Multiplayer or single player? Developers, you can do both, just not willy-nilly.
I’m aware that I don’t want the same features in games – particularly multiplayer titles – that most people seem to want. As recently as a few years ago, I used to think I was simply getting older and no longer valued the same things in a game that teens and 20-somethings do, but after doing some research I was somewhat surprised to discover that the average age of gamers is 31 – and the median age is 35. When you think about it, it makes sense; games really gained traction as a mainstream hobby in the 80s, and those of us who were kids at that time kept gaming as we got older.
So, even though I’m now over 30, I’m still in the biggest demographic (age-wise) that developers are targeting. This, to my way of thinking, makes it even harder to answer the question at the root of this article:
Why do so many single player games implement multiplayer content in ways that are flat-out terrible and annoying?
To be clear, games that are primarily multiplayer in nature are not the focus of this article. My general beef is with games that feature both single player and multiplayer content, either in equal proportions or with a heavier focus on the single-player side.
Let us not forget that video games are a consumption good, offered for sale in a generally laissez-faire industry, which means: if you want my money, offer me something more valuable to me than what it costs, and above all don’t sell me a product that will piss me off. There’s little question in my mind that I am not the typical consumer the modern AAA gaming industry generally targets. Nonetheless, I still think I’m right, that doing multiplayer my way is objectively better, and that everyone will come to see that if you all just get off my lawn and give it a chance.
With that in mind, here are some of the best and worst examples of how to implement multiplayer content in single player games.
Awful Example: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
This was the game that finally landed Konami squarely on my blacklist of developers I will never buy from again. In my opinion, the single player content is at least solid, if not downright good. Kiefer Sutherland makes a likeable Snake once you get used to him, and there’s plenty to do during 50+ missions, although it gets a little repetitive by the end. All in all, it’s a decently fun game.
At least until Mission 22.
About a third of the way through the story content, you’re instructed to build a forward operating base that will allow you to store more resources and personnel with which to construct more FOBs later on. Seems a little grindy and pointless, but okay. Complete the mission, and you’re greeted with a popup informing you that your base can now be invaded by rival PFs (i.e. other players). Every time this happens – and in the early days after release, it happened constantly – you permanently lose resources and/or soldiers.
Now, hold the f*** on. This is not what I signed up for, and this “feature” is not even vaguely hinted at on the Steam product description page. I’m an adult, I work 40-60 hours per week so I can have nice things, and I very much enjoy my relaxation time. I’m not here to have wave after wave of mandatory digital dick measuring contests that you can’t opt out of with any random internet stranger that decides to come and take my stuff rather than go farm it for themselves.
But it gets so much worse. Remember how I just said that you can’t opt out of being invaded? Well, you can, after a fashion – by coughing up real money. Konami generously offers the option of purchasing “FOB insurance” which will prevent some (not even all) of your stuff from being stolen for a limited time, should some pot-smoking 14-year-old with something to prove decide to raid your base. What happens when your temporary fake insurance expires? No problem, just throw down some more cash to renew your “policy.”
It gets even better. If you decide to get clever – like I thought I was – and simply pull the ethernet cable out of your PC so you can play a single player game in peace, another popup politely informs you that 90% of your resources are “stored” online and you can’t access most of your crap while disconnected from Konami’s servers.
To recap, Konami forcibly subjects players to constant invasions and goes way out of its way to design and implement several redundant systems specifically to make it impossible to just play their $60 game and be left alone. This is precisely how not to implement multiplayer content in a single player game.
Much Better Example: Middle-Earth: Shadow of War
In contrast to The Phantom Pain, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War implements the same basic single player/multiplayer paradigm in an infinitely superior fashion. Much like the former game, the latter features an army-building mechanic which allows you to recruit soldiers and strengthen various fortresses around the game world. After a certain story mission, you can then invade other players’ fortresses and fortify your own against attack.
There are two very simple key differences between these two systems: in Shadow of War, PvP content is completely optional and, if you’re the defending player, all of your soldiers and resources are totally immune to theft or damage by the attacking player.
I really don’t understand why this isn’t the standard for games like this. It makes perfect sense and satisfies all varieties of gamers. If you decide to attack another player, your soldiers are at risk of permadeath, but theirs aren’t; if you kill their best warchiefs during the assault, they’ll still have them when they resume their campaign. This encourages attackers to plan well and choose their targets carefully while ensuring that defenders won’t be penalized regardless of the outcome. Indeed, you won’t even know your fortress was attacked unless you go look in a specific menu, and that’s exactly how it should be.
