Designing products for single and multiplayer modes

June 12, 2010

The first million people who bought VCRs bought them before there were any movies available to watch on them. They just wanted to “time shift” TV shows – what we use DVRs for today. Once there were millions of VCR owners it became worthwhile for Hollywood to start selling and renting movies to watch on them. Eventually watching rented movies became the dominant use of VCRs, and time shifting a relatively niche use. Thus, a product that eventually had very strong network effects* got its initial traction from a “standalone use” – where no other VCR owners or complementary products needed to exist.

I was talking to my friend Zach Klein recently who referred to products as having single player and multiplayer modes. I like Zach’s terminology because: 1) it is borrowed from video games where a lot of thought has gone into making these modes compelling in distinct ways, 2) the word “mode” reminds us that people can switch from moment to moment – that even when a product is primarily social or networked and has reached critical mass it might still be useful to offer a single player mode.

Many products that we think of as strictly multiplayer also have single player modes