There rages today a battle between three schools of thought in video game design. The gaming industry is a multi-billion dollar business. Studios bank hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions, on the success of a title. It is imperative that a triple-A title make the money it needs to make, just simply to recoup money spent. Titles can spend years in development before seeing the first glimmer of light on the shelves. In this epic battle of art and commerce there are the three schools of thought to approaching the game modes a player experiences that can translate to big money and longevity in the player’s game library; single player campaign, co-op game play, and multiplayer.
I would love to go all the way back, to the beginning. This could be a ten page piece if I took the time to write about the genesis of games with competitive being one of the first apparitions of gaming via Pong. Could move on to Super Mario Bros., Contra, then to Goldeneye 007, and beyond. If I were a college student I could write my Master’s thesis on this complete history from one console to another, with a fair detour in to the PC gaming lifestyle of MMO’s, and all of the psychological conditions they feed in to, but you’re not reading this for that. Let’s be honest, I’ll end up covering those topics in their own time, and in their own essays. Today we seem to find ourselves battling with the specter of trying to please everyone all the time with titles that spread themselves thin over multiple playing types, doing none of these justice and leading to fatigue through watered down versions of what could have been epic games.
The single player campaign seems to be the one and future king of the gaming world. For years now we have seen the advent of multiplayer make this foregone style of gaming be ignored, or somehow left as an afterthought to just be a preface to great multiplayer modes. The single player mode is the place where a player can, and damn well should, become so immersed in a vividly designed world that every failure is crushing and every win is Epic. Deep inside of ourselves as people is this desire to overcome great odds. The psychology of setting our gaming character against seemingly unconquerable odds, the endless onslaught of men or creatures thirsting for our blood, or the great forces that are set to destroy our world, is what games are about at their very core.
A player becomes this character, a designed set of shoes for us to fill. The excitement and the crescendos of battle and winning chapters, or objectives, is what fuels us. A story, a truly compelling story on the level of oscar-winning scripts, compels us to move forward and to press on even though we might actually feel fear or adrenaline coursing through our veins. This is no spectator sport like watching TV or movies. In a single player campaign where we are the last hope, a survivor, or a License to Kill carrying badass, and we want to win. We desire to save our planet, or the girl, or just ourself. The single player campaign, when designed as perfect in it’s coding as in it’s artistic polish, is one of the most rewarding experiences a player can have.
What has come to the forefront of a lot of games, due in part to the online gaming technology of today, is multiplayer modes. This style of play saw it’s infancy, and in my opinion it’s pinnacle, with a game like Goldeneye 007. I argue that it is one of the, if not the, greatest video game ever created. Goldeneye showed us what putting more than two people on a map and setting them against each other can do; see Deathmatch for details. Multiplayer went global with the advent of XBox Live and the like, pitting gamers on different continents against one another to award a top player. There are objectives, team play, head-to-head matches, and a dozen more game types. Today we see millions of people playing the likes of Halo, COD, and GOW, online at any time of day in any time zone. This playing mode has rewritten the codex for all-time great games.
We started seeing it with really the grandfather to all multiplayer games today, Call of Duty: MW. Halo did it, too, but not to the level that COD did it. These are two powerhouse franchises, Halo has seen it’s reign end with the final installment in the series, Reach, though we are set to see MW 3 released September 2011. The games in these series were defined by a balanced and exciting single player campaign, but achieved Epic status with the longevity and ingenuity of their multiplayer experience. Now after a few titles, people didn’t even really care for teasers or screenshots of the single player campaign, they wanted to hear about the multiplayer. There was a shift in compelling story and more attention paid to the multiplayer maps and upgrades. Whole teams of designers were assigned to just the multiplayer to get it right. I am betting 9 out of 10 people who bought Halo: Reach got online and played multiplayer Deathmatch before they even looked at the campaign mode.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? A shift of technology and game design has both fed in to, as much as it created, a desire for more interactive online gaming experience. Is it foolish to think that millions of players online are wrong for not wanting a better campaign mode? I don’t think this is the case. The downside to this is not that the multiplayer is hurting the solo campaign, but that everyone and their mother is trying to copy or one up the competition by shoe-horning in a multiplayer in to games that don’t lend themselves to one in the first place. Bioshock 2, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, the upcoming Rage; these games don’t need a multiplayer, but the masses have spoken, with their wallets, and they say that you need one or you go to hell. Hell, in this case, is the video game store as used copies for trade-in toward the purchase of a game WITH multiplayer.
