23 May, 2003

Multiplayer gaming: the final piece to the massmarket puzzle?

PALGN Feature | Multiplayer games are no longer mere bonus extras, but could represent the key to mass acceptance of the videogame medium...
My palms are moist with sweat, my brow is burning - I'm being followed. Hurriedly, I toss my assault rifle to the side, stoop to my knees and grab a discarded rocket launcher. The footsteps are growing louder in my left ear. This is it. With a leap and turn of faith and a flash of blurred steel, my feet bid farewell to the ground. I drop from the platform where the rocket launcher was situated and now, for this brief split second, I can see my pursuer, exposed. My trigger finger itches. Click. Bang. 15-14. Game, set, match player one.

There's little more viscerally satisfying than multiplayer Halo, though besides being a lesson in how to construct a virtually flawless human vs human contest, Bungie's masterpiece says a great deal more. It says: this is what every game needs even more of, the kind of multiplayer exponent that can consume evenings with friends in a flash. Infact, more than that, this is what could truly take games forward, inviting the more and more cautious Johnny Massmarket to dip his toe in gaming's waters.

As wondrous as Goldeneye's single-player was, the multiplayer toppled it. Why? Because with every Ruskie you downed with your Dostovoi, you knew, no matter how much you convinced yourself, that behind the eyes of your opponents lay nothing but spreadsheets of code. Watch them as they perform their sideways rolls, watch as you burst into a room and one guard heads for the alarm as the other provides cover fire. Again and again and again and again and again. The single-player mode in Soul Calibur was expansive and varied, but paled in the thrill stakes when compared to the multiplayer game, which would be met with yells of joy and groans of despair in our house.

And with even the most elaborate artificial intelligence code available (currently Halo), the feeling remains the same: stop making us battle spreadsheets, stop making us fight opponents who we know will dive behind that rock, then behind that barrel filled with conveniently flammable chemicals. This isn't to discount solo gaming experiences: Ico and Rez are just two examples of one-player-only games from recent times that have excelled and pushed boundaries. But if gaming really wants to fulfil it's commercial potential, to become a leisure-time activity to rival any other, it needs to show it's true colours to the unconverted. It needs to show what it does best. And what it does best is to pit human wits against one another.

Give us more co-op modes. Give us more team games. Give us more multiplayer variants and more online games. A great multiplayer game can elevate an average single-player game to something truly absorbing and engaging. Unlike the Russians who perform sideways rolls when the spreadsheets tell them, humans are never predictable. And humans are flawed too, which is just as important. The feeling of joy of capitalising on a human opponent's error is counterbalanced by the feeling of frustration in the individual who made the error. Moments of brilliance can only exist in the context of errors.

If the videogame medium is to ever penetrate the mainstream consciousness - and despite what you may have heard about Playstation and Lara Croft and fashionable DJs on the soundtrack of WipeOut, more people don't play games than people who do and mass acceptance of games is still some way off - then the industry needs to show consumers just what they're missing: the last minute goal against your best friend in Pro Evolution Soccer 2, the winning, decisive head-shot in Perfect Dark.

OK, conclusion: computers are dumb. Dumber than humans, and by some stretch. And quite frankly, this lack of creativity is leading to some tiresome opponents. Hopefully, the advent of online console gaming that we're in right now will manage to highlight just what a rich medium videogames are, a medium that can allow two human minds to collaborate to form something wonderful. The human mind is endlessly complex - attempts to imitate it are hopeless. Embrace human errors. After all, to err is human, which is perhaps why multiplayer Halo will always be divine.

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