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Category: Multi Player Video Games

Contemporary Trends in Online Multiplayer

In early 2012, a Kiwi soldier named Dean Hall released a mod for Bohemia Interactive’s tactical military sim Arma 2, creating an online multiplayer open world where players had to survive a zombie apocalypse. Named DayZ, the mod featured an unprecedented degree of realism – players had to eat, sleep and maintain a steady temperature, and the basic need to survive both the zombies, and the humans in the game world, became the sole focus of players. In DayZ you could either team up with others to stand a better chance of survival, or shoot and loot them for their gear, rations and medical supplies – if the game had any goal to speak of, it was to not die. 

The early 2010s continued the tradition of innovation in multiplayer – a trend we discussed in depth in our previous blog. In the 2010s, games such as Minecraft, GTA Online and Final Fantasy XIV would each offer their own spin on the multiplayer experience. Another trend to emerge in the first half of the decade was the shift to mobile multiplayer, where studios would release innovative games that made meaningful use of mobile technology, such as Pokemon Go, with its augmented reality-based gameplay. The dominant trend in the latter half of the 2010s was the rise of the hero shooter and the battle royale, two genres that became wildly popular across platforms from PC and console to mobile. Perhaps the most significant recent trend in multiplayer, however, has little to do with game development and everything to do with the state of our society – online multiplayer experienced tremendous growth during the lockdowns of the pandemic, and we will discuss this as well in this blog. 


2010-2016: Innovation and Mobile Multiplayer

In the first half of the 2010s, developers created innovative multiplayer games for consoles and PC, and also shifted toward multiplayer on mobile. These two trends – continued innovation in multiplayer and the shift toward mobile multiplayer, will be covered in this section.

Unique Multiplayer Titles Refresh the Genre

The decades between 1990-2010 had seen unique genres native to multiplayer, but the first half of the 2010s would see developers taking multiplayer to directions that defied traditional expectations.

Minecraft (2011)

Mine Craft Gameplay Image
Minecraft (Courtesy Mojang)

Soon after the release of Minecraft 1.0 in 2011, it would become a highly popular multiplayer game. Minecraft’s multiplayer is distinctive in that it allows players to collaborate on mining for resources and working together to build increasingly complex and elaborate structures. While it has other multiplayer modes, Minecraft’s collaborative multiplayer was unlike any other style seen before – no game had ever enabled a mode where players just worked together to build incredible structures: there is no adversarial element involving combat in collaborative mode. Minecraft does offer more traditional gameplay in Minecraft Realms, where you can team up with others and go on adventures, and a PvP mode called BedWars, where you defeat other players by destroying their respawn point – a bed. 


DayZ (2012)

DayZ (Courtesy Bohemia Interactive)

DayZ’s realism was unprecedented in gaming, let alone online multiplayer. Apart from having to eat and sleep, players were vulnerable to fractures, drinking poisoned water could result in cholera and a zombie bite or bullet wound could send players into shock. The hostile conditions made for highly tense encounters with other players, who might simply choose to kill you, or decide on the spur of the moment to cooperate and team up with you. Dayz also features permadeath, meaning no matter how much loot and experience you have, you restart from scratch when you die. This adds yet another layer of immersion to what is already a hyper-realistic survival sim. Games such as DayZ are referred to as PvPvE (player vs player vs environment) because they combine cooperation and competition set against challenges posed by the game world. 

 Within the first three months of launch, DayZ had a million unique users and also boosted sales of Arma 2, the base game required to play the mod, by 500 percent, leading the CEO of Bohemia Interactive to admit that Dayz was the primary driver of Arma 2 sales. 

Dean Hall was soon hired by Bohemia Interactive to create a standalone version of the game, which would be released on Steam Early Access in 2013, where the alpha version would sell a million copies by 2014. It also influenced games like Rust and ARK: Survival Evolved, and cast a long shadow on the development of survival games.


Dota 2, GTA Online and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (2013)

In the span of a single year, gamers got three of the most enduringly popular online multiplayer games: the MOBA, Dota 2, the MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV, and GTA Online, which can be considered an evolution of what MMO experiences could offer, with its plethora of activities and challenges.

Valve released Dota 2 in 2013 and went on to host the most lucrative esports title in the world – the Dota 2 International, which now boasts a staggering prize pool of over $40 mn. Valve took an innovative approach to the free-to-play game’s premier esports title, crowdfunding it by the sale of skins, cosmetic upgrades and battle passes. Dota 2 is hailed as one of the most complex, balanced and challenging MOBA games and was ranked the best PC multiplayer game by IGN in 2013. 

Dota 2 (Valve Corporation)

Set in the vast open world of Los Santos, GTA Online allows players to do just about anything they want, and Rockstar keeps releasing updates that expand the activities that players can engage in, introduce quality of life upgrades, and add even single-player missions. In GTA Online, you can take part in vehicle races, heists, and casino trips, run a criminal enterprise, buy homes, go to flight school, steal exotic cars, run around the city… and more – it’s a game containing countless games.

GTA Online (Courtesy Rockstar Games)

Final Fantasy XIV’s first iteration (2010) was a disaster, but Square Enix decided to resurrect it rather than abandon the project. The end result, released in 2013, is now a major MMORPG. Naoki Yoshida, tasked with reinventing FFXIV, streamlined many of its MMORPG elements: the developers set a low level cap, inviting players to continue playing the game in search of loot and resources, the armory system allowed players to change classes on the fly by equipping certain items, and Yoshida also pushed hard to bring high quality graphics to the MMO. The game also receives updates regularly, every 3.5 months, a cadence that ensures it remains fresh for gamers. It is termed one of the biggest games in the world as of 2022 by Eurogamer.

