[Author’s Note: You may remember the attack on Sony’s servers at the end of 2014. Like many new owners of a PlayStation 4 after Christmas and Boxing Day, I found myself limited in my use of my new system and reflected on the growing trend of overemphasizing internet functionality in games. A lot has changed over the last three console generations and internet features like multiplayer are having a big impact on game design. So, while I waited to update my new games and play them to their fullest extent, I jotted down some thoughts.]
After a year of anticipation and saving, I finally obtained a brand new, shiny Playstation 4 this past Boxing Day. I reverently set it up, powered it on, and waited to be blown away… only to be undercut by Sony’s downed servers. Without being able to connect to the PlayStation Network servers, I couldn’t access my profile from PS3, update the games I’d bought, or redeem the voucher for LittleBigPlanet 3 included with my console. Nor could I check out Destiny, or start a worthwhile game of Dragon Age: Inquisition when I couldn’t import my World State from EA’s save date transfer service. The thrill of my new console was quickly quelled when half of its functionality was inaccessible.
It’s not Sony’s fault they were hacked – I won’t touch on the motivations of the attack, but it wasn’t their choice to have their servers down as the biggest annual influx of new console owners arrived. However, the incident did illustrate to me a major problem with today’s gaming industry: internet dependence.
Hard as it may be to process, the internet is still a fairly new aspect of our lives. Fifteen years ago it was a luxury item or curiosity at best; the majority of North American civilization may be dependent upon their smartphones for many major aspects of their daily lives, but those same people were at least born in a day where these wondrous devices were nothing more than science fiction.
And of course, the gaming industry has embraced the technology with open arms, as it should. It’s a natural progression as the medium grows – like the jump from two controllers to four, expanding the number of potential players from four people playing on the same local system to four strangers playing from four remote systems makes sense. These features have enriched and revitalized many franchises, and draw new players.
There are a handful of ways in which online multiplayer is currently bogging down games and, in a way, the industry as a whole.
Problem #1: Shoehorning
Some genres and games stand as online-only – MMORPGs, MOBAs, etc. These games, like World of Warcraft or League of Legends, are designed from square one as online games and arguably wouldn’t thrive if they had offline modes. There’s room in the industry for them.
But not every game needs an online multiplayer mode, let alone a multiplayer mode of any kind. Let’s use Assassin’s Creed as an example. The third entry in the series, Brotherhood, introduced an online multiplayer mode. On paper, it seemed bizarre; the first two games had been excellent single-player endeavours with no obvious room for such an addition. How could you translate Desmond’s experience reliving his ancestor’s accomplishments via the Animus into something 2-16 players could experience simultaneously?
To Ubisoft’s credit, the concept of the online mode was novel, if not ingenious: they put players in the shoes of the villainous Abstergo’s recruits as they used the Animus to become footsoldiers worthy of countering the Assassins. But the gameplay did not hold up as well. It was jittery and nervous, watching every generic character to see if one was behaving like a real person and not an algorithm, trying to find the person you were to kill and avoid the person trying to kill you. It was almost like rock-paper-scissors while suffering a panic attack. After a couple rounds, the concept was spent for most players. The gameplay was shallow, despite the wealth of unlockables and improvements to be earned, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the players who stuck it out and hit the level cap were just completionists hunting the exclusive Trophies.
In Brotherhood, this was an oddity; in the years that followed, it was a detriment to Revelations and ACIII. ACII and Brotherhood are commonly seen as the high point of the series, while III is widely reviled as a disappointment or outright failure. Had the resources that were put into including multiplayer in those two games been reassigned to improving the core campaign, would these two entires not been the faltering point of the series?
There’s a certain pressure to include online multiplayer in the age of Call of Duty, but outside of the FPS genre, should developers really bow to it? Did the Tomb Raider reboot or Dragon Age: Inquisition really need this addition? They were excellent games in their own right, and the absence of multiplayer would not have condemned them.
Problem #2: Future Functionality
Another angle to consider is how games will hold up over time. The retro gaming niche is stronger than ever these days, as collectors heap piles of games higher and as parents introduce their children to the games they played when they were that age. You can easily find an old functional NES, pop in a Super Mario Bros cartridge, and take a nostalgia trip. (Of course, this is getting a little more complicated as technology advances, but there are still workarounds like the lineup of Retron systems.)
Will this be the case for the past two generations of consoles? Someday a man who was raised on the multiplayer of Modern Warfare on his 360 will dust off his console and try to show his son what he spent so much time playing as a kid – and will he find functional servers to play on? Highly unlikely.
This has already affected things like Nintendo’s servers for the Wii and DS. Last year they were taken offline and suddenly a host of games like Pokemon, Smash Bros Brawl, and Mario Kart lost a chunk of their features. It’s happened with a host of PC games in the past. How big will the outcry be when the 360 and PS3 lose their functionality?
There needs to be something there that can stand when the scaffolding of online features is kicked out from beneath us, something that can survive the test of time. It’s the same reason I can’t fully endorse e-reading – I’ve studied history, I know how important it is to have some kind of archive future generations can access.
Solution: Pass the Gravy?
Game developers should be treating online functionality as gravy – a little added flavour to the meat of the single-player campaign, or in certain dire situations, something to enrich a dry piece of meat and help slide it down your gullet.
I’m going to use Nintendo as an example here. They’ve stumbled to create a cohesive online platform for their systems, which Sony and Microsoft both did so easily at the start of the last generation – they still use an archaic Friend Code system, and there’s still some nuisances with their eShop when you own multiple systems, but they’ve made strides in the last year with the Wii U and Miiverse.
But look at the online features of their first-party games. Super Smash Bros has a robust competitive environment and the functionality is in place for players to compete against random strangers – but it’s just one of a host of options available from the main menu. It’s no different than setting up a battle with CPUs or your buddies on the same couch. It wouldn’t have been a huge demand on the developers’ time; unlike AC:Brotherhood‘s multiplayer, it wasn’t an entirely unique game within their game that required a whole host of its own assets. It’s the kind of mode Sakurai could have added later in development. Online play is the gravy to the main game’s roast beef – there if you want it, but the entree itself is so delicious you may not need it at all.
Mario Kart 8 is a similar situation. Online play is there at the main menu, but there’s no obligation to try it and it didn’t detract from the development of the main game modes. You’ll be able to pop the game into your system twenty years from now and get the full experience.
The Pokemon games on 3DS are a great example of the enrichment online play can bring. There’s a whole menu on the bottom screen for interacting with other players, which can really help you access Pokemon you might not have been able to find otherwise, or at least make accessing multiplayer features so much easier than in previous games – you can do these things at any time outside of battle or conversation instead of detouring to the nearest Pokemon Center. Without features like the Global Trading System or Wonder Trade, you aren’t really missing much, but with them you have one more neat little trick at your disposal.
There seems to be too much emphasis put on online functionality in today’s industry – to continue the metaphor, developers are spending too much time on the gravy, putting too much on the meat of their games. If it needs to be present, it needs to be on the side, there if you desire it but not smothering your meal.