Why games choose four as the magic multiplayer number

Although one might seem the most lonely, it can feel like four players is just as small. There’s just something about that magic number of four players that has become the standard for multiplayer games. And there are tons of great games and upcoming titles — Sea of Thieves, Back 4 Blood, Vermintide 2, Redfall, No Man’s Sky, Borderlands Series, Deep Rock Galactic Most of Grand Theft AutoOnline Grounded Phasmophobia and The Anacrusis — that make you pick three other friends and buckle up.

Groups of more than one person will need to come up with a solution or find another way. This can get awkward — I’ve had several evenings where three friends and I are in Discord, having a great time, and then a fifth friend joins the channel and asks what’s up. We all fall into a shameful silence for a moment, because we’re all having a great time, and the newcomer gets to either hang out and listen in, or leave, shunned and alone.

I’ve started to wonder: Why don’t developers simply add Continue readingAre you a player? Can some games do this? Why can’t all the others? It’s a seemingly simple question with surprisingly complex answers. Developers behind several very large multiplayer titles were able sharing their views.

Sea of Thieves - a crew of pirates play music around a treasure chest they’ve just discovered

Image: Rare/Microsoft Studios

Mike Chapman, Creative Director at Rare

Why did you choose to make your game about four players?

To Sea of ThievesWhile the game’s shared world aspect is important, core gameplay is designed to make players feel that they are part of a team, working together, sailing the ship and collecting treasure, as well as survival in perilous waters. The game was designed around the idea of making the interaction between players meaningful. Many of the design decisions we made were based on allowing players to choose how and when they want it.

We considered the possibility of having four people as a team and how it would work in practice. Four people are a good amount for any social event. It allows you to have easy conversations with others. Although it is possible to be more positive with more people, this inevitably leads to more people splitting into sub-groups and having side conversations before returning to the main group.

Then, you can apply it back to your design Sea of ThievesAlthough more players are a positive thing, this requires a stronger social bond and/or additional game systems. This will keep everybody working together. Our goal was for interactions among members of a team to be as natural and easy as possible. It was often joked that we were going on an adventure. Sea of Thieves You should be able to go on a pub trip with your friends, and not to school for your reunion.

sea of thieves 1.12 update the skeleton thrones

Image: Rare/Microsoft Studios

How was it decided during development?

This was an early decision during prototyping. The game vision was centered on teams of players working together in an open world. This meant that one of our first areas of focus was the design for the interface. Sea of Thieves galleon and how the interactive elements of the ship were designed from the ground up for four players – the capstan, the sail pulleys and the core handling and maintenance of the ship, including the fill rate of water in the hull, the additional speed through the water that each correctly aligned sail provided, and lastly how treasure always remains physical in the world. The design decision for the galleon to be for four players was based upon what seemed to be the best size group for social interaction.

Why is it that four-player cooperative games are so popular?

This is really about the feeling of working with fellow players as opposed to playing alongside them or trying to achieve more specific goals. While large player counts in team based games, typically well into double figures, is really the norm for co-operative experiences, it’s really about the optimal number to keep that close, intimate conversation flowing between players. There’s certainly an element of earlier multiplayer experiences focusing on four players due to how many times you can split the screen on a single TV, but with Sea of Thieves we’ve found that four players also provided that close-knit, intimate type of player interaction that helped immerse players in our world and get them working together.

Minecraft Dungeons artwork

Image: Mojang/Xbox Game Studios via Polygon

Måns Olson, Game Director, Minecraft Dungeons

Why did you choose to make your game about four players?

It is important to note that there are different game session numbers. Minecraft DungeonsUp to four people can play together online, or via couch co-op. There are many platforms. There’s a lot of nuance and balancing that goes into supporting both playing by yourself and with up to three others. The goal is to ensure that everyone has a fun experience, regardless of their playing style. The mission geometry should be given enough space for players to move while still allowing them to use choke points. Enemies should come in such numbers that they’re a threat, while not being completely overwhelming. Because you can join or leave any mission at will, regardless of your player count, it makes design and gameplay much easier.

Our supported platforms are also a main reason we’ve made this choice. Game consoles have traditionally supported up to four players, and although many now support more than that, it’s become an established norm that’s useful for both players and developers. While most gamers have at least four controllers to play with, developers know very few people have more than this. Games staying at or at least near that target is good for players as they’re able to reuse their hardware for different games, and good for developers because they can target a common denominator. This doesn’t matter as much for online games, but it’s a big factor for games that support couch co-op.

A Minecraft Dungeons player stands in front of huge doors

Image: Mojang/Xbox Game Studios via Polygon

How was it decided during development?

Minecraft DungeonsIt was initially designed as a one-player only game. After a few months of development, when we began testing the prototypes internally we realized that we wanted to play it in multiplayer. We sat down as a team to talk about how to best do that, and we ended up with an approach that’s partly inspired by classic dungeon crawlers, but also greatly inspired by notable four-player cooperative titles such as Left 4 DeadAnd WarhammerVermintide – End TimesIt is. There’s something very appealing about the degree of cooperation those games offer, where players really have to work together to achieve the best results. At the same time, we wanted to keep supporting the single-player core that we’d already begun building. Throughout development, we’ve erred on the side of “fun in multiplayer,” but we’ve tried to support a variety of player experiences as far as possible to make the game approachable and accessible for a wide group of players.

Why is it that you believe four-player cooperative games are a popular design choice?

Four is a good choice if a variety of factors are combined. An important historical reason is the traditional console controller cap. One more is that it can also be worn on consoles. DungeonsMany games can be enjoyed alone or with friends. Keeping the players close together makes it easier to have a consistent gaming experience.

That said, I suspect there’s also a more human factor at play. We can only absorb so much information when we collaborate with others. It may just be that having four players on a team maximizes the fun and allows for complex and interesting coordination while avoiding overload. I think there’s an analogy in team sports, where many popular sports have relatively few players on at any one time. I think the same reasoning can be extended to online games – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the most popular online MOBAs and shooters pitch teams of five against one another. Finally, it’s a question of practicality – getting a few friends together to play a game is much easier than trying to find the ten you’d need for a football team.

Grounded - the kids run through a gigantic back yard, with gnarled roots

Image: Obsidian Entertainment/Microsoft Game Studios

Adam Brennecke is the Game Director Grounded

Why did you choose to make your game about four players?

Starting with our initial pitch Groundedwas designed as a multiplayer co-op survival game that featured characters and a story. We were looking for four players. Two didn’t seem like enough for a party, and more than four seemed like too many for each character to have a distinct personality. When you think about how to work together, four seemed right at the end.

Some of our favorite ‘teams’ from our wild 80s childhoods were four, like the Ghostbusters and Ninja Turtles, and we wanted to capture this feeling with four distinct personalities to choose from when playing GroundedIt is. From a technology and development standpoint, the four-player limit is feasible. For example, combat and loot can all be managed by a four-person team. The game becomes more complicated the more people are involved.

How was it decided during development?

This was an early decision. I believe it was made during the pitch process and we haven’t thought too much about it, which means it was a good fit.

Why is it that four-players are a popular design option for cooperative games?

One thing that comes to mind is what we’ve been accustomed to is four players as gamers. Four players is what I love about multiplayer, going all the way back to arcades. I’m assuming some of these decisions were made due to the size of the screen compared to the size of characters, memory limitations, and the physical controller space on the arcade cabinet. Home couch co-op later normalized four players because the consoles can support four controllers as a minimum for many years. Split screen is great with four.

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