Multiplayer is in a sad - but for some that's always been the case.

The sorry state of multiplayer

Multiplayer gaming has moved from the lounge to the headset – and it’s not necessarily a good thing. Jesse Dekel writes about where multiplayer gaming is now, and why she’s never really enjoyed it.

For me, it really comes down to this simple assessment: developers and publishers have apparently decided they’d rather not integrate multiplayer in a happy-fun-with-friends way, and instead focus on the cashflow that comes with DLC season passes, ‘loot boxes’, and Taylor Swift Ticketmaster-esque loyalty programmes.

These factors are dominating contemporary multiplayer and they’re making a lot of players unhappy. Not me though – I didn’t particularly like multiplayer in the first place. Still, the video games I play are being massively affected by developers prioritising multiplayer as the source of their main income.

I stopped going to LAN parties and playing online matchmaking because I didn’t want to be around people, and didn’t find them fun. I stopped liking multiplayer because I wanted to play video games as a personal experience, while also using them as an excuse for not talking to people. And, to be honest, I hated the idea of engaging with a thing that people who I didn’t like enjoyed. Even though that’s super pathetic and obscenely irrational, it still had an effect on the way I engaged with and played video games.

So because I’ve hated them for a while, talking about the ‘decline’ of couch-multiplayer or LAN parties means something different to me than to those who lived for sitting on the couch with their friends and hurling insults at them while playing a game. Nostalgia for calling friends sentient fecal-matter while trying to sustain a K/D ratio on Battlefield 3 just doesn’t apply to me. Which means it probably doesn’t apply to a lot of people like me.

Does this look like a good time for you?

Some of my feelings towards multiplayer haven’t changed. I used to get anxiety when I wore headphones for multiplayer, and since the stereotypical image of Xbox 360/Playstation 3 multiplayer was always some dickhead finding out logistically improbable stuff about his mum’s sexual proclivities via headset, I just don’t think I relate. And when it comes to online RPGs, MMOs aren’t really fun for me either – they feel like jobs, and the commitment of joining a group to finish a quest is daunting.

As for MOBAs, I played the DOTA mod for Warcraft III a few times at internet cafes during high school, but other than that I’ve hated the genre just for looking so inaccessible and repetitive. Maybe it’s because I hate the thought of sucking at something in order to get good at it, but those games look fun only if you’re winning. I can’t see the point in investing unenjoyable time in order to be rewarded in the long run – it seems like a bizarre exercise in suspended gratification.

So when I think of the rise of the online multiplayer and its effect on gaming as a whole, I feel like I’m looking from the outside in. By virtue of my own taste in video games, I’m left out of the entire world that the industry is being so strongly directed by. I’d like to see interesting online changes to RPGs that aren’t MMOs, and not just through shoddy attempts of social immersion with UI notifications like in Fable III or user statistics at the end of Telltale Games and David Cage choose-your-paths.

Despite my aversion to it, it’s a sad fact that local area multiplayer is in decline. A lot of people are not happy that Halo 5 didn’t come with split-screen, and that Activision and EA are prioritising the use of dedicated servers and steady DLC releases through rip-off season pass sales rather than making sure split-screen is a thing (Call of Duty is the exception here, not the rule). It seems that game publishers’ priority is making money by requiring people to own one console and one copy of the game while retaining an ongoing subscription to XBox Live or Playstation Plus – rather than making something that will let them have actual fun with their friends. On the completely other end of the spectrum, Nintendo appears to be the only major company prioritising local multiplayer, not just with Download Play but by literally building the Switch so it could have two controllers.

I’m not entirely sure that these changes have been so great, but they’ve definitely reinforced my whole “I hate online multiplayer because of things like delayed gratification” position. If couch-multiplayer dies, the most accessible way for me to play multiplayer – other than whatever free-to-play battle royale game is alive – will be to stop reluctantly hanging out with friends at their flats, and start reluctantly paying a lot of money for a small amount of crappy online multiplayer content.

When it comes to RPGs that aren’t subscription based MMOs like Monster Hunter World and Dark Souls, it’s clear that these games aren’t affected the same way as conventionally multiplayer games. It’s also clear why these games aren’t affected that way: the addition of multiplayer here is an innovative addition to the gaming, rather than a way to capitalise on an audience’s engagement. But exactly the same thing could be said about Grand Theft Auto V, which has a multiplayer that’s successful enough to let Rockstar pull a Valve and give up on making a new video game entirely.

Which might just be karma for Rockstar spending all those shiny Scottish millions on the GTAIV anti-piracy, only to have it bypassed in less time than it would take to actually beat the game. Who knew a company that would spend that much money trying to stop people having fun for free would prioritise cash over making new video games, huh? It’s almost like major game companies care about making a profit more than people having fun (for free).

These games aren’t involved in conventionally multiplayer genres, but the different effects of online access to them is just as valid as the loss of split-screen against the inertia of dedicated servers. Maybe the message system in Demon’s Souls being lost from servers shutting down isn’t exactly the same as Halo abandoning the very thing that made it great, but these things are all relative – it’s a slow move towards a certain direction, one way or another.

Online multiplayer, and the advent of professional gaming, doesn’t speak to everyone who plays video games  in the same way – even if many people, and even the industry itself, pretends it does. It’s ridiculous to treat the entire audience as a homogenous mass, which is what the industry and media around it tends to do. Just as the the return of  ‘challenging gaming’ in the wake of the popular Souls games doesn’t mean that everyone enjoys difficult games, the expansion of 100-player-strong game types doesn’t mean that everyone likes competitive multiplayer. 

Multiplayer sucks! Feeling that way is fair enough, and even while the hundred-player battle royales go strong, there’s a lot of us fighting the solo fight.


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