Higher Player Counts Are Not Always Better

This past week it was revealed that servers in Titanfall would be capped at a maximum of twelve players, with matches consisting of two teams of six human players in addition to the AI soldiers that populate the game. The fan response to this news has been overwhelmingly negative, which despite being a predictable response, is short-sighted in my opinion. Across the internet gamers have been expressing extreme disappointment for this decision by calling it “last gen”, theorizing that the reason is the Xbox One’s perceived lack of power, and claiming it will be a detriment to the game by comparing it to other games such as Battlefield 4. The developers have made it clear that the decision was based entirely upon game balance, and as someone that has played lots of multiplayer shooters over the years, I am really glad Respawn is choosing to do what it is best for the game rather than pander to the ridiculous notion that more is always better.

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Now, to be quite honest, I am not as hyped for Titanfall as most gamers seem to be. It has been years since I’ve been even remotely interested in Call of Duty style multiplayer shooters, but this announcement actually makes me more interested in the game. Some of my favorite gaming experiences have been playing multiplayer shooters in a fairly competitive way, and in almost every instance the games in question have been small scale experiences in the range of 8-12 players. I’ve certainly had fun playing things like Battlefield and Planetside 2, but those large scale games can never quite manage to capture that highly competitive team based experience that smaller games can.

Admittedly, I am looking at this as someone that tends to take multiplayer games fairly seriously, and from a competitive standpoint large scale games simply can’t compete with smaller ones. When it comes to spectacle, games like Planetside and Battlefield are unmatched because they excel at creating huge warzones for the player to get absorbed in, but when you can’t even communicate with everyone on your team strategic teamplay is pretty much off the table. A small group of players working together can alter the larger battle, but you’re never going to be able to really coordinate with the whole team. Games with a smaller scale present much more opportunity for tight and coordinated teamplay while also making every turn of events much important to the overall match.

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If you look at the most successful and popular competitive multiplayer games, the vast majority of them sit squarely in that 8-12 player range. For years the Halo series was the reigning champion when it came to competitive console shooters, and the primary competitive game mode was locked at 4v4. My most memorable competitive gaming experiences are playing 4v4 team slayer games in Halo 2 and Halo 3 with a group of three friends, and it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun or competitive with a larger group because adding more players just makes it harder to communicate and coordinate. Of course, the Halo games did support servers of up to 16 players, but Big Team Battle was what you played when you didn’t feel like taking things too seriously.

Arguably the definitive competitive shooter, Counterstrike has been a highly competitive game for over a decade. Once again, the game supports a large number of players, but true Counterstrike matches are limited to 5v5. Counterstrike matches with more than 10 players usually just devolve into lone wolf affairs with little strategy and communication, which is precisely why ranked matchmaking is limited to 5v5 matches in Counterstrike: Global Offensive. Even looking outside the realm of shooters, two of the most popular competitive games in the world, League of Legends and Dota 2, are both limited to 10 players per match.

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If we look closely at what Respawn is doing with Titanfall, it becomes clear that the player count was chosen for a reason. The game looks to be borrowing elements from the MOBA genre by incorporating AI soldiers into the game along with the human characters. Ideally, this will allow the game to have that large scale atmosphere of something like Battlefield while still maintaining the competitive elements that go along with having a small number of human players. If this aspect is executed on well, Titanfall could be a game with the spectacle of a large scale game and the strategic teamplay potential of a small scale game, and that is an exciting proposition.

Without having played Titanfall, it’s hard to really know if the player count that was chosen is the best fit for the game, but I’m certainly willing to give Respawn the benefit of the doubt. If the game ends up feeling underpopulated I will be among the first to call it out, but as of right now there is no way to know. What I do know, based on years of experience playing multiplayer shooters, is that having a smaller player count does not automatically make a game worse, and oftentimes overpopulating game can be quite detrimental to the overall experience. Games designed with a high player count in mind can be a lot of fun, but games designed specifically to provide a small scale experience have their own merits as well. It remains to be seen if Titanfall can live up to the hype, but the reason for its failure or success will having nothing to do with the player count.