I recently had a conversation with a few of my analog gaming friends about the problem of setting a minimum player count. One said something that stuck with me: “if there’s a solo option in a game, that’s always what I’m going to try first.” The logic was this: you can always play a game solo as soon as you get it, and it’s a way to learn how the game works. It follows, then, that if you don’t want to make a bad first impression, it’s a poor idea to include solo play in a game, even if it technically works, unless it captures the fun and spirit of the intended multiplayer experience.
Now I’m not that sort of guy — a game’s maximum player count is always my intended number — but it’s clear that those people are out there. And as I was playing Magicka 2, it occurred to me that this is just as true, if not more so, in digital titles.
Magicka 2, like its predecessor, is a game that’s built from the ground up to share with friends. It may not have turned out quite as well as I would have liked, but regardless, it’s a formula that works better with two than one, better with three than two and better with four than three. And yet you can totally play that game by yourself.
You shouldn’t. But it’s an option.
If you do, you won’t be reviving and healing your buddies. You won’t be working as a group to divide packs of enemies or distract foes while a teammate prepares a devastating attack. You won’t even combine beams into better, cooler beams, which is basically the reason to play that game. It functions — it’ll boot, and there won’t be impassable sections — but even still, would Magicka 2 be a better experience if it just never allowed players to do that?
I get the arguments against it. Most of them, though, are marketing. A “multiplayer-only game” is a more difficult sell to people, and it’s also usually frowned upon to block a player’s options arbitrarily even though the game functions. But that first impression is crucial.
Board and card games may be more open to this sort of thinking. I recently designed a game that supports four to six players. Except for that one “number of players” line in the rules, could you shuffle up and play with three players? Or maybe even two? Yeah, actually. But it wouldn’t be very fun or interesting, and “fun” and “interesting” are what games are supposed to be.
It seems similar with Magicka 2. Of course, it’s not the only game like that, though these sorts of games have been more frequent in recent years. What about Helldivers, from the team behind the original Magicka, Arrowhead Studios? It doesn’t rely on combination attacks, but the tactics are useful. Or The Jackbox Party Pack? Jackbox has mostly figured this out, but the option to play You Don’t Know Jack 2015 by yourself is… just not how that game should be experienced. Competitive games like #IDARB and TowerFall are different, though, as there’s value in practicing for friendly competition.
It’s certainly a dilemma. As a player, it generally doesn’t hurt you if a game you like has more functionality that you don’t have to use. But what if you play a game and decide you don’t like it, just because you stumbled into a less-than-ideal scenario?