Today I’m taking a look at a rather insidious problem that has been plaguing the game industry for years. Despite it being a quiet infection, it can be felt at all levels of gaming, resonating everywhere and with everyone. I speak of what I have tentatively named The Multiplayer Problem.
There’s been waves in the gaming community for a while now concerning the recent focus that many AAA games have had on multiplayer. Some people think it takes away from the game, others think it adds to it. Now, I’m not here to talk about that problem. Personally, I’m all for multiplayer focus in games just as much as I am for single-player focus. It doesn’t matter what your game does so long as it does it well, and that’s where I think the problem lies.
Y’see, over the past few years there’s been a sort of homogenization of multiplayer in video games. It’s become a tried and tested formula and after so many times, the experience itself becomes very, very bland. Many games these days use multiplayer only for the competitive experience that it has to offer; just look at all the AAA FPS titles that have been released in the past year. Some games make heavy use of co-operative gameplay, but it’s frequently only used as a crutch for the single-player portion of the game. I’m not saying this is all there is to the multiplayer component of games these days, but this is possibly the most widely featured uses of multiplayer in video games.
The very concept of multiplayer gaming is quite a basic one. It needs to be something that introduces at least one other active human player into the gaming experience that the first player is having. At it’s core, the easiest way to do this is co-operative or competitive; Either introduce the second player into the single-player campaign as a second human player or forcibly pit the second player against the first one. It’s a solid concept, but it’s still very basic and that is where the problem lies.
This conundrum isn’t necessarily a bad one, but can it be improved on? Can we take multiplayer gaming to new places? The answer is yes. Over the years, developers have experimented with the many facets of multiplayer gaming, but the only ones that appear to have really stuck are the aforementioned game-modes. That’s a kind of situation that can’t go on forever as it leads to stagnation. Meanwhile, changing the formula entirely might not work either; innovation for the sake of innovation is rarely a good thing as if it’s not broken, then why fix it?
What really got me thinking about this article was a game that I used to absolutely love when I was younger: Perfect Dark. The N64 game, not the Xbox 360 prequel, just to be clear. As far as I was concerned; Perfect Dark was -the- best multiplayer game of it’s generation. It had competitive multiplayer as well as a variety of maps and programmable bots to make things challenging. There was a challenge mode that could be attempted solo or co-operatively. You could play through the main game co-operatively with the second player taking on the role of another Academy agent.
The thing that really set Perfect Dark aside for me though was the unique Counter-Operative gamemode that I’ve not seen re-attempted since. The concept was simple: A split-screen experience between two players, exactly like in the co-operative mode, however instead of player two taking the place of a friendly player they instead took the place of one of the random enemies scattered throughout the level. It might not sound dangerous, but suddenly one of the many random AI enemies you had to face would have the intelligence and scope of a human. Since they’re also on the enemy team, they have far more resources available and it’s a lot harder to trick them. It upped the ante on a huge scale.
And stuff like that could be the innovation I’m looking for in multiplayer games. It’s not a big twist, it doesn’t deviate too much from the current model but it works.
So, to break things down: I think we need not to innovate completely but to expand on the concept. The game industry has been doing this, but just how?
To start things off, counter-operative. That needs to come back, especially whilst FPS games are still so popular in the market. The scope for this is enormous and doesn’t take much work and with the advent of online multiplayer you could avoid having to do things with split-screen (Pesky screen lookers!). Imagine playing through the latest Halo or Call of Duty campaign except the enemies you’re facing could be a human opponent, possibly with the ability to co-ordinate the AI enemies. We know that Left 4 Dead 2 already does this in some way with the Versus mode which is massively popular, so why can’t that work for other games?
How about a new idea? Have you heard about what Watch_Dogs is supposedly doing with it’s multiplayer component? It’s all unconfirmed, but we’ve seen at E3 that a second player was running about the world that the single-player content was taking part in. How do they affect the gameplay? Is it just another co-op mode? Apparently not. The idea seems to be that so long as you’re playing online, other players can drop into your world as part of their single-player experience and as part of your single-player experience. Two people on the same game, just in different parts of the story and both helping each other in some strange, wonderful amalgamation of online technology and the multiplayer experience which makes your single-player experience a lot less lonely.
Whilst we’re thinking about single-player being incorporated into multiplayer, we can think about how you can blend them as a single experience. Think of Demon’s Souls, where so long as you’re playing online, you can leave hints for other people playing online. You never really interact with those other players, but it does bring that element of multiplayer into the single-player It is possible to take both experiences and use them as a singular entity, just look at Journey. It’s definitely a co-operative game, but it’s also a single-player game entirely. Nothing is stopping you from playing a game with other people without the experience being co-operative or competitive.
Think about the myriad ways you can play World of Warcraft or any similar MMORPG. You’re going to spend a large portion of your time leveling a character in a world filled with other people doing exactly the same thing, but it’s your choice whether you ever have any real interaction with them. You can spend the entire game only ever talking to people if you absolutely need something from them or as some strange form of living market. Conversely, you can spend the entire leveling experience by grouping with players for dungeons and quests. You can get the same experience either way, with or without people.
EVE Online definitely deserves mention if only because it’s become exclusively about the unique multiplayer experience it has to offer. There’s a level of player interaction there that is completely different to any other MMO, what with just about everything being player-driven now. If you want something, you go to a player or a corp. If you need money, you sell on the market that’s determined entirely by the players. You need a job, you go to the bigger corps that need something doing.
There are other examples, but pointing out where to look for new experiences isn’t the point of this article. Rather, to talk about the homogeneity that multiplayer gaming has come to. Many developers are afraid to experiment too wildly in case they go too far and stray into the realms of insanity, all the while tarnishing their image. For some companies, it’s about pandering to the mainstream in order to insure sales so that they can go on to make another game. Whilst I’m not saying that this is true for every studio, I do think that there’s a problem that’s becoming inherent to both gaming and the community of gamers themselves.
I love gaming and I love multiplayer games. It takes a really special experience to truly bind together a community, a la Curiosity: What’s Inside The Cube, but so many games are just the same experience over and over again that it becomes a bit disheartening. This is a truly special thing that we have and sometimes it’s wasted in the name of sales. Studios like thatgamecompany have created brilliant games and brilliant multiplayer components with titles like Journey that go on to sell just as well and win awards, but still there are so many developers who aren’t looking at this side of things.
So, after rambling on for 1,000 words, I feel the need to ask; Do you agree? Is there a problem with homogenization in the multiplayer games of today, or is everything fine as it is? What do you want out of your multiplayer experience?