I for one feel that multiplayer is not a mode that should stand by itself as a major selling point for a game. I am a story kind of guy. I want suspense, thrills, tension, and consequences, in my games. I want a world so immersive that I might check my corners entering a room because I just spent six hours doing it every time I kicked in a door. I want lines of dialogue to run through my head an hour after I’m done playing. I want the desire to get back in to the world as soon as my eyes can stand it and I don’t have that pesky thing called ‘work’ standing in my way of getting to the next checkpoint. Multiplayer is the mode that you go to after the story, a place where you can pick up where you left off in the story, or play it out in a different way than you did alone. Multiplayer does work in COD since it is a military blueprint of a game and it lends itself perfectly to killing more men and taking wins or objectives in the same manner that you did in the campaign mode, but this is one of few titles and genres that can facilitate this integral multiplayer that doesn’t feel bolted on for the good of sales.
What of the other mode I mentioned, co-op? This poor bastard child of gaming has not seen a lot of days in the sun recently. Few, very few, games embrace co-op play through a campaign, and even less often view it as a mode that can stand alone. Who wants to play with just one to four people when you can fight 32? Co-op finally got it’s due with the release of Portal 2. Co-op play has it’s very own campaign that operates completely separate from the single player campaign. It is it’s own 7-10 hour game where two people get the feeling of the Epic win in solving their way out of testing rooms as a team. Poor co-op has been bred in to multiplayer up to this point in recent years, but with Portal 2, the best puzzle genre game of all-time and top ten overall game of all-time, co-op finally got it’s day in the sun. It is two people working together to complete a campaign together. Though many have flirted with it over the years, Portal 2 nailed it with a campaign all it’s own that is arguably better than just the solo campaign; the co-op actually improves on a stellar solo, which is almost unheard of.
There have been exclusively-multiplayer titles, but those have failed mostly. There isn’t enough story, enough background, enough foundation, on which to build a solid multiplayer people care about. Where does that story come from? Solo campaign. Co-op can further explore a world is a rewarding dynamic duo sort of way, enhancing the joy and wonder a player can feel as part of a two man wrecking crew. Multiplayer seems to have soured a lot of developers in creating a long and fulfilling solo campaign, Homefront showed us that. I think we need to realize that technology and creativity have finally reached an apex where one mode is no longer sacrificed for the sake of the other. We can have our cake and eat it too, even if the cake is all a lie.
The moral to all of this biased chin-wagging is that each of these gaming modes has validity in the industry. Each has it’s unique place as a way to further a story, prolong the longevity of a title, and to engage the player in a new way. You need the story, and the multiplayer can let us live it out longer, but you can’t rob Peter to pay Paul by welding a multiplayer to everything and mucking up the game on the whole by trying to do too much; and for God’s sake give co-op a chance. Could a little teamwork be such a bad idea?
Solo campaigns will always be my bread and butter, and what I think the cornerstone of a title should be, but multiplayer and co-op present a unique manner to get yet another fix of a world you were willing to save, even if it meant your life in the end credits. History has shown that some of the saddest or most fulfilling moments are not when your name tops a leader board or you just prestiged for the 20th time, it’s when you die at the end, when your little sister is taken from you, or when you must conquer all odds to fend off the invading forces hellbent on destroying Earth and eradicating the human race. These are the moments when our skin prickles, our palms sweat, and our hairs stand on end. These are the moments players reload for, and they’re not found in the fucking Lobby.