Multiplayer Games

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Games that have more than one player.

Most games let several players participate in the gameplay, either against each other or working together towards a common goal. Before the emergence of video games basically only puzzles were not multiplayer games, and even so many single-player video games also have multiplayer support. With the advent of the internet it became practical to create Multiplayer Games with hundreds or thousands of players, first in MUDs[1] and later in MMORPGs[2].

Besides giving people other humans to compete or cooperate with, Multiplayer Games let people have social interaction before, during, and after play sessions.


Chess has two players competing against one another by taking turns. The board games Space Alert and Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game let players compete against the game system, while tabletop roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS allow players to fight enemies controlled by a game master.

Computer and console games such as the Quake series or the Need for Speed series allow players to compete against each other in combat or races. The Quake series also offers team-based variants where groups of players fight each other, and the Counter-Strike series and games such as Battlefield 1942 and Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory are dedicated to this type of gameplay. The Left 4 Dead series is structured to let a 4-person team struggle against people turned murderous by an infection. The Lego Star Wars series is optionally a Multiplayer Game in that a second player can jump in and out of gameplay as wanted. Even single-player computer games can be considered as multiplayer games on one level if they make use of high score lists, as for example Asteroids, Pac-Man, and Icy Tower.

MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft and Eve Online can have thousands of players playing the same game instance simultaneously and tens or even hundreds of thousands of players participating in the game instance asynchronously.

Games such as Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Magic: The Gathering are Multiplayer Games where every player own parts of the set of allowed game elements, and when some players wish to play each of these build and bring collections which adhere to agreed upon construction rules.

Clash of the Princes is a rare example that Gamebooks can be Multiplayer Games.

Using the pattern

For Multiplayer Games to be played, players need to be able to organize themselves to participate together in the activity. In most cases this needs to be done by the players themselves but those with Mediated Gameplay support players not being co-located through Game Servers and this may make it desirable to support the players in being able to find each other through support systems; Meta Servers, Friend Lists, and Game Lobbies are examples of this and can let players choose from Functional Roles. Mediated Gameplay also makes possible some more specific design solutions regarding narration, e.g. using Phasing to let players experience stories in a game without this affect other players. Synchronous Gameplay by their nature require Multiplayer Games, as there must be several players sharing the same game situation. Unless a Multiplayer Game is supposed to be an Unwinnable Game, it can either make use of Winner determined after Gameplay Ends or Winning by Ending Gameplay.

When one considers players, it is most common to think about humans. However, any type of Agent can be a player so AI Players can be used to simulate other players to allow Multiplayer Games that can be played alone (this is for example done in the Left 4 Dead series). If this is experienced as a Multiplayer Game or a Single-Player Game is however dependent on the human player's ability to notice their behavior as well as focus upon Social Interaction. For added flexibility, games may allow Late Arriving Players or Drop-In/Drop-Out functionality to let human players and AI Players switch control of who is playing, but this risk affecting Player Balance, and Value of Effort negatively, and may lead to specific instances to feel like Single-Player Games. Late Arriving Players need Summary Updates, this can in addition cause Downtime to the other players (as may for example be the case when a new or late players joins a Tabletop Roleplaying Game such as Dungeons & Dragons. Supporting very many players, as Massively Multiplayer Online Games do, have additional challenges and needs.

Given that Asymmetric Starting Conditions may more or less be impossible to avoid (especially if Late Arriving Players are allowed), designers of Multiplayer Games need to consider how much this should be allowed to affect the overall gameplay, and how to achieve the wanted level of asymmetry.

