Multiplayer has been part of the video game medium since its early years. Even back at the dawn of the 1970s, networked video games existed on the PLATO computer system – a technology that would also help found concepts like email, forums, screen sharing and online testing.
But that fascinating chapter in the history of connected games was just the beginning. Today, in the era of live games, esports, fan communities, streaming and online titles that can play host to all manner of shared experiences and events, the breadth of what counts as multiplayer has expanded tremendously.
bl “Multiplayer games today have taken on the role of something like a social network,” offers Jeff Collins, SVP and GM of Unity Gaming Services. “And if you think back to when Fortnite made its leap to fame in 2018, it emerged as a place for people to be – to spend time – rather than just a place to play games. So there's a trend in multiplayer now, where game developers are refining on that model, and looking to do more than the conventional multiplayer we’ve seen before.”
In other words, today’s multiplayer opportunity is about more than just competitive or co-op gameplay. Games have become social platforms, community venues, and places to consume shared experiences. The opportunity for studios and publishers, then, is clear. Contemporary multiplayer offers a means to attract and engage players, keep live game worlds thriving and active, while building fan communities that support and evangelise the creations they love, and businesses that prosper.
“At Unity we often survey both the games industry, and talk to the players about what they want,” Collins continues. “The trend of players wanting to play a multiplayer game is only increasing. We recently got a survey result that showed that 77% of players that we asked actually want to spend their gaming time in multiplayer sessions or multiplayer games. And that trend has been rising over recent years. So it's clear that there's a tonne of demand out there. And we see there’s this opportunity in multiplayer not just as a competitive outlet, but as a kind of a social experience.”
The opportunity is one thing. Realising a successful, quality modern multiplayer experience? There can be a lot to think about beyond what the established multiplayer game design rule book states. As what multiplayer can be evolves and expands, so too does the requirement for robust and scalable servers, low latency, appropriate matchmaking, secure account authentication, reliable cloud saving, remote update configuration, and more.
And that, Collins says, is where Unity Gaming Services (UGS) comes in. Put simply, UGS presents an integrated, modular platform providing gaming solutions that give developers everything they need to build, run, and grow their live games. Graduating out of Beta in June last year, UGS certainly isn’t only a multiplayer solution, offering everything from analytics and engagement solutions to monetisation, user acquisition and in-app purchasing tools. It’s deeply integrated into the Unity engine, but also supports other engines, including Unreal via specific Unity-developed SDKs. With UGS, Unity is strengthening its position as a leading end-to-end game development platform.
But with multiplayer increasingly defining the live game experience, UGS absolutely brings the muscle required for those wishing to harness the new potential in connecting players.
“Unity Gaming Services was built to be a modular platform that allows you to get started building your game, whether it's just connected – or actually a multiplayer game,” states Collins. “You can get your live game constructed with very stable, highly scalable services that are proven in the industry. UGS can help you build a community around your game, let you monitor and improve engagement with your players, and make sure that you're running your business so it’s able to grow. There’s monetisation tools on top of all of the game tech that we’ve put together. So it's one platform to help really go from the start all the way to making your game a successful part of the business of your studio.”
"Unity Gaming Services was built to be a modular platform that allows you to get started building your game"
That’s absolutely a tempting proposition, but when there are so many interpretations of what ‘multiplayer’ can mean today, what has Unity done to make sure UGS can adapt to different needs?
“What UGS provides in terms of multiplayer is the fundamental technical capabilities of having people interact with each other and be matched up from waiting in a lobby to start a session with each other.” Collins responds. “But if you stop to think about the word ‘session’, it can take on a lot of different meetings. Sometimes a session might be in a battle royale, and last for a small period of time. But then now there's a recent trend where we see types of semi-persistent games that might have a session that could last 36 hours, meaning you're not sitting in front of your session the entire time. And then, of course, there’s the World of Warcraft-type model, where everything is always permanent.
“So for us, when we release our tool set, we have to bring something flexible enough to support all these different concepts and models; not just the ability to host a session. We need to support some notion of persistence, or the ability to restore a session to be able to match players based on not just their region or latency, but also skills-based matchmaking. All of those things are ‘out of the box functions’ on paper, but really there are little building blocks. That’s the modular element of UGS. How you assemble those blocks to make an overall experience is really the magic; really where developers have control.”
The idea is, Collins says, that UGS handles elements of modern multiplayer where there’s little value in the developer building those pieces themselves. Yet game makers can still construct a highly bespoke multiplayer ecosystem from all those solutions, Netcode for GameObjects, Game Server Hosting, Matchmaker, Lobby, Relay or Authentification ‘blocks’. Studios are free to focus on game design, creativity, and their business, while still being able to establish something highly tailored to their game – and whatever its interpretation of multiplayer might be.
Recently the UGS team has even introduced self-serve features for Voice and Text Chat (Vivox), Game Server Hosting (Multiplay), and Matchmaker services – meaning studios of all sizes can now get immediate access to these foundational multiplayer development tools without the involvement of managed services; until that might be needed.
“That self-serve capability allows you to get started and do dedicated game server hosting matches and manage that yourself,” Collins explains. “That really lets smaller or less experienced teams get hands on and understand the potential for their game and business plan. But then on the other hand, we have some of the biggest games on Earth using our dedicated games server hosting to manage their costs, because it's the most efficient solution in the market, and is the appropriate solution for super-massive scale as well. So that's a nice run of the gamut of studio size and complexity where it serves both needs and is just tunable to the context that you're in when you start making that game. So, you know, self-serve all the way up to triple-A.”
Really then, UGS extends Unity’s longstanding approach of providing game tech that is truly democratising. And that means making it available and applicable to not just the least experienced, but also the largest and most familiar with multiplayer design.
Those keen to learn more about the UGS multiplayer abilities can do so right here.