Welcome to 2015, where everybody wants to be connected to everybody else 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, forever. Or, at least, that seems to be the underlying assumption of most of the people producing our games and the technology they’re built on. Now, before you get too worried about this turning into the gamer equivalent of an old man ranting about those damn kids with their hippity-hop music and how badly they need to get off his lawn, that’s not what I’m doing here. Although, seriously, stay off my lawn. I like social gaming. Actually, I love it. The best experiences I’ve ever had in a game were alongside my friends. Here’s the flipside of that coin, though: The worst experiences I’ve ever had in a game have been alongside a bunch of random asshats who may very well be the most terrible subset of humanity I’ve ever come across. I’m assuming they’re real people of course, and not a bunch of psychotic, genetically engineered sewer mutants who speak a language based completely on casual racism and gay slurs, but I could be wrong. Either way, despite the potential that online multiplayer has, in most cases the potential remains just that. Potential. There are a few games that have gotten it mostly right, but way more have gotten it wrong. Why is that? What are we missing and is getting this right even possible? Beats me, but let’s talk about it anyway! By the way, I’m not going to address MOBAs or Call of Duty here. MOBAs aren’t my thing and I’m not a big Call of Duty fan, so… yeah.
IT ISN’T ALL ABOUT YOU
This is a core concept that a lot of people seem to miss when it comes to online multiplayer. Most gamers are, (understandably), out for themselves. Developers encourage this. You are trying to get the best loot for your character so you can be more powerful than everyone else, or you are trying to rack up the most kills so you can top the leaderboard or whatever. I’m as guilty of falling into this trap as anyone. I’ve gotten royally pissed when a raid boss didn’t drop the piece of gear that I wanted, and I’ve seethed when I looked at the rankings at the end of a match my team just won and seen myself near the bottom instead of near the top. Why is that bad? Well, it’s bad because in both instances my team won. The whole idea of cooperative play is that you’re working together to accomplish a goal, and what matters is the success of the unit and not the individual. Hell, even when you lose, does that even matter as long as you’re enjoying the game? That is the point of all this, right? To have fun? What’s lost on most people is the idea that the focus should be on how they are impacting the group, and not how the group is impacting them. A big part of the problem here is that, for the majority of time that video games have existed, they were a mostly solitary experience. At most, you had three other people sitting on the couch playing Goldeneye with you. And now you’re going to take a few million people, throw them together in a cauldron and see what happens? Um, good luck with that. Still, this is a basic human impulse that’s difficult for any of us to overcome, especially in a setting that (in most cases) only encourages teamwork as the means to an end. Working together is just a way to get an individual reward in almost any multiplayer game. There are some games out there that encourage group performance and give group rewards, but there aren’t many. Huh. Well, that’s a bit weird isn’t it? Every game under the sun has multiplayer now. Even games that shouldn’t have it totally have it (more on this in a second). You’d think that group rewards would be part and parcel. Keep in mind, this is, by and large, the fault of developers and not gamers. Sure there are some people out there that are true lone wolves, and that’s their right. And there are people out there that are selfish assholes. That is also their right, just like it’s my right to point out their selfish assholey-ness. But still the blame lies primarily with the developers because they’re the ones creating the environments. If you build an environment that encourages and rewards teamwork by providing an overall benefit to the group, your community will improve. And many developers don’t.
SOME GAMES ARE NOT MEANT FOR MULTIPLAYER
Anyone want to take a stab at why Elder Scrolls Online is struggling the way it is? Go ahead, take your time. I’ll wait. (Dum dee dum dee dum). Are we back? Super! If your answer is “Nobody asked for a low-fi Skyrim with shitloads of other people in it,” congratulations and go ahead and put on the crown, because tonight you’re the king. The Elder Scrolls series is fantastic. Skyrim is one of my favorite games of all time. It deserved every award it won and then some. But what makes Skyrim and its predecessors so great is that they are perfectly engineered solo experiences. They precisely and exactingly position the player as the center of the game’s universe, and your choices and actions directly impact everything that happens in the game. They give you a massive continent to explore, and if you’ve played them you’ve felt the rush you get when you stand on a mountaintop, look out into the distance, and let the thrill of anticipation for the adventures ahead wash over you. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. It’s sublime. Now explain to me exactly how this would be made better by some random shmuck named “BALLZ4UMOUF,” (because how could his name be anything else), running up and screaming “RACIAL SLUR HOMOPHOBIA ZOMG ETHNIC STEREOTYPE!!!” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. Multiplayer with the general public is pure, unadulterated hell. Not because people are horrible in general, but because the small subsection of people that are horrible are the loudest and the most visible. My point is, when people pick up a title like Elder Scrolls, they’re looking for a certain kind of experience. Elder Scrolls Online would have been phenomenal in 2006, when you could put out an MMORPG and people would instantly pick it up no matter what. In 2015, it just looks like a beloved franchise taking a sorely misguided step into a genre it has no business being in. Quick sidenote; There’s a monetary angle to this as well. Skyrim was, by any measure, a massive hit. Bethesda made piles and piles of money off of Skyrim. It confounds me that literally nobody has tried to match that success in the five years that have gone by since Skyrim’s release by putting out an equally stellar single player game. Just sayin’.
