13 October 2010

How Multiplayer Sometimes Does More Harm Than Good

It was Canadian Thanksgiving here last week. Which was strange, because no one really seems to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving. All the shops and restaurants and bars and poutine vendors are open, like any other day. The post office and the banks are closed. But otherwise, it's a day off for people, little more.

I met Thumb-Blaster for breakfast at the White Spot on West Georgia Street. White Spots are the Canadian version of Denny's, only less cheery. They smell vaguely of bleach and depression. Strippers and old people eat here. Everything on the menu is incredibly cheap. Thumb-Blaster and I both got huge piles of cheap, terrible food for less than $10.

The project T.B. is currently working on includes a significant multiplayer component. So he witnesses, in a very tangible way, what building multiplayer does to a development team. At best, it sounds like a nuisance. At worst, it sounds like a time and energy sink-hole, a Kafka-like act of futility and despair for the people working on it.

T.B., despairing a little, asked me why game reviewers inevitably subtract points from a game's review score if multiplayer isn't part of the package. "Faulting a game for not having multiplayer is like faulting a movie for not being in 3-D," Thumb Blaster said. "Imagine a movie reviewer saying, 'This movie was really great, but since it is not in 3-D, I'm docking it a couple of points. Next time, MAKE IT IN 3-D, YOU DOPES."

T.B. had a point. Remember BioShock? (How could you forget? I seem to refer to it in almost every post on this goddamn blog.) Nearly every review across the board fawned over the game, but at some point included some variation on the following disparaging sentence: "There's no multiplayer in the game, which seems like a missed opportunity."

The fact that BioShock 2 included multiplayer--you asked for it, you got it, reviewers!!!!!!!!--is one of those things that will pain me until the end of my days. It is complete and utter shit. No one is playing it. No, not even the reviewers who asked for it apparently can be bothered to play it. And the people who worked on it? They've probably have either hanged themselves, or gone insane, or now manage a Borders in Pittsburgh.

While leafing through the October issue of Game Informer, I found a short interview with Ken Levine, who is given the bulk of the credit for making the original BioShock so terrific. (Note: He had little to nothing to do with BioShock 2.) The question put to him by the writer was this: What is Irrational's approach to multiplayer in BioShock: Infinite?

"Our approach hasn't changed," he says. "Every game we did prior to BioShock had a multiplayer component, and I don't think it mattered. It always came out of a request of a marketing department.

"If you look at multiplayer, either you are going to do something that's profound, or you're wasting your time. Absolutely wasting your time. Because what are people going to do? You're going to have a couple thousand people play it for a few weeks, then they're going to go back to the great multiplayer games [like] Call of Duty, Gears of War, Halo, Left 4 Dead.

"My feeling always has been if there is an idea that is organic to the product and is profound and is going to move people and excite people and really add a dimension to the product that is not just good for the product but stands on its own as a game, then you do it. If you don't have that, you don't do it.

"At this point, we haven't made a determination about whether or not we have something that's profound enough, or what exactly our thinking is here."

I love this sentence so much, that I think anyone who crabbed about the lack of multiplayer in BioShock should be forced to read it once a day for the rest of their lives: If you look at multiplayer, either you are going to do something that's profound, or you're wasting your time.

Go ahead. Read it again. And again.

Thumb-Blaster and I ate our syrup-soaked pancakes in silence. I noticed that there were no windows in the restaurant. It was midday outside, but inside it was gloomy and damp, as if the whole building was submerged at the bottom of the ocean. At a nearby table, an old man let out an overly dramatic, Big Daddy-like yawn...


  1. If you're not going to have multiplayer, or at least co-op, then your single player campaign had better be profound too. Sadly, most of the game's we're talking about lately don't have either.

  2. great, great read! Many valid points against multiplayer for certain games.

  3. Good rant! Keep it up!

  4. Good read! I agree with your words about multiplayer. There are a few games that are awesome in single player, but deadly (not in a good way) for multiplayer. Multiplayer does not make the game.

  5. "It was midday outside, but inside it was gloomy and damp, as if the whole building was submerged at the bottom of the ocean."

    Lovely work =)