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Multiplayer: The Battle -- Round-1
By John "Award" Del Percio, June 14, 2000
Also Featuring:
Welton "Eidolon" Maisenhelder
Ke "Cryoborg" Xu
Forest "LordHavoc" Hale

Award's Rant: The Desecration of a Passtime

Me? Well, I'm a cynic, plain and simple. Some see the glass as half-empty, or half-full. I consider both of them optimists. To me, it's a hair just short of half empty, making it more than half empty. I like things they way they've always been known to me. If the first impression was good enough to grab my attention the first time, it's worth not changing.

Since Quake, and the fall of Quake's multiplayer era, a lot has happened. A lot of games that tried to capture what Quake was, rather than create something new (which was the appeal of Quake), and have failed miserably (most notably, Quake2, and Quake3. Not that they aren't popular, but they failed at attaining the quality that was Quake).

So what is wrong with multiplayer games? They tend to suffer from a few inherent design flaws, first of all. Many of them have a limited playability. While it may be argued that single player has limited life, I fail to see that perspective. Single player games follow a story line. If it's a good game, it tends to have a driving story line. You can't help but play the game, as you must find out what happens. It becomes an interactive movie, but so much more. The levels are strategically set to emulate a believable environment or scenario, or more, a completely believable imaginative environment. They are set up to maximize gameplay for that level. Create it as though you are really in that environment, or commanding that fleet, or army. We are beyond the time of "adaptive AI" meaning adding 20 zombies to the 40 currently on the screen all hacking away at the same wall, completely ignoring you. Now AI is good. It even has the concept of teams, objectives, and tactical strategy. While sometimes it may simply be scripting as opposed to true AI, that is a minor technicality, and from the gameplay perspective, it is irrelevant. In contrast, multiplayer games become stagnant over their own weight. In first person shooters, you go in the same 10, 50, 5000 maps, in which it really doesn't matter anyway. While they have different layouts, and textures, they all look relatively like the same arena over and over again, and the objectives stay the same: If it moves, shoot it; if it waves, capture it; if it explodes, shoot it; if you're bored and a wall is nearby, shoot at it.

In strategy games, while single player focuses on a strategy to take a certain area, as a typical battle strategy would be, multiplayer is somewhat puzzling in its very nature. Both armies start the same, build up the same, fight for the resources, and annihilate each other. Strategy is a bit more redeeming than shooters in terms of multiplayer, as a human opponent can provide far better strategies to attempt to counter than the computer can, but on the other hand, it still doesn't have a good planned strategy theme going as single player does. Where in single you recon the terrain and prepare a base, and plan an attack to accomplish a goal, in multiplayer, it focuses more on the battles rather than the strategies, and simply developing ways to counter your opponents strategies, and vice versa.

One genre that does at times tend to leave me liking some aspects of multiplayer is the RPG genre. Starting with Diablo, multiplayer RPG's tend to be a bit more fun. You have a small number of friends join in (unlike the dozens of people you've never met, and would likely never want to meet), and fight to the death to collect goods and rare items while working to beat the game. One key feature to note about multiplayer RPG's is the large difference in style, which is the point where it tends to be a different multiplayer genre in itself versus all the others. RPG's, even in multiplayer mode are often essentially still single player games with the same story line, the same levels, the same progress, only you get to have a friend, usually someone that you know, help out, and help collect more items. This is why RPG multiplayer actually is fun. It's the single player game, with a friend along. It actually adds to the realism, because someone is in there with you, working along side you, against the forces of evil.

