Sunday, 27 July 2008

Feature: Death of the Solo Gamer?

Two and a half years ago Raph Koster and Lars Butler were cheerily contemplating the end of the single player experience. Swept up with the idea that gaming was a social past time, Koster, then chief creative officer for Sony Online Entertainment, dubbed the two previous decades of gaming history “an aberration”. Throwing more hyperbole into the fire, former Vice President of Global Online Operations for EA, Lars Butler, was quoted as saying “linear entertainment in single-player is to media what masturbation is to sex.”
Of course, the vulgar terms under which Koster and Butler were quoted could have boiled down to hard cheese, after all, Koster lasted a mere month at Sony after his comments whilst Butler had already left EA to setup Trion World Network, an entity with ambitions of taking on the World of Warcraft. Indeed looking at their careers it would be very much in their interest for online gaming to take centre stage in this generation of the medium.
Naturally the pair was fuelling arguments with, at the time, few substantiating examples. Both Xbox Live and Playstation Network were coming to the fore and building upon the potential demonstrated in their previous incarnations, whilst online gaming was becoming a boom business with Blizzards MMORPG epic World of Warcraft leading the way. But the single player was always at the fore, at least in the console market, and it was difficult to publicize a game based solely upon its multiplayer features. Arguably Unreal Tournament managed it, perhaps Halo, but the debacle surrounding Shadowrun’s console ambitions demonstrated a need for some kind of narrative and both Live and Network were eons behind the capacity to establish a successful, multi faceted MMORPG.
Some would argue that the PC had established a workable worldwide network for a true multiplayer experience in Koster and Butler’s terms, especially since the advancement of affordable broadband technology. But the PC gaming market was, and still is, seen as small fries to the greater gaming industry and aside from a limited number of truly successful MMORPG’s the general use of PC multiplayer was the usual mix of deathmatches, capture the flags, races and fights seen on your typical gaming console.
Koster and Butler seemed to be referring to something more grand, something the World of Warcraft and all the Mazewar’s and Ultima Online’s had touched upon, but for a wider audience, too all the audience, gamers and gaming period. This would mean all narrative falling into the parameters of multiplayer, where gaming and socializing would interact and operate as one. Nothing would be sacred to the single player.
Indeed the duo commented that a gaming experience would be exponentially enriched if a group of friends were to “live” a story together. What they were alluding to is unsure even rhetorical in current gameplay models. Endless free roam worlds or an explosion of MMORPG’s, they were throwing around vague presumptions thirty months ago with pub-night-meets-PR lingo.
There is one gaming element that has become the must have feature in many recent and upcoming games spanning an entire spectrum of genres. In its infancy, at least online, when Koster and Butler muttered their delinquent comments, co-operative gaming has become the boon developmental mechanic that has arisen from bit part extra to centre stage. It seems an FPS is not a good FPS these days if a developer hasn’t found some way of shoehorning in a co-operative mode.
Of course co-op is not exactly a new idea in the grand history of interactive entertainment having been a feature of side scrolling hack and slash coin-ops like Gauntlet since the mid 80’s. But suggesting two players were truly experiences a real narrative together would be charitable. These were mere forbearers that would highlight the importance of games as a social activity in a workable gaming network some twenty years down the line.
Naturally Co-Operative is not the epitome of a social gaming future, the utopian place where video games and friends collide as one whole virtual existence. But the contemporary comeback of the co-operative gaming trend could spell the end of the single player, or the essence of the single player experience.
Too name a few upcoming titles Gears of War 2, Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil 5, Fable 2 and Borderlands. All see co-operative as a major or central part to the mechanic and promotion of the game. With split screen as fashionable as flared trousers, the onus will be on friends operating within one or the others game to experience the unfolding drama together, online. In comparison the single player mode, by default of the games system, will feel hollow and dictated by an AI whose primary presence will be not as foe, but as friend. Trying too recreate the impossible social element, in essence a constant reminder that your experience is not being enriched, enhanced or expanded.
Co-Operative then, is a step to eradicating the solo gamer. Fable 2 is not a shooter; the basic layout of its free form gameplay in its current guise is nothing short of revolutionary. It maybe the first virtual world in which friends can operate and take effect on their synthesized surroundings and NPC’s together. When there are finally no NPC’s we will have reached the next step in Koster and Butler’s vision, where this will leave the single player is unsure.
Obviously evolution is part of the course for any media, species or entity and for video games this is no different but to paraphrase Lars Butler, gaming without the single player experience, even within linear parameters, will be like forcing sex upon a drunken birthday girl. What do I mean? Well the single player is commonly where a narrative is focused; it is where a game is formed for the experience of one gamer. It’s easier to build up ideas around blocks of single gamers and demographics and develop them from that foundation, after all most of us were solo gamers once. Simply forcing multiplayer down our throats and making it the nexus unto which a game operates purports to two simple generalizations. One, all gamers have online access and chose to be members of an online gaming service at our own cost and two, that we all play games as a means to socialize.
