Socially Aware XBox Live Games

By on 6/25/2008

What if a network session was more than simply a temporary connection to exchange interactions between two or more geographically distributed participants?

What if every encounter meant that the value of your local "installation" grew by just a little bit?

These are some of the questions I've been asking myself recently after reading an article (which I can't find again for the life of me) that was talking about how the XBox's networking features are so easy to use, that even the most low budget of titles can offer multiplayer.

With barrier to entry being so low, one must begin to question whether maintaining the status quo is the best use of resources.  Most people, when they think of multiplayer, immediately think of the multiplayer arena.  And you can see why ... it's an obvious way of limiting the size of the "world" that the player interacts with (thus limiting computing requirements).  It also lets the game designer avoid other issues such as balancing because you only have to contend with the few players that are in the arena.

Take a few minutes and download the Battlestar Galactica game on XBox Live Arcade to see this pattern in action.

This prototypical game design pattern is so played out that I am instantly turned off when I'm confronted with it.  What is it about online networked play that instantly drives developers to create competitive matches that pit you against other players.

Why aren't there more co-op games?  one of the things I most enjoyed when I was growing up was playing two player games that I could play at the same time with my brother (Contra, Chip n' Dale, Double Dragon).  It was so much more fun than playing against him.

But even if developers were to make this shift in thinking and produce more co-op modes ... I don't think that's going far enough.

Spore is an upcoming game from visionary designer Will Wright.  It includes a feature that I think perfectly showcases the concept I'm trying to convey here.  When you create a creature in the game, it will be uploaded to a central server, and automatically distributed to other spore gamers over the internet.

Aside from the various accolades that you can surely find of the game from the various review sites; the reason I find this so fascinating is the idea that just by playing the game the value of your game increases.  It does this by gathering content from other players of the game.  Conversely, by merely playing the game, you are increasing the value for other players.

Although you may initially think that something like this is not feasible using the XBox Live APIs that shipped with XNA Game Studio, I beg to differ.  Although it wouldn't be centralized, I can easily see how a feature like this could be implemented.
  1. First and foremost, your game/toy would have to allow you to "create" something.  This could be a creature, a vehicle, a song.  The possibilities here are really only limited by your imagination and creativity as a game designer.
  2. Your game could look for a random network session and join it.
  3. Once connected, your game would exchange whatever it is that your players create.  Again, this could be creatures, weapons, vehicles, whatever makes sense for your title.
  4. This content could be written to the player's local data storage along with meta-data such as author, date, etc.
  5. History/Playbook keeps track of players that you've shared with ... this can be used to alert the player of repeat encounters, or even to avoid excessive bandwidth if we recently exchanged content already.
This kind of social/decentralized interaction is one that I don't believe has been explored to the fullest extent.  Imagine a game that uses genetic algorithms, or neural nets to evolve local AI elements.  The player could train and these agents to their local preferences, and then breed them with other player's agents that exibit beneficial qualities :-)

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