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Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Multiplayer Experience

My family
The thing that bothers me most about my family is that there is not one person in it who can appreciate The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. When you play a game that good, you naturally want to share it with someone, but there is no one here who cares.
The Trip: Snapshots
It was late, and all four of us kids [Benjy, Dena, Miriam and I] were downstairs playing. ... We had a Ping Pong table out, so two of us were playing on that. And the other two were playing pool. And we went back and forth between the two games, and we'd watch each other's games. I'd never seen our family before as anything but an odd assortment of mismatched parts, but in this multiplayer environment it all just clicked. I wished we could stay in that room. I'd wanted to find an environment like that for so long. And just a few days later I'd buy the multiplayer game Pac-Man Vs. to try to recapture that, to some insignificant degree, at home. I didn't realize back in that basement that any such attempt would prove futile, that when this moment passed, it would pass for good.
When Nintendo first unveiled the cute little purple box that is Gamecube to the world, they proudly pointed out that their new Game Boy Advance handheld system could potentially connect to this console. And as the world blinked -wondering why they should care- Nintendo's high-ups explained that with just a cable (sold separately), the GBA could connect to the controller ports! The world blinked again. So, Nintendo concluded triumphantly, the Game Boy Advance could be used as a controller for Gamecube games!! And the world kept walking.

Well, not the whole world. Game publishers seemed to be pretty interested in this new Connectivity. They saw a tremendous amount of potential. If a Game Boy could be connected to a Gamecube, they reasoned, they could connect the portable version of a game with the console version of the same game! (Game developers love to make a hundred versions of a game, each for a different system.) So they could close off one of the levels of the game, or some sort of extra content the players would want, so that you could only get it if you bought both versions of the game, and connected them together! Double the profits! Yay! Gamers were not amused.

Nintendo themselves indulged in these cheap tactics quite a bit, to be sure. But this wasn't what they had gone to all that trouble to connect the two together for. It was all for the multiplayer experience. You see, Nintendo has long tried to bring people together with their games. Their Nintendo 64 console was the first ever to have four controller ports, so that four people could sit with each other and have a fun time together. Then they made games like Super Smash Bros., a multiplayer fighting game which is unsurpassed in accessibility, and the Mario Sports games which simplified the gameplay enough for anyone to pick them up and start playing half-decently. Then they started the Mario Party series, which to be even more accessible took the universally-understood form of a board game, with simple multiplayer mini-games sprinkled in. (It is a testament to how well Nintendo pulled it off that Dena -a non-gamer!- still plays Mario Party 6 with her friends to this day.

The point is, Nintendo takes multiplayer very seriously. Their old Game Boy Color system was kept afloat by Nintendo's own Pokémon series, which simplified the RPG system and coated it in the universally-appealing hobby of collecting in order to be as accessible as possible, then heavily pushed the multiplayer aspect (connecting with friends' Game Boys and playing battles against them) -so heavily, in fact, that you'd think it was what they made the game for in the first place. It probably was. Getting people together to play games is the most important goal for Nintendo- even if you're not actually playing with or against each other, they still want you to sit around and talk about the game with each other and help each other out.

That -moreso even than making money, I like to think- is their dream. Families being happy together, being brought together with games. When Shigeru Miyamoto -the gamist behind the original Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Pikmin games- talks about what he worries about most in designing games, he talks about trying to get his wife interested. And when Eiji Aonuma -the current leader of the Zelda series, and the director of Zelda games The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess and Four Swords Adventures- recently talked about his proudest moment, he pointed to the time his wife -also a non-gamer- was sitting with his young son and the two of them were playing Twilight Princess together and enjoying each other's company.

So every time Nintendo invents new hardware, what they're thinking about is how they can use it to get people together more. How can they make this game appeal to the entire family, so that the whole family will sit around the TV and have fun with each other? How can they build friendships with their games? With their new motion-sensing Wii console, they've pretty much designed the system from the ground up for whole families to play together, going so far as to bundle what might be one of the most accessible videogames ever -the multiplayer Wii Sports- with the system itself, so that everyone with the system gets to have the whole social experience.