A basic decision regarding Multiplayer Games is if the primary gameplay resolves around PvE (Players vs. Environments) as in Space Alert and Left 4 Dead series or PvP (Players vs. Players) as in Chess, Go, and Quake series. PvP gameplay is typically design around Conflicts between the players or Races; the use of Scores is a common way of achieving the latter and Secret Scoring Mechanisms can be used to cause uncertainty of who is leading in these cases. Secret Goals can in general achieve the same effects as Secret Scoring Mechanisms. PvP games can make use of Teams, as in Battlefield 1942 and Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, which can be combined with PvE gameplay as in the Defense of the Ancients series or World of Warcraft. Alliances, Guilds, and Parties can also be used to support PvP gameplay but can equally well support PvE. In both cases, they support Coordination and Cooperation and by that also Stimulated Planning. To encourage Cooperation further in these types of games, Asymmetric Abilities and Privileged Abilities can either suggest or require Functional Roles through a use of Orthogonal Differentiation of abilities to enable Team Combos; Crossmedia Gameplay can effectively be used for these purposes since it can create Functional Roles in Multiplayer Games. These solutions may be of a more permanent nature through the use of Characters (possibly influenced over time through Character Development) or more context-dependent. A specific example of the latter is Asymmetric Roles in Vehicles, e.g. the division between driving vehicles and manning the weapons mounted on them in the Battlefield series. Teams may also allow for Gameplay Mastery by allowing Team Development as well as individual Competence Areas to develop over time. When the games also have Meta Games such as Tournaments or Massively Multiplayer Online Games with Persistent Game Worlds, Community Functionality supports Strategic Planning and Group Belonging. Friendly Fire, Inherent Mistrust, and the possibility of Sabotage can be used when making games where one wishes to limit the amount of Cooperation or make it more difficult within Teams. Any Multiplayer Game with Eliminate goals or having events leading to the destruction of players' Avatars or other types of Player Killing needs to consider if Early Elimination is wanted or how this should be avoided by inserting players' Avatars again through Spawning. Similar issues need to be regarding in Unwinnable Games or those where players can perceive Unwinnable Game States (true or not) since these will result in Early Leaving Players (and designers might want to consider this for all types of Multiplayer Games to counter the effects of Early Leaving Players in general). One reason why Early Elimination, which can be both in the form of Player Elimination and Team Elimination, can be wanted is that one wants to use the Last Man Standing goal so that the last player(s) having Lives left wins. Races in Multiplayer Games is probably the most classic way of achieving Competitions rather than Conflicts in PvP games, and this does so by creating Symmetric Goals for them. The use of Private Game Spaces offers another design possibility regarding this.

Unless a Possibility of Anonymity is aimed for, it is important for Multiplayer Games to help players identify each other, e.g. making Avatars unique through attaching Handles or allowing Avatar Personalization. One reason for this is that players typically need to engage in Extra-Game Actions such as Coordination in Multiplayer Games with Teams or other types of Cooperation, and Bragging, Negotiation, and Trading even in those where there is no Cooperation. While games played with the players located in immediate proximity of each other can make use of Unmediated Social Interaction, online games typically achieved this through providing the possibility of different types of Communication Channels, e.g. Game-Defined Vocabulary. Game State Overviews makes Coordination easier regardless of players' actual location, and can be achieved either through Mini-maps found in games such as the Civilization series or World of Warcraft. Virtual Co-Presences also supports this, and can be encouraged by Geospatial Game Widgets to locate each other (as done in the Left 4 Dead series). Having Diegetically Outstanding Features in Game Worlds can help provide common points of reference to help Coordination, point out potential rewards of Team Combos, and the risks of Helplessness. In contrast, the ESP Game relies on players not being able to directly communicate with each other so it takes precautions to not match players together with network addresses which may indicate close proximity to each other.

Multiplayer Games opens up the possibility for Bidding, Delayed Reciprocity, Negotiation, Trading, and Trick Taking, and some of these can include game rules related to Player-Decided Distributions and Player Decided Results. This can easily led to Social Dilemmas in games with Teams but some PvE games intentionally introduce this, e.g. The Republic of Rome that pit players individual goals against that of the group or Intrigue and So Long Sucker which more or less force players to betray each other. In Multiplayer Games with Helplessness, similar effects can arise if players have the possibility of rescuing each other.

In games with large Game Worlds, players may not encounter each other unless the design of the Game Worlds promotes this. Examples of features that can be used to herd players together are Arenas, Choke Points, and (quite naturally) Check Points.

Many design choices are unique to Multiplayer Games or are significantly modified by the presence of other players: Smooth Learning Curves and providing Player Balance can be more difficult to achieve, especially when Gameplay Mastery is possible, although Balancing Effects (for example through Game State Overviews and either Player Decided Results or Player-Decided Distributions) and systems for Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment can help. Issues which can make Player Balance in Multiplayer Games with Persistent Game Worlds especially difficult are Abstract Player Construct Development, Character Development, or Crafting. This since advantages can multiply over time and new players may have to compete with those that have played for a long time. The issues of learnability and Player Balance, and in general having Challenging Gameplay, can be addressed through Handicap Systems such as Asymmetric Resource Distribution and differences in Skills, Vehicles, and Tools (although these can also be the original source of the imbalances). Game Masters and to a lesser degree Entitled Players can be used for this and can allow the other players greater Freedom of Choice and Exaggerated Perception of Influence. An oddity for Multiplayer Games is that Sanctioned Cheating does not have to be for personal gains, players may engage in it also to maintain Player Balance.

