Multiplayer Immersive Sims?


(Note: This topic is being split out from System Shock 3 since it’s been acknowledged that SS3 is not being designed as a multiplayer game.)

At the end of an interview with Warren Spector by James Batchelor of, there was the following exchange:

Spector remains confident that immersive sims won’t disappear. Instead, he believes developers’ ability to create more complex simulations of things like physics and other elements of the world will only improve the scope of them. Players will be able to “apply actual logic” to a world and the decisions they make, using these simulated systems as a tool to solve the in-game problems they face.

“Also, it’s probably time for us to go multiplayer,” he concluded. “I think we have to see that. We’ve been talking about it for years, nobody’s done it right.”


We… should probably talk about this.

First, though, I suggest we try to separate what we personally enjoy in games from a more objective creative analysis of multiplayer ImSims. For several reasons, I strongly prefer single-player experiences over multiplayer… but I can appreciate that a lot of people obviously have a blast in multiplayer games, and I support the creation of multiplayer games whether they appeal to me or not. So while I might slip, in my comments below I’m trying to discuss ideas for multiplayer immersive sims in a positive and constructive way, even if I myself wouldn’t play them.

OK, that said: what the heck would a multiplayer immersive sim even look like? What might the salient characteristics of such a thing be?

Well, pretty obviously you could start with working definitions of “multiplayer” and “immersive sim,” bang those together, and see what you get. Let’s try that.

Bearing in mind that everyone who tries to define “immersive sim” hates everyone else’s proposed definition, I think of ImSims as something like “complex, reactive worlds that model to a plausible extent some real-world systems.” If a game doesn’t create a dynamic place, it’s not immersive; if it doesn’t model to a reasonably plausible extent the behavior of some real-world systems, it’s not a sim. (Note that this definition prioritizes Dynamics over Mechanics and Aesthetics and Kinesthetics, but those still matter.)

“Multiplayer” is a little easier to pin down, but there’s some breadth here as well: a multiplayer game is one that more than one person can play. For computer games, there’s usually also a connotation that players can, somehow, do things to each other’s assets (especially in real-time) within the game.

With those as working definitions, we might say that a multiplayer ImSim is a game that lets multiple players simultaneously interact with a complex, reactive world of simulated systems.

That sounds pretty simple. The fun is in the implications. :smile:

For one thing, notice that this definition emphasizes multiple players interacting with the world – there’s no requirement that they have to be able to interact directly with each other. Jason Rohrer’s The Castle Doctrine is, I think, a version of this: players could either rig traps in their homes (to protect their stuff from being stolen), or they could invade the homes of others (to steal their stuff). The world of The Castle Doctrine wasn’t complex and simulationist enough to fairly be called an ImSim, but the representation of traps took it part-way there – enough to start to get a feel for what a multiplayer ImSim without direct interaction might feel like.

Another possibility is a game type that already exists, and one that does allow (and encourage) player-to-player interaction: the MMORPG. A few of these game worlds are relatively very systemic, relying more on the world itself to deliver content rather than on the behavior of players to each other. This distinguishes highly dynamic MMORPG game worlds such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies from mechanics-focused multiplayer shooters such as Overwatch and TF2/DOTA2/Counter-Strike. If you took a MMORPG with a very dynamic world – lots of reactive systems – and amped up by a factor of 10 the emergent behaviors of the systems in the complex-but-plausibly-consistent places of that world, would that qualify as a “multiplayer immersive sim?”

Or what about coming at this from the other direction – instead of starting with multiplayer and complexificating the world, what do you get if you start with an ImSim and add multiple simultaneous players?

I think this is the interpretation that’s caused some people to react negatively. The idea of taking a dynamic world that’s highly immersive because of the sense of place it creates, then allowing that place to be filled with people shooting each other, bunny-hopping everywhere, interfering with game state that you set, and probably teabagging each other (and probably worse), precisely because that game is designed to enable and encourage expressive behaviors for problem-solving… at the very least, it’s hard to imagine that game being “immersive” any more.

Is constraining player behavior an answer? If you restrict the verbs available to players and simplify the world, making it harder for some bored players to break the spell of being in that invented world, you preserve that world’s immersiveness… but I’m not sure it had much to start with, and again it doesn’t feel much like an immersive sim. This is basically the Bioshock Infinite result, which made many fans of the more systemic Looking Glass games and Deus Ex pretty grumpy. (Note that this isn’t a criticism of Binfinite’s implementation; I know that Joe and perhaps others at OSE worked on it – it’s an observation about that game’s design compared with its predecessors.)

So, unless there are other approaches we can think of (and I hope folks here will suggest some), where does that leave the idea of a multiplayer immersive sim?

Has no one “done it right” yet because it can’t be done, because “multiplayer” and “immersive sim” break either other? (Which is to say, both of those impose features that interfere with the kind of fun delivered by the other.) Or is there some creative combination that actually could click with a lot of people?

Who are those people? Are they mostly people who like multiplayer games and will tolerate some immersive sim-ness, and the gamers who particularly enjoy single-player ImSim experiences are just out of luck? Or are the target players for a multiplayer ImSim mostly those who enjoy complex, reative worlds and will tolerate other players in those worlds? (How many such gamers of that kind are there?) Or is there some new group of gamers who have gone unserved by games so far, who’ve been waiting for multiplayer ImSims that combine those two features in a truly new way?

Who are the people who are eager to buy a multiplayer immersive sim, and what is the particular kind of fun they expect such a game to deliver to them?

Looking forward to reading your opinions!


I just wanted to add, there is a multiplayer sim based on Deus Ex, called Intruder, on Steam now. Not sure of quality, but thieves versus guards is a quality concept. More thoughts when I’ve had time to process. As far as MMOs, still prefer MUDs, their text-based precursors. Tons of verbs in those.


Interesting thoughts all around…

My first few thoughts when the ideas of a multiplayer immersive sim were fluttering around were:

  1. Portal 2
  2. Journey
  3. Mario Odyssey

And yes, none of those are “pure im sim categories,” but my mind immediately gravitated towards the multiplayer interactions those games have.

With Portal 2, there’s “equal cooperation” between players. There’s an expectation that you need to work together, both have the same tools and potentially variable knowledge, and even if you pull off something silly, sometimes the game rewards you for it or calls out how you’re deviating from the path. This feels similar to the multiplayer option in Journey. There’s something incredible about bonding with a stranger or a couch-buddy when experiencing something together, given the stakes aren’t too high.

For my third thought, related to Mario Odyssey, it was an example of multiplayer that I think could work for an immersive sim. While normally people might focus on the fact that it’s co-op controls (one player controls Mario and the other player can actively control the tossed hat), I liked the fact that each player’s function was pretty explicitly separated. I could see a game where there’s such a relationship between Man and Machine; say you have to be an “Operator” to a “Field Agent,” or something. There are ways that you can actively contribute and work together without necessarily needing to be a separate character on screen.

Would love to hear of what other ways you think multiplayer or co-op would work in an immersive sim.