Who Needs People?

Portal 2An idea that the games industry has latched onto recently is that more players creates a better game.

Whether this is because of the astounding success of MMORPGs or simply because of the way that the Wii broke open a whole new market of co-operative and casual gamers, it seems that no game can be released anymore unless it contains some kind of multiplayer aspect.

Often enough, these provide just the right amount of entertainment to be mildly interesting – Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood introduced a fun and competitive PvP online mode, Sims 3 allowed more content sharing than in any Sims game before and Portal 2 had a great co-op campaign.

Or so I’m told.

The problem is co-op and multiplayer rely so much on other players that they frustrate me and Portal 2 is a case in point.

I want to play the co-op campaign. I was looking forward to playing the co-op campaign. But could I play the co-op campaign?

No.

Simply because so few of my friends play video games and those that do didn’t buy Portal 2 meant that I was excluded from a whole load of content that I dearly wanted to play.

Maybe this is just me but I really don’t like scenarios like this.

Even more annoying though, is that fact that there are many games seeing the success of a few multiplayer games and try to grab a slice of the pie; the result being that multiplayer is often tacked on at the last minute and does not provide the fun experience it should.

Super Mario Galaxy

Spot Player 2 (hint: they have no real presence in game).

Or worse, the multiplayer actually detracts from the game.

At least Portal 2′s multiplayer is of high calibre (I am reliably informed) and doesn’t sink to the level of games like those in the Super Mario franchise.

I mean, those games are great fun, but their multiplayer is some of the worst I have ever seen. Super Mario Galaxy has the second player play as a tiny star pointer on the screen that can do nothing but collect stray stars. Then you have New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a Mario game that allows up to four players to play together at once, a concept that sounds great but is marred by the fact that the characters can kill each other, resulting in making completing each level with a group of friends next to impossible.

And of course, this is in no way a problem confined to Mario or even Nintendo. Games like Fable 3 and F.3.A.R. chose to incorporate co-op (and so a multiplayer element) which simply doesn’t fit them very well.

In some ways I see this problem as boiling down to genre.

By this I mean that, of course, there are games where multiplayer is brilliant and much more fun than any single player mode thrown at you. Take racing games like Burnout, RTS games like Starcraft or fighting games like Tekken and you have a game where the most fun is found in the multiplayer.

However, just because it succeeds there does not mean that it should be tacked onto other games. The reason I see for this is the following:

Adding a multiplayer mode in for the sake of it ascribes no additional value to the experience of playing the game.

In an interview a while ago, Ken Levine of Irrational Games was quoted as saying “If we were to do a multiplayer game it would have to feel organic.”

Bioshock Infinite Elizabeth

Because at Irrational we think it is better to do co-op with an NPC!

This is exactly right. If games are going to have a multiplayer mode, it should be because a multiplayer mode would fit in well within that game, not because once the game has a multiplayer mode it can be advertised as having multiplayer to try and sell a few more copies at launch.

Not only does this provide a pointless feature in the game, but this also means that more disk space is used up that could have been used to explore the good areas of the game in greater depth, not to mention the time and money that has to be diverted away from parts of the game that are good and into the bottomless pit of multiplayer gaming.

Just take brilliant games like Skyrim and Half-Life 2, which function fantastically without any multiplayer modes. Adding them in would have taken away from the games, causing them to suffer in other areas.

Furthermore, if games like Skyrim or Half-Life 2 had had co-op modes for the main campaign, how much more would this have made the stories less possible to engage in; you would cease to invest in characters after your partner has run into walls and randomly started targeting nothing in particular a couple of times, all the while swearing at you as if it is your fault.

You see, as I started to say at the start, the problem with multiplayer modes is that they involve other people who are not as invested in the game as the developers are. The result of this being that when they (and you) inevitably start acting out of character, or start attacking each other, or even make a couple of mistakes, then a story-driven game ceases to function as well as it would have done otherwise.

Skyrim Ruins

Ah Skyrim. Not another player in sight.

Additionally, this is why competitive games work so well with multiplayer. You (as players) are both genuinely competing against each other – there is no reason to stop following the rules of the game and so it remains fun.

I guess all I am trying to say is that there is much too much of a culture of adding in multiplayer to complete the video game checklist of must have features in the games industry. While this can work for some games, there are equally games where multiplayer is not only pointless, but can also severely spoil a game as well.