Musings On The Lightning Pace Of Multiplayer Communities

HALO 3’s arrived and I’ve only played about five or six games of Warhawk since its retail release. In another two weeks, Orange Box will be coming out with Team Fortress 2 in tow. Then you’ve got Call of Duty 4 hitting the market a little farther out. November brings with it Unreal Tournament 3. Everything we’ve heard points to each of these games offering a AAA online experience and I’m downright confused as to how I’m going to play them all.

I like to call it “multiplayer cannibalism” for lack of any better term that comes to mind, and its worse than it has been any other season before. It’s a phenomenon I’ve always been curious about because it’s very easy for a perfectly good game to drop off the face of the earth when something even slightly better or more appealing comes along. I’ve only listed online shooters so far, but lets drop back a little bit. There are two key games from the nascent digital distribution initiative that paint a much bleaker picture of what can happen in this situation.

First you’ve got Calling All Cars, an earlier Playstation Network title, and one fueled by hype and David Jaffe’s inimitable pedigree. It’s got this really great visual style (all cel-shaded with characters and vehicles animated as though they popped out of a Saturday Morning cartoon) and likewise concept, to boot. You play one of several keystone cops fighting for control over an escaped criminal whom you must then cart back to jail for points. It had all the makings of a new digital sport: a frantic pace, different goals with appropriate point values, and strategic use of weaponry and tactics to quickly turn the tide. Replace the criminal with a football and the cops with linebackers and you might as well have an arcade version of Madden.

Well, the game came out and was slightly underwhelming in terms of content (a sparse single-player experience and only four maps), but the gameplay concepts held true. Most importantly it was fun and there was certainly some momentum going into its release. Hop onto the game today and I bet you’d find the online lobby equivalent of a ghost town. So what happened? Other games came along? In this case, I’d point partially to some people getting bored with the lack of variety, but I’d also have expected others to keep the torch burning, even if their numbers were small. But no, Calling All Cars wasn’t even able to maintain that level of attention. I’m frankly surprised they haven’t shut down the servers for it, yet.

Perhaps even more tragic, because of its lineage, is what happened to Bomberman Live! on XBLA. We’re talking about one of the first real, competent online versions of a series that has been heralded as having the best multiplayer experience ever. I was just listening to the latest Player One Podcast and was shocked to hear that virtually nobody was online anymore. It’s only been what, one or two months since it hit the service? Here’s a game that people were literally salivating over in anticipation and its community has already been stripped bare.

It seems to be a sad fact of modern gaming culture (maybe culture in general) that we whip through things so quickly. I’ve seen tons of threads started on NeoGAF with the almost apologetic acronym LTTP (Late to the Party) attached to games that haven’t even been on the market for as long as a year! People move on so damn quickly that when you step back and really take a good look at it, it’s sort of insane. I’m guilty of this. I buy anywhere from 4-6 games a month and some I don’t even finish. This month so far has been LAIR -> Wild Arms V -> Heavenly Sword ->Metroid Prime 3 -> HALO 3, not to mention a few downloadable PSN games thrown in for good measure. I’ve actually been able to finish all of them, with the exception of Wild Arms, but only because most of them have only featured relatively short single-player experiences.

I have to say that I enjoy HALO 3’s multiplayer, but Team Fortress 2 is tempting me and I’m really intrigued by CoD4’s experience/upgrade system. Ultimately, which of these will be most deserving of my time (and that of other gamers)? HALO 3 is an early bet. It’s online experience is riding on the wild success of HALO 2’s and Forge + Community features should keep it chugging for a long time to come. As a console game HALO 2 never encountered such heavy resistance, but a lot of previously PC-only series are expanding to other platforms this Fall. Exactly how many gamers are going to be siphoned off by its strongest competitors? This isn’t even speaking of non-shooters such as Smash Bros. Brawl, for which Nintendo just unwrapped its own online plans. You could argue that Smash Bros. is going for a different argument, but it’s a community touchstone as much as HALO is. Take a look at all the console gaming tournaments that have taken place all over the world the past few years and you’ll still see HALO 2 and Smash Bros as the top two games featured.

Some gamers are inevitably going to stick with one of these games, two at most. They’re a different breed than I am and that’s something I envy on occasion. I’d like to have a game that I can continually come back to without getting bored. I think the last one to really capture me in that way was the original Starsiege: Tribes. Now that’s a franchise that needs to be resurrected! But these gamers have their reasons. Maybe HALO (as an example) is the only game they’ve ever played, or they spend their money on other things and its more economical for them to operate that way as gamers. It’s not surprising, multiplayer gamers certainly have the potential for endless variety. Every match you have is going to be just different enough to never get boring. And, with MMOs, there’s always new content to look forward to.

Me? Well, I need to see new worlds and get caught up in new stories. I “like” mulitplayer and it can become really addicted given the right game, but I dig the single-player experience more than anything. Really, I’m just too fidgety to stick with one thing too long. I’m like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, “Need more input!” I can’t be the only one that thinks this way.
Nevertheless, there’s always that nagging feeling that I’m missing out on being part of something bigger. I admit that while I’m sitting here typing this, I feel the itch to take up the 360 controller and play some HALO even though I know it’ll eventually lead to me tearing off my my headset and throwing it at the ground in frustration, because I suck hard at the game. Yet, how long is that going to last? How long will it take for me to move onto something else. Something only marginally better? Because, after playing through 3, I realize that I really kind of like HALO now. It’s a great game and I hope to be able to detail my thoughts on it in another post soon, but we’re talking about a razor thin line of quality or appeal separating all of the fantastic multiplayer games coming out this Fall. They’re going to start cannibalizing each other and whole titles (of all kinds) may get skipped over entirely. That’s kind of sad, because they all deserve the love and respect. I’m just not sure that there’s any way of changing the situation. It might just be the inevitable nature of communities to come and go and eat into each other. It’s like some gigantic, incestuous orgy where someone’s going to inherit the recessive genes and succumb to an early death. I’m afraid that Warhawk, as great and fun as it might be, is already becoming marginalized.

Really, what can we do? After the post-launch boost, a few of them will settle into a comfortable, long-term community, but for others, their shining moment may last less than a week.

~ by Cavin Smith on September 28, 2007.

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