The rise of multiplayer gaming across both consoles and PCs has served to devalue the video game experience. It’s time for creators to acknowledge that single player narrative is an entirely different experience from a strong multiplayer game, and build them accordingly.
Take Call of Duty for example. The first six or seven games were great, and I enjoyed both the story arc and the gameplay. But as multiplayer became more and more important, the campaign mode became less interesting, more disjointed and not nearly as much fun. Spurious correlation? A sign of a moribund franchise? Perhaps, but I think the increasing amount of development time put into multiplayer led the campaign quality to subside dramatically. You could say the same thing for Halo, or any of a wide variety of other video game franchises that have tried to straddle the line between single and multiplayer — leaving the campaign mode destitute.
The struggle to meld single player and multiplayer has led to a number of other gaming disasters. Look no further than Destiny. Hyped up as a game that would change EVERYTHING, it ended up dashing those expectations. Destiny was an OK game, but it lacked a compelling narrative to make all the grinding worthwhile. And the multiplayer was just annoying — I was constantly frustrated by lying in wait to slaughter something, and some other player jumping in at the last minute and taking my kill. And I have no doubt that trying to add multiplayer to SimCity not only made the last version a nightmare to play, it ended killing off one of my favorite game studios of all time, Maxis.
Today’s multiplayer experience, particularly when it includes strangers, is mostly miserable. Trolls abound, bad behavior is the norm, and in the end these multiplayer battles just aren’t fun anymore. So not only has multiplayer ruined some of the biggest franchises in gaming, it’s also become a devalued experience due to all the lame-ass idiots destroying the experience for everyone else.
Dragon Age: Inquisition seems to be one of the few games to get it right. BioWare opened up the world for four-player co-op, but didn’t necessarily make it a huge component of the game. And the results show — it’s an amazing single player experience and by any measure one of the top games of 2014. I’m still enjoying it today.
Multiplayer only games by design, like League of Legends, DOTA, Minecraft and World of Warcraft are completely different. Built from the ground up to be a shared experience they have a take-it-or-leave-it approach that is mostly pretty darn good. And I say that even though World of Warcraft killed off one of my favorite single-player games ever.
I’m really worried about the next iterations of my favorite franchises. I’ve been eagerly anticipating Fable Legends, for example. The last one included some lame co-op capability, but it really didn’t seem to hurt the overall gameplay. However, the new four-on-one multiplayer seems so weird that I worry getting it right is holding up the release of the overall game.
But the pendulum seems to be shifting — or at the very least stabilizing. A surge of interesting and entertaining new single-player games recently hit the streets. These new titles are coming predominantly from the burgeoning independent game studios, which are more and more likely to be led by a traditional game developer fed up with the big studio system. Just look at Broken Age or 80 Days for examples of this newfound storytelling creativity. Sure 80 Days has an ability to see what others are doing, but this bolted-on multiplayer mode is hardly significant in the overall gameplay.
Perhaps some of these single-player experiences will end up earning more than the larger, bloated titles that try to be everything to everyone. And perhaps that will truly start pushing the pendulum back toward more epic, cinematic single-player narratives.
Until then, I’ll be playing — and replaying — Dragon Age, dipping into the Zelda canon, building new metropolises in Cities: Skyline and diving into and eagerly exploring some great new Indie titles. Thank goodness the blockbuster studios don’t set the direction for video gaming any more.