Even before video games existed, puzzle games
did. There are of course myriad varieties inside of puzzle names as
well, from the standard jigsaw puzzle to extremely complex games like
table-top games, and the newly revived Dungeons
& Dragons tabletop/miniatures gaming as well. In these, of
course, we can see the staying power of multiplayer versus single-player
gaming. Standard jigsaws are constantly remade to keep the game
interesting, and are rarely completed by a "player" more than
once. By contrast, some D&D campaigns and other roleplaying games
have gone on for decades, and Battletech campaigns and gaming likewise
continues to this day. The missing element between the two is obviously
the randomness factor that other humans bring to the table.
Strictly speaking, all video games - even the
multiplayer variants like Street Figher clones or Xbox Live titles such
as MechAssault - are puzzle games. Players are given a ruleset, options,
a set of goals, and are told to find a solution. In this sense, even
physical sports are like a puzzle game in many ways, as the players on
the field rely upon strategy and cunning as much as physical brute
strength to win.
Some games are more open-ended than others. In
traditional puzzle titles like Zork, there is one solution and only one
way to achieve that solution. In fencing, there are only a few possible
solutions for each touch scored, but an endless or near-endless variety
of possibilities as to how that touch will be achieved. In platform or
action titles likewise, there is a general solution that the gamer will
play through - but within that solution, there is hopefully a decent
amount of leeway. In more open-ended titles, there are more options, and
the end-all and be-all is multiplayer combat online. In some, it is
possible to declare the game "solved", just as Checkers,
Othello, and jigsaw puzzles can be said to be "solved." In
fact, Chess comes closer and closer to being solved every day, and if it
ever is (when computers that can analyze the game 60-70 moves ahead are
available) it's possible that the fate of Chess's "Grand
Master" players may shift closer to that of Checkers champions who
arrive in places and wind up playing against all comers for $20/game. If
so, the new game of choice for tabletop strategists may be the Oriental
title Go, which is orders of magnitude more complex than Chess. On the
other hand, they may also attempt to move to card games like Poker,
where strategy is as much about out-bluffing the other player as it is
about strictly outmaneuvering them; the mathematical complexity of the
game replaced by the relative randomness of the human element.
Likewise, many of the console and PC games are
solved, and most of them released today are solved before they are even
released, as the programmers construct them much more like a story than
an open-ended and difficult to master title. True "unsolvable"
titles that go on forever, as most original arcade games (Ms. Pac-Man,
Star Wars, Defender, etc) did, are less likely to appear on consoles
than they will on smaller platforms like mobile phones or portable game
systems, where the lenght of gameplay is generally no more than a couple
of hours at a time and repetetive gameplay can be forgiven. On consoles,
even the single-player titles have begun to adopt "enhanced
difficulty" modes and lengthy side-quests in attempts to create new
challenges for the player once the game has been solved, often no easy
task. Unlockable new characters are but one aspect of this quest to keep
the gamer occupied.
So what makes online play so great and
addictive? Ultimately, it's the relative unsolvability of the play.
Playing against other humans ensures a random element not found in the
preloaded mission settings of a single-player game; no matter how many
unlockable elements are programmed in, no matter how complex a
"random mission generator" is developed, eventually the gamer
will begin to feel they are solving the title.
With online competitive play, there's none of
that. Instead, the challenge is outmaneuvering, outgunning, out-thinking
another human opponent on the other end of the wire. And the
satisfaction of solving the jigsaw puzzle is replaced with the
satisfaction of having won or lost against a more worthy opponent able
to respond to our own maneuvers, instead of lying limply on the board
waiting to be paired to the neighboring piece.
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