Wednesday, February 16, 2011

EXP Podcast #117: Single-player Socialites

With the ubiquity of the Internet and the popularity of social games, are single-player experiences becoming a niche genre? This week, we're happy to welcome Justin Keverne back to the podcast to discuss the role of single player games in a medium currently fascinated by group experiences. An accomplished game designer and critic, Justin helps us make sense of the relationship between single-player, multiplayer, and "social" games. We cover everything from the fourth wall, to Venn diagrams, and even the behemoth that is Facebook. As you know, the podcast isn't meant to be a single-player experience, so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- Is the single-player experience a historical aberration?

- How do social components effect your experience with a game? What are the differences between a collaborative playthrough of a single-player game, online leader boards, asynchronous play, and active multiplayer?

- What types of themes are best explored in a single-player game? What are some examples of games that rely on solo experiences?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking this link. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link in the address bar.

Show Notes:
- Run time: 58 min 38 sec
- "Groping The Elephant," Justin Keverne's website
- "What is a Social Game?" by Nicholas Lovell, via GAMESbrief
- "Are single player-games doomed?" by Raph Koster, via Raph Koster's Website
- "Is the shift to online a fad?" by Raph Koster, via Raph Koster's Website
- "Have single-player games ever existed?" by Raph Koster, via Raph Koster's Website
- "Single Players are Not an Aberration," by Tadhg Kelly, via Gamesbrief
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. Discussing the topics with her after the podcast my girlfriend came up with the term "Communal Games" to describe those designed to be played within a communal context. It's possibly the best term I've yet heard for games that have a focus on that form of play.

  2. Very interesting podcast, I'd like to add a couple of thoughts. Not a native speaker, so please excuse lousy grammar.

    Demon's Souls actually mixed multiplayer very successfully with singleplayer. Depending on how you play the game, you can have a 100% singleplayer experience, a 100% multiplayer experience, or a mix between both depending on how much multiplayer you want in your game. If you play connected to the PSN, one levelboss is another human player, and it works very well in my opinion. I played the game online with no coop-features and through my whole playthrough I only fought against two other players. That was exactly the right amount for me, very high-adrenaline, rememberable fights that perfectly matched to the overall atmosphere. But I suppose designing a game to be like that is incredibly difficult and would not work in a lot of games.

    Usually, singleplayer and multiplayer offer two very different experiences. While something like deathmatch-multiplayer does correspond very well to "normal games" like chess, singleplayer is basically an interactive novel if done well. And I always thought that MMORPGs lack immersion because of simple facts like everybody is running. When I see a character in a game running for no reason it immediately breaks the forth wall and makes me realize that this is just a game with other players, not a real world with real people living in it. And now add trolling and 14-year old pwnerz to that.

    Also, there is always a social pressure when playing with or against other people, like there is with everything you do in a public context. That is one of the key concepts of sociology, people are always aware that they are being watched and therefore adapt their actions in a way they want to be perceived (even trolls).As you said, you play a game differently if someone watches you. I always want to show my gf great games but quickly realize that I just cannot play the game in the same way as I would do on my own and therefore cannot really share my experience with her. With Portal I ended up leaving the room and let her play the game on her own.

    And lastly, I think singleplayer experience is not a historical aberration at all. Kids play alone all the time. We might have a distorted view because when you think of playing kids, you think of a bunch of them running around, but I can remember very well playing hours and hours alone with my toy cars, I even played board games with myself when I was alone at home. Kids are not with their friends all the time, in fact most of the time. But they still play, imaging whole worlds inside their minds and have a lot of singleplayer experiences. And I think even adults do that from time to time,even if it is just little things like imagining being a race car drive while driving to work.

  3. I'm only partway through the podcast, but I want to get some thoughts down. Forgive me if you cover this later.

    It's a logical fallacy to argue that, since most games have historically been multiplayer experiences, it follows that most video games should be as well. Video games have evolved differently than board games, or card games, or physical games of strength and skill. There's a tremendous amount of shared heritage, but these various kinds of games are not good at presenting the same kinds of challenges or experiences.

    Video games are better at presenting convincing false worlds than other kinds of games—they have that in common more with other forms of media than with other kinds of games. This is because video games are as much a form of media as a kind of game. As Nicholas Lovell says, we don't think it's "abberant" to read a book silently, or to watch a movie at home by ourselves. Like games, these are experiences that can be shared, but which can also feel complete when conducted by ourselves.

    Raph's website, linked in your post, addresses this objection as follows: "Some compare these sorts of experiences to books. But books are also enjoyed as social activities today — they are traded in book clubs, they are read in classrooms, they are recommended on television and argued about in newspapers. Few books are truly enjoyed as solitary experiences except on a truly momentary level."

    This argument sounds like dissembling to me, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and just say that I disagree. Many of my favorite novels will stay with me in a profound way until the day I die. They help to shape the way I view and understand the world. Have I talked with others about these books? Some of them, sure, but not all. And those conversations themselves are often "momentary," without any lasting impact.

    To compare apples to apples, I think about my experiences playing multiplayer shooters vs. playing a game like Half-Life 2. Which one will stay with me? It's no contest.

  4. Haha, just started listening again and I see that Justin made precisely my first point. Great minds! Gotta bookmark his site.

  5. I'm starting to feel real oldschool with my "keep your damn games singleplayer" obsession.

    I started playing NfS Hot Pursuit yesterday and they wouldn't let me select six out of seven options in the godamn main menu.
    Later I was trying the "press right stick to take a photo during a race" thing and they told me ingame that I had to be signed in to use this feature. I mean one of the achievements totally wants me to "have 5 or more NfS friends"
    Luckily there is an offline Quick Race opt...
    oh no wait, there isn't.

    Seriously guys, this is getting out of hand...

    Man, somebody explain this multiplayer online thing to me that everybody's talking about right now ;)

    Well, I'm pretty close to playing Heavy Rain now, they'd better not try anything funny there...

    No seriously now, don't do that.