Single Player vs Multiplayer

Many have hailed the news Metro: Last Light being only a single player title as great news, whilst there are also plenty who have bitterly complained about the rejection of a multiplayer component. However, rather than complain, think of it this way; do you always prefer half a game over one tailored to fit?

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Metro: Last Light is an intriguing game. And now it hits the headlines doing the unthinkable for a modern FPS game; it’s dropped the multiplayer!

Developer 4A Studios stated this today;  “Throughout the development of Metro: Last light a small, dedicated team had been working on a number of multiplayer prototypes… After E3, we decided to fold this multiplayer team back into the main group and focus 100 per cent of the studio’s resources on the single-player campaign. As a result, Metro: Last Light will not ship with a multiplayer component.”

That’s not an unfair statement. It’s deliberately vague, of course. And it does nothing to quell fears over publisher THQ’s involvement and possible interference. But it is a straight forward statement from a company that clearly wants this game to be good regardless of the issues behind the scenes. They tried to make multiplayer parts, and it possibly didn’t work or it was probably a bit expensive or time consuming, so they want to put the focus on the single player campaign: the one thing most fans of the series actually care about.

The problem is this; it has also exposed the divide between those who are thankful for this as they prefer the single player and those who are angry because they actually rather enjoy the multiplayer modes.

There is nothing wrong with either; I think that’s the first point to make and one that in their confrontational attitude right now that people are quite willing to discard. There is nothing wrong with either because both are perfectly valid forms of entertainment, with very different markets. If anything, it is a surprise with all this deep-rooted tension that anyone has managed to get away with bringing the two sides together at all for the past 16 years! The two aren’t inherently compatible and yet we see FPS games in particular, but recently RPGs and third-person titles jump into the multiplayer mode bandwagon not because the games need them, or they planned for it, but because they see an opportunity to double their market. They see one side wanting a single player campaign, the other wanting multiplayer, and then rub their hands in glee and say “We’ll do both!” Because it makes sense, right? It makes sense because you increase your potential market.

Except, it rarely works out like that, does it?

I mean, take Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. It’s an alright game, nothing special but nothing that inherently deserves derision either. The thing is, the single player is incidental; what holds people to the game is the multiplayer. There is no real attempt to cover it up; MW3 is aimed as a multiplayer game. The single player is an added bonus, but it’s hardly the best part of the experience. Similarly, I always found the FEAR games to be primarily built on the single-player experience, and the mutliplayer – whilst nice – always feels like an afterthought, forgettable and generally lacking in depth compared next to games which give primary focus on the multiplayer.

We have a history of this in video gaming and it is a pretty shameful history. Games which inherently try to do both a single player and multiplayer game combined invariably only ever manage to get one of the two right, if they even get one right at all. As time has progressed, many gamers have become cynical and jaded towards the idea of shoehorning in a mode that doesn’t befit the game in the pursuit of attracting a larger target audience. We rightly point our finger at Resident Evil 6 of late, a game which doesn’t have the conviction to do anything very well at all. The multiplayer comes across similarly as confused and awkward, not least because the game isn’t really built FOR multiplayer. Shaky aims, cramped corridors and friendly fire in melee often targeting your co-op companion only serves to remind us that the multiplayer aspect of it probably isn’t the most refined part of the game, and that would be putting it mildly. But they put it in there, along with a worldwide stats tracking companion piece, because they seem to think we all want to share the experience. We all want to play with others. The conceit is almost physical in its form.

Which is a shame because as many will argue, Resident Evil 4 was the highlight of the series. And it wasn’t concerned about multiplayer – and nor were we. Even when they ported it to newer machines with easier platforms to integrate to, the primary desire we have to play Resident Evil 4 is because it’s a damned good game. Resident Evil 5 was alright – but it only ever made sense in co-op. The companion AI dithered and was generally a pain in the ass. But we didn’t WANT to play Resident Evil 5 with others. So you then have a real issue; a game where the player base who have supported it want to play solo, but that solo experience is compromised by the online component. It’s the perfect example of the issues trying to blend the two sides together – you can’t please everyone all of the time.

