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Posted November 3, 2016 by Marko Swanepoel in Opinion
 
 

Opinion: The generation of a multiplayer-only graveyard

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Multiplayer has never been my forte. I usually see it an optional extra with my singleplayer game that I maybe check out once and never play again. Of course, multiplayer is an essential component in the gaming ecosystem and it’s the marquee reason to game for a grand majority of people. During the earlier days of the previous generation, multiplayer did not have such a strong focus as it does now. Internet infrastructure was still spotty and unreliable, and only a few select titles enjoyed continued success with their multiplayer components. However, near the end of the last generation and within this generation, we have seen a significant push to go into a multiplayer-centric route.

Multiplayer-only games are not a new thing by any stretch of the imagination. MOBAs, FPS games such as Counter-Strike and, obviously, MMOs have been around for decades, but they’ve enjoyed a continued success throughout their lifespan. The problem area that I’m referring to is this surge of games that choose to go the multiplayer-only route while not having the sufficient staying power to remain relevant for a respectable amount of time.

I think the most obvious example is Evolve. We are all familiar with the tragic story of Turtle Rock Studios’ ambitious asymmetrical multiplayer-only shooter. While the game’s ultimate tragic flaw can be seen as the over-reliance on hype and aggressive DLC marketing, the game also simply did not have the staying power that the developers may have hoped for. Player numbers dwindled after launch week at a rapid pace that was unprecedented at the time. After a few months, it was a ghost town.

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Now, imagine you don’t know anything about the game, you go into a shop and buy it because it was on sale. When you finally play it, you will be greeted by egregious waiting times to get into a match, simply because there aren’t any people playing it. What was the point of your purchase, then?  What is the point of buying this game at all, in fact? Evolve ended up dying with a whimper after it went free-to-play as a last-ditch effort to get people to play it again. Look ahead a couple of years. Will Evolve have any relevance in the gaming world whatsoever at that point?

As a consolation, Evolve’s servers are still up. You can still play it if you really want to. But what if the game did not exist anymore? That is exactly what happened to a little indie game called Dead Star. The game was a multiplayer-only space game, but following some very poor performance and actually costing the developers money, they pulled the plug on the entire thing. It died completely. It was removed from storefronts, the game’s servers were shut down and as far as we are concerned, it just doesn’t exist anymore.

These scenarios got me thinking about the longevity and relevance of multiplayer-only titles. Sure, Dead Star is a small example of what can happen on one extreme, but I want to treat it as a microcosm of the multiplayer-only landscape. Let’s look at something like Rainbow Six Siege. A multiplayer-only title that relies on a busy community to function. If everyone stopped caring about it tomorrow and it ended up costing Ubisoft time, resources and money to still keep alive, what’s stopping them from pulling the plug on it? Erase it from existence, make it completely unplayable.

Similarly, this can also happen to massive games such as Destiny and The Division. Destiny is mostly safe because Bungie pulled it back from the brink with solid expansions and necessary tweaks to the gameplay, but The Division is teetering on the edge of irrelevancy. Whenever the game gets brought up in my circles, the most frequent and obvious joke is “who even still plays that anymore?”. The game withholds a decent population and is also kept alive via expansions and tweaks, but the telltale signs of irrelevancy are creeping in. Player population is dwindling daily and the game doesn’t have enough staying power to be a persistent offering. Sound familiar? That’s what happened with Evolve albeit at a much more accelerated pace. I’m not saying The Division will be dead next week, but a couple of years from now, I won’t be surprised if I read the headline “Ubisoft pulls the plug on The Division“.

To equally illustrate how volatile a multiplayer-only environment can be as well as the benefits that can be gained when done correctly, we need to look at the case of Battleborn versus Overwatch. Battleborn and Overwatch were direct competitors during their initial release periods. Battleborn performed admirably and many would even proclaim that it is the superior game, but it was wildly overshadowed by Blizzard’s colossal release. Battleborn faded into obscurity extremely fast and became another casualty to be used as an example in some dude’s opinion piece about multiplayer-only games dying, but Overwatch flourished.

