Online multiplayer has the capacity to enchant us with its sheer scale, and occasionally, unbridled chaos. I think most of us are fascinated by it even if we don’t engage with it directly. The sheer spectacle of these headline-grabbing, Guinness World Record-breaking feats in the likes of Planetside 2, EVE Online, and MAG tease an alternate mainstream multiplayer that never really took off. One in which we’d all regularly return from work to settle into an ongoing thousand person battle rather than a match of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Rocket League.
Could online multiplayer ever still realise this alternate mainstream, even over the next generation? There are rumblings of it. The EVE: Aether Wars tech demo threatens to make 10,000 concurrent players with uncompromised real-time interaction a reality. So too has EAs CEO Andrew Wilson teased that the next Battlefield game will capitalize on new hardware to achieve “never-before-seen scale.” What these moves seem to assume is that scaling-up is primarily hamstrung by technical constrictions, not structure.
But that's at odds with the relatively recent history of multiplayer games, where game modes have actually grown smaller and more structured even as capacity increases. Even as more games try to evoke scale and grandeur, in reality they conform to an ongoing trend of creating more compact, predictable multiplayer games.
Take the recent Star Wars: Squadrons. Its “Fleet Battles” mode certainly lays bare what has largely been the EA's multiplayer design modus operandi since Battlefield: Bad Company. Multiplayer modes like Rush for the former and Fleet Battles for the latter are structured with contrivances like being forced out of an area upon your objective being blown up that guide the players into more predictable rhythms of play. They're playground rules, essentially.
In the Fleet Battle mode Star Wars: Squadrons regulates the push and pull of the match with a “morale meter” that structures the beats of the match. Whichever side wins the starting dogfight gets an attack run on the other team’s capital ships whilst they defend. Destroy the capital ships and you get an attack run at their flagship. Kills shift the meter until the favoured team is switched. It’s a novel way of making what are typically discrete rounds of defending and attacking a dynamic affair.
This should prompt the question—what if you’re an ace pilot who can dodge laser fire like there IS a tomorrow? Surely, you can go straight for that flagship and chance it? No, you’ll get cut down instantly. The enemy flagship's defensive turrets and missiles will suddenly hit with pinpoint accuracy and firepower the moment you linger "out of bounds". Because you’re not playing by the playground rules of this abstracted space battle.
I don’t hate structure by any means and I actually think Fleet Battles is a particularly clever shake up of existing multiplayer modes. What it does do, both by dint of the common license and their space battles with flagships, is invite a comparison with 2005's Star Wars: Battlefront 2. Battlefront 2 is completely freeform in these space battles. You can fly straight into the enemy ship if you desire. The barriers to you doing that aren’t rules, but actual entities - other players dogfighting, on the turrets of the flagship, or in the hangar bay as you attempt to land. Thus if you’re able to beat the odds, you can do it.
I think this added layer of contrivance and abstraction in the intervening fifteen years gives us an interesting snapshot into the evolving nature of multiplayer design. Battlefront 2’s space battles aren’t free of rules, of course, but “reaching a prescribed points total first” is certainly simpler. Squadrons’ approach in effect focuses and reduces the match to that gameplay loop of moment to moment kills. Satisfying the beat to beat commands of “Destroy enemies” the game throws out like a They Live subliminal is the only way you can move the meter after all.
When it comes to the aforementioned Guinness World Record breakers, this structure can be sorely lacking. Planetside 2’s 2015 record-breaking 1,158 players event (bested unofficially in 2020 with 1,283 players) looks thrilling to participate in, but does not allow room for considered game design or polished, latency-free gameplay. At this real upper limit of players in terms of the technical implications of scale - it being hard to keep players in-sync - more fundamentally scale and structure are also failing to cooperate. Planetside 2 devolves into a mess of bodies and ships with the player’s individual impact reduced to virtually zero.
I’ve written previously on academic work studying player motivations in multiplayer. “Vertical individualists” have a higher likelihood of prioritising advancement (and levelling), which is consistent with a want to compete for status. This is the kind of player most modern online games are seeking to service with those widespread progression systems and competition-enabling fine balancing of systems. In other words, from an evolutionary standpoint, this is what the evolution of online multiplayer is selecting for.
Whilst then many of these more military sim like games in the Battlefield series, Red Orchestra games, Squad, Rising Storm games, Hell Let Loose, World War 3, etc seek to satisfy this fantasy of scale with 64-100 concurrent players, then, they fail to deliver (as much) for this primary contingent of players looking to chart their own advancement.
The numbers are relative. Even MMOs have seen evolution from big sandboxes accommodating “thousands” to more recent 100-player multiplayer “survival games” like Ark, Rust and Conan Exiles, and MMO-lites like Destiny, The Division, and Warframe with as little as eight players in a zone. MMOs like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Elder Scrolls Online now embrace individualized play in solo content over the gameplay of early MMOs like Everquest which made that nigh-on impossible.
