Single Player Only: Is Multiplayer Unnecessary?

Originally written for 7Bit Arcade, the original has since been taken down, this one has been edited to make it read better and stuff. All details were correct at time of writing.

Games, at their very core, are all about fun. We play games for many reasons, but the basis for all these reasons will usually be because we enjoy them or, if you’re anything like me, enjoy being bad at them. For the majority of us, things a lot more fun when we share them, which is why multiplayer has been part and parcel of games since day one. Why else would Xbox Live and PSN have become arguably the biggest part of their respective consoles? For the millions who use the service, they’re the most entertaining part of their console.

With the emphatic rise of online gaming, developers have, all of a sudden, felt a need to put in multiplayer modes with what seems to be every game release. Let’s call it the COD effect, because of the dominance the series has enjoyed over the charts for the past few years. One game to have experienced the COD effect is Bioshock. The first Bioshock was a story-driven FPS, the power of which came from the dank atmosphere of it’s setting, the peerless Rapture. While the second one continued in that vein – the aforementioned dank atmosphere of Rapture was indeed present – it also added in competitive multiplayer, which was designed to introduce us to the Rapture civil war, the event that set the series in motion.

Yet, by tacking on multiplayer to Bioshock 2 and using the civil war story as a thematic excuse for it, we were left thinking that the same group of people ran around in circles, probably shouting naughty words at each other until the others gave up. That’s before bringing in the slightly clunky controls of the series, that were never designed for the run-and-gun action that it’s multiplayer modes demanded.

Instead of giving us an insight into the collapse of Rapture, we got a quick cinematic and some generic modes that, unless this was your first online experience, you’d have played a thousand times over. Just because a Big Daddy is running around like a wounded Hulk doesn’t mean that you have multiplayer dynamite on your hands.  The Rapture civil war could have – and really should have – been a huge event. Instead it was just another bullet point on the back of the box.

Bioshock isn’t the only story-driven series as well that has suffered from the problem of apparently unnecessary multiplayer. Dead Space was a series which was famed for two things. The first was its Aliens meets Event Horizon pulpy tale, which had gory charm in spades and the second was the instantly gratifying gameplay that focused on murderizing necromorphs by removing body parts. One at a time.

The multiplayer in the sequel, which focused on 4 vs 4 objective matches, was according to the critical consenus, solid. Decent. Worth a look. But needed? Hardly.  Dead Space as a franchise was gaining fans because of its critically applauded campaign and the multiplayer in theory doesn’t really play to the game’s strength. The storyline isn’t going anywhere and the methodical gameplay has to be neutered to ensure a fair fight. It is merely a case of adding in content for the sake of it.

Of course, while these modes may add nothing to the experience, there is a line between harmless and unnecessary. That line at the moment is Online Passes. From a business standpoint they make a huge amount of sense, giving publishers and developers a chance to claw back some profit from pre-owned games. However, games that have had multiplayer seemingly bolted onto them – take another bow Dead Space 2 – also come with an online pass. If you were to take a cynical view, then the multiplayer only exists so gamers are put off from buying pre-owned copies, not to enhance the experience of the game itself.

Yet it’s not impossible to take a story-driven franchise and give it a multiplayer twist without it coming off as a desperate cry for mainstream attention. Assassin’s Creed is a perfect example of being able to find a sweet spot between advancing the world of the game, while giving player’s something new to discover within the gameplay mechanics. Ezio never had to worry about the people he was brushing aside actually being another assassin, but thirty seconds in Brotherhood’s multiplayer will have your wondering if every polygon in the game is out to get you.

Moreover, the inverse of this situation can also be true as well. Sometimes a scrappy single-player mode can get in the way of a cracking multiplayer concoction. You only need to spend five minutes with the Battlefield 3 campaign to realise it’s nowhere near the same amount of fun as the online war grounds the multiplayer had to offer.

While I probably sound like a social recluse of the highest order, the fact is that multiplayer should either enhance an experience or be the experience.  In recent years though, certain games have actually suffered from having a few extra modes in there. Whether it’s companies seeing dollar signs when it comes to Online Passes (EA and Sony so far being the biggest offenders) or simply the misguided opinion that without multiplayer a game won’t sell, multiplayer is slowly becoming a way to shift extra copies and not a way to enhance the experience for the player. That, dear reader, is just unnecessary.

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