Video games began out in the open. People gathered around them in arcades, lined up quarters for the next go on the machine, and watched as other kids took their turns competing for their initials at the top. Games eventually became about home consoles, and gathering over at a friend’s house to play became the new social norm. But since then, online play has changed home consoles. The “together” aspect is hardly the same. We may be playing with others and speaking with them over headsets, but we are sitting alone. Some see this trend as an isolated experience, while others have thrived in creating beautiful narratives through the “alone together” aspect of play.
E3 2014 ushered in a new generation of games (one that’s been growing for quite some time) that will define how people play and socialize. Single-player games that once had little to do with playing together, like Assassin’s Creed Unity and Far Cry 4, had a co-op angle. It’s unavoidable and wonderful in a way—developers are integrating co-op features into all games like never before. Younger generations may have traded off the controller while playing Super Mario Bros., but now there’s an option to play at the same time, together, and across great boundaries or only a few doors down from one another.
Games like Assassin’s Creed Unity may be co-op, but it’s online-only co-op, no split screen option to sit next to your buddy and dive in on French Templars together. You’ll be sitting on your own couch talking to your friend over a headset. Online play has found great success, but local play options are dwindling.
“It was just easier to monetize online games. You could be alone — you didn’t have to bring a bunch of people over to enjoy it. Companies were getting bigger, and they had to be more conservative,” said game designer Douglas Wilson to Wired.
Nintendo’s (NTDOY.PK) CEO Shigeru Miyamoto feels unease about online games. He believes social experiences are at the heart of the Wii U console, which is why his “focus is really on a comfortable play experience with people in the same room.” Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart games are titles everyone enjoys at a party. Fun, easy to pick up and play, and entertaining to watch. Games like these turn an evening into something akin to watching a sporting match. Players root for their favorite team and call foul when a blue shell goes flying across the screen.
Miyamoto isn’t alone in his pursuit of couch co-op play. There’s a movement among indie designers to concentrate efforts on offline multiplayer. Matt Thorson’s game Towerfall Ascention can be learned easily and they’re fun to watch. Characters can be killed by one hit, so excitement is already high when the battle begins and a crazed form of strategic dodging and jumping takes hold. But Towerfall Ascension’s wasn’t always going to be local multiplayer—there were considerations to bring it online. Why wasn’t it then if it could be monetized so much more easily? Thorson feared that first online experience.
Online there’s always someone better than you or trash-talking, and not in a friendly way. “Imagining that being someone’s first TowerFall experience just makes me cringe, and I really couldn’t get past that.”
There are two sects of gaming culture doing battle over what is convenient for the consumer and makes the most money, and what is the most fun. So far indie developers and a chunk of Nintendo’s games are trying to hold the line on local play. But there’s a case to be made for that online experience.
Moments of excitement and fun aren’t quite as gratifying alone than with others (there’s a reason why you laugh thirty times more with others than alone). You may grin at your victory or swear at a misstep, but it’s hardly the same amount of fun you’d have playing with others. However, there are outliers to this argument. Journey takes advantage of your solitude and introduces a sense of mystery and wonder in discovering another player.
You can’t talk to one another, per se, but can “chirp” to one another. For so long you could wander the wastes toward the light and never see a soul and then when a curious creature (much like yourself) bounds across the screen there’s a sense of camaraderie. You can make connections and a whole community started talking about these experiences, like they were a Craigslist “missed connections” forum. There’s something to be said for this collective reaction many people had to this game.
Sadly, this kind of connection is mostly and outlier compared to other online multiplayer games. There’s something to be said for the building feats people accomplish in Minecraft and the collaboration that goes into coordinating a raid in World of Warcraft, but is it the same experience and rush the same as playing right there alongside someone next to you?
Social streaming and media has allowed us to experience playing together through YouTube Let’s Play videos and Twitch’s live streaming. Watchers can view and comment along to people playing games, and players can entertain their audience.
Jayson Love who runs the stream MANvsGAME talked about his role to viewers to Polygon, saying, “…a lot of it is just me trying to be funny, trying to make people laugh. It’s like a performance for me. I am absolutely performing, and it’s draining, but I love it.”
It fulfills a need to gather, experience, and watch together and even to have an audience, but like Love said it’s a performance. Viewers are certainly entertained, but it’s like watching a show. There may be social interaction, but it has latency issues and trolls. Twitch harkens back to the arcade days when kids would gather around the best player and watch him destroy levels.
Where is it going?
Most companies and consumers are asking for more online multiplayer and more online co-op. Nintendo has given into demands for online multiplayer, but Miyamoto still feels strongly in keeping people on the same couch. The rise of indie games has also helped to keep local multiplayer alive, but larger companies will always do what the people want and what is more cost effective. The trend will be online in the future, but there’s always eSporting events to bring us back into the same room, just a little less often.