By Ben Skipper
Playing together is deeply embedded in video game culture. Long before Xbox Live, before the days of Unreal Tournament and Quake, arcades were filled with friends jostling to get further, score higher and win bigger. Even those playing solo did so with the high score of a stranger hanging over their head, daring them to try harder and get better – all while the internet was just a glimmer in the eye of Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
When the internet did eventually arrive, online multiplayer flourished on PCs while home consoles largely remained the preserve of single player and split-screen. Online console gaming finally caught on in a big way in the early Noughties, with Halo 2 becoming its wildly-popular poster boy.
By the time the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 arrived, home consoles were ready to finally take one of PC gaming’s former biggest selling points and run away with it. Gears of War, Perfect Dark Zero, MotorStorm and many others made their mark, but in late 2007 Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Halo 3 set up that console cycle to be the one in which online multiplayer would dominate.
Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture The Flag, Race – these classic multiplayer modes dominated in the majority of titles. Single player games still flourished in games like Bioshock, Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed, but sooner or later pretty much every major franchise caved in to multiplayer demand. As the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 near their first birthdays, online multiplayer as we know it remains largely the same. But a new trend has steadily been gathering steam.
As evidenced by From Software’s Souls series and Gearbox’s Borderlands, the realms of single player and multiplayer are gradually becoming entwined. There’s no bigger current example on consoles than Bungie’s space opera Destiny. Multiplayer is the game’s driving force, with both structured and seamless multiplayer blurring what were once clearly defined lines.
“With Destiny we thought, instead of building a single player experience that’s one and done before moving over to competitive multiplayer, why don’t we build a world that people can share all these different activities in”, says Eric Osbourne, Bungie’s Community Manager. “[A world] In which you could create a character that would benefit from your persistence and investment in both modes.”
Destiny isn’t the only example. Tom Clancy’s The Division shares similar massively multiplayer traits; Dead Island 2 is seeking to remove some of the divisive structure of past games. Then there are other kinds of multiplayer: Evolve’s asymmetrical 4 v 1 gameplay, Assassin’s Creed Unity’s central story-led co-op missions and the Souls-esque invasion modes of Watch Dogs and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
“It’s moving away from the past when people like me, for a while, thought of multiplayer as too stressful, with kids everywhere who were too hardcore,” Yager Development’s Design Director Jörg Friedrich told me. “Then these new games have appeared that suddenly changed the perspective of what is single player and what is multiplayer.
“For example, games like Demon’s Souls or Journey (which I think is the greatest example) had that asynchronous style, where you could be playing and suddenly there would be someone else with you. That’s cool because it doesn’t feel forced. I don’t make the conscious decision to enter a multiplayer mode, multiplayer just happens and other players are embedded in the world in a way that they’re not an annoyance but something to embrace, something organic.”
Traditional MMOs like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars have never found success on consoles (although Final Fantasy XIV is a probable exception), but what we can see in games like Destiny and The Division is the measured application of many of the ideas that made MMOs so successful. On a small scale the use of other human players can aid in building believable worlds players can invest in.
Executive Producer of The Division Fredrik Rundqvist believes this will soon become the norm. “It's a clear trend and I believe that the benefits are so strong for the gamers, that eventually it will be hard for games with non-multiplayer aspects to deliver on consumer expectations.”
Both Osbourne and Friedrich mentioned Journey in my interviews with them, and there’s really no better example of the potential seamless multiplayer has for what once may have been single player experiences. Multiplayer in Journey was at once both inessential and utterly crucial. You could play through alone, but when you happened across another player in thatgamecompany’s classic it felt unique, natural and at times beautiful.
Journey gave us organic co-operative play, where players happened across one another and weren’t asked to pull a trigger or draw a sword. Multiplayer didn’t change too much about the game, but traversing, flying and dancing through that landscape was immeasurably better with a stranger at your side.
It’s been clear for some time that multiplayer is seeping into every facet of gaming, and it could well be the defining trend of this generation. Maybe, as it develops, one benefit will be that people start working together more than they shoot each other. It’s unlikely that the current thirst for Call of Duty-style competitive multiplayer will subside any time soon, but players may be asked to help fight for, and alongside, each other more and more.