In the autumn of 2004, I wrote a paper titled “Asynchronous Multiplay” for the Other Players Conference on Multiplayer Phenomena, which was held at IT University, Copenhagen in December of that year. To give you an idea about how long ago 2004 was on the timescale of game development and game research, consider a few facts:

Facebook was incorporated in the summer of 2004, and the service was available only at Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Yale.

The “Other Players” conference was the first computer games conference ever to perform peer review on full paper submissions.

Xbox Live existed, but only as an add-on for the original console; the Xbox 360 with its integrated version wouldn’t be released for another year.

The first Nintendo DS had just been released, offering peer-to-peer handheld play, which was unique at the time.

At that moment, “multiplayer games” referred almost entirely to MMORPGs. It wasn’t even clear that a conference on “multiplayer phenomena” would be interested in anything other than those games.

I wrote the Asynchronous Multiplay paper as a kind of intervention, suggesting that the then-current obsession with real-time massively multiplayer games obscured the equally and perhaps even more interesting promise of smaller-scale, more casual, asynchronous multiplayer games. You can download the full paper [PDF], but here’s the abstract:

Big budget, high commitment 3D MMORPG’s have generated significant revenues and theoretical bounty. But these games still alienate most casual players. This article offers a promising future for multiplayer experience, especially casual experience, in the form of asynchronous multiplayer games, or games in which small or large numbers of players play a game in sequence rather than simultaneously.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Certainly I got a lot right at a very high level; this is just the sort of game that did indeed became even more popular than MMOs on Facebook. But before you race ahead in your eagerness to note the irony of the creator of Cow Clicker apparently predicting the social games phemomenon I would later revile, note that I missed a lot of details too, details that make today’s games very different from the ones I envisioned.

This week at the 2011 Foundations of Digital Games conference in Bordeaux, Mia Consalvo presented a paper, “Using Your Friends: Social Mechanics in Social Games.” It’s a version of research she’s shared elsewhere, including at the 2011 GDC Social Games Summit.

Mia’s paper points out the design patterns that are common to social games, most of which have more to do with spread and influence than they do with asynchrony: friend bars, gifts, and neighbor visits are ubiquitous, while player-to-player challenges and communication are limited.

I’m not sure if the 2004 paper counts as claim chowder or not, but it’s certainly an eye opening read for me, seven years later, after so much has changed. I offered four characteristics of asynchronous play in the paper:

  1. Asynchronous play supports multiple players playing in sequence, not in tandem
  2. Asynchronous play requires some kind of persistent state which all players affect, and which in turn affects all players
  3. Breaks between players are the organizing principle of asynchronous play
  4. Asynchronous play need not be the defining characteristic of a game

Of these, I think it’s characteristic 2 that’s least embraced by today’s social games. In that respect, my recent financial blackmailing of Cow Clicker players offers a unique (if perverse) version of this sort of social mechanic precisely because it offers a condition that all players affect and that affects all players in turn.

Secondarily, characteristic 3 above hasn’t been taken seriously in most Facebook games—or more accurately, it’s been taken seriously only as exploitation. In my critique of social games, I’ve cited enframing and compulsion as two features of the current crop of asynchronous multiplayer games, and features that ought to bother us. These are perhaps the features that make these games least likely to focus on the aspect of asynchronous games that interested me in 2004: an increased connectedness of intra- and extra-game player attitudes, or asking the question what happens in the gaps between gameplay and real life?

published July 1, 2011


  1. Chris Lewis

    Yes, I would likely characterize most Facebook games as what Jim Whitehead called “Retention Engineering” than something where “play” was any sort of requirement. That’s just the vehicle that it’s being sent on, although I would say Empires & Allies is certainly moving towards the characteristics you mention here, sans persistent state.