Destiny (2014)

Destiny (Activision)

Destiny received quite a bit of criticism when it was initially launched, and it took a novel approach to addressing such critiques – listening to players. Unlike other games, Destiny’s patches, updates and expansions were direct responses to player feedback, with Bungie acting on what the community wanted rather than setting an update schedule purely based on its own agenda for the game. On its release, Destiny called itself a ‘shared-world shooter’ – the PvE element constitutes the majority of the game, while the PvP zones are equally appealing. Destiny features a unique networked mission architecture, something that Bungie has elaborated on in detail

Destiny achieved a seamless blend of single-player, co-op and multiplayer, using a persistent world made up of public and private spaces. Multiplayer events might be triggered in a public space, or a friend might join in on co-op, while private spaces lock players into campaign goals. The two spaces flow together without interrupting the story. 

Destiny made nearly $500 million dollars in pre-orders and day one sales, amassed over 20 million players a year after release, and was the best-selling new IP of 2014.


Rainbow Six Siege and Rocket League (2015)

On paper, Rocket League’s premise seems absurd – soccer (football) matches between player-controlled vehicles. After a low-key initial launch, the game gained a massive following thanks to its fast-paced, intensely competitive gameplay and sustained developer support. The game was also offered for free on the Playstation Plus service for about a month, increasing its visibility and making it the most downloaded PS4 game of 2016. The game received the Best Sports/Racing Game award at The Game Awards of 2015. When it went free-to-play in 2020, it crossed one million concurrent players.

Rocket League (Courtesy Psyonix)

Rainbow Six Siege had a bad initial start but turned things around to become an important multiplayer FPS game emphasising strategy, taking a cue from Arma 3’s tactical elements. Ubisoft achieved one of the industry’s most impressive turnarounds by adopting a games-as-a-service model for Siege, releasing a slew of content updates and patches to bring the game up to scratch and eventually garnering 25 million users. The game also maximised its appeal by morphing into a hero-based shooter, giving playable characters unique abilities. Rainbow Six Siege is now a major esport.

Rainbow Six Siege (Courtesy Ubisoft)

The Shift toward Mobile Multiplayer

As early as 2011, Mojang realised that Minecraft would work very well as a mobile game and released the Pocket Edition in 2011. The mobile Minecraft title had mostly the same feature set as the PC game, and would go on to become one of the top-grossing mobile game apps. The shift to mobile multiplayer had already begun.

Clash of Clans (2012)

Clash of Clans (Courtesy Supercell)

One of the earliest successful mobile multiplayer games was Clash of Clans, which offered complex team-based gameplay over mobile devices. Set in a persistent world, the player is a village chief. Raiding other villages for important resources, unlocking new troops and bolstering the defences of your own village against attacks form the core gameplay elements of the title. Players can also team up to form clans (of upto 50 players) and battle other clans, chat with friends and more. In 2021, Clash of Clans generated nearly $490 million in in-app purchase revenues, and remains the second most popular game by daily user counts in the US.

Hearthstone (2014)

Hearthstone (Courtesy Blizzard)

The free-to-play PC and mobile game Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft achieved an unexpected degree of success, proving that a digital collectible card game could be just as successful as similar games played with actual cards. Blizzard used the lore, characters and other elements of the Warcraft franchise to full effect to create a fun, fast-paced card game with eye-popping graphics. The developers worked hard to recreate the experience of a real card game with the user interface, digitising assets from the earlier physical World of Warcraft Trading Card Game. The game’s success is attributable to faithfully adapting a traditional deck-building experience in a digital environment, keeping games short, offering a variety of match types, releasing regular expansions with new cards, and even letting you admire your card collection with special views. Hearthstone reached 100 million players by 2018, had a user base of 23.5 million by 2020 and nearly 4 million players play it across platforms as of 2022. It has made more than $700 million since launch. It has its own esports scene as well.

Honor of Kings (Arena of Valor, 2015)

Honor of Kings (Tencent Games )

The mobile MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) Honor of Kings is one of the most successful mobile games of all time, registering 100 million active users per day, becoming the first mobile game to make $10 billion in revenue, and becoming the leading mobile game app in China. Ironically, it might have never come about if Riot Games had agreed to parent company Tencent’s request for a mobile version of League of Legends. The LoL creators did not want to dilute the game’s brand with a mobile knock-off, and Tencent turned to another subsidiary, TiMi Studio Group, for a new mobile MOBA IP. The result was Honor of Kings, a MOBA game that features multiple competitive modes, a PvE mode and even a standalone mode when the player is offline. An international version, known as Arena of Valor, was released for Western regions in 2016, with greatly altered heroes to fit the target market. The MOBA has many key virtues – you can easily set up battles with friends, and the fast-paced stand-offs last just 15-20 minutes, The game had all the key MOBA elements but was still easier to master than Dota 2 or League of Legends, creating a low barrier to entry, and its seamlessly integrated social elements kept players engaged with each other. The massive success of the MOBA led Riot Games to reassess its stance on a mobile version of LoL – it would release League of Legends: Wild Rift, a modified version of LoL, for mobile in 2020. Since late 2021, Wild Rift has been drawing in about 15-20 million players each month


Clash Royale and Pokemon Go (2016)

Clash Royale (Courtesy Supercell)

Mobile multiplayer fans would get their hands on not one, but two innovative mobile titles in 2016 – Supercell’s follow-up to Clash of Clans – Clash Royale, and Niantic’s revolutionary Pokemon Go, which would use augmented reality as the basis of its gameplay. 

A article asserts that Clash Royale’s innovative gameplay powered it to displace lacklustre titles from the top of mobile grossing charts. Clash Royale cleverly combined aspects of tower defence, MOBA, and card-based battles to instantly become one of the top grossing games in the world a month after its release. Clash Royale offers accessible but deep gameplay, fast synchronous multiplayer that lasts only minutes, ending in a nail-biting stand-off between competitors, and well-integrated social elements. It is hailed as a smart game that rewards strategy and delivers a complex, tactical experience on a small screen. The game crossed $3 billion in lifetime player spending by 2020, and as of 2021, has been downloaded more than 500 million times

While many of the games listed here bring interesting genres to mobile, Pokemon Go is altogether a different beast. Niantic used augmented reality to overlay Pokemon on real-life locations, which would be visible to players through their phone camera. A swipe of a ‘Poke ball’ would ‘capture’ the Pokemon. One of the biggest selling points of Pokemon Go was that players had to step outside to capture Pokemon – it was probably the first game that actually took place in real-life settings. The game garnered more than a 100 million players on mobile phones within a month of its release.

