The Multiplayer Effect
How its influenced console gaming and the consequences of it
by Terry Randolph and Chris Medrano
Multiplayer has made a huge impact on console gaming over the years; whereas a stellar single-player campaign would be the focus of a game, multiplayer seems to have taken priority. Initially, it was hard to argue the benefits multiplayer brought to console gaming; Microsoft and Sony had not only found a viable, consistent stream of revenue but also provided a space for gamers to enjoy games with people around the world, show of their skills to others and take them head on. Games like Halo, Battlefield, and Call of Duty further went on to gain synonymity with multiplayer and laid out the blue print for many console games to build off of; unlockable weapons through level progression, variation in map sizes, and many game variants to choose from.
Since then, it seems most studios have adopted this idea that multiplayer drives both the sales and extension of life games. This pervasive train of thought has lead to the abrasive shift of priority from providing a memorable campaign experience to developing a “solid multiplayer experience” (sound familiar?) as being most important. Many games then begin to copy the blueprint of long-established multiplayer ideas and take no risks in providing something new. Or, while the campaign may actually be good, multiplayer may feel tacked on as a throwaway addition that makes the game take a step back from being “good”. Ultimately, the influence of multiplayer has gone from being positive to detrimental for console gaming and needs to see a change in thought.
One of the biggest examples of the “let’s add multiplayer to enhance the product” fallacy are games renowned for their single-player campaign…only to see their successor try to have a “unique” multiplayer added on. When the first BioShock released, it only contained a single-player campaign to ride its hopes on to succeed. This proved to be the right move, as critics cited the game as a “masterpiece” for its stellar attention to detail in lore building, its art style and overall presentation. Andrew Pfister’s review from 1up describes it succinctly:
It’s easy to get lost in Rapture. Not physically, mind you — your objectives are pretty clear and you have an excellent map. It’s that the world Levine and his Irrational (now 2K Boston) team created is so credible and convincing, it sells the entire experience. By themselves, the solid gunplay, unique plot, and morality-based decisions already make for an excellent game. But it’s all of that, plus everything else. The sounds of the vending machines, the demented rants of a housewife who has long lost her sanity, the ability to craft your own ammunition, the level design based on some beloved touchstones of horror (medical experimentation, a garden of evil, the performing arts), the optional photography research, the color palette, the scratchy rendition of “Beyond the Sea,” the fire and lighting and water effects…everything is in its right place.
For many, the story and world of Rapture began and concluded with the first game as a standalone entry. 2K Marin, however, seemed to think otherwise and went on to develop BioShock 2 on the coattails of its predecessor’s success. To many fan’s surprise, and chagrin, 2K Marin split half of the developments team on creating a multiplayer that would tell a “prequel” expanding on what happened to the people in Rapture that lead to its downfall. The game did try to build upon the FPS multiplayer formula and add its own tweaks with things like “Research Photos” and plasmids. However, this would do nothing for the game as a while, as it seemed the impression of the game was “been here, done that”. BioShock 2’s digressive step reducing the focus on its campaign lead to its underselling, and 2K Marin would be closed down.
Another game that tried this, and failed, was Dead Space 2. Dead Space 2 really did nothing to tweak the formulas of successful multiplayers, and only added an aesthetic change. For many, like Chris and I, we found no point to the multiplayer and felt that the focus should have been kept on the campaign like the first Dead Space. The campaign, story and shift to action and horror balanced gameplay for Dead Space 2 was great, but the atmosphere, tension and scares just were not as strong as the first game.
The other major issue with the influence of multiplayer is how often it feels “tacked on” at the last minute in order to increase a game’s value. Tomb Raider, the great reboot for a franchise that seemed to be losing relevance, is a prime example of this. While Square Enix was smart in allowing Crystal Dynamics to focus its entire team on developing the stellar single player campaign, quietly it had Eidos Interactive working on a multiplayer component for the game. When this was revealed, hardly anyone seemed excited for it. If anything, it seemed to beg the question “Why?”. Stace Harmon’s (from VG247.com) excerpt perfectly encapsulates impression the multiplayer reveal/preview had:
Ultimately, multiplayer will not damage Tomb Raider, but only prolonged exposure will reveal if it enhances it in any way. And there’s the rub: it’s hard to imagine a significant number of people investing the time necessary to find that out. Like Dead Space and Uncharted before it, its multiplayer mode will add a level of throwaway entertainment set in the context of a beloved universe, but it seems unlikely to contribute to people’s lasting impressions of the title as a whole.
