Friday, July 2, 2010

The New Multiplayer, Not Just For Fighting Anymore

bear fight “To be” means “To be in competition.” – C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Video games have always thrived on competition.  The earliest games, perhaps with one notable exception, were two-player affairs derived from games much older than their technology.  In 1951, Ferranti’s NIMROD computer allowed two people to play games of Nim, references of which date back to at least the 16th century.  Within the next decade, we had various versions of Tic-Tac-Toe, Chess, and table tennis – leading up to groundbreaking titles like Spacewar! and Pong.

You can see the lingering effects of a competition culture even in games now heralded for their impact on solo play.  Super Mario Bros. comes to mind.  While many of us easily recall what it was like to explore the world, find the secrets, and ultimately rescue the princess, rarely do we stop and remember: that game had points.  Theoretically, you would compare your score with your friends, family, etc.  I think we were too busy trying to get past those damn Hammer Brothers.

The Internet, first on the personal computer and later on home consoles, created a whole new way for players to compete.  While John Daleske’s Empire may have been the world’s first multiplayer shooter, it was still networked between local machines.  During the mid-90s web boom, titles like Quake (and its popular mod Team Fortress 2) took Doom’s deathmatch structure online, establishing many of the conventions we now find in multiplayer gaming.  In the decade-and-a-half or so since Quake’s release, multiplayer gaming’s come a long way.  Dedicated servers and services like Xbox Live provide players with millions of ways to exchange a few frags in virtual competition.

But multiplayer gaming isn’t just a sport for non-athletes anymore.  Developers are building upon the competitive infrastructure, giving gamers ways to interact not predicated on competition.  It’s the new multiplayer, and it’s happening now.

Dropping In and Out

Girlfriend Mode.  The term came into vogue following the release of Nintendo’s Super Mario Galaxy.  The Mario franchise, which started with games featuring a two-player option, had long since drawn a line in the sand between it’s single- and multiplayer offerings.  Proper Mario adventures were now exclusively solo experiences; when friends came over, you popped in Mario Kart and Mario Party.

At least, that’s what you were supposed to do.  I know plenty of people – myself included – who first fired up Super Mario 64 in groups.  Eager to steer the popular plumber in 360°, we took turns passing the new controller around, helping each other solve puzzles and locate hidden stars. 

Super Mario Galaxy’s two-player option brought that sense of communal accomplishment back to the series.  At any point, a second player could turn on a Wii remote, point it at the screen, and help (kind of) the person playing.  If the game got too dull (impossible) or too disorienting (quite possible) to watch, the companion could leave with negligible impact on their friend’s game. 

That 2P circle is your (girl)friend helping out.

Nintendo rightfully marketed this as a way to play with younger gamers (younger siblings need no longer suffer the humiliation of being handed an unplugged controller and being asked to believe that they’re actually playing) and with those who consider gaming a benign distraction enjoyed by other people (hence the admittedly reductive term “Girlfriend Mode”). 

The genius aspect of this is the ability of the second player to drop in and out at will without completely wrecking the experience for the main player.  Nintendo neatly rolled this into New Super Mario Bros. Wii with its “bubble” ability, which allowed inexperienced gamers to hop into a protective bubble if a level proved too difficult for them.  Also, some people may not want to play the whole afternoon, but this way they can plop down on the couch for a few minutes without worrying about messing everything up if they need to leave.  Miyamoto and his crew must believe that, if given a low-pressure situation in which to just try it, more people will warm up to gaming.

Nintendo’s drop in/drop out system has helped change how we game on the couch (the popular LEGO games do the same thing just as well), and there are plenty of games doing the same in online play.  The Marvel: Ultimate Alliance series, Borderlands, and the upcoming sequel to Crackdown all feature cooperative campaign play that places no restrictions on the coming and going of players.  This freedom lowers barriers to entry, encouraging more people to try games even if they’re a little late to the party or can’t make it every Tuesday for raid night.

Those Who Shoot Together, Live Together

Co-op shooters are not entirely new, I know.  I played Perfect Dark and Timesplitters in their day.  But the co-op campaigns in those games were rudimentary rehashings of the single-player experience.  Even the more recent Halo and Gears of War titles, which proudly feature cooperative play, do not require it.  Sure, they’re light years ahead of the late-90s fragfests, but they weren’t offering an entirely new experience, just the opportunity for multiple people to have the same experience simultaneously.