After reaching a certain level, players can experience the game’s multiplayer aspects – they can battle at a Pokemon Gym and join one of three colour-coded teams – red (Valor), blue (Mystic) and yellow (Instinct). The three teams vie for control of the strategic Pokemon Gyms around the world – not only do the Gyms host raids, but also allows your owned Pokemon to earn coins, which can be spent on upgrades and items at the in-game store. Updates to the Gym mechanic brought cooperative raiding and the chance to take down large-sized Pokemon together, and the game continues to get updates.

Pokemon Go (Courtesy Niantic)

The game peaked at 232 million active players in 2016, and is still going strong – 71 million people played the game in 2021 and the game has been downloaded over 500 million times. The game has amassed $5 billion in lifetime revenue by 2021, and much of this revenue has come from the United States.

2016-2020: The Rise of Hero Shooters and Battle Royales

The first half of the decade saw the release of online multiplayers games so unique that it is difficult to imagine them sharing the same demographic. Of course, dedicated multiplayer fans would have played all these games to fully enjoy the variety on offer. In the latter half of the 2010s, online multiplayer games would be characterised mostly by the hero shooter and battle royale genres, though some unusual games, such as Sea of Thieves and Among Us, would make their mark on the online multiplayer genre. 


The Rise of the Hero Shooter

Overwatch (2016)

Overwatch (Courtesy Blizzard)

Overwatch has been imitated by multiple developers, and for good reason. The game’s distinctive roster of hero characters is not new – Team Fortress (1996) would also feature unique characters who performed different functions during competitive missions, but Overwatch took that concept and added MOBA elements to fashion the hero shooter as we know it today. The heroes of Overwatch have outrageous powers and going one-on-one against a single one of them would be difficult – but the 6v6 player structure ensures the game remains accessible – each team brings its own ridiculously overpowered band of heroes into play – each with their own special attacks that are easily learned by watching guides. Team-based plays revolve around one character facilitating the powers of one another in a special set of moves. Winning in Overwatch hence entails having an intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the 32-character roster, knowing which hero can totally neutralise an opponent’s character, and managing your own weaknesses – your opponent knows as well as you do that each hero has a counter who can negate the hero. Within a year, Overwatch had made more than $1 billion, and had 30 million registered players, becoming Blizzard’s fastest-growing franchise. As of 2022, Overwatch draws in about 8-9 million players each month


Multiple Games Adopt the Hero Shooter Formula

We discussed above that Rainbow Six Siege grew in popularity once it became a hero shooter like Overwatch. But Siege was hardly Overwatch’s only imitator. According to a PC gamer article, hero shooters have ‘become the de facto mould of what multiplayer shooters should look like in 2022.’

Rainbow Six Siege was one of the first games to adopt the hero roster formula, adding mercenaries and criminals to its array of ‘Operators’. The game now features far more female and trans characters. Each Operator, like a hero from Overwatch, has special abilities and even plays a critical role in PvE experiences. The game’s use of Operators ‘with more flair’ has been credited as one of the reasons for its turnaround after a bad launch. 

Even games that have never been hero shooters have taken cues from Overwatch. The latest iterations of Call of Duty have featured distinct playable characters, while Battlefield 2042 changed the series’ anonymous classes into unique personalities. Even CS:GO, one of the most traditional first-person shooters, now has unlockable skins that let you enter battle by picking a favourite agent

Apex Legends would combine the hero shooter with the other prominent genre of the late 2010s – the battle royale. We will deal with Apex Legends in our discussion of the battle royale genre below.

Valorant (2020)

Valorant (Courtesy Riot Games)

The hero shooter Valorant was Riot Games’ answer to titles like CS: GO, Rainbow Six Siege and Overwatch – a highly-accessible tactical shooter involving 5v5 matches where one team tries to plant a bomb known as the ‘Spike’ and the other works to stop them. The first team to win 13 rounds is the victor. In unrated games, if both teams have 12 wins each after 24 rounds, the 25th round serves as a ‘sudden death’ tie-breaker. In competitive games, if scores are tied after 24 rounds, a team has to win two consecutive rounds to secure victory.

Valorant differs significantly from the games that it draws inspiration from. Unlike the heroes in Overwatch, none of Valorant’s heroes will survive a critical shot. Each player is an agent with distinct abilities, one that is in-built, and two others that you can buy at the game’s beginning. Another ‘ultimate’ ability gets charged by surviving multiple rounds. Valorant is a traditional shooter in that kills are based on your aim and skill with a weapon. But the special abilities impart intel, create killing zones and can even blind opponents to give players a better chance at scoring kills. As such, mastering the game and winning the best of 25 rounds depends on both your shooting abilities and skillful deployment of special powers. This combination makes for gameplay that is a blend of control and chaos, and reviewers praised the game for breaking new ground. By January 2021, the game had overtaken CS:GO in earnings, and it is now a major esport and has drawn in nearly 20 million players per month for the last year. 

Battle Royale takes Centre-Stage

Hero shooters such as Overwatch enjoyed massive popularity – until a new genre – the battle royale – began to grow in popularity. One of the biggest phenomena in gaming – Fortnite – is a battle royale that has since morphed into a metaverse-like experience, and we discuss the important battle royale games below.