So when they came up with the idea of connectivity, it was the potential for multiplayer they had in mind. A big problem with multiplayer gaming on a TV is that everyone has to fit on one screen. Normally they get around that by splitting the screen into four parts, but split-screen has never been a very comfortable environment to play a game in. And in this past console generation, Microsoft's XBox was already setting up a comprehensive infrastructure for multiplayer gaming over the internet, but Nintendo didn't want to do that yet. They actually did experiments with online gaming going back all the way to the Super Nintendo in the early 90's, but they never came up with an approach they were satisfied with. If you think about it, it doesn't really serve Nintendo's vision of people playing together if they're not even in the same room.

Enter connectivity. Any player with a GBA has his own private little screen that only he can see. Obviously this allows for all sorts of fun concepts where each player knows something the others don't, but that's not really what Nintendo was thinking of. What Nintendo had in mind was first hinted at in Aonuma's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. It's a single-player game through and through, but early on the option is introduced for a second player -playing on a GBA- to join in and help.

Imagine that a little kid is playing the game. He might pass right by important clues (to the puzzles) without noticing them, because he's inexperienced. He might find himself in more danger (in the battles) than he can handle. He might find it too difficult to get from place to place (in the exploring). Or he might just run out of items, and not understand how to get more. In short, he couldn't really play the game. But if we say that right next to him there's a parent on a Game Boy, all these potential problems just turn into opportunities for multiplayer interaction. See, the confusing interface on the Game Boy's little screen (which surely would turn off anyone who was not a patient and skilled gamer) allows this parent to ease the child through all these parts. The parent can point out important clues by controlling the game's camera for a few seconds via the Game Boy. (Otherwise, he'd have to take the Gamecube controller out of the kid's hands to show anything to him.) He can drop bombs on any enemies too hard. He can carry the younger player from above over pits. He can even buy more items without going to a store.

There might be one parent-child pair in the world who played the game this way. But probably not.

There are numerous reasons why this experiment didn't really work. But Nintendo was undeterred. At the E3 games expo not long after, as gamers excitedly waited for announcements of new Zelda or Super Mario games, Nintendo made the main attraction a little multiplayer experiment involving Gamecube-GBA connectivity. And gamers everywhere groaned. They wanted games they could play by themselves, challenging and complicated games which they could play for 50 hours straight and be amazed by. And they didn't want to hear about this "connectivity gimmick".

Nintendo pretended not to notice- they were too excited about this new idea. An idea which Shigeru Miyamoto himself had come up with. An idea that could and should appeal to anyone. The idea-- was Pac-Man. But a new version of Pac-Man, one that you'd need to buy a separate cable to play at all. Gamers everywhere groaned again

Here's the idea behind Pac-Man Vs., the idea that Miyamoto (and presumably his boss, Satoru Iwata) felt was important enough to be pushed front and center on the biggest game industry event of the year: One player is playing as Pac-Man, and three others are playing as the ghosts chasing him. The Pac-Man player is playing on the Game Boy Advance, and he's playing it in pretty much exactly the same way as if he were playing the original arcade game from the 80's. The three ghosts can't see where he is (which is why he needs his own screen)- each player sees only the small bit of the maze that's around him. So the three ghost players (on Gamecube controllers) need to help each other out to catch that gluttonous little yellow circle. They're looking on the TV, where their surroundings are rendered in simple 3D, both to make it a bit more interesting visually and so that it's harder to get a sense of how it all looks from the top down. The progression of the game is basically "tag": When one of the ghosts catches Pac-Man, that player switches controllers with the player he just caught, and he plays Pac-Man in the next round. The whole thing follows a point system, so that within five minutes or so the game can be over, with a clear winner. That way, you can start again, and all the players who didn't do well that time get another chance.

Whatever you think of that idea, I think we can all agree on this point: Nintendo is one weird company.

When Nintendo saw the negative reaction to Miyamoto's little game, they strengthened their resolve. They gave Eiji Aonuma the task of making a multiplayer Zelda game. They could have put a smaller director on the project; it didn't have to be the head of the Zelda series. But apparently they wanted this to be a real Zelda game as good as any other, so that no one could dismiss it as a "silly little minigame". So they gave Aonuma the task of making a four-player Zelda game, where each of the players played on their own GBAs. Sure, that meant that in order to play the four-player game you'd need:
  • A Gamecube
  • A copy of the game
  • A Game Boy Advance of your own
  • Three friends who just happened to have their own GBAs
  • Four connector cables
But it would all be worth it!