Terrible Example: Dark Souls I/II/III
For the most part, the Dark Souls games are great, even if I have serious issues with the business practices of FromSoftware (also on my blacklist for their unfair treatment of many of their paying customers). Besides the fact that you can be banned for cheating even if you haven’t done any such thing, my only other major gripe with the Dark Souls games centers around the invasion mechanics. Anyone who has played any of the three games for more than an hour will know the eye-rolling annoyance of that dark chime sound which signifies someone has shown up in your game to kill you.
Dark Souls’ claim to fame has always been its unforgiving but generally fair difficulty; it rewards persistent and cautious players with a tangible feeling of accomplishment when a boss that’s killed you fifteen times finally goes down.
On the other side of the same coin, it’s exponentially more aggravating when you finally clear a long and dangerous route for the first time, only to be invaded and killed by some jackass with nothing better to do before you can check in at another bonfire.
Proponents of this system say that the constant looming threat of invasion adds to the atmosphere and challenge of the game. I say hogwash; I’m not 16 or unemployed, I don’t have 700 hours to practice PvP, which is about what it takes to stand any real chance against most invaders. In a game where I have to fight for every inch of progress, I want to actually keep that progress, not have it snatched away at the capricious whim of any neckbeard with a non-specific grudge to take out on any convenient target. (Lest you say that not all Dark Souls PvP players are immature and vindictive, I’ll just counter that that has very much not been my experience across ~250 hours in all three games. I can count the number of non-obnoxious invaders I encountered on one hand.)
In this regard, Dark Souls isn’t quite as bad as The Phantom Pain, in that you can simply unplug from the internet and only miss out on a few relatively minor features. Still, if I find a game mechanic that annoying (and I’m actually not fazed by much in general), maybe you’re doing it wrong – especially when it’s entirely possible to be invaded by the same ass cannon seventeen times in a row.
Superior Example: Tom Clancy’s The Division
The Division is a bit of a black sheep when it comes to genre labels. It’s surely an MMO, but it does several things outside the MMO norm. It can be played as a single-player game more easily than most MMOs can; I spent the bulk of my 120 hours playing solo, anyway. Even though, atmospherically and mechanically, The Division and Dark Souls are very different animals, they’re both primarily PvE games with cooperative and competitive multiplayer elements, so in this context, it’s enough of an apples to apples comparison.
In most MMOs, it’s impossible to go anywhere in the game without seeing hundreds or thousands of other players milling about and clogging up hallways. In The Division, other players not in your party are only visible in safe houses, so that’s nice, but the real sense in which it’s superior to Dark Souls is in how it handles PvP content.
For one thing, other players can’t just shoot you in the back whenever and wherever the mood strikes them. PvP is restricted to certain game modes and to certain areas of the map, which are clearly marked and impossible to wander into accidentally. Much like Shadow of War, you can go sign up for the risks and rewards of PvP if you so desire, or just carry on your merry way alone if that’s not your thing.
Finally, there is an additional mechanic in The Division which, at least to some extent, gives jerks a reason to think twice about whether they really want to be jerks. Upon entering a PvP zone – where the primary goal is simply to find rare loot in the environment, not to wax everyone else – other players are not initially considered hostile. Shoot someone once or twice in an attempt to steal the loot they’ve picked up, and you’ll get a warning that you’re about to “go rogue.” Persist in attacking them, and your rogue status will be official; everyone else in the zone will know that you’ve gone off the reservation and are now fair game. What’s more, some gear sets even confer bonuses against rogue players. What all this means is that, at least in theory, you can’t be a jackass with impunity; there will be consequences if you decide to fire the first shot.
Dear Developers: This Really Isn’t Hard
If you’re in the business of making video games, I assume that you either love what you do or that you’re in it for the respectable salary – ideally, both. Either way, you need lots of people to buy and like your game, if you want to get enough money to make another game. It’s therefore in literally everyone’s best interest to make a game that appeals to as many people as possible.
Alienating some of your customers in order to add superficial value for the rest is not how you accomplish that goal.
The biggest chunk of your customers are over 30, and it’s time to start acting like you know that. We have jobs, kids, mortgages, and 401(k) plans. Obviously, this doesn’t mean you can’t cater to a younger, more impulsive audience that has more free time – it just means that these two markets aren’t mutually exclusive. No matter what kind of game you’re making, a “do you want to participate in this multiplayer stuff?” checkbox is not difficult, expensive, or time-consuming to create – at least not in light of the increased profits and better reviews you will reap from working just a little harder to accommodate players with different preferences.