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Developers explain why 4 is the magic multiplayer number

Developers from Grounded, Sea of Thieves, and Minecraft Dungeons share their notes

Sea of Thieves - four players with the sun setting behind them Image: Rare/Microsoft Studios
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

One may be the loneliest number, but four can sometimes feel just as limited. 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, the Borderlands series, Deep Rock Galactic, most of Grand Theft Auto Online, Grounded, The Anacrusis, Phasmophobia — that make you pick three other friends and buckle up.

Larger groups have to find workarounds or another game altogether. 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 more players? If some games can do it, why not all of them? It’s a seemingly simple question with surprisingly complex answers. Luckily, the developers behind some some very big multiplayer titles were able to share their thoughts.

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

What factors led you to land on designing your game around four players?

For Sea of Thieves, while the shared world nature of the game is a key aspect of the design, the core gameplay was designed around making players truly feel like they were working together as a crew, sailing their ship, gathering treasure and surviving in a perilous sea. We designed the game around the desire to make the interactions between our players deep and meaningful, so many of our design decisions focus around putting the choice in the hands of players, rather that dictating exactly how they play.

With this in mind, we thought about the choice of four players in terms of how this applies in real life. If you imagine any kind of social gathering, four people is a really good number in terms of an ease of conversations and interactions. While more people can of course be positive, it inevitably means that people are more likely to split into sub-groups, have side conversations and interactions, before then returning to the main group and again splitting into different sub-groups.

When you then apply that back to the design of Sea of Thieves, while more players is positive, it relies on either an exceptionally strong social bond, or additional game systems that add to the complexity of the game design to keep everyone working together. We wanted interactions between players in a crew to feel as natural as possible. We often joked that going on an adventure in Sea of Thieves should feel like going on a trip to the pub with your mates, not going to your school reunion!

sea of thieves 1.12 update the skeleton thrones Image: Rare/Microsoft Studios

When did this decision take place during development and what was the conversation like?

This was a decision made very early in development during our prototyping phase. Given that the game vision focused on crews of players working together in a shared world, one of the first major areas defined was the design of the 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. All of these decisions and how this led to these mechanics being balanced, are a result of the decision to design the galleon for four players based on what felt like the right size for a social group that may not always be the closest friends in real life, or know each other very well.

Why do you think four-players is a common design choice among cooperative games?

It really comes down to the difference between what it feels like to truly work with other players, as compared to just working alongside others or playing parallel with them trying to accomplish more singular 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

What factors led you to land on designing your game around four players?

A key factor is that the number of players varies across game sessions. Minecraft Dungeons supports up to four players playing together, either online or in couch co-op, on many different platforms. There’s a lot of nuance and balancing that goes into supporting both playing by yourself and with up to three others. We want to make sure that the experience is fun and relatively similar regardless of how you play. For example, mission geometry has to be laid out such that players have space to maneuver while still using choke points to their advantage. Enemies should come in such numbers that they’re a threat, while not being completely overwhelming. Since you play on the same missions regardless of player count, with players able to hot-join or leave at any time, keeping the span relatively small (1-4 rather than, say, 1-12) makes many design and gameplay considerations a little 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. As developers, we know many players have one to four controllers available to them for playing together, but very few households have more than that connected to any one console. 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

When did this decision take place during development and what was the conversation like?

Minecraft Dungeons was originally conceived as a single-player game. A few months into development, as we started testing prototypes internally, we all really wanted to play the game 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 Dead and Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide. 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 do you think four-players is a common design choice among cooperative games?

I think a combination of factors work together to make four a great choice. The traditional controller cap for consoles is an important historical reason. Another is that, like Dungeons, many games can be played both alone and with friends, and keeping the player counts close makes for a more consistent experience.

That said, I suspect there’s also a more human factor at play. When collaborating with others, we can only take in so much information at once, and it may be that a player count of about four just happens to maximize fun by reaching a good mix of complex, interesting coordination and avoiding information 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/Xbox Game Studios

Adam Brennecke, the Game Director for Grounded

What factors led you to land on designing your game around four players?

Even from our initial pitch, Grounded was conceptualized as a co-op multiplayer survival game with characters and story. So how did we land on 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. At the end of the day four just felt right when thinking about working together as a team.

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 Grounded. On top of that, from a development perspective, four players is manageable both on the technology and design side of the game. Combat and loot, for example, can be balanced around a team of four, and gets much more complex the more players are added into the mix.

When did this decision take place during development and what was the conversation like?

It was a very 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 do you think four-players is a common design choice among cooperative games?

One thing that comes to mind is what we’ve been accustomed to is four players as gamers. My favorite multiplayer games, even going back to arcades, have supported four players. 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. Later, home couch co-op normalized four players due to the fact that the consoles have supported four controllers for years as a standard, and split screen works great with four.

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