I'll get back to that in a minute and let you know how it all turned out, but for now let's jump over to what I've been doing for the past few months. For a while now I've been babysitting a young boy on the block named Eitan. I accepted the job, despite disliking the very idea of jobs, because it's not much of a job at all. I'd sit with him for a few hours while he played uninspired Playstation 2 games such as Ratchet & Clank. And I found it really funny, the first few weeks, how all of his little friends from the street -having nothing else to do, I guess- would come over, crowd into their little TV room, and just watch him play. They'd constantly yell advice over, and comment on what they were seeing, and sometimes they'd even ask to be given turns so that they could play. I was very amused by the sight, and the thought that a badly designed single-player game could -by a fluke!- make for a decent multiplayer experience in the proper setting.

I wasn't amused enough to sit and watch the silly game nonstop, though, so I started bringing my Game Boy with me and playing Super Mario Bros. in the living room while they crowded around. Very quickly, they noticed me playing there and asked if they could have "turns". I happily agreed. Any chance to spread the happiness, right? And then Eitan felt like he was missing out, so he joined in and took turns for himself. And so these little kids played this primitive little game from 1985 (designed to appeal to anyone, really), and enjoyed it at least as much as the flashy recent PS2 game.

As half the crowd were playing on the PS2, and half were playing on my Game Boy, I was left in the middle. So I got to talking with some of Eitan's friends, who I'd certainly seen before but never cared about. Specifically two boys named Michael and Mickey, because I could talk with them about games. Michael actually had a Gamecube (which was also from America- where else?) and we chatted about the games he'd played and the games he hadn't. And Mickey had a bunch of handheld systems. I probably never would have thought to ever talk with these kids if I hadn't been babysitting, because of the age gap. But why not? These guys had probably been playing good games for longer than I had! I enjoyed talking with them.

Anyway, the games Eitan played changed a tiny bit because I was there. First, I brought over my Gamecube with Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat and the drum controller. (I also tried bringing Pac-Man Vs., but the disc's a little scratched up and I couldn't get it to run.) And they really seemed to enjoy playing this platformer by hitting the drums. (It is an exceptional game.) Eventually I figured, why am I even bringing the Gamecube to Eitan's house if he can come over to my house? So he did, often along with Mickey, and I introduced them to all sorts of games. We played Mario Party 6, and Super Smash Bros. Melee. We even played a few short rounds of Pac-Man Vs., and though we had only three players rather than the ideal four, it was pretty fun!

And then I realized that they both had GBAs, and that's when we started playing The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures together.

Four Swords Adventures is - I guess you'd call it a party metalude. You can play it in single-player, in which event it is a lot like 1991's The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past but with control over four characters all the time. But it's not very good. You go through lots of tedious puzzles and simple battles, and that's pretty much all there is to it. But that's because you're missing the whole experience the game is specifically designed for.

When I first bought the game, I made sure I had three GBA cables so that I could play the game right. Sadly, I did not have two friends with GBAs. I made do with Eliav. (He does have a GBA.) It was pretty fun with two players (where each player controls two characters), but not ideal. It still felt like there was something missing. So even though I'd actually played through the entire game before, playing with Eitan and Mickey was something new.

Here's how it works. As you may have gathered, there are always four Links (Link is the hero of the Zelda series.) -in different colors to differentiate them- in play, no matter how many players there are. The game is split into 32 levels, each one taking around an hour to play. During those levels, there are many puzzles and battles that are meant to be passed with cooperative teamwork. But, everything you do in the game is rewarded with gems, and the players are competing to get more gems than the rest. At the end of a level, each of the players vote on who helped them and who bothered them, and that translates as points in the final rankings. Then each player loses points for every life he lost, but gains for beating more enemies than everyone else. The final -and most substantial- part of the points comes from gems. Thus, each player is trying to help his teammates as much as possible (in order to be voted on), while still racing everyone else to get to the monsters first, to get to the gems first, and (most importantly) get to the cool items first so he can get to play with those. It's pretty brilliant.

Now, you probably want to know why this requires each player to have their own Game Boys. Honestly, it couldn't have worked any other way. For a large portion of the game, all that you'll see on your GBA's screen is "LOOK AT THE TV SCREEN!". Because on the TV screen you'll see what's outside, or maybe a big room, or a hall, or wherever else your general surroundings are. And they'll be big, but not too big, because everyone needs to fit on there. You can only move on to the next area when all four Links move on together -That way no one player can control the progression of the game.

So whenever you're outside you play on the TV screen, and you see all the other players out there and you work together and race against each other. But, whenever you go into a smaller room, or a house or a cave or underground or into another dimension, you start playing on your own little GBA screen while everyone else is still on the TV.