It’s undeniable that with a good, dependable friend of a similar level of skill and available hours will enlighten a co-operative experience, but herein lays the many problems of the multi-player centric game structure in this current generation. Most contemporary gamers are now in their late teens upwards, at least in the demographic which is being targeted by games grandstanding their co-operative functions. Many have families, jobs, stressful lives and limited time and like so many other forms of media, gaming is used to relax and detach. Sure seeing a good film with a bunch of mates can be a great laugh, but when your sticking a DVD on with pizza in hand and a cold beer after a stressful day, the last thing you want to see is the same collection of mates barging into your unwind period.
This extends into the next step of complete virtual experiences, wherein our gaming habits will presumably be dictated by massively multiplayer worlds. Where developers will write stories into these is paradoxical and the only possible example can be the current development of Sony’s Home for the PlayStation Network. Is that a game? Free form world? Or a socializing hub? Where will entertainment meet socializing and narratives? Quests? Mini-Games? Is that a genuine evolution of gaming or a decent into a specialized graphical messaging service where introverted players stalk dark corners waiting for an actual “video game” to come along.
Perhaps I am wrong; perhaps I have misinterpreted Koster and Butler’s concepts however poorly they were formed. In an essence the co-operative revolution is changing gaming, how many times recently have you heard commentators say “the single player isn’t much” or “this will be great with some mates.” But where’s the old soul of the linear shooters? The tremendous stories weaved from the likes of Bioshock? How can this evolve beyond co-operative and remain a game?
Well Koster was quick to expand upon his comments in the swell of uproar they created. Using a model of asymmetry, Koster theorized that prior to video gaming most games were symmetrical, games such as chess, where each player was provided with an equal set of options. The advent of gaming and the necessity for primitive AI required asymmetry, with the player being offered a different set of options and limitations to that of the AI. Thus the linear single player model was borne and Koster speculated that it had remained despite multiple attempts to network all types of gaming platforms because it wasn’t easy to fit more than a single person around a computer monitor and that sentiment had clung to the concept of narrative. Koster went as far to say that the introverted nature of games developers had cause games designs to hinge upon single player as the only legitimate form of gameplay.
To contradict, Koster pointed to research showing gamers to be considerably more sociable than the media stereotype, “The default mode of playing a console game today is with multiple people on a couch." Xbox Live was his example of the connected single player experience with gamers able to observe what other players are playing and competing in a symmetrical fashion to beat out said person’s achievement score in the same way one would want to win a game of chess. He pointed to forums outside of gaming as a social hub, bringing players together from the same experience in the same way as collaborative walkthroughs. An example of participant players, participating through limited means.
Technically Koster’s perspective on the death of the single player was more existential and systemic than read. He was hypothesizing the expansion of the multiplayer, not as a function but as a statement of connectivity brought along by PC’s and adopted by home consoles through services such as Xbox Live. We play connectively and through user based content, internet based content and experience based literature. We will still have stories in Koster’s world but our gamer pics and profiles will throw us open to the world even when we are sat in our pants in front of the TV.
However this does not account for the recent shift in game design trends. The upsurge in co-operative gaming on the console market is equally systemic to Koster’s argument and the ethos of connectivity, but within it lays the power to destroy the single player experience in a devolutionary sense. Harking back to arcade gaming, co-operative is now an essential tool in game building. Where Koster, and less clearly Butler, was speaking of connectivity working as the complete experience of a game from disc to forum, co-operative allows two or more players to experience the game in its essentially complete form as opposed to pre-programmed AI. The recent Lego Indiana Jones games were a perfect example of how designers are increasingly producing gaming elements such as switch/pressure pad style puzzles as a joint co-operative experience.
With the proliferation of co-operative game design we can now see the death of the single player and not in the misquoted terms of Butler and Koster, but in an ageing technology brought back for the connective age of home gaming and of course there is a cynical side to the rebirth of co-op. Where a single player game is a single purchase pay-to-play affair, a game borne out of co-operative gaming ethics provides potential purchase from unwilling parties keen to join in with friends or clans gaming habits. This then opens up the need for company servers and necessitates online gaming subscriptions. Financially co-op is win-win for all parties other than the gamer.
In the meantime those left wanting to play single player, even in the age of multiplayer connectivity are increasingly marginalized. Yet despite this games design has not moved on too successfully harness co-operative in the face of narrative driven single players. Trawling through the rankings of it is not until you reach the sixth highest regarded Xbox 360 title that you find a game with a comprehensive co-operative game mode, this being Gears of War, essentially the first fully co-operative game on Xbox Live. Above it are fine narrative driven titles such as GTA IV, Half Life 2, Bioshock and Oblivion, games designed to be enjoyed by the single player and crafted with fantastic care and innovation. Even Call of Duty 4, a game limited on narrative and ripe for co-operative design chose to utilize multi-player connectivity in the traditional spheres of deathmatch et al and encapsulated a brilliant battlefield experience.
All this seems to highlight co-operative as the cheap thrill cash cow it appears to be, even more brutally a gimmick. Where Koster and Butler ideals on the death of the solo gamer appear, when read into, a relatively innocent commentary on the birth of home console networks, the rise of co-operative game design is an insidious development that can only damage the story driven origins that make the majority of games so appealing and offer an end goal.

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