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Online Killed the Multiplayer Star

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Online Killed the Multiplayer Star

There seems to be a trend in digital media these days.  We live in an age of rapid electronic communication, where you are more likely to converse with someone via text then you are face to face.  We tweet routine tasks like #pickingupdogcrapagain, as we instagram photos of our nightly meals.  We constantly check and update our Facebooks, and use Google whenever we need to know the answer to something.  For better or worse, the age of rapid digital information transfer is here to stay.  Entire generations will be raised not knowing what life was like before the cell phone, and we will lose a social dimension of communication amidst the digital bombardment.

By Heavy Metal Sushi

Zombies Ate My Multiplayer

You may be asking yourself, how does this relate to video games?  Video games are increasingly becoming a single player experience masked as a social one.  Gone are the days of going to your neighbor’s house for a round of Mario (or Super Smash Bros for the younger crowd).  For as long as I can remember growing up, video games were always a social activity.  They were a time to invite all your friends over and play Street Fighter or Contra.  Even Square RPG classics such as Secret of Mana featured goof old fashioned cooperative goodness.  So, what happened?

Somewhere along the line, online multiplayer surfaced for consoles.  While this was nothing new for the PC crowd, who had been playing games via LAN and later online for some time, for consoles it was a seemingly revolutionary concept.  Although there were several botched attempts attempted, including one by Sega, online console multiplayer didn’t really take off until the introduction of Xbox Live in 2002.  Smelling a new market with the trend towards digital isolation that would soon take place, Microsoft decided to charge a fee for users of the service.  Thus began the decline of local multiplayer gameplay.

One must simply look at their current game library to notice a few things about the industry and multiplayer games.  There are fewer games today with local multiplayer options then there have ever been in the history of gaming.  First, there are numerous acclaimed games that would have been amazing with local multiplayer, such as Anarchy Reigns, Dead Island, Dead Rising 2, Saints Row 3, Mass Effect 3, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Read Dead Redemption.  Second, there are numerous console games that feature lackluster online multiplayer components such as Dead Space 2, Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed III, and Bioshock 2.  Finally, and most interestingly, some of the most successful and entertaining games feature both, such as Super Smash Bros Brawl, Halo franchise, Gears of War series, Call of Duty franchise, and Borderlands 2.  This should come as no surprise, as there are more people willing to play local multiplayer if possible then developers would like to admit.

The Blame Game

Who is to blame for this problem?  The problem is multifaceted and complex.  On one hand, the trend in digital media towards isolation is systemic.  As time goes on, expect technology to continue down the current path of digital isolation at the expense of face to face social interaction.  Most game developers are more than happy to be on board, ad this offers an easy way out of the problem of designing games absent of local multiplayer.  Many developers have claimed that the process is taxing on hardware and would be a hindrance to the game in some way.  In most cases though, it comes down to developer laziness, as we have seen stellar examples of local multiplayer done correctly.  Consoles manufacturers like Microsoft only exacerbate the problem, being more than happy to require costly fees for online gaming services.

What does this mean for the future of console games?  With the next generation of game consoles, it will be interesting to see which direction the “big 3” go towards.  The Wii U seems to be a sort of online hybrid.  While it features rudimentary online system, the focus, like the Wii, will be on a same room experience.  This is what it seems they are trying to achieve with the Gamepad.  I would expect Microsoft and Sony to follow whatever is trending, as they seem more content on resting upon established laurels then pioneering digital trends.

You Get What You Ask For

What do gamers want?  As with any service, there is a certain level of demand, games being no exception.  As much as industry wants to shape demand for their own ends, it ultimately comes down to what the consumer wants.  When I ask my friends or random people about multiplayer games, almost everyone universally agrees that they want some sort of multiplayer experience, as long as it does not detract from the experience as a whole.  Many older gamers share a twinge of nostalgia over gaming fests around their TV at home.  I was surprised to find out exactly how “wired” some of the younger generation of gamers are though.  At a local video game store the other day, I stood in line behind a mother and her teenage son.  His headset had broken that morning and he absolutely needed one to continue playing games.  Sadly, many younger people are being raised entire by media and online interaction.  They are detached from reality in some form or another, not knowing how to properly interact socially.  It seems many of their parents are more than happy to feed the addiction, as it offers a sort of free babysitting service.  How this sort of social dynamic will shape children formatively and mentally remains to be seen.  One can only imagine the results being poor.

One thing is for certain, it seems that the days of gathering around the TV for some crazy video game mayhem are numbered.  With the systemic trend towards digital isolation, gamers will be pushed farther and farther away from actual social interaction with other gamers.

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