Two of the games I enjoyed most in my youth were the original Unreal Tournament and TimeSplitters 2. Both games were arcade style twitch-shooters at their core, but what made them great was the multitude of game modes and options, great maps, and the ability to play with fairly well programmed AI bots as well as human opponents. There was something else that these games allowed you to do: have more than two different teams (at least for the game modes for which that made sense). Having more than the standard ‘Red vs Blue’ in team-based games today is virtually unheard of. But why?
When there are two parties, the game is usually more simple to form strategies for. You are focused on a single group of opponents. And your opponents are focused on you. The logic behind tactics becomes clearer, because most decisions conceptually reduce to a kind of binary form. The more you think about it, the more you realise that this is also reflected in most competitive sports. The idea there seems to be that in order to find out which team or individual is ‘better’, you need a binary contest where the result necessarily means that one party is superior in some way.
The more parties you have in a contest, the more potential there is for random noise to determine the result. For example, a very simple thought experiment for a three player contest is the Mexican stand-off. Just like three gunslingers standing facing each other in an old-Western town, the problem is that the first person to act is at a disadvantage, because it leaves them vulnerable to the third-player. In this situation, even though there is one winner, one might argue that it’s not clear that they were the ‘best’.
Since more and more team based games are focused on competitive online play, designers probably want to structure their environments to make them as much of a test of skill as possible. If you are the blue team and you beat the red team, you can, in some sense, claim superiority.
Here’s the thing: not all gamers are interested in gaming for the sake of pure competition. Some people just want to have a fun/enjoyable experience. Quantic Foundry, who collect data on ‘gamer motivation’, find that gamers become less competitive as they age. Yet, the average age of the US gamer, according to the Entertainment Software Association, is 35 (though it’s probably true that very old and very young gamers are unlikely to represent the sort that are more likely to play competitive games). This suggests to me that increasing the fun and unpredictability from having multiple parties in team based games is a mechanic that is under-utilised, given that almost half of gamers are likely to have values other than purely demonstrating their comparative superiority.
Multi-sided contests introduce new possibilities
Whilst I enjoy competition, I far prefer the unpredictability and chaos of a game that cannot conceivably be solved (due to the limited capacity of the brain) with logic and reasoning. Clearly one can form strategies in multi-sided games, but there is less clarity as to which strategy is the ‘best’ in these situations when compared to a two-sided game.
I’m certainly not the only person to think about this. Three-player chess and three-sided football are both things. This means one has to predict the intentions and strategies of two other sides, which can introduce new and interesting problems like temporary collusion.
Obviously, there are some games for which introducing more sides is naturally going to work better than others. But I can see no reason why, for example, first person shooters can’t allow for a maximum of 4 teams in team deathmatch. It would be virtually costless whilst allowing for more interesting contests. Plus, for those game designers looking to add more variety in their multiplayer games, extending the number of sides is a relatively easy extension to apply to existing game genres, relative to the new possibilities for play that it would generate.