If you're thinking to yourself, is this guy going to argue against single-player games? Immediately dismiss the thought, because that isn't the case, and I love single-player games. What I am going to be talking about is something I've noticed in my multiplayer habits, and where I see the format for most multiplayer innovation lies.
Now as some of you know, I tend to game on PC the most. That's where the bulk of my gaming time goes compared to other platforms, and in my opinion has always benefitted from hugely diverse library of titles. Enough so that I had to split games on Steam into different lists for better organization, and made one specifically for multiplayer titles I play with some regularity. Playing through Titanfall this weekend on Origin, I was reminded that not only could competitive multiplayer games still be fun for me today, but that they're better off when designed solely around being played with others. Looking through my Steam list of multiplayer offerings (co-op and competitive), I noticed three key things to support this:
- The most innovative games among my list either were multiplayer heavy, or multiplayer-only.
- The multiplayer games I really enjoyed with single-player, chose to make playing by yourself an afterthought.
- Every single one of those games barring 2 exceptions, I would've preferred having their single-player portions gutted, and those resources put into a better multiplayer.
Quite a few games in my overall Steam library that did feature multiplayer I didn't even include in my multiplayer-focused list, because they fit the half-baked multiplayer model put into single-player focused games. I liked me some Tomb Raider single-player, and felt it was worth the price even though I never once touched the multiplayer. The reason for this is tacked on multiplayer tends to be born out of using them as a marketing tool for added value, such as stifling used games sales on consoles, promoting easier to make DLC, or simply to make that price tag more palpable. They weren't however truly designed because the devs wanted to include them, or had real passion to make something unique and special. The multiplayer you get in these games that also do single-player, tends to get the short end of the stick, and ends up coming out either bad or just standard feeling.
A title I've played with a few Kotaku people in the last month is one multiplayer-only game, Guns of Icarus Online:
The title aptly includes Icarus, for you are entering the skies, and there is danger for doing so. You are a member of a team commanding an airship in the skies, preying on other teams doing the same…a dream I imagine some Final Fantasy fans wished they could do for years. Each one of you will focus on a specific class or job on the ship, one person to steer, others to repair engines/guns, and others to just fire at the bad people. While there are some weak points or missed opportunities…when you get into the experience, it is definitely something unique. Unlike other games that just have lots of avatars running around, this encourages and almost forces you to work together with others to keep yourself afloat. It is utterly designed around the multiplayer concept, features a dynamic of being part of a ship crew, some interesting mechanics, and just the concept of taking down another large ship versus another random single person. It's also a small game, made by a small team, in Unity, yet did a better job providing something different than most AAA multiplayer offerings.
Conversely a game like Metro: Last Light benefits entirely by single-player design, where the story is centered around your character's struggles, you explore a world that is in many ways dead, and often the game wants you to feel isolated from your allies. A lot of the isolated atmosphere in that game lends itself well to horror-esque situations, which a game like Dead Space 3 diminishes when you can rely on your friend throughout the journey. Deciding if the core design of your game is strengthened by players playing alone or with others matters a LOT, and sometimes you don't get it right the first try.
Orcs Must Die 2 is one of those special examples where going multiplayer made it a better game. It is one of my favorite co-op experiences in years, and in my humble opinion superior in almost every any way to the previous game. It's also a title I can tell was designed for multiplayer first, because in single-player there is a lack of balance to doing everything yourself. On higher difficulties, I've even heard it spoken of as "broken". The reason I don't care about that though, is because they created more interesting interactions when you work with another person. Playing with a friend allows you to utilize more traps, creating combinations to stop your enemies, and mixing in each of your avatar's specific abilities as well. It promotes coordination, inspires more funny to just thrilling emergent events, pushes more inspiration to the level design and troops thrown at you both, and you learn to experiment more when working with a partner that can contrast you. Making the game multiplayer didn't just improve and expand the core design, but aided in making players better at realizing what they could do with it.
Some games I feel were held back by the desire or perceived necessity in going both single-player and multiplayer. Company of Heroes 2 I perceive as one where the multi-player portions of the game were held back by them marketing and pumping up their single-player. The cinematic and scripted event heavy design took a game that has never done that well with single-player, and wasted more money/time/people on it. The multiplayer, despite my feeling it could've used more content, polish, balance, and a very needed tutorial for newcomers…still ended up being the strongest aspect. The sad part is many reviewers focused on the single-player, and dinged the game overall for including it, while lamenting other areas it could've improved on in multiplayer.
Focus is the key problem with these games that build both single and multiplayer modes of their product, or the lack that comes from trying to do it all. So few in my opinion do both well, and I'm sure many devs before a game gets far know what the strongest half is, or know where the passion of the team lies. I feel that when you do both, one side will suffer being not only weaker, but less inventive and/or polished.
Playing Titanfall, a game that confidently presents you a multiplayer-only experience, is the most fun I've had in a WHILE for competitive shooters. The core design of the game doesn't feel by the numbers, as the traversal system
with the human vs. Titan dynamic
alters how I fundamentally play compared to other games in the genre. Titanfall's core design and the dynamics of play though, are entirely designed around it being played with other people, and would be fundamentally less interesting if entirely AI controlled. It has the full resources of its team to dedicate adding more content, and fixing/improving what is already there…rather than diverting efforts, or making concessions to get both done.
I want MORE.OF.THIS. game developers! Or more specifically, I want publishers to stop forcing devs to do both. I want games that take an idea, decide what scope (single or multi player) best fits it, and focus entirely on that. Not inject in a throwaway multiplayer mode, or needless single-player campaign to justify price. Instead of spending more money on another mode of play, budget resources for one, and price it lower if need be. If you think of an idea that could possibly work for the opposite scope of experience, explore that AFTER you get the first one done. That way you get all your best staff to look into implementing it, and your release schedule can be focused around that.