Since the dawn of this console generation multiplayer gaming has become a huge, if not THE major focus for most games and a key feature for gamers. Being able to play with some buddies online wasn’t one of the many features that spawned this generation thanks to newfound technology as online gaming had a nice following on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox thanks to games like SOCOM and Halo.
It wasn’t until the Xbox 360 launched with the revamped Xbox Live and PlayStation gamers went on the PlayStation Network that multiplayer gaming officially went from becoming a somewhat niche thing to do on consoles to becoming a way of life in how we experience games. There have been some amazing multiplayer titles on the consoles in the last six years but at this point I’m wondering if game developers have lost their focus as to what makes for a good multiplayer game compared to what we had in the good old days before Perks became a pre-requisite for nearly every title.
Back in the day, the late 90s/early 2000s, multiplayer gaming was mainly a PC centric thing thanks to games like Quake, Unreal Tournament, and Counterstrike – all of which were relatively simple in their approach. Following suit in what was established and popular, a great many of the PC multiplayer games we saw were either arena shooters (Unreal Tournament) or followed a team based approach like Counterstrike. This approach was of course mimicked on the consoles through online multiplayer modes in early PS2 games like TimeSplitters and the straight forward yet addicting action that Halo offered on the Xbox – which I’m sure people would continue to play this day if Microsoft hadn’t shut the servers off.
Hopping onto a PS2 to play some SOCOM online was something that was a breakthrough moment of sorts for gamers since they were able to game with people they didn’t know or play with a buddy that lived on the other side of the country. Good times were had on the PS2, Xbox, and PC and things were only enhanced as the years went on and with the eventual arrival of the PS3 and Xbox 360. But amidst the leaps in technology and maturity game designers had I’m of the mind that multiplayer gaming has lost its core focus: being fun to experience.
Perhaps I’m in the minority but after playing countless games online both for personal pleasure and for work I’m a bit surprised at how the focus of multiplayer games has somewhat shifted from being skill based to merely accumulating items to enhance your character. The old multiplayer games of yesteryear had a divine simplicity to them since they offered something very simple: you and your enemies all have the same guns/skills so the basic goal was to see who could be the better virtual gunslinger. These days most multiplayer games seem to be ruled by one thing: quickly acquiring XP points to get the best bonus items/perks and then going on to abuse said items for more XP acquiring. Instead of being focused on who the better shot is it seems like multiplayer games today are fueled by gaining XP points, whether it’s to acquire something that will give your character a +5% boost in aiming accuracy or simply up your overall character rank. Were games always focused on items that are no real importance like having a better grip for your gun? No they weren’t and in a way it’s somewhat distressing to see games shift from being about simple fun to seeing who can gain the best tools for war – even if it presents an unfair advantage.
I honestly don’t know if I sound like a complete baby right now since I’m sure some of you are saying “he’s just bitching because he isn’t good at multiplayer games.” I’ll admit that I’m not a mega stud when it comes to multiplayer games and the only games I’ve ever been a true champ at have been the first Resistance due to it being my key PS3 launch title and Warhawk – a game that to this day I’m still a complete iceman in and will destroy anyone I fight. Perhaps the reason I was so enamored with Resistance and Warhawk, which led to me sinking hundreds of hours into both games, is that they were simple no frills games that had solid gameplay and were focused solely on player skill and to an extent teamwork when the situation called for it.
I’m perfectly fine with developers trying new things with multiplayer games and presenting new experiences to gamers but ever since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was released in 2007 it seems like everyone has jumped on the Perks bandwagon. Is being able to customize your online play experience cool? It certainly is but playing recent games like Resistance 3 or even the Uncharted 3 it’s disappointing to see such a great emphasis put on trying to level up all the time or put together a series of support abilities that essentially dictate how someone plays.
