Sunday Thoughts: 31/05/09

Multiplayer gaming has been constantly evolving and is considered a must have feature for almost all games published today.  In the early days it was playing on the same screen in Double Dragon, or sacrificing half your viewing pleasure so your best mate can chase you as Tails when playing Sonic split-screen.  Multiplayer gaming has always been a fun way to play, and today gaming with your friends could not be any easier.

Whilst split-screen (and even shared screen) multiplayer is still implemented today, the ease at just connecting to the Internet and playing together over Live or PSN has long taken over local multiplayer gaming.  Two gamers on the same street will likely choose gaming online where they do not need to share their screen, and they can sit in the comfort of their own home and not even need to leave the sofa.  The exception is of course Rock Band, Guitar Hero, SingStar and a handful of Wii titles, where the experience is more enjoyable together in the same space with a fridge full of beer and a Dominos pizza menu that you found somewhere amongst all that junk in the kitchen drawer.

So it is safe to say online multiplayer gaming is a massive feature that should never be overlooked by any developer looking to compete with the best.  Take Uncharted: Drakes Fortune for example – a great single player adventure that had most people glued to the screen, curtains closed, growing a rats nest of a beard and a mobile phone on the table blinking ’30 missed calls’ from their loved ones wondering why they hadn’t seen them in weeks.  Yet the upcoming sequel is to feature multiplayer gaming; not just slapped on for the grin, but with various modes and a suite of options to hopefully compliment the campaign.  Adding a multiplayer mode is deemed necessary to ensure a game can compete with other big hitters of the year and help maximize the potential for a revenue stream via in game advertising and/or downloadable content.  In these harsh financial conditions, we have seen Resident Evil 5 go down this road, and Uncharted: Among Thieves seems set to follow suit.

So what are developers doing to stand out and make their multiplayer offerings more appealing to us – the fussy gamer?  How have multiplayer games evolved to keep the experience feeling fresh and above the competition?

Halo is a good example of a game’s online environment evolving.  From strictly split screen and system link in the first title, to online multiplayer via Xbox Live in the second, offering us a ranking system where all enthusiastic gamers would push themselves to the limit to obtain a high rank and skill rating.  Halo 2 was ground breaking in terms of console multiplayer gaming, and will always be recognised as one of the first major players in really bringing the console to online gaming.  Halo 3 had so much to live up to, a really hard job of exceeding all expectation and bettering the experience its prequel had already offered millions of gamers.  Unfortunately, in my opinion, Bungie fell short on this one.  Halo 3 was nowhere near as ground-breaking as Halo 2 was online, and it did very little that was new.  Sure it offered better graphics and more maps, but the gameplay remained the same, and the option to watch your last game from any angle in a replay was too little to claim an evolution in the series had occurred.

Along came Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.  Now this game online really did stand out and was a great multiplayer experience for millions of gamers worldwide.  It surpassed Halo 3 for most played game on Xbox Live, and then you have the PS3 and PC gamers contributing too.  So what was it that made COD4 take the crown and put one of the games industries most eagerly awaited titles in second place?  I believe a bit of basic psychology can answer that.

Let us think for a minute.  COD 4 had no online achievements or trophies, it was another FPS game, and didn’t really do anything technically amazing online.  What it did do is feed the male mind what it subconsciously and consciously wants.  We had buckets and buckets of boasting material thrown our way.  We had a progressive XP system that unlocked new ranks and weapons for us to brag about at the end of each match.  Adding to the general XP you obtained for just out right carnage, you were bathed in generous amounts of bonus XP for completing challenges.  To top it all off, you could reset all your weapons and perks just to show off by entering prestige mode.

“I got the golden AK47 suckers!” was heard far too often in that game.  But even then I recognised how this game really plays to your ego.  Always being told that so and so just completed the xyz challenge, now has this perk and that perk, and can paint his M4 in a blue tiger pattern.  Gamers lost days and even weeks playing COD 4 multiplayer, and it was no different to any other decent FPS online, except it gave the gamer little rewards and fuelled their ego trip which had them coming back for more all the time.

This is not a bad thing, and many games are following suit.  Soon after COD4 came Rainbow 6 Vegas 2 with XP being gained both in the campaign and online. The problems now are how do developers add to this and make their games feel fresh?  Killzone 2 gave us clan support incorporated in the game itself and with a dedicated page at the menu to view all the latest details regarding your clan.  Whilst every man needs his ‘cave’, we also like to think we belong to a ‘pack’ or a ‘gang’, and we aim to be competitive within such a clan.

So whilst new weapons and abilities do add freshness, and bigger levels are appreciated, it’s the stuff that grants us bragging rights that will keep us playing.  The up and coming MAG (massive action game) features an epic 256 player online battle.  The chance to play in an online FPS with 255 other players is fantastic!  But how many of you would be put off straight away if told it was not to feature an XP system, perks or abilities?

What are your thoughts?  Does winning in a game mean much more than it ever used to?  Does it matter that we may no longer play just to win the match, but rather to get items and abilities to show off and mark our accomplishments?  Are developers putting too much emphasis on such ego boosting achievements and milking the ‘bragging rights’ system too much just to sell a game?  What directions should developers go to keep new multiplayer games feeling fresh and unique?

As always your comments are welcome.  Discuss.