Scheduling for my monthly column at the International Game Developers Association has been more than a little spotty of late. I was once pretty Johnny-on-the-Spot with deadlines, but various things influenced that negatively; meanwhile the organization itself is going through various transitions as well. In the interest of getting myself back on a schedule I present my
not-yet-published April 2012 edition. Not being a big multiplayer myself some of the conclusions I draw may be shortsighted, but in the end I hope to spark some thought on what that form means in the larger cultural context of gaming. Enjoy!
U Know U a Playa
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
After an exhausting 114 hours I finally completed Dark Souls the weekend before last. I haven’t played that much of a game since… well, since Demon’s Souls, I think.
At first, I approached the final encounter intending to do it by myself. To briefly bring you up to speed, both Dark and Demon’s Souls feature a unique multiplayer mechanism in which you can, under certain circumstances, summon one or two players at random from their games into yours, and they can offer assistance until they or the local boss are defeated. You don’t communicate aside from a few gestures, and you have no way of knowing or selecting who you’re going to get. The games feature a few other multiplayer aspects, too: from time to time you’ll see ghostly images of other players in your area, though you can’t interact with them; also, players can leave cryptic messages to one another, selecting from a database of phrases to advise or mislead others.
Throughout the rest of the game I’d used the multiplayer feature a fair amount. If I was in a position to summon help, and if a player had made themselves available for that purpose, I tended to take them up on it. And though I had a pretty good handle on how to defeat the final boss – Gwyn, Lord of Cinder (how’s that for a cool name?) – by myself, in the end I buckled and summoned help. Not because I needed to but because, in the end, that silent cooperation of strangers aiding strangers is part of the game. And it is one of the most unique and innovative approaches to multiplayer that I’ve ever seen.
Multiplayer has been around for a very long time, and historically the innovations we’ve seen in it take one of two forms: game types, such as when Unreal Tournament added Capture the Flag to the traditional shooter deathmatch style; and technology, such as when id Software developed server browsers and robust infrastructure for Quake’s online play. And given the age of those two examples, it’s fair to say that multiplay innovation tends to be comparatively slow.
What you don’t see a lot of is experimentation with new ways to do multiplayer, and that’s part of the reason I find the Souls games so entrancing. They’re essentially single player games, pure and simple, just every now and then you happen to be able to interact on a very limited level with others. Game director Hidetaka Miyazaki supposedly conceived of this silent, anonymous interaction while trapped in the ditch during a snowstorm – other motorists could help each other out, but then they had to peel off right away or else they’d get stuck again, meaning there was no time for thanks or communication. The idea’s simple, but the technology underneath the Souls games’ multiplayer sounds almost amazingly complicated: constantly juggling however many players happen to be in the same region, displaying ghosts, summon signs, and messages, and managing the player-vs-player aspect as well. The simplicity of the multiplayer’s concept conceals what I can only assume is actually a pretty challenging technical implementation.
Thatgamecompany’s Journey may have taken some inspiration from Demon’s Souls, I’m not sure. Journey is even less a traditional multiplayer game – from time to time, during the course of your beautiful desert trek, another player will appear. That’s about it. They appear, they wander with you for a while – again, no direct communication, but it’s been fascinating to see players employ the cheeps and trills their chraracters can emit as a way of getting ideas across – and then they’re gone. In fact, in Journey, you don’t even know if the other player is in your game, or if you’re in the other player’s game. But again what seems like a fairly small facet of the overall experience becomes nearly indispensable in practice.
BioWare had an iffier challenge with the multiplayer in Mass Effect 3.By choosing to tie multiplayer to opportunities and progress in the single player campaign, the company took a risk: Mass Effect has always been a solitary experience and many, myself included, had no real intention of participating in the multiplayer part of it despite the fact that your multiplayer progress impacted your singleplayer game. To BioWare’s credit they seem to have done a reasonable job of making it optional, but in the end I tried it and deemed the multiplayer a pointless waste of resources that should have gone into the single player experience. Still, it was a new idea in a realm that doesn’t see too many new ideas.
Most forms of “play” tend to involve others. It’s not a hard rule, but in general you “go out to play” with others, you play tabletop games with others, you play sports with others. Video games are somewhat unusual in that despite a large and robust multiplayer aspect, multiplayer is still considered by many a feature, not a necessity. Games without multiplayer are common, and a large segment of gamers has no real interest in multiplayer. That alone may be why innovation in multiplayer comes slowly. First, in arcade cabinets, we saw hotseat one and two player games. Simultaneous co-op and versus came a bit later. It’s interesting that early home consoles always shipped with two controllers, even though games of the time increasingly weren’t two-player friendly. While it could be argued that later generations dropped down to one controller simply to cut costs, it’s also not inconceivable that developers no longer thought a second controller was necessary.
Play is a social activity – even single player games have a social aspect, as we discuss our games with friends, share strategies, and so forth. But it’s rare to see the traditional modes and models of multiplay evolving. When you stop to consider how much in gaming has changed since twenty years ago, and then how much of multiplayer is still the same, you see a curious disparity. It’s interesting to wonder, particularly in light of the handful of new multiplay approaches we’ve seen recently, what might be next for the form.
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