One thing that does tend to keep me away from multiplayer games, also, is the rising trend of the "matchmaking service". While the intention is good, does anyone actually like these things? Shooters are simple, you hop on the server, start playing, nobody notices you, you don't notice them. If you have people you know playing a game with you, it's simple as well. In the match making service; however, it tends to be a different story. How many of you have ever gone to one, tried to find someone to play with (strategy is worst with this, followed by sims) and you wait in the room for an hour. Two people come in the room that know each other, the talk a bit, and you finally start the game. They talk together a bit more, then a lot more, never even acknowledging you're there, then drop out two minutes into the game to find their own server? Finding the people to play with, though, is stressful enough. How awkward is it whenever you join a room? You know they're just sitting at home staring at you sheepishly typing "hello", wondering who the heck you are and when the heck you'll get out of their game room. On the other hand, if you're not social enough, they tend to dislike you and leave. For every 5 games you try to start, at least one of them will fail. It's almost an unsaid guarantee. Usually when they drop out though, it's right after you spend 12 minutes building up a base. And then there's the time-outs...You've spend 3 and a half hours building up that terrific strategy. You're all ready to launch, and just then, one of your ISP's drops out, or your connection to the server decides to lag just enough to drop you off the server.

Connections are one of the worst parts of multiplayer gaming as a whole, though. Especially in Shooters, where it counts the most, it's primarily a battle of the bucks. Those who can get an OC-48 line direct to their house always manages to frag us modem-users who still can't move from the wall. And worse, heckle us about how bad we are. I'm still waiting for someone to inform me how in my wildest dreams this is supposed to be fun and relaxing. At least in single player, if your system runs the game, it runs the game. Period. The connections affect us in all genres though, it's just most pronounced in FPS games. Of course, I've been told countless times that it's only partly connection, and mostly skill. I've been told that if you practice enough you can beat even someone with an OC-48 to their house. I hate to inform them, but not all of us can practice playing a game in all our spare time just to show up the guy who's playing with a far higher advantage than you do. Some of us have news to post, code to write, articles to write, and Webzines to run. Not only do we not have the time to practice a game constantly, but certainly not the time, or desire, to spend that much time on the same game...just to show up the guy with the unfair advantage.

Perhaps the largest abomination of them all; however, is the multiplayer-only games. Yes, we've seen them, Quake3, Unreal Tournament, Starsiege: Tribes. Yes, I know they have a "single player" mode too, but guess what, so did most every other shooter that came before them. Users almost always wrote a deathmatch bot for them that you could download from almost any fan site. I really wonder what they were thinking when they decided on the multiplayer only. Provide a game that depends entirely on your connection, where you can go hang out with people you never met, as they blast you back to the plant where your cheap modem was made, all while seeing the same exact scenery for 5 months, day in and day out, after paying $50 for the darn game. Sounds like a good strategy to me. And at least they could provide some game for the money. Tribes and UT are ok on this one, but Quake3, come on id. You made DOOM, you made Quake, you know how to write a good game. So where on earth are all the levels? Mod developers include more test maps in the .zip than that! Losing Romero wasn't that much of a setback was it?

While the multiplayer only lines hit the Shooter genre the hardest, doesn't mean they ignored their friends in the RPG crowd either. Everquest, Asheron's Call, and friends; they almost got it right, too. When I first heard the concept of Everquest, it sounded terrific. That is, until I found out the catch. Not only do you pay $50 for the game itself, but then you get to pay a monthly fee to use the servers. And before any of you justify it in your minds by saying "it's only $10 a month", please remember that there are 12 months in a year. Multiply. You're paying $120 a year to play a game that you already paid for! You wouldn't go to a certain international fast food chain franchise which has hamburger patties flatter than the depth of the text you're currently reading and order a meal, pay for it, and then be forced to pay $.20 a minute for sitting in the restaurant to eat it. You'd turn right back around, tell them what they can do with those flavorless beef patties of questionable origin, and march out of the building. They know that, while they may not be the best cooks in the world, they are certainly not stupid, either. That's why they don't do it. So why should you expect that from your game developers? On top of that, what happens when they decide that the game isn't selling much anymore and decide to take the servers offline. You can never play that game again.

Which brings me to the final argument (zzzzz...huh? He's done? YAY!). For most types of multiplayer games, when it gets old and dies down, people stop running servers, there goes your game. You can never play it again; it's a dead piece of lacquer sitting in your CD drive. I can still take out my old copies of Twensen's Odyssey, Myst, and WarcraftII and play them whenever I want. I don't need servers and other players. It will live on as long as computers have CD drives in them. The only multiplayer games that get around this are LAN-based and modem-to-modem based, but that's not exactly what people have in mind when they think of multiplayer, now is it?

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