Why Your Multiplayer Needs Soul
There are those certain types of games out there, the ones that have you discussing for days or weeks on end how you totally stomped your opponents, or some random happenstance that blew your mind. These are the games that get you back together with your friends on a nightly basis to trade blows and throw grenades, striving to be the best, to get the next unlock, or just compete for bragging rights.
Just by imagining these scenarios, you probably conjured up a list of your favorite experiences and the games they were connected to. Whether its the exact right combination of tight mechanics and engaging gameplay, or just the fact that you can destroy your environments in real time with your friends, there are multiplayer experiences out there that stick with us through different consoles and generations. Conversely, there are certain ones that, no matter how much they try to emulate the successful models, just can’t achieve that level of notoriety. This is a sort of nebulous aspect about multiplayer games, a “soul” for lack of a better term. Which games have it, and which games don’t?
When someone talks about success in the multiplayer realm, Call of Duty usually comes up as the focus of how to do it right. Ever since Call of Duty 4, the series’ unique blend of first person gameplay and Role Playing tropes (levels and unlocks) has secured it a spot as the forerunner in multiplayer arenas. While such a combination seems like a no-brainer these days, it is very much a reflection on the gamer’s current obsession with value for their money, or how much game time they can squeeze out of sixty dollars. By artificially lengthening the multiplayer experience, Call of Duty succeeds in dangling a tasty carrot in front of its user base, ensuring that people hooked on the leveling up will eschew newer titles to pursue the next gun or killcard.
That’s not to say that the RPG back-end of Call of Duty is all that keeps people coming back, but it is a large part of the reason. Aside from that, though, Call of Duty is famous for being fast-paced, hectic and somewhat easy to pick up and play. Although more recent iterations are suffering under a short turn around time between games, Call of Duty remains the master of the small, quick, brutal fights. This is where it stakes its claim, and where many other games have fallen trying to best it.
Staying with the first person shooter theme, the other current “top dog” on the consoles is Halo, despite the fact that it is (with the exception of Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2) exclusive to the Xbox. Starting back with Combat Evolved in 2001, there has been a sort of “arms race” between developers, seeing which one of them would be the next to copy Halo’s formula for success. While Call of Duty has certainly taken over the top postition, Halo’s “golden tripod” of guns, grenades and melee, along with its slower, more methodical pace have given it a fan base of its own. Although Halo: Reach has upset the balance somewhat with the addition of gameplay-altering Armor Abilities, Halo has its own sensibilities that keeps people coming back.
While Halo and Call of Duty have their claims to fame, there are a couple of franchises that try to straddle the line between the frenetic action of CoD and the more considered pacing of Halo and come up short. Killzone and the upcoming Crysis 2 are two such examples. While the games are not abysmal, in fact there’s some fun to be had with both, the fact that they try to encapsulate the offerings of two wholly different styles of First Person Shooters means that those games fail to have the hooks that Halo or CoD have. In short, they feel “souless”, because instead of trying to make their own niche, they try to carve one out of pre-exisiting populations that have gravitated towards Halo or Call of Duty for one reason or another. While that sort of hybrid can’t be ruled out, no game so far has been able to take two different schools of FPS gameplay and string them together.
Since First Person Shooters are such a large part of the market share, any game that tries to break into that packed arena needs to try something new and revolutionary, or offer its own brand of special sauce in a completely different arena. If you want to talk about the granddaddy of competitive gaming, StarCraft is a great example. Many games since have tried to fill the gap left in the ten year space between the sequel and the original, but Blizzard is the master or RTS gaming in that respect. How else could they have gotten legions of players to stay loyal to a ten year old game if they weren’t constantly upgrading and iterating upon it? That’s where StarCraft’s stake is, in the balanced, constantly evolving real time strategy flavor that Blizzard has been dishing up.
There are plenty of games that don’t necessarily need to be online for them to be considered a success; indeed, Halo started out as primarily a split-screen/console linking affair. Fighting games are a great example of this sort of strategy. Recent entries from Capcom have tried their hand at fighting over an Internet connection, but for a long time the draw of fighters was sitting beside your friend on a couch, trading blows and trying to build up ridiculous combos. Games like Street Fighter, Fight Night or Super Smash Bros. all have things to offer in this regard, and they don’t even have to be online. These are the kinds of games that still embrace the couch mentality, where you’re face to face with the person you’re fighting.
You can take a look at any genre and see where their lineage comes from. Quake and Counter-Strike are the forerunners of multiplayer for First Person Shooters much as StarCraft is for Real Time Strategy or Street Fighter is for fighting games. Every successful game needs to have a hook, something that sets it apart from the others. Games that try to copy what others have already done are destined to fall between the cracks. Want team-based objective multiplayer? Play Team Fortress. Want to chase someone through the streets while at the same time avoiding your own demise? Try Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. While I did spend a large part of the article focused on First Person Shooters, that’s just where my head is at these days.
What multiplayer games do you guys think have “soul”? What games keep you coming back over and over, and why? Which game aren’t that great because that lack that certain something? Go!