PUBG: Battlegrounds and Fortnite (2017)

PUBG Mobile (Courtesy Tencent Games)

Like so many genres before it, the battle royale got its start as a mod – in fact, as a mod for a mod. DayZ fan Brendan Greene (known as PlayerUnknown) initially released a mod for DayZ where players were thrown into a shrinking map and had to kill each other until a last player remained. He would then use Arma 3’s resources to create a total conversion featuring battle royale, with an aircraft that dropped players into a large map to fight it out amongst each other. In 2016, Krafton studios invited Greene to create a standalone version, which would result in PUBG: Battlegrounds, earlier known as PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. 

The simple premise of PUBG (and other battle royales) may well be the reason for its enduring popularity. A number of players (upto a 100 in PUBG) are dropped to an area with no weapons and must hunt for arms in order to go up against other players. Weapons and other items can be looted off killed opponents as well, and the map size shrinks every few minutes, forcing the players closer together and increasing the frequency of PvP encounters. Players can enter the dropzone individually or play as teams, and must also choose the right time to parachute off the aircraft. As players kill off each other, the last player or team standing wins. 

At over 75 million copies sold for PC and consoles, PUBG is the best-selling game on PC and Xbox One, and the fifth-best selling game of all time. Since 2020, the game has been drawing in a staggering 300-400 million players each month

Fortnite Battle Royale – one of the most popular games in the world, and a cultural phenomenon in its own right – took direct inspiration from the success of PUBG. Epic Games realised that they could create a battle royale version of Fortnite with ease and released it after two months of in-house development. It had much the same gameplay as PUBG, though it also featured a building mechanic where players could construct structures to fend off attacks from enemies and traverse the game map. Within a year of its release, the free-to-play game had 125 million users and was making huge sums from microtransactions, making more than $9 billion by 2019, and making $5.8 billion for Epic in 2021. It has been drawing in more than 250 million players a month since 2020.

Fortnite is more than just a successful game – it transcends gaming with its live concerts, crossover events, skins from other important media franchises and more. Its huge registered player base of 400 million allows it to experiment with metaverse-like experiences, as we have discussed elsewhere.

Fortnite (Courtesy Epic Games)

Battle Royale Becomes a Craze

The massive success of the battle-royale mode spawned a number of imitators, both in the console/PC and mobile space. The first IP to join the bandwagon was Call of Duty, which introduced a battle royale mode called ‘Blackout’ in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (2018). Supporting up to 100 players, Blackout took place in the largest map yet in a CoD title and made full use of the fluid movement and controls of the franchise to create a fast-paced battle-royale mode that even drew in players already tired of battle royales.

Not to be outdone, Electronic Arts introduced a battle royale mode called ‘Firestorm’ to Battlefield V (2018), and, like Activision, featured the battle royale in the biggest map to date in a Battlefield game. The battle royale mode supports 64 players, who can compete in squads of up to four players.

EA then followed this up with a new IP (based partly on Titanfall) that combined elements of both the battle royale and the hero shooter in one addictive package: Apex Legends (2019). Legends is a gorgeous game with an incredibly detailed game map – knowing the map’s ins and outs confers a significant tactical advantage. It introduced many other innovations such as dropships, care packages (loot drops) and the highly efficient non-verbal ping-based communication between teammates. Each hero also brings distinctive playstyles to player squads, and a steadily growing roster of heroes keeps the game fresh. In a little over two years, it had 100 million players and has made more than $2 billion as of mid-2022

Activision responded with Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), in which the battle royale mode predominated. While it featured much the same elements as the battle royale mode in Black Ops 4, it also encouraged players to amass Cash – in-game currency – in order to buy killstreaks and special items, and allowed upto 150 players to play in the free-for-all, in teams of up to four players. Within a year, the game had 100 million users and Warzone made nearly $4 billion in the first two years following its release. 

Even mobile gaming is characterised by highly-successful battle royale IPs such as Fortnite, which began life as a cross-platform game released for PC, consoles and mobile, and PUBG Mobile (2018), which crossed $7 billion in lifetime revenue by 2021 and Garena Free-Fire (2017), which became the most downloaded mobile game in 2019, and has made more than $4 billion in the two years since its release. 

Even a tetris game available on the Nintendo Switch – Tetris 99 (2019) – has battle royale elements, as does the open-world racing sim Forza Horizon 5 (2021), which offers the ‘Eliminator’ battle royale mode. 


New Styles Emerge, Old Ones Return

The second half of the decade was not just an unbroken series of hero shooters and battle royales – they were merely the most popular genres around. 

2018 saw the release of three innovative multiplayer titles, A Way Out, Among US and Sea of Thieves. The first featured only a two-player cooperative campaign, without any single-player version, and could be played in couch co-op mode or over the internet with a friend. The developer of A Way Out, Hazelight Studios, released another co-op game called It Takes Two in 2021, building on its formula of telling a compelling story purely through multiplayer mode. 

Sea of Thieves is a rollicking pirate adventure with sea battles between player crews, and went on to become highly popular, holding its own against battle royales and hero shooters during the height of their popularity. It sold five million copies on the PC platform Steam by 2021 and has drawn in 15-17 million users per month since 2020

The multi-platform game Among Us (2018) was yet another innovative title, which features asymmetric multiplayer – the game consists of a team of crewmates and a smaller team of impostors, both of whom look alike and work in the same area. The crewmates should complete all tasks in the allotted time or vote out all impostors, while the impostors should sabotage crewmate activities, kill crewmates without being detected or unleash a disaster that cannot be solved in time by crewmates. It was largely ignored upon release until pandemic shutdowns resulted in a massive spike in user counts – the game amassed nearly half a billion players in 2020, and has drawn in nearly 400 million players per month since late 2020

The free multiplayer mode of Halo Infinite (2021), replete with classic Halo multiplayer elements and the new grapple-shot mechanic, became the most popular Xbox title on Steam within less than a day of its launch. In about a month, nearly 20 million players had joined the fray. 