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Overwatch is the premier example of how a multiplayer-only title can succeed if it does things the right way. Firstly, it has a squeaky clean production with lovable characters, excellent gameplay and an addictive quality. Secondly, it captured the zeitgeist very early on in its lifespan and therefore managed to achieve a loyal, dedicated fanbase. Thirdly, Blizzard keeps it boiling by introducing new characters, skins, maps and so on to keep those loyal fans coming back for more. It has longevity, it has staying power and Blizzard’s prestigious name definitely didn’t hurt. I predict the game will evolve more and more as the years move forward and it will take a whole heck of a lot to add it to the growing graveyard.

At this moment you might be asking “so what is the point of all this?”. My principle problem with multiplayer-only titles and their volatile nature is that they won’t be remembered in the years to come at all. Nobody is going to pick up Evolve and still be able to properly play it. Many titles will simply disappear into nothing with the only accounts of their existence being on gaming blogs that once called them “essential”. More multiplayer-only games will release in the future with publishers shrugging their shoulders and thinking “this will probably last for a few months, hopefully.” We will see a graveyard of games with desolate populations. Where you insert the disc and the main menu will have a red banner saying “Servers are offline. Thank you for playing”.

And this doesn’t have to happen. A very recent game can be seen as a potential exception to this whole impending multiplayer focused cataclysm. TitanFall 2. The original is probably amongst the doomed games on their way to the Ether, but TitanFall 2 has a solid singleplayer campaign that can be enjoyed regardless of the time you chose to pop in the disc. It will still remain relevant in the coming years. You can get the game out of a bargain bin and still be able to experience it even if the life of its multiplayer has run its course by that point.

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On the other hand, who cares? Multiplayer-only games can also be seen as a fleeting moment of enjoyment that exists in its own designated bubble of time. People played the hell out of The Division when it released, the majority enjoyed themselves and have since moved on to the next big thing. It accomplished the majority of its goal and it now exists as a fond memory to many who managed to experience it. People played Battlefront and enjoyed talking about it on their fleeting social media platforms. People played The Crew and remember the giant map and the busy world filled with murderous cars. There are YouTube videos of people playing Rainbow Six Siege where they laugh at some silly thing that happened or experienced an intense nail-biting match. How is this much different to a purely singleplayer offering? The game will have a lot of success when it launches, enjoy the limelight and then we move on.

I think all of this also speaks to the dynamic nature of the gaming world. We are inundated with great games releasing in quick succession and we tend to move through them at an equally rapid pace. Multiplayer-only games run the risk of rendering themselves completely irrelevant within a few years or even months because of the tumultuous nature of the gaming community. However, this can also be a giant risk for consumers which concerns me the most.

When someone buys a multiplayer-only game, they are immediately taking a risk right out of the gate. If they buy it at launch and only really play it during that first month or so, there isn’t much to be worried about. Servers will be populated, most of the time, and you will have a nice experience given that the game is of a good quality. But if you are buying the game a little later because you were forced to wait for a pricedrop or it never really showed up on your radar, there is a possibility that the overall experience will be soured. Players still playing will be in top ranks and know all of the tricks, the community might be hostile to newcomers, or it will just be a ghost town where you sit for 20 minutes before finding some other lost soul who happened to be searching at the same time.

And all of this is a shame. Some of the titles I’ve mentioned range from good to stellar, yet I have no desire to try any of them because I’m either too late or there won’t be anything for me there. That’s why I’m not fully in support of this recent trend of going the multiplayer-only route. It looks to be a good idea on paper and in the spur of the moment, but the short term and long term effects I’ve mentioned cannot be ignored.

What do you think about all of this? Do you have some personal experience with multiplayer-only titles that caused problems for you? Let me know.





Marko Swanepoel