In that regard, multiplayer seems like it will be largely irrelevant. While it feels callous to dismiss a whole body of work in such a fashion, that’s the overriding feeling that I’m left with after experiencing the little that was on offer. Of course, this may come as a relief to traditional Tomb Raider fans, just as it comes as a disappointment to the scant few out there who might have had high hopes. Overall, I can’t help but feel that the Tomb Raider multiplayer puts Eidos Montreal in a curiously unenviable position. While it means the developer has a hand in the reboot of an iconic franchise, a time might come when it wishes it hadn’t.
While Chris and I actually enjoyed Uncharted’s multiplayer, we agree that situations like the one Tomb Raider presents evoke a feeling of having multiplayer thrown on with hardly any reason. If the multiplayer does not fit contextually with the campaign or really build on anything it feels like it takes away from the game’s value. Furthermore, it also shows how the implementation of the multiplayer of the game determines the reception of it.
The Last of Us is a stellar example of how big implementation is; the game does a great job tying multiplayer the game’s world through narrative context. Players are either part of the Fireflies or Hunters (who are the major antagonists in the campaign) factions, trying to fight, grow, and survive through different game variants. While it is obvious what game variants are being used, Naughty Dog does a good job taking a risk in morphing them to fit into the scope of the world. It is ugly, brutal and cold but fits the narrative context all too well. Mass Effect 3 does something similar, giving the multiplayer missions purpose; you are fighting the battles that are not witnessed as part of Shepard’s story but are taking place in the universe. BioWare also does a great showing how the multiplayer games affect your single player experience; battles increase your Effective Military Points that affect how the game ends.
Lastly, there is one other major problem; Games vying for success oftentimes take no risk at all in either tweaking the worn-out formulas or coming up with something new. (aside from the examples listed above). Most, if not all games just about offer the same thing with slight aesthetic differences; Team Deatmatch, Capture the Flag, Domination, and so on. It gives little incentive for players to try it out because there’s no “reward” to it. Why try out Call of Duty version 205: Homeland edition when it’s easier to just play Call of Duty <insert number or adjective> Warfare?
If a game sincerely wants to have multiplayer involved, co-op is a great way to explore this. Minecraft is a fantastic example; it is a game that allows players to build worlds together and use their imagination to create what they want. Borderlands 1 and 2 great job building upon focusing its gameplay on online co-op; players can customize their guns, class and abilities to create variations in experiencing the campaign. The games have high replayability because of the copious amounts of player agency. Halo, aside from having its own consistently successful huge multiplayer does a great job providing a top-notch co-op campaign.
There are games that have gone against this train of thought and succeeded; Deus Ex: Human Revolution and BioShock: Infinite are two recent, stellar examples. Deus Ex provided a great stealth based role-playing game that was very open and receptive to player agency. Players could choose how to approach situations in games while uncovering the mystery of the plot. While BioShock: Infinite was very linear, the storytelling, themes, voice acting, and art design were top notch in providing a memorable experience. Overall, these games show that only having a single player to rely on its sales can work.
In the end, multiplayer is a dual edged sword developers need to be more weary about; it can either work or it can backfire. While it is hard to ignore the impact it has had on the way consoles are used (such as the Pizza Hut app anyone?), it certainly has had its long list of problems. Sure, gamers can still enjoy that unique experience of enjoying a game with someone that may be six-thousand miles away or have fun playing games like Minecraft, it is just that the emerging prominence of multiplayer games has shifted the development perspective in a disturbing way. A game should have its campaign focused on a first with a multiplayer later if its feasible. Or, if a studio knows what it wants to do with its multiplayer by taking risks and building it to fit the tone of the game contextually, then they should. Otherwise, all gamers will see if a growing list of games that offer the same, worn formats that lead to an over-saturation of the market.