Some argue the future is a perfect amalgamation of the single player and multiplayer, and of course, this is where ordinarily someone will trot out Dark Souls as some kind of shining star example of how to blend the two worlds into the perfect crossover. And I love Dark Souls, which is why this will come as a shock to everyone: it isn’t.

The problem Dark Souls had is not that it wasn’t a laudable attempt at blending the two sides; for the most part, and for a considerable while, it was actually going pretty well. The matchmaking was a little spotty in places but that is true of most online games. The lag was a little awkward in spots but again, true of most games. It was a serviceable attempt, until something major happened. Something that changed Dark Souls for the worse – the playerbase found an easy, cheap exploit.

And damn, did they use it!

The repercussions were almost instant. New players found themselves being invaded by those cheating and exploiting, or fooling the matchmaker tool. The awe and wonderment of the player vs player element sank like the Titanic and quickly became nothing more than a wreck upon the ocean floor. More and more people found themselves setting their Live service to a Group Chat, and playing offline. Where many found that without the constant interference from the trolling ways of others, there was still a fantastic and deep single player campaign in there. If anything, a lot of people began to question WHY the online part was there to start with; it took the playerbase and its descent into cheating to expose the online mode for what it was: deeply unnecessary.

The PC version of Dark Souls was kind of worse. Within hours, trainers had been rushed out for those unwilling to pay for their ineptitude with deaths. People could have infinite souls, infinite Estus Flasks, infinite Humanity. Some found invading these worlds ensured they had no chance of victory; the only hope would be the cheat would fall from a great height, the only means to actually die when the trainer was active.  Again, it was the playerbase who ruined the online experience; not the game itself.

This demonstrates a very serious issue though. We don’t all think or play the same way and some methods of play are just incompatible. If you want to cheat a single player game, the only victim is you and your potential enjoyment of a game. Once others are suffering at your cheating hands, a line has been crossed. Similarly, some people enjoyed the deep mechanics of Dark Souls and would have been happy to turn the invasions off – which many did. Dark Souls, for all it does right, also demonstrates you can’t be everything. And it is pointless to even try.

It’s not like we have a lack of either option out there, but in more and more cases we are being told what we want and are being given “everything”, even if we don’t actually want the extras. There was an era when games were either/or, and we knew what to expect the moment we walked into them. Nowadays, it’s sometimes hard to tell where anything begins and ends or even worse – we have to play both modes in order to somehow get the whole story element of a game, because developers are fast realising a lot of us still prefer one to the other and have to force us into the other mode in order to justify their expenditure. They have to literally ensure we play both modes, because they have to justify having done both, even if the complaints arise that people don’t want this. They unfortunately end up having to. “Finish single player to unlock this sweet gun in Multiplayer, in which you’ll also find out the dark secret behind the bomb attack…” You just feel kind of railroaded into it. You can’t just enjoy one or t’other. You have to play both. The developers demand it.

Which is why it is refreshing to see Last Light drop the multiplayer because, truth be told, the Metro series is fascinating as a single-player experience. Alone against the harsh elements of the end of the world, against evil people and crazy mutants. Multiplayer simply doesn’t quite lend itself to that atmosphere; people want guns and ammo and explosions and open arenas and really, Metro 2033 was none of that. It was a claustrophobic, dark and atmospheric experience. The game itself doesn’t lend any real weight to the need for a multiplayer mode. Sometimes a game doesn’t. It only needs to be itself; rather than trying to also fit in with the other crowd as well.

