Here’s a question. Do you remember playing GoldenEye 007 in the basement? What about playing Smash Bros. with your friends till 2 a.m.? Playing Street Fighter in your local arcade?
Multiplayer has been around since the beginning of video game history. The Atari 2600 had two joysticks. So did most arcade cabinets. When gaming was still more of a novelty, it was also a social event. Once upon a time, you had to leave your house to play video games, so you went with your siblings, parents, or friends after school.
Soon games began to move into the home. Lots of games were best played with two people. Contra, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Ikari Warriors were brought over to the NES, the SNES, the Sega Genesis. Things only got bigger and better. Nintendo began making consoles that supported four controllers at once, creating the age of GoldenEye 007, Mario Kart 64, and Smash Bros.
Then the age of Xbox and PS2 moved the AAA scene into different territory. Halo and Call of Duty began multi-million dollar franchises. Fighters and racers became more popular. The beginnings of online services like Xbox Live laid the groundwork for online gaming. Then came the Xbox 360, the PS3, and sophisticated PC hardware. It was becoming easier and easier to play games with friends regardless of distance. Starting around 2010, a lot of games were built around it. Some couldn’t even be played without a paid subscription to online multiplayer. As storage became bigger and better on console, and practically unlimited on PC, developers focused more on digital offerings. Bringing a game to a friend’s house became less common.
So where does this leave us in 2018?
AAA games with multiplayer offerings are practically non-existent. Online multiplayer isn’t a bad thing, and companies like Blizzard have built great communities with Overwatch, WoW, and so on. And like Extra Credits says, online multiplayer is a great business move. Kicking local multiplayer means not having to deal with bugs and frame drops. It makes people buy more copies of a game to play together. Hell, it means controllers can be more advanced, after all they seem to cost more than actual games.
But doesn’t this kind of suck for games as a cultural thing?
People who love video games have had to deal with a lot of stereotyping over the years. We tend to get pegged as nerds, like we’re out of touch with society, and especially like we’re anti-social. But if you can hand somebody a controller and invite them to enjoy a game with you, suddenly they can share your love for it. If you think about it, a lot of society’s perception of video games is based on the games people play together. Mario Kart, or Smash, or Madden, NBA 2K, and FIFA. These games are meant to be played with others, and so they have mass appeal. They’re the reason why games have moved into the mainstream.
So suppose we get fewer and fewer games with multiplayer. Suppose it gets harder to share games with other people on the spot. What if playing games with others depends on a sophisticated wi-fi connection, and the money to pay subscription fees? It might serve the bottom line of companies like EA, but then doesn’t gaming slowly go back to being just for the few instead of the many?
I’m grateful for companies like Nintendo that work to keep multiplayer alive. Why do you think Wii Sports was a staple for so many families? It’s because people like to play fun games with each other. That’s why the next generation of indie creators on Steam are making games like Gang Beasts or Invisigun Heroes that cost less and never get old. It’s why Cuphead isn’t just a great game with one person, but with two people, so that they can conquer the challenge together.
Video games are still the youngest entertainment medium. We have a long way to go before games can be accepted as something everyone respects and appreciates. And if we’re ever going to get there, we cannot just make games for people who love games already. We need games to show the world that they’re not just a ‘kid thing,’ or ‘too violent,’ or ‘a guy thing,’ or a ‘waste of time.’ We need games that will bridge the gap.