When you look back at the biggest games of the last ten years, patterns inevitably emerge. One of the most important illustrations of this pattern is the disparity that exists in why certain games are popular. For some, like Red Dead Redemption 2, The Witcher 3, and Control, popularity ties into their enormous budgets and technological achievements. With their massive and well-funded teams, they pull off what few ever could.
The other side of this coin could be found in games that are just as popular, though nowhere near as visually impressive. Minecraft is a strong illustration of this, as is the recent indie hit Among Us. For games like these, success is not born from flash, but instead from what they bring to the social component of gaming.
Simply put, smaller developers can’t match the biggest names in terms of tech. This means that to succeed or thrive, they have to find a hook. As social creatures, the best way to find this hook can be to appeal to our cooperative or competitive nature.
Minecraft without multiplayer is fine, but without the ability to directly share your worlds, its shelf-life is limited. With multiplayer, Minecraft rose from simple idea to world-maker. You and your friends can adventure, build, betray, or just hang out, giving it a level of freedom and avenues for expression beyond most experiences.
The advantages to multiplayer-only games like Among Us might be more far more obvious, but even here we’re only scratching the surface. This idea of success through the human aspect also resonates with other industries, and even otherwise single-player video games.
Outside of the video gaming industry, online casino games have long succeeded through their ability to offer realistic digital versions of physical games. Even while creating digital representations of physical tables, this online environment leverages the traditional interpersonal setting to create a feeling of inclusiveness and interaction. Some games, like online roulette, can take this further, where live casino games operate alongside their regular cousins to give an increasingly personal touch. Not to mention the fact that many see playing online as an opportunity to dip their toes in a new experience without the “scariness” of adventuring into a land-based casino in person.
Back in single-player video games, strong examples of social strengths could be found in the likes of Super Meat Boy and Dwarf Fortress. In Super Meat Boy, the game excels through its highly competitive nature. This very deliberate design builds a framework of communication around the title, where players cooperate and compete to beat their own records or to become the best.
Dwarf Fortress takes a different tack, where interest from outside players comes from the ridiculous events that the broad gameplay systems can allow. Has a vampire got its spine broken by an alligator, only for the vampire to kill the alligator and the spend the rest of its live drowning kobolds in a swamp? Yep, that sounds like Dwarf Fortress alright.
Social gaming is a nebulous entity, in that as many bigger names ostensibly care about the concept, they often misunderstand implementation. Being multiplayer doesn’t necessarily mean people are connected, and being single-player doesn’t automatically imply a solo experience. Being successful on a social front is about fitting into the space, and adapting to each game’s unique offerings. It’s a difficult balance to find, but as history has repeatedly shown, finding the right point can make all the difference to a game’s achievement.