There are lots of recipes for great games. A bad cook, or just an
unlucky one, could spoil any of them, but by and large, the
successful multiplayer titles work their magic using variations on
the ten ingredients described here.
1. Self-Representation with Avatars
The central feature on the screen is an avatar, and those belonging
to other players, friend and foe. Like a puppeteer, the player
controls a personalized character that's her stand-in within the
game - her "mini-me." The ability to represent oneself within
media, and exert precise control over that representation,
fundamentally changes the psychology of using technology. The
player isn't stuck on her side of the glass. She's in the scene,
she can speak to and touch (at least virtually) other players, and
her presence alters what happens next. She's part of the story,
with a character to mark her presence. She's not just a recipient
of a story someone else authors. Engagement is the result.
2. Three-Dimensional Environments
Avatars live in a visually rich three-dimensional world. This makes
the game interesting not only because the player's presence in the
world is embodied via an avatar, but also because he navigates in a
game space that parallels physical properties of the real world.
This is created through the rendering of 3D graphical models onto a
two-dimensional screen much like the way that perspective drawings
on a page simulate depth. In today's games this effect is extremely
powerful without virtual reality goggles or wrap-around screens.
This is an important ingredient because it allows virtual space to
be understood in the same way people negotiate the real world.
3. Narrative Context
Good games have good backstories - galaxies at war, people who need
rescue, or places that may soon be destroyed. Such narratives guide
action and organize character roles, rewards, and group action. The
information a player sees about her character and team is drawn
from a particular game narrative and is constantly reinforced.
Stories have several important psychological advantages that help
keep people engaged.
Game interfaces set a new bar for feedback. At any one time, a
player sees progress bars, zooming numbers, and status gauges, all
in a well-organized dashboard that lets players know how things are
going, good or bad. Numbers indicate the health of players, the
time left before an attack, the amount of gold accumulated so far,
the bids from other players for scarce resources, or the reduction
in a competitor's powers. All of this quantitative feedback
increases engagement in the action.
5. Reputations, Ranks, and Levels
Gamers, like power-sellers on eBay, have ranks and ratings that are
available for all to see and are hard to spoof. Reputation
information not only identifies their place in the game hierarchy
but also makes apparent competencies, talents, and special
experiences that others can use to make choices about other
Digital reputations (sellers on eBay, hotels in Hawaii, or books on
Amazon) are increasingly easy to compile and are clearly
influential in online commerce. This is equally true in the games,
at least with respect to their ability to create an easy-to-use and
engaging social scene. The very point of the games is often to
augment reputations and then broadcast accomplishments widely. If
players didn't care about their reputations, most multiplayer games
6. Marketplaces and Economies
An important feature of all multiplayer games is a synthetic
currency and the marketplaces it enables. Every title we know of
has such a currency in one form or another. Currency systems allow
players to make trades efficiently and to quantity all manner of
value. In real life, economic scoring might include savings,
revenue, profit, and especially salary (in dollars, of course).
Synthetic currencies enable real economies; that is, they
facilitate decision making under conditions of scarcity, but
without the consequences that accompany transactions with
government-recognized money (problems such as taxes, withholding,
and salary disputes). But just because the currency is synthetic
doesn't mean that tried and true economic principles don't apply
and that people don't take it seriously. This is a simple but
startling result: the scarcity of a synthetic currency used in an
entertaining game can create the same economic behavior as the
currency of the realm in real life.
7. Competition Under Rules that Are Explicit and
Most gamers play to win. There's substantial variance between them
in the intensity of competitive urges, but by and large, it's good
to win. It's important to note an ingredient that allows
competition to work: rules. Rules allow games to work, but it's
important to note that the discovery of those rules can itself be
part of the fun. Where else can you transgress with impunity as the
preferred method to find out what's really possible? Once
discovered, however, rules allow players to trust the game. Players
value the level playing field created by rules when they're evenly
and impersonally applied (after all, it's the computer that most
often enforces them). Rules that are well known and enforced
establish a sense of fairness that pervades play.
There has been a sea change in the popularity of solo games
compared with those that involve multiple players. Group games,
whether played at a computer, a console, or even casually on a
phone, are winning. The commercial era of multiplayer games started
modestly, with LAN (local area network) parties where players could
hook their game consoles together to allow four or eight
individuals to compete. Very good small team experiences can be had
in successors to these early LAN games, for example, Quake,
Half-Life, and the Counter-Strike and Call of Duty series.
With ubiquitous and affordable broadband now available for many
people, most top-selling titles now permit multiple players to
engage with and against each other over the internet, although it
is the more sophisticated role-playing games that are optimized for
complex group play over extended sessions.
The social relationships that form in games, and the attraction of
players to those relationships, are one of the more studied aspects
of the MMO genre. It is clear that games afford interaction
opportunities that are every bit as engaging as those in real life,
even if not as numerous. Fellow players yell and scream, reveal
personalities, and disclose personal experiences in the course of
organizing and collaborating to reach team goals. The close
connection to other players causes one's social-emotional engine to
run continuously, and that charges interactions.
9. Parallel Communication Systems That Can Be Easily
The visuals in games get much of the attention, but it's the
written and spoken communication that enables much of the social
engagement. A player can chat with any team member he chooses,
either by voice or text, merely by clicking buttons. It's fun to
talk, and the games make this easy in the same way that the
television remote changes TV programs. A small amount of
technology, already available to enterprise information technology
departments, creates an easily configurable communication
experience matched to player style and the task at hand. That is,
it's easy to change channels.
10. Time Pressure
A good definition of a multiplayer game is collaborative
achievement under uncertain winning conditions. The uncertainty
comes from two sources. One is simple expertise: "Do I know
enough?" and "Am I good enough to do the right things?" The other
is time: "Will I be able to do them in the time allotted?" For
gamers, it's fun to be on the clock.
Games that weave together all of these tools are huge undertakings.
The best ones cost tens of millions of dollars to produce. We
strongly believe that the ingredients can be quite useful in
smaller batches and even one at a time. Some can make huge
improvements in work with only small adjustments to current
practice and technology. You don't have to build an entire game to
use games at work.
Byron Reeves is a professor at
Stanford University. J. Leighton Read is a
physician, inventor, CEO, and venture capitalist. This article is
adapted from Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds
to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete (Harvard
Business Press, 2010).