Games like Escape from Tarkov (beta release 2017) and The Cycle: Frontier (2022) also indicate the emergence of a new multiplayer play style, where players are dropped into common zones but can choose freely between co-op and PvP mode – there is no need to be the last man standing – each mission has its own objective quite apart from killing other players. Like DayZ, Tarkov and The Cycle are PvPvE matches – both the environment and other players pose a challenge, but you can cooperate with the latter. 

The battle royale and hero shooter might be the biggest players in town, but game developers appear to have outgrown the need to copy the two genres.


The Pandemic and Multiplayer

Online multiplayer games – for PCs, consoles or mobile – draw in millions of players every month. It might be tempting to criticise them as addictive time-sinks, but the popularity of multiplayer during the pandemic tells a wholly different story. 

According to the BBC’s Life Project, online multiplayer became a social lifeline during the pandemic lockdowns and gamers successfully built supportive communities around the games they loved, forging strong friendships. Playing with friends online has also been studied as a healthy replacement for in-person contact when lockdowns prevent such interaction. 

Existing friendships have thrived and people have actually grown their network of friends during the pandemic via multiplayer, social gaming and connecting over the gamer-focussed Discord, a VOIP and instant-messaging platform – gaming gives people a way to share fun, light-hearted experiences during dark times. As a result, people have reported overwhelmingly positive experiences from gaming, especially thanks to its potential for social interaction via multiplayer. In fact, dedicated MMO players have reported feeling a strong sense of social identity, a higher sense of self-esteem and decreased feelings of loneliness even before the pandemic.

VentureBeat attributes the rapid evolution of the social aspects of mobile gaming to the pandemic, because such features allowed people to stay connected while socially distanced, as they played inexpensive but interesting mobile games together.

It is no surprise, then, that the gaming industry registered record gains during the pandemic, growing 12% to $139 billion in 2020 amidst widespread lockdowns. Despite a contracting PC and console market in the post-pandemic period, the overall industry is poised to grow at a compound annual rate of 11% through 2024 to hit a record $200 billion in worth.



Online multiplayer has grown massively this decade, with games supporting millions of players across platforms, with even mobile multiplayer coming into its own. While the pioneers of the previous decades had to innovate just to make multiplayer a viable option (remember the code optimizations for QuakeWorld and Unreal Tournament), the developers of this decade have worked hard to make the most of matured internet infrastructure. 

After several innovative entries in the multiplayer genre, and the prominence of hero shooters and battle royales such as Overwatch, PUBG and Fortnite, we see an increase in variety, with titles such as The Cycle, Among US and the instant success Multiversus, which crossed 20 million players within a month of launching its open beta. 

The success of such games suggests that new online multiplayer games can offer a wide range of experiences and maintain huge fan bases – not participating in a zero-sum game for the players’ attention, but adding to an overall online multiplayer experience far greater than the sum of its parts. 

Gameopedia works with clients across the industry on custom requests and can provide in-depth data about online multiplayer games. Reach out to us for data that can yield novel insights about the billion-dollar online multiplayer gaming market.

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The Rise of Online Multiplayer

Multiplayer games have always been a major aspect of gaming – whether through the internet or local area networks or just co-op mode for playing together in-person. Such games are among the most popular titles in gaming, many of them have become massive esports, and multiplayer gaming itself has evolved steadily over the years to become increasingly complex and nuanced. In this blog we will discuss the history of multiplayer gaming, from the 1980’s to 2010, with a special focus on the two decades from 1990 to 2010, when multiplayer evolved rapidly and matured into a staple of our gaming experience.


What is Online Multiplayer and Why it’s Important

A multiplayer video game can be played by more than one person in the same game environment simultaneously – either locally, on the same computing system, or through networks shared by multiple systems. Online multiplayer refers to games played over the internet and networked multiplayer refers to games played on different systems through a local area network. In a multiplayer game, players or teams of players can compete with each other or cooperate toward a common goal. Multiplayer games involve a social element not found in single-player titles and can also offer a higher level of challenge as compared to playing against AI.

Modern multiplayer games often share certain common characteristics – various ‘modes’, which may involve competition or cooperation, a progression system with ‘unlockables’, a steady stream of new content (though this is more applicable to live-service games in general), a system by which players can communicate using voice and/or text, a dedicated server or a single terminal hosting the game, and more. 

A look at Steam stats reveals that multiplayer games are among the most-played, with thousands of daily users. There were 932 million online gamers by 2020 and as of 2022, 54% of the most active gamers worldwide play multiplayer games at least once a week, for seven hours on average. As of 2022, 83% of US gamers play with each other, either in person or online. In comparison, the figure was 65% in 2020. This spike is attributed to Covid-period lockdowns – in fact, the multiplayer game Among US (2018) surged in popularity during the pandemic, amassing a user base of nearly half a billion players. The global online gaming market size was valued at $56 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow to $132 billion by 2030, at a cumulative annual growth rate of 10.2%. In the following sections, we will delve into the history and evolution of multiplayer and its rise to prominence among gamers. 


The Origins and Early History of Online Multiplayer

The early years of online multiplayer saw the advent of multi-user dungeons, or MUDs, where multiple players engaged in text-based games through typing commands. This was followed by the arrival of multiplayer FPS in the ’90s– legendary games such as Doom and Quake not only pioneered the FPS genre as we know it today, but also created multiplayer modes that allowed gamers to team up with or fight against each other. Over the course of the decade, as the internet became commonplace, many MMORPGs emerged to the fore, whose graphics brought to life the text-based experience of the early MUDs.


Early Years: The Multi-User Dungeon and the Internet

In 1978, two University of Essex students, Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle, created a multiplayer adventure that they would call ‘MUD’, or multi-user dungeon. The text-based game was a revelation that allowed you to live in a persistent fantasy world through the networked computers of the institute. A persistent world is a virtual environment that changes dynamically even when the player is logged off. The world continues to exist on the network, enabling other players to continue playing, thereby presenting new activities to any player who logs back in after a certain interval. Bartle and Trubshaw’s text-based world may not have had any graphics to speak of, but its dynamic persistent world gave the fantasy environment a life of its own, independent of player actions

The Multi-User Dungeon Interface

A MUD can be text-based or may use storyboards to flesh out its world. MUDs combine elements of role-playing games, interactive fiction and online chat to create a real-time virtual world where players interact with the game world and each other using text-based commands. Bartle and Trubshaw’s game counts as one of the first of its kind and was also the first MUD to be playable on the internet, when the university connected its internal network to the ARPANET. Multi-user dungeons with persistent worlds would influence the MMORPGs to come.