Multiplayer Games have the possibility of using Heterogeneous Game Element Ownership, as for example done by Warhammer Fantasy Battle or Magic: The Gathering. This is typically combined with Construction to allow Strategic Planning and setting up for Combos, and leads to Game Element Trading and that players share Strategic Knowledge as a form of Trans-Game Information.

Although it may seem that the main requirement for Multiplayer Games is that the game supports several players, even Single-Player Games can be a possible foundation for making Multiplayer Games. This can be accomplished through Meta Games such as organizing players in Tournaments. Another form of Meta Games that make Single-Player Games into Multiplayer Games are those that share Trans-Game Information, e.g. High Score Lists or Ghosts. Finally, many Single-Player Games are packaged together with Multiplayer Games (it can be argued if they are single games or not), making use of the same game elements, rules, interface, and skill sets required.

Diegetic Aspects

From a pure game mechanic point of view, games allowing Late Arriving Players or Drop-In/Drop-Out gameplay can provide difficulties maintaining Thematic Consistency, especially if Spawning is used. One possible solution is the use of AI Players of take players' roles when they leave and that new players take over AI Players positions. Another problem regarding this occurs if Roleplaying is present, since players may break the theme dictated by the game if not acting according to their characters' personalities, and in this case players may even break Diegetic Consistency by describing or enacting things that do not exist or take place in the Game Worlds.

Interface Aspects

Most Multiplayer Games need additional interfaces to provide the Communication Channels needed for Coordination or Social Interaction, e.g. voice chats to give near Unmediated Social Interaction or quick message systems of Game-Defined Vocabulary to control what information is passed. An exception to this is games that use Split-Screen Views or Hotseating, which either enable multiplayer gaming or allow players alternatives to how to play the games together.

Save-Load Cycles are more cumbersome to use in Multiplayer Games, since players must negotiate when to load previous game states.

Narration Aspects

For Multiplayer Games with Predetermined Story Structures there lies a risk of some players' Value of Effort regarding how the narration progresses may be less than others. Further, combining Predetermined Story Structures with letting players affect the outcome of the story becomes more and more difficult the more players can take part of a game instance.


Multiplayer Games is a necessity to have Player Unpredictability in games. The pattern also provides a focus point for Social Interaction between the players and lets them experience Togetherness in the activity of gaming, especially in situations when they can experience Spectacular Failure Enjoyment together or during Lull Periods when they with ease can focus more on each other. This can also occur in the retelling of Game Instance Stories provided by the Multiplayer Games). However, these can make the use of Predetermined Story Structures more complex. It provides the basic requirement for Social Roles to emerge and makes it likely that Social Skills are useful or needed, but may require more specific patterns to ensure these pattern's presence. Many more specific experiences and activities are provide by Multiplayer Games as well, but then typically depend on if the games make use of Collaboration, Betrayal, Parties, PvP, Teams, etc. They however give players a Freedom of Choice to have Social Organizations and Identification within the gaming groups (the Social Interaction, and Negotiation if it exists, becomes more structured if Turn Taking exists). By doing so they often give rise to Extra-Game Actions and Extra-Game Consequences without any special attention to these features by designers (designers that wish to avoid this may explicitly design for Enforced Player Anonymity). One example of this can be the trading of Strategic Knowledge before, during, and after game sessions. The Freedom of Choice players have in acting can provide Creative Control in games that support Roleplaying, and this Roleplaying can add additional levels to Negotiation and Social Interaction but may also allow players to break the Thematic Consistency of the game setting.

Looking at more gameplay specific aspects, having several players in a game allows the game design to have Alliances, Guilds, Parties, and Teams - while Teams have Mutual Goals to motivate players supporting each other, Alliances and Guilds can give rise to Loyalty goals. These all modulate Gameplay Mastery by making it possible for players to develop specific Competence Areas for their Characters, and these Competence Areas are likely to give players Social Roles. Multiplayer Games also provide some forms of Gameplay Mastery, some which are not applicable in other games, for example Social Skills related to Negotiation, Roleplaying, or Storytelling. One reason for such Social Interaction can be the possibility of achieving Team Combos which can exist when Privileged Abilities or differing Skill levels exist. The possibility of Social Interaction and use of Social Skills also provide a platform to creating gameplay focused on Delayed Reciprocity, and when this occurs it can give entrusted players an Exaggerated Perception of Influence. Similarly, Multiplayer Games where players can rescue other players from Helplessness can give the potential rescuers an Exaggerated Perception of Influence. Delayed Reciprocity also force players to make Risk/Reward considerations regarding the trust and possibility to fulfill obligations, as does other pattern such as Betrayal and Uncommitted Alliances which depend on social agreements. Player Killing creates Risk/Reward situations as well but here because the players are both threats and potential victims to each other. As with any other situation with many people, Multiplayer Games can also lead to Excluding Groups and this may be more likely in games where the gameplay allows or promotes unsocial behavior or ganging up. The uncertainty of what other players' made do in Multiplayer Games can give the effect of players feeling Luck when they perceive what the other players actually do.

