Remember the heady days of console gaming? That so-called ‘golden era’ of the 1990s? Grab a Mega Drive/SNES cartridge or PS1 disc, slam it into your machine, and instantly jump into a game with a mate without any hassle. Getting in some multiplayer was an incredibly easy affair - gather your mates in the same room as you, grab joypads, play. One game, two (or more) people. Simple.
In today’s connected-console age, we’re still gathering mates (in online parties) and getting them to grab joypads (in their own homes)... but trying to achieve the ‘play’ part of that equation throws up a huge barrier - the requirement of all players to own the same game in order to jump in.
For the most part, the slow transformation of the console gaming world towards something resembling a more PC-like experience has proven to be quite beneficial. But it has also brought about the introduction of some ugly trends and aggravating hurdles to entry, such as the abundance of activation codes. Perhaps the biggest pain for me this generation has been the aforementioned change in how we engage in multiplayer.
Is my friend online? Does he want to play a game with me? Does he even have the game I want to play with him on? For the most part, these questions can be solved with simple voice chat. But what happens if your friend doesn’t have the same game? Then the fun begins.
What could have been a quick five minutes of online play with a mate in Australia soon turns into a lengthy debate as to why said mate doesn’t own your game, and puts you in the awkward position of having to give an impromptu review to convince him that he needs to spend £30 of his own money to download the game himself (if, in fact, a digital version even exists on the console’s marketplace).
What if he doesn’t want to buy the game? Why don’t you play Call of Duty with him instead? What if you don’t fancy playing Call of Duty tonight? What if you don’t have any other games beside the one you desperately want your mate to play with you for a measly couple of matches?
The point is, the online console culture has practically killed any desire for me to play multiplayer games on impulse. Nintendo and Sony handhelds suffered from the same problem for years - although this has been mitigated somewhat by the ability to transmit demo multiplayer versions of your game to other players.
Most multiplayer modes exist purely to complement a single-player campaign - an afterthought (in some unkind cases, a tacked-on feature) to merely attract a segment of the gaming audience that normally wouldn’t look at a game without co-op or competitive features. Or, perhaps, to keep copies of the game out of the trade-in cycle for just a little longer. That’s understandable.
But it does no good for the awareness of a game if that tactic fails. Let’s face it, nobody is talking about Tomb Raider for its multiplayer mode. Tomb Raider is simply not a game you associate with multiplayer. Consumers are not going to drop £50 on an untested multiplayer mode for a series that is not known for it.
The same goes with Uncharted. Hell, in Uncharted 2 there is but one trophy dedicated to multiplayer - and it’s awarded to you for simply trying it out. Wouldn’t it be more effective to sell a franchise to the multiplayer crowd by allowing them to try the thing for free in the first place?
Sony recently promised to break down the barriers for gamers with the PlayStation 4. By adopting the same principle as Uncharted 3 for certain titles - giving players the choice to download a free-to-play multiplayer so that they don’t have to splash on a full title to play and experience new games with online buddies - the company will certainly go some way to achieving that.
And for games where multiplayer is a core tenet of gameplay, like Borderlands or Call of Duty? Gaikai’s proposed system of offering free trials of games will likely be a better solution than free-to-play. Either way, with a new generation of consoles on the horizon, Sony and Microsoft have an opportunity to make multiplayer a much more hassle-free experience, and bring back the simplicity that we all enjoyed with consoles of the past.
The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and does not reflect those of SPOnG.com except when it does.
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