What’s worse than a subpar MMO is a game that has multiplayer tacked on when it shouldn’t. Elder Scrolls Online is a misguided clusterfuck of an MMO, but at least it’s multiplayer is designed to be the core of the game. The social experience is meant to be the central element of the entire game. Take something like Watch Dogs. All the issues of the game’s solo experience aside (and there are many), my biggest complaint about that game is the “multiplayer” they included. I’m putting quotes around multiplayer there because this game has true multiplayer the same way that I am fabulously wealthy and powerful. Which is to say it doesn’t, and I’m not. Fuck, this just got depressing. Anyway, here’s my point; the multiplayer in Watch Dogs basically allows other people to interrupt your game by “hacking” you. …That’s it. That’s the whole thing. So that means that somebody somewhere came up with the idea to make pissing off their player base a central part of the experience, took that idea to a second guy and the second guy apparently patted him on the back, gave him a promotion and was then presumably ripped apart by rabid lemurs because I have to believe there is some form of cosmic justice for a decision like that. For all of that games faults, it’s biggest sin was that rather than focusing their time, resources and money on making an outstanding single-player experience (i.e. Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor, which is easily one of the best games to come out in recent months), they decided to add this bizarre, bastardized sort-of-but-not-really multiplayer system into the equation.
EVEN WHEN IT’S GOOD, IT STILL KIND OF SUCKS
“Ah, but Gallifrey,” you say, “what about World of Warcraft? That’s been going strong for 10 years and the community has a pretty good reputation!” I have two words for you, person I’m making up to illustrate my point. Trade Chat. Or, if you played Horde, Barrens Chat. Everybody figured out really quickly that one of the first things you did in WoW was disable the general chat channels, because what sort of psychopath actually wants to see a wall of ignorance tick by in the bottom left hand corner of their screen all damn day? Was everyone contributing to this? No. But there’s no reason that the other 200 people in the zone should be stuck listening to the ten dipshits in chat having their little flamewar. And for the love of God, one can only take so many Chuck Norris jokes. We get it!!! His tears cure cancer but he’s never cried!!! Hilarious!!!!! At any rate, I’ve seen every single kind of insult, slur, hate, and trolling you could possibly think of in WoW. It wasn’t all the time and it wasn’t every day, but it’s been consistent and continuous for the entirety of the decade I’ve spent with the game. Do these people completely ruin the game for me? No. But I’ve certainly had times when I said “Fuck this, I’m out,” and walked away from it for days at a time because I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.
On top of this, going back to a point I made earlier, when Blizzard finally introduced group rewards in the form of “Guild Perks” (and I say finally because the game launched in 2004 and these didn’t show up for about seven freaking years), they were so crappy that in Warlords of Draenor they’ve essentially made them irrelevant. I’ll give them credit for trying, certainly, but ultimately the grand design of one of the best developers in the world to provide collective rewards for group effort fell on it’s ass so badly that it’s being written off as “Hey, we tried.” Yikes. So if the best MMO in history can’t figure this out and after ten years still has glaring flaws, where does that leave us?
POSSIBLY SCREWED, POSSIBLY NOT
Reassuring, right? I feel like I have to say it that way because you and I both know that there are plenty of developers out there that will keep cranking out absolute crap forever, no matter what. But I also think that there is a real chance that eventually somebody will finally find a way to hit this perfectly on the head and usher us in to a different era. It’s happened before, and it can certainly happen again. We’re just not there yet. We’re in the middle of a mobile game revolution, but I don’t think that’s the answer. Mobile developers are way more concerned with creating the perfect Skinner Box than they are with creating the perfect multiplayer experience. In a way, multiplayer gaming already had it’s own revolution in the early 2000s, but I think there’s going to be another one. The first time around, it was all about “Holy crap, look what we can do! These other things in the game are people!!!” We’re past that now. This medium is capable of so much more than it’s achieved, and I can’t help but feel like something is coming around the corner that’s going to knock our socks off and change the way we see social online gaming and multiplayer. I thought Destiny was going to be it, but it wasn’t. Maybe it will be Evolve; maybe it’ll be Blizzard’s next top-secret project. Who the hell knows? But I don’t think this is the finish line.