Tuesday, June 12, 2012

(Don't) Add multiplayer to ALL THE GAMES!

Every game must have multiplayer, or at least that's the mindset of many publishers of AAA titles. Mass Effect 3 added it, so did Dead Space 2, and Dragon Age 3 and Dead Space 3 are set to as well. GTA IV, BioShock 2, Max Payne 3, and a list of sequels a mile long all have added multiplayer gameplay into their titles. The big question I have is simple: Why?

The immediate answer is "because players ask for it". So many fans on forums when asked "what do you want?" immediately jump to "multiplayer" as a default response. Playing with or against friends is an immediately popular concept, either from a competitive "I want to prove I'm better" mindset, or a "yeah, I'd like to have fun with a friend" ideal. I don't begrudge this desire at all, but it needs to suit the game. To simply say "I want multiplayer" is a horridly shallow, shortsighted, and unimaginative response. I expect better from the gaming community at large. We all should.

Skyrim, even with its flaws, showed that single player games can still sell. Lots.

To demonstrate how terrible this "adding multiplayer equals better game" mindset is, take the example of a roleplaying game that according to its design ideals and marketing is focused on choice and consequence. It's a game that provides an ongoing, complex narrative that is as a cinematic experience. The default choice for story based (and roleplaying) games used to be a cooperative approach, because this allowed players to work together towards a goal. When you introduce this kind of narrative, particularly when you have a voiced protagonist (which is becoming increasingly popular), then a second player becomes a second-class citizen. Of course, the problem isn't limited to this type of game.

Even to pull one of the worst examples from the action roleplaying genre, Dungeon Siege 3 offered no ongoing benefit to the second player in a multiplayer game, who couldn't import their own character, or gain any items or experience from playing with a friend. Imagine playing as Commander Shepard's mute henchmen, Geralt's of Rivia's nameless sidekick, a silent mook accompanying Nathan Drake, or any other equivalent. Or take Gears of War 3, where a playable character (for the second player) is summarily killed and they're forced to play another character instead. The fact that character is new, underdeveloped and not really all that interesting is just a further kick in the guts.

Imagine Mass Effect where you can only shoot bad guys. Not really as much fun.

On the other hand, we have multiplayer. Looking as Mass Effect 3 as a prime example, we've got a fairly simplistic cooperative "horde" mode, which lacks any long term depth or challenge. The difficulty levels don't really differentiate between player skill to a large degree, but instead are heavily reliant on gear, which is obtained through either the repetitive grind of playing lots of matches to obtain virtual credits or spending real money to obtain the virtual loot which allows you to deal more damage.

The only ongoing effect is these standalone matches is the equipment, and a rather clunky mechanic whereby the multiplayer affects the outcome of the singleplayer experience. The loot grind is a more like an MMO grind than anything else, but the bigger problem here is BioWare's insistence that an "ideal" ending can be obtained without playing multiplayer, which unfortunately is a false claim. In order to obtain the "best" ending of the game, it's necessary to play multiplayer in a series which had previously been exclusively single player. This is a terrible way to treat fans: forcing them to play content which they may not be interested in order to get a reasonable outcome from the gameplay they actually wanted and which had been the reason they became invested in the series.

Horde mode isn't for everyone

The core problem is that a story driven cinematic single player experience and a "game-based" pure gameplay multiplayer experience don't fit well together. It's an attempt to get different player sets to buy one game, and is likely to not deliver sufficiently to either group. Yes, there is going to be some overlap in the audiences, but I know more than a few people that would have never touched ME3's multiplayer had they not needed it in order to get the best ending.

The choices, consequences and cinematics, along with the choice of a single voiced protagonist, have made the inclusion of on-going co-operative play a la Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights undesirable. This means that whenever players cry "we want multiplayer", the only choice is for developers/designers to take the existing ruleset/mechanics and shovel it into a standalone experience separate to the main game.

 You have been waylaid by multiplayer and must defend yourself

The problem is that frequently the ruleset or mechanics for a singleplayer experience aren't balanced for competitive Player versus Player (PvP), particularly for roleplaying games, which means that this idea is off the table. This means the only choice is a Player versus Environment (PvE: fighting against computer-controlled AI enemies) experience, and given that it has to fit into budget contraints and timeframe of the single player game (which is the "main" drawcard), it will be small in scope by necessity.  It's a single AAA title, and thus has the budget of one. Putting resources into one takes away resources that would be used for the other. That's simple business. Yes, I know this will cue cries of people spouting the defense "ME3's multiplayer was done by a different team", but the fact is the money spent on that (not to mention the mediocre kinect integration) is money that could/would have otherwise been spent on the singleplayer experience - which was the prime reason people were interested in the series.

The simple truth is that multiplayer isn't a vital part of the gaming experience, and many times it's underwhelming and underdeveloped when included in a game. However, this is not necessarily any fault of the designers. It's often the case because multiplayer was never intended to be the primary selling point of the game. The single player experience was meant as the drawcard, with the multiplayer there as a bit of a bonus. In some games, it's the other way around.  Battlefield and Call of Duty thrive on their multiplayer, and the single player aspects aren't the main selling point.

Let's be honest, CoD isn't really about its single player

If the producers/publishers demand that multiplayer be included (and I only say that because of EA's policy that "every game will have multiplayer"), then sell it as a separate product for a substantially reduced price. Sure, piggyback on the engine and assets of the core game, but don't include as part of the same game. Spend a little longer on making gameplay with a little more depth, and release an associated multiplayer game. If the game/brand is strong enough, then both games will sell, and they'll cater to the different markets that go for those different experiences. Heck, from a publisher standpoint, they have the opportunity to make even more money.

If such a multiplayer experience doesn't sell, then this either says:
a) This isn't a viable market, or;
b) The product isn't good enough.

What if Mass Effect 3's multiplayer had been a standalone game that could be purchased for $10? It would have lost some sales from people not interested in multiplayer at all, but at that price, I imagine plenty of people would have gone "that's cheap, I'll check it out." I'd hazard a guess that it would have even got some sales from people not interested in the single player at all. BioWare could have still even pushed linkages between the two games and maintained the (awfully designed) linkage between the singleplayer and multiplayer.

Shoehorning a conflicting multiplayer experience into a singleplayer game isn't satisfying for the consumer. Don't attempt to appeal to everyone with a single product by adding in popular gameplay elements from everywhere.  If you do that... you end up with Darksiders. Its attempts to cater to everyone detracted from the game rather than adding to it.

Not every game needs to have multiplayer. Not every game should have multiplayer. If the industry maintains this kind of mindset, then the gaming market is going to become even more stagnant with cover based multiplayer shooters than it already is. That is not a good thing for an industry that has the potential to be so much more.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who likes the ME3 multiplayer, I don't necessarily agree it was a bad choice (though it's true that it's all gameplay and grind and that the single-player integration is rather poor). That said, I otherwise agree with you. Not every game needs to have multiplayer, and not every franchise needs to cram its single- and multi-player experiences into the same product. It seems rather short-sighted to think people will only buy things in a boxed set; that it's a crime to release a game without an alternate gameplay mode.

    I suppose what I'm trying to say is: I feel strongly about one of your examples, but I agree with your main point.