Optionally obligatory online gaming

Gaming and the Internet go hand in hand, both technologically and culturally. We grew up with both, we witnessed the synergy of both, now the two seem as inseperable as thirty-year-old Jaffa cakes. While it germinated and blossomed on the PC, online console gaming has really started to take shape in kind and nowadays almost every major title is expected to have at least some kind of online functionality, be it on Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network, or whatever it is that the Wii thinks it has.

This is where my problem lies, however. As I sit typing this, my Xbox 360 having crashed due to the buggy online mode of Arkadian Warriors, a game I haven’t been able to find a single player for online, I can’t help but wonder why? Why is it that we expect every game to have a token, thrown-together online mode when we’re not even going to play it? 

Hit the jump as I ponder the questions that nobody else seems to be asking.

Console gaming is certainly starting to ape PC gaming in many respects with the advent of the online services provided by Sony and Microsoft. XBL and the PSN provide a quick and easy way for console gamers to jump right into an online world, as well as get their hands on expansions and demos. Some of this is welcome — I love XBL’s integration and the fuss-free setup it gives me. Some of this is not so thrilling — the threat of a patch culture that encourages developers to rush projects even more than usual and apply bandaids at a later date is a despicable one. Overall, however, only a fool could deny the benefits of online console services and the wealth of options they bring.

The keyword, however, is “options.” Online functionality, while welcome, is not a mandatory thing, but both gamers and developers alike are starting to believe otherwise. The most telling example of this is the familiar complaint that BioShock has no online multiplayer.

BioShock is designed as a single player experience, first and foremost, to the exclusion of all else. It was crafted as a storyline-based FPS in the same vein as Half-Life, and in my estimation, the experience that BioShock provides is all the better for it. By pumping all funds and resources into the single player campaign, 2K Games provided one of the most engaging titles in recent memory and a compelling favorite for game of the year.

Is BioShock missing something by not including online multiplayer? Maybe, but then again, maybe not. While it’s true that plasmids and the like could provide a lot of fun if done correctly, who’s to say you can take those super enhancements and balance them fairly enough in a multiplayer environment? Furthermore, stripped of the ambience that marks BioShock out from the crowd and turning the game into yet another fragfest, would BioShock truly provide a multiplayer experience that could keep you coming back for more?

Truly ask the question — can you see yourself playing team deathmatch or capture the flag in Rapture? Does it really work? Does it fit the unifying style of the game? More importantly, ask yourself if you really need more software that lets you capture a flag with your friends.

The truth is, you don’t need another game that lets you capture a flag with your friends, do you? You have Halo 3, you have Call of Duty 4. You have FPS after FPS after FPS that lets you do the same thing, time and time again. Was it really so essential for some of you to do it in BioShock as well?

The stats prove that nobody needs nor truly desires another online shooter outside of Halo 3. Check the weekly Xbox Live usage charts — Master Chief tops the list week in and week out, followed by CoD4 or Gears of War. The people chose their online games, and adding another to the mix seems almost redundant. Had BioShock included an online mode, I can tell you now what would happen — people would play it for all of two weeks, then go right back to their Spartan Lazers and Valhalla.  

Not only that, it most likely would have been a very bad online mode. As I already suggested, it wouldn’t fit the theme of the game, but more than that, with Levine and co. working so hard on crafting a single-player story, the online multiplayer would have been lacking. Crudely thrown together, providing frag-by-numbers, uninspired gameplay and generally taking second place to the main event — a criticism that The Darkness found itself targeted with when it was released with just that kind of second-fiddle, poorly implemented online mode.

The fact of the matter is, many games are including online modes to fill some sort of mythical, ethereal quota. Just fire up Xbox Live and look at some of the Arcade titles that are released. Go download Streets of Rage II and try to get those online-based achievements. I guarantee you’ll have a hard time without arranging to play it with someone you know. Try Arkadian Warriors, if your Xbox 360 can make an attempt without crashing. Fancy some Golden Axe? Not bloody likely, though I managed it once.

Nobody wants to play these games online, or if they do, there’s not enough of them. It’s fact.

Yet, were these unused features missing, what would be the biggest criticism of those Arcade titles? No multiplayer. No online functionality. “Streets of Rage II is faithful to the original, but where’s the online play? Boo!” I can mentally read the reviews as if they were real. We would all gripe if the games lacked these elements, and yet we shun such things repeatedly. We don’t want them, yet without them we would cry, like a baby who ignores his bottle until you try and take it away.

Games that don’t even have any kind of expectation for online play are starting to include it. Take, for example, Overlord. Now, why is a Pikmin-esque adventure game including online versus matches? Overlord is a fantastic single player experience but its online mode is horrible and feels tacked-on to fill these aforementioned imaginary requirements. Also, yet again, nobody plays Overlord online. It didn’t need an online mode, we didn’t want an online mode. The game would have been better overall had the entire focus been on single player.

I’m not saying that future games need to give up trying to put online modes in their games, but I’m certainly asking for people to truly think sensibly. Just because we have the option to do something, doesn’t mean we have to do it. There is every chance that an FPS could one day come along and steal Halo‘s crown, but if you know it’s not going to happen with the game you’re currently making, if you know your multiplayer is just another fragfest that will get lost in the shuffle and forgotten in a month’s time, focus the resources elsewhere. Do what BioShock did, and stand out rather than follow the pack and attempt to meet ill-thought out demand for a feature that isn’t as wanted as people believe it is. 

Likewise, if you’re a gamer, stop and consider just how much you’ll use the feature you’re whining for. Will you truly play BioShock online as much as Halo 3? If you think every game should have online play, why is it that you are playing the same game every single night? Please stop expecting an option to be compulsory. Remember — you already have Halo 3, Gears of War and Call of Duty 4? Just how many flags do you need to bloody capture?

Now will SOMEone get those Streets of Rage II achievements with me!?

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James Stephanie Sterling
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