I may sound like a casual cry baby but the current state of multiplayer gaming just seems to be too focused on growing the digital ego of someone rather than allowing them to pop into a match every now and then and enjoying a fair fight. These days it seems like if you don’t commit to a game full time then you’re a bit shit out of luck since you’ll likely go into a match with a group of high-ranking players who have mega guns that make your weapons seem like a pea shooter. Should developers be focused on rewarding gamers with insane amounts of dedication (i.e. too much time on their hands) with superfluous bonus items fueled by XP rewards instead of giving everyone an open and even playfield enhanced by good game design?
Seeing a game like Battlefield 3 which is fueled by gamers ranking up doesn’t bother me in the least and in a way I dig what it’s doing. I may sound like I’m contradicting myself a bit by saying that Battlefield 3 isn’t all that bad but at least in that game, as it stands now, there seems to be more player skill involved which is only enhanced slightly by gamers unlocking bonus items – which I’ll admit is still a bit excessive with the countless XP acquiring that’s involved. But at least Battlefield 3 requires gamers to use some good old-fashioned skill to score a headshot as opposed to using cheap tactics like going invisible on the battlefield, seriously the cloak ability in Resistance 3 is annoying the crap out of me, and team work is always on the forefront instead of becoming a one man army like in Modern Warfare 3.
It’s understandable to see why so many game developers have created their multiplayer games the way they have since the first Modern Warfare game became a mega hit that gained a simply massive audience. So trying to ape the success of Modern Warfare is perfectly fine to a degree but I can’t believe how much the core tenements of the game have become engrained in gaming culture to the point where if an old-school arena shooter comes up people give it hell for not having features x, y, and z. Does every multiplayer action game need to have perks/special abilities of some kind in order to be successful and go on to become accepted by gamers?
I won’t rag on what Naughty Dog has done with Uncharted 3’s multiplayer component but I think the game would’ve benefitted more from being less focused on doing power plays and perhaps offering the same cover based action and traversal goodness that’s in the single-player campaign. As it stands now Uncharted 3 is somewhat of a mess that’s ruled by one thing: running around like a prick shooting from the hip and chucking grenades like there’s no tomorrow. That doesn’t sound like a fun time to me and I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels that way.
With the way multiplayer games are these days there’s almost no clear way for us to go back to a situation in which we aren’t fueled by acquiring Perks or almost infinitesimal stat upgrades. Like all good things gamers expect a certain level of quality and features out of their games, the chief of which these day are major customizable options and what I like to refer to as silly bonus shit such as Perks. Game developers can definitely do as they please when they develop a game but I think it’s clear that in the back of their mind they know they need to at least cater to the mainstream norms otherwise they’ll have a product that’ll be dead on arrival.
So in general it seems like we have a situation with multiplayer gaming which has possibly has two sides: developers that can’t openly do the action they want to do since it doesn’t live fulfill certain bullet points and those who simply think that copying Modern Warfare will result in instant success. I won’t try to nail down a specific ratio as far as how many developers may possibly be forced to create a multiplayer game a specific way but I think it’s probably split down the middle and hell, I’m sure half the time developers craft a game based on what the fan feedback seems to be, which at times only represents a minor portion of the audience or simply comes back to bite them in the ass as was the case with Killzone 3’s multiplayer offerings.
I love video games but at this point I really think developers should take a less is more approach when it comes to multiplayer gaming. Having stat/upgrade focused titles like SOCOM or Battlefield is fine but having almost every major release be fueled by gaining XP and having to sink 12 hours in order to acquire a particular gun is something that I think takes away some of the charm that’s to be had, which of course has always been about playing with some strangers or a friend and simply having a good time.
If developers learn to strip the experience down a bit instead of giving us all of these inane stat pages and upgrade options then I think there could be a chance that multiplayer gaming may get a boost. If such a thing would ever occur people would surely have a hard time accepting things but I think they would learn that there's more fun to be had when skill is required as opposed to relying on XP Perks to have a good time. It may be hard to imagine a world in which we don’t have games that reward gamers for getting six kills in a row or that reward the player with minor weapon upgrades, but I think in the end it may make the multiplayer gaming scene a better place.