Multiplayer Games requires players to engage in Tactical Planning, taking into account the possible future behaviors of the other players, but depending on the number of actions and their predictability this may also modulate how easy it is to do the Tactical Planning. Since this may not be possible to do with high certainty, the pattern often instantiates Limited Planning Ability. For the same reason, Multiplayer Games are one of the simplest way of providing Challenging Gameplay in games with Competition under the assumption that skilled opponents can be found. However, the time spent by players planning in Turn-Based Games may cause a lessening of players' Freedom of Choice due to enforced Downtime and some instances of this may be regarded as Analysis Paralysis - this is especially likely in games with Turn Taking and is likely to become worse the more Complex Gameplay is. Multiplayer Games with PvP make other players into Enemies, and this is magnified in games with Game Over, Permadeath, or Player Elimination since this can terminate gameplay or force Downtime for some players until the next game begins (as is the typical case in Counter-Strike). If players cannot return to gameplay (which can practically be the case if the waiting time is to long), using Game Over for individual players results in Unsynchronized Game Sessions.

Viewing other players as Enemies is also likely in those games that have Ephemeral Goals since these allow Preventing Goals to emerge for the other players when they themselves appear.

The gameplay in Multiplayer Games naturally provide Mutual Experiences as long as the players have some direct interaction with each other, and often make individual Enemies into Mutual Enemies. Team Accomplishments, Mutual FUBAR Enjoyment, or simply Team Strategy Identification follows for Multiplayer Games with Guilds, Parties, PvE, or Teams (and FUBAR Enjoyment in the case of Mutual FUBAR Enjoyment). Helplessness, Mutual Goals, and Rescue goals where one player can Rescue another can create Mutual FUBAR Enjoyment from FUBAR Enjoyment in Multiplayer games without any actual requirements of the players cooperating. Group Belonging is also likely to be experienced, and this may sometimes occur anyway since all players of a game instance can be seen as a group. When some players of Multiplayer Games misbehave or simply the players cannot find common ground on how the games should be played, the use of Player Kicking can let the activity continue after removing some players. All of these effects of Multiplayer Games also work towards making watching gameplay more interesting for Spectators. In contrast, Multiplayer Games can easily have problems with supporting Interruptibility for individual players; Drop-In/Drop-Out gameplay is one way to overcome this.

It can be difficult to have Extra Chances in Multiplayer Games since letting one player undo an effect in a game easily disrupts the other players gameplay experience and may ruin their Value of Effort. Similarly, Negotiable Play Sessions and Negotiable Game Sessions are not inherently compatible with Multiplayer Games since one player leaving a game instance may unbalance or ruin the gameplay for the remaining players. Supporting Social Adaptability can be problematic for Multiplayer Games for the same reason, and in addition questions may appear about which rules to use or to change.

In Multiplayer Games with Functional Roles, players can have Varied Gameplay between game instances by switch roles - something that provides Replayability - but if roles are limited in number this can lead to Internal Rivalry. This is also a case when Social Roles will emerge from Multiplayer Games.

A potential issue with Multiplayer Games based on Competitions or Conflicts is that players may perceive (correctly or not) that there exists Predictable Winner in some game situations; the use of public Scores is a common reason why this may occur.

While all Multiplayer Games can result in Early Leaving Players, those that are Unwinnable Games are more or less guaranteed to have this pattern emerge.

Save Points can be difficult to combine with Multiplayer Games since what constitutes a good point to save can be difficult to figure out unless Cooperation between all players is part of the design.