I do like multiplayer games and single player games. But I fear the problem is that by combining the two, we’re creating a mish-mash where nothing quite fits together anymore. Sometimes a game can be both and unfortunately, sometimes a game can be neither – just more often than not, a game is naturally at home on one side of the dancefloor, and trying to be on both sides at the same time just means it divides its time between the two and invariably doesn’t quite get to spend enough time growing on any one crowd. Some games can only ever be single player experiences and some can only ever be multiplayer titles; this doesn’t make them bad. It’s merely accepting ones limitations and realising the painful truth that the current push to appeal to everyone is having the opposite effect in a lot of cases; it’s pushing the very people you need to play the game away.

You really can’t have everything. Ironically perhaps the future of many games coming in the next year is that they aren’t trying to be anything more than single player games. The next year isn’t going to be in the hands of those who combine the online and offline elements of a game perfectly; it will be in the hands of those who know what their game is, and who they need to sell it to. Knowing their audience, their target market and getting it into their hands accordingly without the constant harping on about unnecessary modes and additions and hoops to jump through. Like the old days, finding a genre and playstyle and fitting inside that genre rather than straddling many different genres and never really being part of any of them.

These games will be successful because they are being aimed at people who feel abandoned by the push to be everything and yet be nothing like what they were. They are being primed to insert themselves into genre categories that have seen their previous big names abandon it in favour of trying to be another genre entirely. Many of these genres have space to spare; the old brands are gone, leaving large empty gaps begging for someone to fill them in. These games will also know enough about their market to determine how the game will be played, or how players will prefer to play their game.

By the time the old brands realise their mistakes, they may just find themselves unable to go back – there’ll be no room left for them, the vacancies filled with new games who wisely found themselves a place to call home. By trying to be everything, they’ll find out they are nothing without the very gamers who made their brand such a success in the first place. And those consumers won’t be waiting around for them to realise the error of their ways – sometimes the best revenge is just showing the old kings that you’re actually quite happy supporting and being seen with the young prince.

Who knows what the far future holds as it becomes faster and easier to get into games online, but we can’t really push forwards if we’re keeping two feet planted firmly with one foot in the single player and one foot in multiplayer. That’s just standing still. If we’re ever going to bridge the two sides, a game is going to have to take a deep breath and step away from BOTH markets in order to attempt to craft an entirely new one. And that is a dangerous thing to do for an industry still trying desperately to identify itself in old terms, whilst being attached to none of them in reality. Like it or not, we do still identify in terms of single player and multiplayer. We still identify with genres, and sub-genres. We’re fixed people and we like simplicity sometimes, being able to say “That’s a single player RPG” is better than saying “Resident Evil 6 is… well… erm… complicated.”

The industry can’t bridge anything unless it is willing to create and define new genre types and markets. Sometimes if you’re planning to build a bridge from Lands End in the UK to New York, you’re going to have to set up some small artificial land masses along the way. You can’t have one big long bridge – it will never survive, most cars won’t be able to fuel the whole journey. To bridge two sides so incredibly far apart, you are going to need to build something in the middle. It’s not ideal… but it’s better than trying to please both and not really achieving it.

And why would you anyway? We have planes. Most of us can flit back and forth between both. Do we need a non-ideal middle ground to bridge the two sides?

We like the destinations on the journey, surely? We’re not going to remember the gas stop in the middle. Most seem perfectly happy immersing themselves in one game type. Change is good and we should always try something new… but it’s like a holiday camp for some. It’s very clean, very nice, the food is alright, the accommodation is good, the people seem friendly enough and you’re forced to participate in group events. You don’t come home anymore and think “I wish I was still at Spuntlins!”. But for others, they couldn’t imagine a solo trek across the Canadian Rockies. Alone with gorgeous vistas and nature around you, they simply wouldn’t find that enjoyable either.

We really are sometimes wired to be pack rats or lone wolves. Joining those two together is going to be hard… and I don’t envy the games who try. Because they’re attempting the impossible; do everything.

It’s a shame the track is littered with the bodies of those who have failed already. Because then you could justify it as a bold move, rather than the commercial headache that we’re all seeing it as…

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