However, a growing brood of co-op specific games are making waves in the shooter gene pool.  Valve’s Left 4 Dead series is at the top of the class (though it is not without its detractors).  Left 4 Dead and its sequel are games that simply must be played with other people.  And yet, it’s not a competitive game at heart (though it does have its competitive multiplayer modes).   It has a story.  Ingeniously, Valve took the shooting conventions of its other franchises, poured them into a huge vat with zombies and some slick peripheral storytelling, and mixed into a concoction as yet unseen in gaming.

You never roll alone in Left 4 Dead. You will not survive the zombie hordes in Left 4 Dead by yourself.  In fact, you cannot.  Even if you’re the only human playing, the game gives you three A.I. companions.  This, of course, is not uncommon in gaming.  What is uncommon is how punishing the game can be on any difficulty other than Easy if you do not have other living, thinking beings with which to play. 

Other shooters, knowing that a majority of gamers can and will play online, feature cooperative modes completely separate from the “main” campaign.  Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2, and Splinter Cell: Conviction all shipped with unique co-op experiences.  Not every co-op shooter can be a gem, but the effort’s worth it to find the occasional diamond in the rough.

Communication Breakdown

So far I’ve talked about how gaming’s embraced cooperative play beside, if not over, competitive play.  It’s not just the mainstream that’s going this route, however.  Smaller titles are out to turn cooperative gameplay on its head by restricting the flow of its lifeblood: communication.

Action RPGs are a genre as old as gaming.  Before kids in Japan were buying robots for their Nintendo Entertainment Systems, Gary Gygax was running weekly games of Dungeons & Dragons.  They certainly came of age in the Internet era, with loot-driven RPGs like Diablo leading the charge.  Teams of dungeon raiders in World of Warcraft communicate through voice chat, calling for help when their best laid plans go awry.

But what if you couldn’t talk to your teammates?  And what if the only people you encountered on your dungeon crawl were the ghosts of other fallen warriors?  That’s the premise behind last year’s cult PS3 hit Demon’s Souls.  When online, players can inspect bloodstains on the ground to see brief, ghastly reenactments of other player’s gristly deaths, which serve as warnings of upcoming foes and obstacles.  You can also elect to leave written notes for other players to find if you think your blood won’t do the trick.  Rarely do you interact with other players, and if you do, it’s only with their incorporeal revenants.

Journey - What's up there?

Jenova Chen’s upcoming Journey looks to be a game whose world is similarly consumed by silence.  Chen’s the man behind fl0w and Flower, two games that some might contend are barely games at all.  He traffics heavily in ambience and slow, emergent gameplay.  It’s notable that Journey’s his first game to incorporate the use of an actual button (but only one!).  Speaking of Journey at this year’s E3, Chen expressed disinterest in empowerment fantasies, aka gaming’s bread and butter.  He wants players to feel small and powerless, to rekindle a sense of wonder at and perhaps fear of the expansive unknown. 

Journey was apparently inspired, at least in part, by hiking.  The game will be online, and players will occasionally encounter other players wandering through the world.  Their communication will be limited to a sing button.  No voice or text chat.  I can’t imagine you’ll be partying up with people or anything.  Maybe the encounters will just be there to remind you of the nature of your lonesome quest (the details of which are still fuzzy).

These approaches leverage the always-on, constantly connected nature of the Internet to create multiplayer environments that feel like almost the exact opposite.  Barren worlds populated by shades and muted hikers.  I’m digging it already.

A Lifetime In Tandem

Cooperative gameplay is not in competition with competitive gameplay.  It’s simply an alternative.  I take that back.  Cooperative gameplay has the potential to enhance competitive gameplay.  Look no further than class-based shooters like Team Fortress 2 for that.  Gamers are winning and losing, living and dying, succeeding and failing based on their interactions with one another.

In our May interview with Jason Rohrer, he said, “Multiplayer creates these systems that are not just content to be consumed but an activity to engage in potentially for a whole lifetime.”  What better way to spend a lifetime than playing together?