In 1985, University of Virginia classmates John Taylor and Kelton Flinn created a MUD-like game called Island of Kesmai, a multiplayer adventure that used ASCII-based graphics. Considered a direct forerunner of subsequent MMORPGs, the game was available on the early CompuServe online service and allowed upto 100 players to play simultaneously.


The Emergence of Multiplayer FPS

Multiplayer gaming over networks came into its own in the 1990s, with the release of major first-person shooter titles such as Pathway to Darkness and the legendary Doom in 1993. The games’ multiplayer modes led to the birth of the LAN party – people coming together and creating a local area network to play multiplayer games together. 

Doom was not just a revolutionary game, it also pushed multiplayer to new directions. The game offered networked multiplayer supporting two-player teams, and a special matchmaking service known as DWANGO supported online multiplayer, allowing four-player teams to either cooperate in Doom’s main campaign or fight against each other in a deathmatch mode. Doom was one of the first games in the world to offer online multiplayer via a matchmaking service. It was also a highly popular LAN party game, along with Pathway to Darkness, and Marathon (1994), another first-person shooter. Multiplayer over LAN would remain prominent until the internet became more widespread and ushered in online multiplayer on a large scale.

Doom (Courtesy id)

The same year Doom was released, CERN made the software for the world-wide-web open source – a move that would eventually result in our world of browsers, email, streaming services and internet-based multiplayer games played by millions of people simultaneously. Just three years after the world wide web went open-source, id would release Quake, a major milestone in online multiplayer gaming. 

Quake was not only the first game to feature full real-time rendering of 3D environments and 3D acceleration, it was also the first game to enable online multiplayer over TCP/IP on the internet. Multiplayer was easier than ever before because all one had to do was enter an IP address and connect with a friend or a server over the internet to play cooperative or competitive multiplayer. The multiplayer mode ran on dedicated servers, but Quake also allowed players to turn their own machines into custom servers. 

In december 1996, id released QuakeWorld, an update to the Quake engine, which introduced a network optimization feature called client-side prediction to enable an online gaming experience comparable to single player even for players on high-latency connections. An IGN article describes the QuakeWorld update as the first successful large-scale implementation of online multiplayer mode. In 1997, id hosted a nationwide esports tournament in the US called Red Annihilation, featuring Quake, and the winner, Dennis ‘Thresh’ Fong, won a 1987 Ferrari 328 GTS cabriolet that belonged to John Carmack, the wizard behind Quake, Doom and many of id’s hit IPs.

QuakeWorld (Courtesy id)

Multiplayer Grows in Variety

The late ’90s saw the arrival of yet another hugely popular multiplayer genre – the massively multiplayer online role playing game. In an MMORPG, players adopt the role of a character with distinct abilities, traits and weaknesses and take part in a huge persistent world filled with thousands – even millions – of concurrent players. Progression is a key aspect of the MMORPG, where player actions earn them points that they can then use to level up their skills. Like classic MUDs, the world of an MMORPG continues to change even when the player is offline. 

MMORPGs such as Meridian 59 (1996), Ultima Online (1997) and EverQuest (1999), emerged as internet technology matured in the 90s – they were still called ‘graphical MUDs’, evoking their origins in the MUDs of the 80s, and featured persistent worlds with real interactions with other online players, and made their mark as a new genre for online multiplayer. 

While Meridian 59 and Ultima Online helped establish the MMORPG, EverQuest built on the genre’s potential. The game offered a great degree of player choice, a huge world ready to explore and (for its time) high-quality graphics. The title boasted 10,000 active subscribers 24 hours after its launch, and within the year, it had 150,00 active subscribers. EverQuest continues to be played, with a user base of 66,000 subscribers. 

EverQuest (Courtesy Sony Online Entertainment)

Soon after EverQuest, the real-time strategy (RTS) title StarCraft (1998) emerged as a major online multiplayer game. Blizzard’s StarCraft built on the popularity of the RTS genre, which had successful franchises such as Sid Meier’s Civilization series, Age of Empires, Command and Conquer, and WarCraft – StarCraft would introduce sophisticated multiplayer gameplay to this genre. 

StarCraft’s multiplayer mode was facilitated by Blizzard’s, a free game hosting and matchmaking service that helped StarCraft – and other Blizzard games – reach huge audiences. By the time StarCraft’s expansion, Brood Wars, was released, the title had become a phenomenon in South Korea, which accounted for a third of StarCraft’s global sales, and spawned a professional esports scene that was broadcast over South Korean media. Starcraft’s masterful game balancing and potential for complex strategies enhanced its multiplayer greatly, allowing for immense variation in gameplay. The game’s success led to increased usage of Blizzard’s service, which hosts tens of millions of active players across Blizzard’s library of games today.

The FPS genre then made a resounding comeback in 1999 with the release of Epic’s Unreal Tournament and id’s Quake III Arena, both of which would make multiplayer the main gameplay mode – the first Unreal game released in 1998 did not deliver good multiplayer gameplay, and it became a top priority to improve the multiplayer code, with Epic CEO Tim Sweeney even apologising for Unreal’s poor multiplayer. Epic intended to deliver the updated multiplayer gameplay as an expansion for Unreal, but then decided to make a standalone, multiplayer-focussed instalment called Unreal Tournament, which was hailed as one of the best multiplayer games of the year, along with Quake III Arena. Both games dispensed with plot-based single-player campaigns and featured single-player modes that merely pitted players against bots. Even now, critics cannot decide which offers a better experience – both are incredible in their own ways. The Unreal Engine, used to build Unreal Tournament, would go on to become an industry-standard game engine that would spawn a host of award-winning titles.

