamlined -- particular the interface.  So things that might slow the multplayer pacing tend to come out.

Galactic Civilizations has lots of mini-cut scenes in it.  Things to help the player enjoy and savor the civilization they've created. The technology tree is huge and designed to linger through and pick just the right one.  The ship design is full of extras that are there so that players can make cool looking ships.  The battle screen was implemented to be not just functional but fun to watch. The planetary details screens include quotes from random citizens and there's flavor text all over.  Each civilization has its own vocabulary based on who it is talking to (i.e. how a Torian talks to a Terran is different than how they would talk to a Drengin).

But a good multiplayer game has to be far more streamlined. You don't want to have core features that encourage users to do anything but move their units and make their decisions efficiently.  Take a look carefully at any decent multiplayer games recently and notice how efficient they are.  Efficient is great in a multiplayer game.  But in a single player game, there is something to be said I think for inefficiency -- for fluff.

And because we designed the game from the ground up to be a single player experience, Galactic Civilizations II has a LOT of fluff:

The screenshot below, I designed all the ships in this particular game. Every new game I make new ships. Why? Because it's fun. It's not efficient though from a sheer "get to the next turn quickly" point of view:

And what's the point of sitting there watching your ships battle it out?

In fact, there's a ton of things that involve reading quite a bit of text. There's a lot of customization within the game that has no "point" other than to let players indulge in the civilization they've created.

It's not that a game with multiplayer can't have these things. Civilization IV has the Civpedia for instance.  But the tendancy in a good multiplayer game is to move the text and other stuff out of the way during gameplay and out to a place where it's looked at at ones leisure.  And that's a good idea in a multiplayer designed game.

But these days, nearly all games are designed with multiplayer in mind.  And for people who have no shortage of choices on multiplayer, it's nice to have a good old fashioned single player experience where you can sit down and indulge yourself to the full experience. 

I remember a game called Master of Magic back in the early 90s. It was a great game. But it was only a great game because it was single-player.  The things that made it really neat would have been a disaster in multiplayer. 

And that's really the point -- multiplayer is a feature. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn't.  In some RPGs sometimes they're better being single player (Knights of the Old Republic) and sometimes they're better being multiplayer (Neverwinter Nights).

For those who think multiplayer is a must in strategy games I hope this post has at least made the case that maybe sometimes multiplayer doesn't belong in the base game. 

We know how to make multiplayer games. We had the budget to make GalCiv II a multiplayer game if we wanted. We like multiplayer games.  But we felt that GalCiv II would be a better game if multiplayer was not part of the base game.