Can Instantiate

Bragging, Challenging Gameplay, Competence Areas, Coordination, Delayed Reciprocity, Enemies, Excluding Groups, Extra-Game Actions, Extra-Game Consequences, Freedom of Choice, Gameplay Mastery, Group Belonging, Identification, Limited Planning Ability, Luck, Mutual Enemies, Mutual Experiences, Negotiation, Player Unpredictability, Social Interaction, Social Organizations, Social Roles, Social Skills, Tactical Planning, Tied Results, Togetherness, Trading

with Guilds, Parties, PvE, or Teams

Team Accomplishments, Team Strategy Identification

with Alliances, Guilds or Parties

Loyalty, Stimulated Planning

with Betrayal, Delayed Reciprocity, Uncommitted Alliances, or Player Killing


with Competence Areas

Social Roles

with Crossmedia Gameplay

Functional Roles

with Delayed Reciprocity or Helplessness

Exaggerated Perception of Influence

with Ephemeral Goals

Preventing Goals

with Functional Roles

Internal Rivalry, Replayability, Varied Gameplay

with FUBAR Enjoyment and Helplessness, Mutual Goals, Parties, PvE, Rescue, or Teams

Mutual FUBAR Enjoyment

with Game Over

Unsynchronized Game Sessions

with Game State Overviews and either Player Decided Results or Player-Decided Distributions

Balancing Effects

with Lives

Last Man Standing

with Permadeath or Player Elimination


with Privileged Abilities or Skills

Team Combos

with Races

Competitions, Symmetric Goals

with Sanctioned Cheating

Player Balance

with Summary Updates


with Turn Taking or Turn-Based Games

Analysis Paralysis, Downtime

with Unwinnable Game States or Unwinnable Games

Early Leaving Players

Can Modulate

Challenging Gameplay, Gameplay Mastery, Helplessness, Roleplaying, Smooth Learning Curves, Spectators, Strategic Knowledge, Predetermined Story Structures, Tactical Planning

with Roleplaying or Turn Taking

Negotiation, Social Interaction

Can Be Instantiated By

Agents, AI Players, Game Servers, Ghosts, High Score Lists, Hotseating, Split-Screen Views, Synchronous Gameplay, Trans-Game Information

Single-Player Games together with Meta Games

Can Be Modulated By

Alliances, Arenas, Asymmetric Abilities, Asymmetric Roles, Asymmetric Starting Conditions, Avatar Personalization, Bidding, Characters, Check Points, Choke Points, Communication Channels, Community Functionality, Conflicts, Cooperation, Downtime, Drop-In/Drop-Out, Early Elimination, Early Leaving Players, Enforced Player Anonymity, Entitled Players, Friend Lists, Functional Roles, Game-Defined Vocabulary, Game Masters, Game State Overviews, Guilds, Handicap Systems, Handles, Heterogeneous Game Element Ownership, Hotseating, Inherent Mistrust, Late Arriving Players, Massively Multiplayer Online Games, Mediated Gameplay, Meta Games, Meta Servers, Mini-maps, Negotiation, Parties, Persistent Game Worlds, Permadeath, Player-Decided Distributions, Player Decided Results, Player Elimination, Player Kicking, Player Killing, Possibility of Anonymity, Privileged Abilities, PvE, PvP, Private Game Spaces, Races, Sabotage, Sanctioned Cheating, Secret Goals, Scores, Social Dilemmas, Spawning, Split-Screen Views, Team Elimination, Team Combos, Teams, Tournaments, Trading, Trick Taking, Unmediated Social Interaction, Unwinnable Games, Virtual Co-Presences, Winner determined after Gameplay Ends, Winning by Ending Gameplay

Friendly Fire in Multiplayer Games with Teams

Game Lobbies and Phasing in Multiplayer Games with Mediated Gameplay

Secret Scoring Mechanisms in games with Scores

Predictable Winner in Multiplayer Games with Competitions or Conflicts

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Extra Chances, Interruptibility, Negotiable Game Sessions, Negotiable Play Sessions, Player Balance, Save-Load Cycles, Social Adaptability, Thematic Consistency, Value of Effort

Freedom of Choice when Multiplayer Games are also Turn-Based Games or have Predetermined Story Structures

Save Points unless the Multiplayer Game has Cooperation between all players

with Gameplay Mastery, Skills, Tools, [Vehicles]], or Weapons

Player Balance

with Abstract Player Construct Development, Character Development, or Crafting in Persistent Game Worlds

Player Balance


An updated version of the pattern Multiplayer Games that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[3].


  1. Wikipedia entry for MUDs.
  2. Wikipedia entry for MMORPGs.
  3. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.