Unreal Tournament (Courtesy Epic Games)

Another important FPS multiplayer game released in 1999 was Counter-Strike, a Half-Life mod that would later be purchased by Valve after the title became a staple of LAN events and a hugely successful multiplayer experience. Like StarCraft, CounterStrike would spawn its own esports scene. 


The Development of Multiplayer in the 2000s

By the second half of the nineties, the internet and the world-wide web had become commonplace. The web rose in prominence until the dotcom crash in 2000, and within a year, dotcom companies had folded, wiping out trillions of dollars of investment. 

RuneScape (2001) emerged from the ruins of the dotcom bubble to become one of the most enduring MMORPGs of all time. RuneScape is playable in a browser and was supported purely by ads until the crash. It pivoted to a freemium model, where premium users got access to more content, after the dotcom bubble burst. The browser-based MMORPG drew in droves of players, and continues to attract gamers today – nearly 17 million players are estimated to have played RuneScape, and in 2020, it reached its highest-ever concurrent user count, at more than 170,000. RuneScape’s success indicated that online multiplayer games could weather market crises and the 2000s were marked by constant innovation in the field. 

RuneScape (Courtesy Jagex)

Console Makers Enter the Fray

Microsoft launched Xbox Live in 2002, a dedicated service for online multiplayer that would become hugely popular with the release of Halo 2. While the first game in the Halo franchise (2001) was shipped before Xbox Live, its sequel, Halo 2 (2004), offered multiplayer modes with the Xbox’s unified online service. While many aspects of Halo 2 were lauded by gamers and critics alike, it is now known for ‘changing online multiplayer gaming forever’ and is considered the ‘game which showed the world how console multiplayer should be done’. 

Until Halo 2 launched, few gamers were using Xbox Live, although the Xbox itself offered sophisticated broadband compatibility at a time when the technology was still uncommon. By the time Halo 2 was released, broadband infrastructure had grown widespread, and Halo 2 could exploit the possibilities of Xbox Live to the fullest, creating an unprecedented online multiplayer experience on console. While Halo: Combat Evolved had become the killer app for the Xbox, Halo 2 became the killer app for Xbox Live, and made console-based online gaming straightforward and intuitive.

Halo 2 (Courtesy Microsoft)

Sony’s PlayStation 2 also offered online multiplayer with a separate network adapter, which was integrated later with the PS2 Slimline model. The console offered both dial-up and broadband-based connectivity and networked multiplayer using ethernet cables or a router network. Unlike Xbox Live, which functioned as a unified service for all Xbox games, providing online multiplayer for PS2 games was the responsibility of the publisher, who had to use third-party servers.

Sony would catch up with Xbox Live in 2006 with the PlayStation Network – a free, unified service for online multiplayer for the PlayStation 3 that also featured an online store from which to buy games digitally. Online gaming was free for the PS3, but required a subscription to the PlayStation Plus service for the PS4 and PS5. The introduction of online multiplayer for consoles would lead to many games offering the feature out of the box, making online multiplayer gaming a staple for gamers, despite the fact that both Microsoft and Sony charge for the service


Modders Create a New Multiplayer Genre: MOBA

In 2003, a WarCraft III fan released a mod called Dota – Defense of the Ancients. The mod would spawn an entirely new genre in gaming, the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA). Dota enabled players to control hero units and fight an opposing team across three lanes that connected each team’s base. The game involved two teams of five player-controlled characters that battled each other, with the mission being to destroy the opposing team’s base. Soon, other modders were creating their own version of the map, adding new heroes and items. 

Eventually, modder Steve Feak would develop Dota Allstars, a version that would incorporate the best elements from multiple Dota iterations, and would become the most popular version of the mod. As the game was a modification of WarCraft III, modders could not add any original content (such as models/textures or characters) not provided in the modding resources released by Blizzard. Nor could Dota’s popularity result in any monetary gains for the modders. 

Dota AllStars (Courtesy Blizzard)

Steve Feak would hand over the reins of managing Dota to IceFrog, who would go on to collaborate with developers at Steam to release Dota 2 in 2013, one of the biggest esports in the world in terms of prize pools. Feak would himself be hired by Riot Games to develop the free-to-play MOBA League of Legends, one of the most popular esports in the world. A fan-made mod has spawned not one, but two major esports and changed gaming – especially online multiplayer gaming – forever. 


Online Multiplayer Goes To War

Around the time when Dota was becoming a phenomenon, two studios released two FPS titles that changed both online multiplayer and the FPS genre beyond recognition. In 2002, Electronic Arts released Battlefield 1942, and in 2003, Activision released Call of Duty, marking the start of a rivalry that has lasted nearly two decades. Both games had a World War II setting, and both of them fleshed out this conflict in masterful detail.  

Both games excelled at multiplayer – the Encyclopaedia Britannica credits Call of Duty for breathing new life into the multiplayer FPS genre spawned by Quake and Unreal Tournament. The first Call of Duty title was a visceral experience, set in World War II, and featured immersive audio-visual effects – when the player is close to an explosion, sounds are muffled, there is a ringing noise in the ear (simulating tinnitus) and vision is blurred as well. The game also featured excellent NPC AI (who are programmed to flank the player and move from cover to cover) and its multiplayer features could easily be modded by gamers themselves. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2007), would take the IP to modern settings and advance the multiplayer experience even further, with the introduction of killstreaks, where the player gains special abilities by killing opponents without dying. Staying alive while killing your enemies allowed you to call in UAV reconnaissance scans, airstrikes, and even attack helicopters. 

