I've recently been thinking about online games -- not the player versus the machine type, but players versus players. One player versus machine game is Technosphere in which you create a creature which roams an environment eating, shagging and killing other player's creatures (you're emailed all updates). I don't feel this can be classified as player versus player because you can't interact directly with other players: it's be heavily mediated by the game engine. What's more, the calculations that the game does makes it essentially unpredictable, and playing it basically the same as watching a marble bounce down one of those pyramid-of-nails games you get at a fair. You know basically what's going to happen, but you can't predict what exactly will happen and there's no cause and effect. A game with a similar premise is Terrania.
I feel that a game won't feel like players versus players unless cause and effect is clear, and the inner mechanics of the game are simple and intelligible. This very clockwork game system is used in the most successful of single-player games (Tetris, Boulderdash), with an added spice of randomness (but only in clearly defined places, like: which brick will come next). Online, self-evident game mechanics should also be used, the randomness coming from the interaction of individuals. All avenues of interaction between players should be clearly marked, with not too many options: cause and effect must be clear. It is to these attributes I place the success of Planetarion, an addictive space game where the objective is to gather asteroids, and the simple avenues of interaction are attacking, donating, defending, and voting.
And voting brings me onto another quality of these games: A successful multiplayer game will make you feel you're playing against people, not just a clever computer program. The best way to do this is to force community -- in Planetarion's case by providing the infrastructure for players in the same game locality to vote for a leader and discuss issues, like joint defence. Suddenly the game gets more complex without increasing the new-user difficulty hump. Providing the infrastructure for many communities within the game solves the scaling problem, ensuring that it's as fun to play with 50 as 50000 people. (Another aspect that makes this game addictive is that it's in real time, but carefully balanced so that time-spans of less than about a day don't really matter. Also the learning curve is very smooth: complexity increases because you gain resources and can do more in a time unit; you find your own level.)
So why this sudden interest in what makes a good game? Firstly, I'd like to make one. Secondly, because the Labour government wants to put in place the infrastructure along which local volunteer communities can grow: Local involvement - that's the new prescription. How to make this work? People feel alienated from the decision making process. It's too complex, there's no cause and effect, new volunteers will be dwarfed and intimidated by old hands.
But what if the infrastructure consisted of mediated routes of interaction? Of codified ways of suggesting ideas, of voting, of raising money? Of simple one-click routes to involvement that flattened the learning curve? It doesn't limit the amount of power these groups can have, but limits the flexibility in return for more cause-and-effect and more involvement. People interesting in making greater, more fundamental, changes can get involved in local politics. I believe that those designing systems to encourage the growth of small groups could learn a lot from multiplayer game design. So that's why I'm thinking about it. Comments, as ever, are welcome.