'Eve Online' screenshot courtesy of CCP
This is where games like EA staples in the Titanfall games and Star Wars: Squadrons with their 8v8 and 5v5 player limits (and MMO-lites with their eight player zones) are splitting the difference. They seek to look sprawling and epic by supplementing their maps with AI ships and soldiers, providing a semblance of scale whilst fundamentally remaining compact and structured. The illusion is better than reality.
A smaller scale allows for more structured multiplayer, which in turn facilitates these priorities. A small player count keeps things readable, makes your participation more meaningful so you can express individual skill, and makes multiplayer more predictable with matches/rounds, clear roles, objectives, and top-down limitations and rules that ensure you’re where you need to be for an optimal experience at all times. When we’re all just on a spectrum of ability participating in a finely-tuned, competitive virtual sport, we’re all treated as if our motivations are individualistic in nature.
These record-breaking Planetside 2 and EVE Online events, and to some extent the military sims, inspire awe for the opposite reason. Players cite a “feeling of being a part of something bigger than myself” and “camaraderie and teamwork.” These big collectivist efforts are beloved because they appeal to such different motivations for playing online. They’re just less popular in a mainstream sense.
A screenshot of an EVE Aether Wars stream, grabbed from ManicVelocity's stream
Where greater scale has truly found its legs is in the emerging genre of battle royale games. A large player count of 100 in a match has been standardized seemingly by accident. The genre owes its existence to the film of the same name (which had 42 students battle it out) and arguably the Minecraft Survival Games mod which based its 24-player game of last man standing on the numbers of the Hunger Games franchise.
It was only really with an early access PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds in 2016 that a large player count was cemented as part and parcel of most battle royale games. Since then, Epic’s Fortnite battle royale mode has grown into one of the biggest games in the world with over 350 million registered players, EA’s Apex Legends from the Titanfall developer is also becoming a big moneymaker, and Activision’s Call of Duty: Warzone is having wild success too. All of these hit that magic 100 player figure. The fascinating thing for me here is that by doing so I still think they’re splitting the difference, just like Squadrons and Titanfall.
Battle royale games usually start with the money shot of seeing all those players bail out of a common vehicle and skydiving to the expansive map below. The trick is, this is usually the last you see of the scale of that player count. The natural forerunner to the modern battle royale, Sony's PS3 game MAG, an “MMO shooter” which boasted up to 256 people in a single instance, gave us a glimpse of how battle royales would in practice still commit to individualized play. Reviews at the time said the size of the maps effectively hid its scale and often led to very familiar feeling skirmishes comparable to much smaller player counts. What started as a criticism in 2010 is arguably behind the appeal and staying power of the battle royale genre.
'MAG' screenshot courtesy of Sony
Battle royale games are utterly committed to individualized play. The central fantasy is often one of scale and spectacle - be the last man (or group) standing among 100 players. Like how Squadrons used its meter system to make discrete rounds dynamic, however, battle royale games leverage their large maps so that they’re effectively many consecutive smaller games of 1-4 vs 1-4 playing back to back. You triumph against one group, collect resources, heal up, and seek out the next scrimmage - rinse and repeat.
The way battle royales differ from Planetside 2 and EVE Online, then, is that they choose to have their cake and eat it. This lets them capitalize on all the structural framework of a game much smaller. They emphasize the competitive, skill-based play and progression/status of individuals and balance gameplay according to what best serves this. They’re ultra-readable (especially with their ping systems) and guide players to optimal gameplay scenarios using top-down solutions like shrinking the safe area/zone(s) of the map over time. And although their scale isn’t a complete illusion like Titanfall or Squadrons’ AI populations, there is upfront fakery in terms of what the actual gameplay experience is after you’ve dropped to the ground from the "Battle Bus". Again, the illusion is better than reality.
The best demonstration I’ve seen that this illusion works is in the clash of the official and unofficial Mario battle royale games. Nintendo’s Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35 take the genre’s central idea and dispense with any notion of teamplay or even a shared world. Each player plays their own single player game whilst seeing tiles of the other 98 or 34 players playing concurrently. You can use your individual skill and achievement to attack other people’s separate games in an effort to be the last man standing. It is the purest commitment to individualized play in the genre there is. Compare this to the fan-made (and since removed) Mario battle royale game, Mario Royale, which actually beat Super Mario Bros. 35 to the punch. The difference? The fan game had 75 players all occupying the same screen in a more visceral race to the finish line. The creators saw only the illusion of scale that battle royale generates and thus in a way misinterpreted the genre. Nintendo, meanwhile, leveraged the genre much like the shooters do—having individualized play with only staggered and very regulated interaction with other players.
Fortnite screenshot courtesy of Epic Games
I can still recall playing Halo 2’s 8v8 “Big Team Battle” mode in 2004 and being hyped by magazines for an imminent tech-enabled generation of flying Pelicans across expansive, then unimaginable battlefields. I had a hope for more. As more as possible, in fact. In a way, that promise has since been delivered with the many non-mainstream outliers released today. Perhaps the most valuable shift, however, has been the evolution of compromises that have since been struck between structure and scale. It will be interesting to see if a balance can be achieved in the coming generation or if the illusion will always be superior to the reality.