Call of Duty (Courtesy Activision)

Battlefield 1942’s contributions are just as significant – its online multiplayer allowed for epic, chaotic battles fought by dozens of players in large, detailed maps. The game established the 64-player online gameplay of the series, set in environments with multiple vehicles that you could use while battling with your foes. Its 22 maps were actual real-world settings such as El Alamein, Iwo Jima and Stalingrad from World War II. The game’s numerous vehicles, including tanks, planes, carriers and even submarines, added to the chaos of multiplayer and resulted in innovative tactics. The game’s active modding community introduced various weapons, settings and themes to the title – the well-known Desert Combat mod added modern assault rifles, rocket launchers, helicopters, and planes, while total conversions such as Galactic Conquest attempted to turn the game into a Star Wars title.

Battlefield 1942 (Courtesy Electronic Arts)

The two franchises dominated online multiplayer during the 2000s, and have continued to remain popular, releasing a new game every year. The Call of Duty franchise’s popularity has grown dramatically in recent years, following the release of its first mobile title in 2019 and its free-to-play title Call of Duty: Warzone in early 2020 – the series’ user base grew from 70 million in 2018 to more than 250 million in 2020.


Massive Communities and the Proto-Metaverse

The success of multiplayer games starting from RuneScape to Call of Duty would set the stage for the behemoth that was World of Warcraft (2004). The MMORPG still boasts a huge player count and it is known for its large expansion packs, complex lore and gameplay. It has been praised for its fluid combat, and the classic version of the game, as opposed to the retail version, is also known for being more challenging. Despite being around for nearly two decades, WoW is still very accessible, allowing new players to experience it on their own terms, and the latest expansion Shadowlands even includes the tutorial phase, like in the first release of WoW. The game boasts a total of over 120 million registered players.

World of Warcraft (Courtesy Blizzard)

But World of Warcraft is not just about gaming – the game would implement many features that would later be associated with today’s nascent metaverse. WoW was not the first game to come up with player-driven economies, social gathering points or the sale of virtual real estate, but it was the first widespread game to make these features part of the gaming landscape. With its massive community and metaverse-like features, WoW can be considered a proto-metaverse, and we have argued elsewhere that Microsoft’s purchase of Activision Blizzard qualifies as a metaverse play, precisely because Activision Blizzard is used to handling an enormous global community and can help Microsoft get a headstart on its metaverse initiatives.  

Second Life (2003) is another title that can count as a proto-metaverse – it is a vast 3D virtual world and platform where people can interact with each other and with user-generated content in real time. Players, known as ‘residents’, create a digital avatar and freely explore the world, create their own content and even trade goods and services with the in-world currency, the Linden dollar – Second Life hence boasts a thriving in-world economy. The platform has a daily average of 200,000 users from 200 countries, and over 70 million users spread out over 27,334 regions in the world.


Second Life (Courtesy Linden Lab)

Unlike games, Second Life has no goals or objectives and social interaction is the core aspect of the experience. Residents have married and even raised children, and created communities with unique customs. The game actively fosters such interaction by ensuring that everyone in any part of the platform will experience the same thing – Second Life consists of an integrated space and not disparate instances. 

The platform even created an early version of the non-fungible token – the digital assets in the world contain tags that record who made them, who owns them, what they cost and what a buyer can do with them. 

While the platform has been hailed as one of the longest-running experiments in a metaverse-like experience, creator Philip Rosedale is sceptical about present-day metaverse initiatives. Rosedale believes that a true metaverse would have to be built by its users rather than software companies, just as Second Life residents create digital assets to enhance their virtual world. Rosedale is also wary of the blockchain, and believes that the metaverse needs a centralised economy to prevent wealth disparity. Second Life is not just a proto-metaverse, it has yielded insight into the possible problems with current conceptions of the metaverse.


Multiplayer Matures, Becomes the Norm

By the late 2000s, online multiplayer was ubiquitous – and some of the best games of the decade were focussed on delivering memorable (and addictive) multiplayer experiences, supporting millions of connected players. 

Console games such as Halo 2 and its sequels thrived on the back of their multiplayer mode, modders created an entire genre of multiplayer – MOBA – on their own, games like Battlefield and Call of Duty raised the bar for what could be achieved in multiplayer FPS and became a staple of the multiplayer gaming scene throughout the 2000s and beyond, and MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft and the social platform Second Life led to the formation of massive online communities that persist to this date.

Throughout the course of the 2000s, long-running sports game franchises such as FIFA, Madden and NBA also started to offer robust multiplayer on multiple platforms and spawned their own esports communities and events. 

League of Legends was released towards the end of the decade and is one of the first MOBA games to launch as free-to-play, and to employ a live-service model with continual updates, new heroes, and game-balancing patches. The League of Legends franchise, comprising multiple games, registered a staggering 180 million active players in October 2021. The desktop version is one of the highest grossing free-to-play games as well, and its mobile version is one of the most popular mobile MOBA games as of 2022. Many multiplayer-focussed titles of the 2010s would take a cue from LoL and go free-to-play, deriving revenues from cosmetic upgrades and other microtransactions. 



Online multiplayer began as text-based adventures and matured into massively multiplayer games with high-fidelity graphics that support millions of active players. This evolution was spurred in part by developments in internet technology, but was also the result of game developers pushing the limits of what could be achieved with the network infrastructures they had access to. The early MUDs depended on university networks and then the ARPANET, while Doom used a matchmaking service based on a dial-up connection until the arrival of the internet, which QuakeWorld, Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena used to maximal effect with code bases optimised for online multiplayer. 

The efforts of these pioneers led to widespread online multiplayer in the 2000s, where millions of gamers could participate in MMORPGs, MOBAs, multiplayer FPS games and more. The development of online multiplayer, especially from the ’90s to the 2000s, is characterised by ceaseless innovation and pushing the limits of what can be achieved in a multiplayer experience over the internet.

In a subsequent blog, we will discuss current trends in online multiplayer – the shift toward mobile multiplayer, the rise to prominence of the hero shooter and battle royale genres, and how multiplayer rose in prominence during the pandemic period.

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