So let's say everyone's outside having a hard time with a battle, and I go into a house to see if there are any items I can use to make it easier. Essentially, (to use terms from "Socializing in Solo") what you have here is two "environments" running simultaneously. One is a single-player environment, so it's on that player's GBA screen. One is a multiplayer environment, so it's on the TV screen. And doesn't it make sense that the number of screens being used should depend on how many environments the overall game at the moment is using? Afterwards, I might find an item that's useful, so I'll go back out to the TV screen and use it to help everyone else.

Say there's a big area on the screen with lots of caves and doors. Since you see the whole area on the TV screen, you know which door each player is going into. So generally each player will try to go a different way, so that very quickly the group has found everything. So there might be a whole maze of stairs and rooms and monsters on one guy's screen, while a second player is getting lots of gems on his screen, and a third player has just found a room they needed to find. Everyone knows -roughly- where everyone else is, because they saw where they went to from the TV screen. So when the third player calls out, "There are four switches here!", the other two players put down what they're doing and head over to where he is (going back through the TV screen to get there) to help out. (If there are four switches, all four Links are needed to activate them.) And if one player then has trouble finding the other two, they point him in the right direction or -in extreme cases- come back to get him.

There are all sorts of challenges that you need teamwork to solve. There might be four switches you stand on, or four switches that you need to hit with your swords (This needs to be coordinated, preferably with a "3, 2, 1" countdown, so that all players hit their switches at the same time.), or a pit which you need to throw another player over so he can hit a switch letting you through, or obstacles in the way too heavy for any one person to push away on his own. So you need to all work together- whenever someone else needs help, he asks for it. And whoever is nearby and willing gives it.

Let me describe a puzzle which I loved, which I think illustrates what the game is all about. On the TV is a big room with a pit in the middle and small rooms to the left and right of it. If you go on the right, you see some switches that you'd need to hit with a bow and arrow in order to activate a bridge over the pit. (They don't need to be hit all at once, they just need to all be hit.) Simple, right? The trouble is, there's a wall between you and the switches. So you can see them, but not hit them. If you go in the left room, you find absolutely nothing, but there's no wall on the right side. If you try shooting an arrow to the right from there, you see it whiz over the pit on the TV screen! So in theory you should be able to hit the switches on the right from the room on the left, but you can't see them from there! The solution demands two players working together. One goes on the left and shoots. The other goes on the right and sees where he's hitting. So the guy on the right instructs the guy on the left: "That's too high! Still too high. There, you got it. Try lower for the next one." And all the switches get hit, so the bridge appears.

Now, like all party games the game isn't fun if the players are annoying. Eitan was annoying. He's played lots of action games and tends to think in very violent ways. So when Mickey and I were trying to solve a puzzle, Eitan kept setting us on fire and throwing us off cliffs and hitting us with his sword and throwing bombs at us and generally getting us killed. We were stuck at that puzzle for around 25 minutes, because he wouldn't listen to us when we kept yelling at him to stop.

So I recently stopped playing with Eitan and started playing with Mickey and Michael. And man, is it fun. I wouldn't have known to spend time with these guys, because they are much younger than me in the Real World. But in the game, they might be just as old as I am. I mean, they're good players. Each of them has a Gamecube (When Mickey saw all the games I had for Gamecube, he bought one for himself.), and both of them have and have completed The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. These guys know what they're doing, and it's hard figuring out, at the end of each level, who I should vote for in the "bothered me" category. They don't bother me! They're as good as I am at all this! Well, almost. I do have seniority to some extent (due to being a little bit better and more experienced), so I always play with two Links while they each play with one. It works great this way, since it's more complicated to switch between two Links and put them in formations.

We could have another player if I bought another cable, but I don't really feel like we need it. Playing with these guys, I'm inclined to think that this is one of the best Zelda games ever.

There's ever so much potential here. I wish they'd keep making sequels regularly, so that every (say) two years I can get a new edition with new levels and new twists in the gameplay and new opportunities for interaction, so that I could keep the parties going. But Mickey, Michael and I are up to the last two levels of the game now. And there won't be any sequels, because so few people played this game. It takes a Gamecube, and three GBAs, and three cables, and three good players to get what we've got here, and most gamers aren't ever going to get all that. I'm very fortunate that I have. Because it's so worth it.



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