In this blog I want to explore the importance of single and multiplayer in both modern and “retro” games. There is a strong dichotomy between the experiences of single and multiplayer parts of any game once which seems at first glance to be heavily unbalanced, to take an extreme example Unreal Tournament has at best a mediocre single player experience but this happens because the developers spent the majority of its gestation period working on the amazing multiplayer.
Throughout the years of gaming I have experienced there have been many times when my friends have came over to my house and we went in search of good multiplayer games. These games tended to either have non-existent or hollow single player experiences, at least that is what we thought. Many people resorted to playing single player games using the hot swapping technique of playing for ten minutes or so then passing on the controller to the next person. This was enjoyable but at the same time it lacked the fun that proper multi-player experiences had in heaps.
This leads me to the question are single and multiplayer experiences mutually exclusive or are they dichotomous? Can great single player games still have great multi-player components or are we always going to have games such as Bioshock for great single player fun and Counter Strike for our multiplayer jollies? Let’s have a look at the games that have great examples of both kinds of gaming experiences.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – PC, PS3, 360 and DS
Ok maybe a slightly controversial title to start this off with but bear with me. For those that have endeavoured to drag themselves from the extremely well rounded multiplayer component of this game of the year title will no doubt have found their way to the great campaign. Normally FPS games have their campaigns added on almost as an afterthought but Infinity Ward seem to have nailed the intensity of modern warfare and it moves along at a blistering pace. From war torn Middle Eastern countries to...war torn eastern European countries the single player experience is never boring or repetitive. Even if you never touch the online modes or the split screen you will still feel satisfied by your purchase because of an excellent single player experience (with arguably the best ending of any FPS of last year). It does have some minor flaws such as it’s as short as a very short thing but it has replay value in spades.
Starcraft - PC
This game is pretty well known in pro-gaming circles as a well balanced, excellent multiplayer RTS and is the national sport of Korea*. Many people would be happy to while away their days planning epic zergling rushes against people from across the globe, but beyond this lays another face of the Starcraft package. The single player campaign. The campaign has a very interesting and almost deep storyline full of twists and turns which makes full use of all three races. I won’t spoil the story for those who haven’t played it but it is safe to say it has one of the best storylines of any RTS ever made, with the exception of the warhammer ones (but they cheat due to the back stories were made years before the games were).
Super Mario Bros. - NES
There is not much I can say about this title that has not been said before. It is one of Shigeru Miyamoto’s first masterpieces and the birth in earnest of the 2D smooth side scrolling platform era. If you haven’t played this game then you probably have been living under a rock that is in the middle of Galactic space. Everyone knows the story by now unless you are the previously mentioned intergalactic hermit, Princess Peach gets kidnapped by Bowser, King of the Koopas and you have to go save the cock-teasing bitch from said Freddy Mercury-esque monster (see leather arm bands). The game itself is a master class in 2D platforming and is hugely enjoyable but if your friends come over and want to kick back, drink some brewskis and play some games you can bring in Mario’s ever present brother (wa)Luigi and save* the princess together. As the multiplayer is the same game as the single player you may bring issue with this particular title but I feel it’s inclusion is fair because there can be multiple players in the game and still be as great as it is on your own
Marathon – Mac OS, Apple Pippin and PC
This game was one of Bungie’s earlier projects (yes they existed before the Halo trilogy, or Oni but we don’t like to mention that game to many people as it has been proven to strike them down with mediocre fever) and stands as a testament to the quality of gaming that can be had on Apple’s nicely designed hardware and software. If you haven’t had a chance to play this wonderful game because you didn’t have access to a Mac back in ’94 then I suggest you go download the freeware versions of all three games right freaking now. This game had an epic and grandiose sci-fi story about a human ship that was converted from Demios, one of Mars’ two moons that is being attacked by aliens. It pits you as a superhuman cyborg and most of the story is revealed through crew logs accessed at the computer terminals. These terminals also give the player mission information from the ships main AI Leela and the two lesser AI’s Durandal and Tycho (the relationship between the two adds another dimension to the story and rings a bell when you think of Cortana from the Halo games). This game had superb single player story mode which instead of having you run to the exit as quick as possible actually had you complete objectives (much like their Halo games, is anyone else beginning to see a pattern here). Apart from the great single player the multiplayer was amazing as well with a well balanced death match mode which could hold up to 8 people at a time. This was later modded to have co-operative play by the massive audience that it garnered on the Mac.
From these examples we can deduce that as time has went on the truly great single and multiplayer games are becoming somewhat of a rare beast but that is because budgets keep getting bigger and bigger and plunging money into a campaign for an primarily online game just doesn’t make sense anymore. This begs the question; does this fledgling industry stifle creativity solely on the basis of profits? Many games that are seen as innovative rarely enjoy financial success these days; take Okami for example it's developer had to close down because it failed to light up registers around the globe. The visionaries of this industry will continue to follow their dreams I feel but will they feel the ever-present breath on the back of their necks from the corporations hungry for profit? Another interesting question this raises is what makes the smash hit innovative games perform well at retail? Is it all down to hype? Marketing? Word of mouth? Sometimes I wonder if companies decide how well a game is going to do when it is still in development and sink in the amount of marketing dollars they think will be appropriate then, instead of throwing money into a worthless project?
There have been many great games with both stellar single and multiplayer experiences. However not all games have this, some games are just not suited to multiplayer/single player experiences and they rightfully remain isolated from other players and/or deep campaigns but the ones that try and up hold this dichotomy are truly great and show us that games can excel in both arenas.
* may be innaccurate