Game Breaking: The Multiplayer Problem

Welcome to Game Breaking. A weekly column that looks at the various components that make up the video games we all love. By breaking down games to their base mechanics we can learn a lot more about how the finished product and just how it can improve.

Now, I’d like to start this by saying that this is not an article designed to complain about the current state of the video game industry and its domination by multiplayer games. Instead, I want to talk about the actual design concept of multiplayer itself.

Many won’t see the same issue that I see with multiplayer games, but in my own opinion; there is a rather rampant one. Whilst some may consider the market-domination I mentioned to be a problem, I instead see it as an opportunity.

The issue is how homogenous multiplayer design has become. The actual concept of how to approach multiplayer gameplay has become stagnant and repetitive; it’s a rut that gaming as an art form hasn’t actually progressed forward from in nearly a decade. The biggest advance in multiplayer in the past ten years has been easily available online play. Prior to that? Co-operative multiplayer gameplay.

Now, it’s a very basic concept. Multiplayer should be either a co-operative form of the singleplayer experience of the videogame, or it should be a competitive one. Be it splitscreen at home or done over the internet, those are the two staple features of a multiplayer game.

The problem lies in the very simplicity of this concept though. Whilst complexity is often a two-steps-forward-one-step-back approach, it hinders things as often as it introduces innovation.

What got me thinking about this conundrum is one of my favourite games of all time that you may have seen in another article earlier this week: Perfect Dark.

For its time, Perfect Dark was one of -the- multiplayer games. It had splitscreen, programmable bots with a variety of difficulties and a large range of maps and weapons. Hell, it had more options for weapons than most games do today.

The thing that set it apart wasn’t the challenge mode (Also multiplayer accessible, I might add) or the bots, but a unique gamemode that I’ve not seen since its release -twelve years ago-. This gamemode was simply called “Counter-operative” and was found right next to the co-operative gamemode.

Instead of playing a side-character supporting the main character through the singleplayer campaign, the counter-operative took the place of one of the random enemies scattered throughout the level whose job it was to stop the main player from completing the mission.

It introduced a level of difficulty that isn’t available in normal singleplayer campaigns by making the enemy think on the same level as you. You couldn’t exploit AI glitches or set patrol paths, because one of those enemies was out to get you and could ambush you in ways that you couldn’t possibly expect from normal AI baddies. And if you kill them? They respawn and continue their onslaught.

Whilst I’m not pretending to be some hipster-guru-know-it-all who has the divine answer to this problem, I do think that there are some simple changes that can be made that could potentially change the face of multiplayer gaming as we know it.

For one, Counter-Operative was a brilliant gamemode, and one of the very few games that I’ve seen attempt it has been Left 4 Dead 2‘s Versus mode. It should be popularised somehow. Imagine playing the latest Call of Duty title, going through the singleplayer campaign.

AI get predictable and boring, but what if one or two of those random mook enemies could think on the same level as you? It adds an entirely new level of difficulty, forcing you as the player to think on your feet and prepare for unknown danger rather than blasting your way through room after room.

As another, singleplayer and online multiplayer can be blended into one experience. I feel that Journey deserves an honourable mention here, as does Dark Souls. If you have access to the internet, then why must your singleplayer experience be so lonely?

Receiving hints from other players ala Dragons Souls or actually meeting other players going through a singleplayer experience ala Journey can be huge gameplay features. Multiplayer doesn’t have to necessarily mean a competitive experience. It’s just a case of making use of another players presence.

How about the multiplayer juggernaut, World of Warcraft? You spend a lot of time levelling a character, and you can interact with other people but you never actually have to invest any actual gameplay with them. Or you can take the opposite route and level a character exclusively by grouping with other players.

Speaking of MMOs, what about EVE Online? A game that over time has literally become all about the player and their multiplayer experience.

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.

I’m not saying that this is the case for every studio though. However, as a community there does need to be innovation at some point in order for gaming to evolve.