    I’d actually like to poke you a bit further on the persistent state argument. Do you still believe in this? It seems to me that the majority of Facebook games have gone hard on the notion of ownership. This is your farm, this is your cow, this is your empire. You then show what is yours to others, presumably as some sort of bragging. What ownership is there in persistent state, where other people can alter the thing you have set up? (my abject anger when my little brother chopped down my Animal Crossing orchard will attest to the difficulties here).

    When I think of the MMOs that have done persistent state in the way you’re describing, they’re usually also set up in a similar “this is yours, that is theirs, make yours better” scenario, such as the World of Warcraft drives to unlock things *on your realm only*. You do it so you can thumb your nose at the other realms. Only EvE has real deal persistent state for everyone, but I’d argue the territory battles shard this persistent state into multiple areas again.

    How would you set this up in a way that players will find non-offensive?

  2. Hamish

    Good stuff. You given up on calling it “exploitationware”?

  3. Mark N.

    I still like this vision, although it does come with a twinge of feeling like “…and we used to have something like this, even!”.

    You do mention asynchronous board games and play-by-mail, but as far as platforms to support computerized asynchronous play go, before Facebook became the major one, BBSs were an important one. It’d be interesting to see an analysis of the mechanics of asynchronous-multiplayer BBS door games compared to asynchronous-multiplayer Facebook games, and whether BBS games fall into the same pitfalls Mia Consalvo identifies for Facebook games. My feeling is that on several axes they don’t, perhaps partly because of the much lower commercialization leading to less of a spam-your-friends-and-extract-FB-credits design ethos.

  4. Ian Bogost


    Retention engineering is a good term. I’ll have to remember that one.

    On the persistent state bit: I think my interest in the then-future potential of these games had to do with moving somewhat away from a pretend-common into a real one, so what people “want” or find “familiar” was less important to me than what might be promising. Of course, social games may have had the opportunity to go in a different direction, but they didn’t.


    It’s gamification I’m calling exploitationware.


    Hmm, I think you might be onto something with BBS games, and certainly that’s another reminder to look to the past when questions about the future arise.

  5. Christian Mc

    Ian, I’ve always liked the old AM paper and I just wanted to point out that the Wii U design is entirely based around delivering asynchronous but simultaneous gameplay. Ie, one person has the tablet and others have Wiimotes. The suggested types of play in the tech demos would still be ‘breaks’, but breaks of controller – the game design concepts having to adjust to the idea of people playing on asymmetrical control systems which by dint of their difference perform asynchronous gameplay.

    Just a thought.

  6. Ken Lee

    One of the hot indie games at the moment features asynchronous multiplayer as a core feature. I was wondering if you’ve been able to try Frozen Synapse, and would like to know what you think about it.

  7. Ian Bogost


    Nintendo always seemed to have an interest in this design pattern… the sort of failed Tingle Tuner and the other GBA connection games on the GameCube being the most obvious precedents. I haven’t looked into the Wii U much yet, but it will be interesting to see how much of conflicted perspective comes into play on that device. Thanks for pointing it out.


    I just learned about Frozen Synapse earlier today from another source, and then I realized that I’d known about it for some time but somehow never bought a copy. Now I have two reasons to do so.

  8. Philip Cass

    “At that moment, “multiplayer games” referred almost entirely to MMORPGs. It wasn’t even clear that a conference on “multiplayer phenomena” would be interested in anything other than those games.”

    In 2004? Counterstrike, TFC, Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament were all released in 1999. World of Warcraft wasn’t released until November of that year, for example (although everquest and ultima online had already been around for at least 5 years)

  9. Ian Bogost

    Philip, the conversation about “multiplayer phenomena” was undeniably dominated by MMORPGs at that moment (2002-2003). I’m not claiming that other sorts of multiplayer experiences didn’t exist (that would be idiotic).

  10. Jeep Barnett

    Words with Friends, etc.

  11. Ian Bogost

    Jeep, right, the Scrabble examples in the paper were based on then-current efforts to do what Words with Friends implemented so well.