Multiplayer has gone from the only means of play, to a standby feature, and somehow made a huge jump back into "novelty" territory before finally getting its footing again. In the modern gaming era, multiplayer is a huge money maker across consoles, mobile, and PC. Yet, despite years of innovations and experience, the industry seems to have forgotten or failed to realize several things multiplayer gaming needs to really do well.
Yes, this is still a thing, contrary to so many games dropping support for it. Whether it's a desperate bid to optimize (like Halo 5: Guardians) or just cut due to rushed schedule (like Killzone: Shadow Fall), local co-op has been getting the short end of the stick between now and the end years of last-gen. That needs to stop.
We need local co-op games, and not just 2D games and indie titles. Halo was born on local multiplayer matches, and Star Wars: Battlefront let console gamers play together online without a hitch. Friends could play games together both online and offline, but more and more that feature is excluded, and it hurts consoles in general.
The more games you can play alongside a friend and enjoy, the more you'd want to have them on your own. It's just not the same experience, swapping the controller back and forth. Yes, you might have over a hundred players on a massive battlefield with AI opponents and amazing scripted moments, but you're failing the oldest mode of multiplayer in existence. Give us a reason to buy a second Xbox One or PlayStation 4 controller.
More Content, Not Bigger Battles
This is another thing that has continually been happening, and is a big issue for multiplayer. Sony was able to get over two hundred players playing together in its game MAG. It was also so dry and visually bland a game that it could have been a PlayStation 2 title in pre-Alpha.
Some developers have caught on to the idea that more content is better than grander scale, but still are struggling with it. Titanfall offered over twenty maps at launch, and released a bunch of free content updates, but also tried to charge ten dollars for three packs of three new maps. This was a terrible idea, and the game benefitted greatly by just letting everyone have the new maps for free.
This shouldn't even be news to developers. For years older games like No One Lives Forever and Unreal Tournament offered free map packs and new game modes as updates, not something you had to pay the right to use. Splintering communities with pay walls is one of the worst things you could do in multiplayer.
If developers want to charge for something, then they should actually take a note from Batman: Arkham Origins and charge for new gear, or better yet, Battlefield 4's shortcuts. I know what you're thinking "but that stuff is the worst!" except, it really isn't. Think about it.
Consider a world where all content updates are free, so you continually have more and more game to play. Except, since publishers will still want to make something off of the game, they offer new players the ability to catch up in the progression system. They'll still be new to the game and unsure of what gear to use, meaning balance is maintained. All the meanwhile, you've got a consistent stream of new modes and maps to play on.
As compromises go, this one pays off way more for the core player base than the current model. It'd be awesome if we could just get the content for free, but not all publishers and developers will go for that approach. Still, anything that takes us out of the age of Sanctum and Call of Duty-style paid for DLC is a welcome move towards benefiting the player base.
Understand What We Want From Online Co-op
When I reviewed Sunset Overdrive, the game had an excellent open world that was begging for two player campaign co-op. Instead, it had one of the blandest eight player horde modes ever created. Too many games just tack on online cooperative multiplayer without any consideration of what the mode needs. This weird misunderstanding of what we want in co-op is increasing in frequency, as more and more cooperative games are made.
First off, we want to play together with like-minded players. This really is what developers should consider first when going forward. Halo: Reach had one of the best matchmaking filters by asking you several general but important questions about how you liked to play Halo This helped like minded gamers to team up easily.
This should be a default feature in co-op, especially when the co-op is in the main story campaign. If someone is just there for the action, then pair them up with other people there for action. If someone cares about the story, get equally considerate players on board with them.
We also need goals worth playing for. The point of cooperative multiplayer is that you are working together, towards some end. This is why co-op in campaigns works so well, and why standalone co-op modes that are barely connected with the main game fall apart. Some games like Halo 5: Guardians have been making strides to close the gap and integrate co-op into their stories, but we still have a lot further to go.
Still, making players work for a narrative goal might get them through once or twice, but we need consistent, enjoyable reasons to bring friends along. We need new tactical options to open up in cooperative shooters. We need new dialogue choices in cooperative RPGs. We need incentive to play in co-op that offers a different experience, without cutting players out of every option. The benefits should be realistic to the player count.
Online co-op has been evolving at a fast rate, ever since Halo 3 and Borderlands popularized it. Hopefully that means these growing pains can be passed through just as quickly.
Truly Dynamic Levels
Letting us level one building in Battlefield 4 was impressive back on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Now though, with the hardware available to developers, we should be seeing a lot more dynamic elements in levels, and not just in shooters. If anything, more games need to look to some of Sony's more recent games for inspiration.
Take the airstrip level in Uncharted 3. When the level opens, one team is a plane that is preparing to take off. Meanwhile, the other team is on a set of moving trucks, chasing after it, guns blazing. This leads to some hilarious and awesome moments that only happen because of the players and the level both being equal participants.
Similarly, PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royal built itself around levels that would blend between two games. One minute you're in Pappa Rappa, but within minutes, Killzone invades with giant mechs firing on players. Every level did this, and would significantly impact the approach players would take to battles. That isn't even counting smaller dynamic elements players could use to their advantage, like setting off traps or knocking opponents into hazards.
We need more levels like this. While making a level flood or have half of the map become full of poison gas might seem impressive to some players, we could do so much more. Destiny's raids have randomized, dynamic elements as much as they do scripted ones. Syndicate had different enemy spawns and behavior based on difficulty levels. These are the sorts of things we should aspire to in future multiplayer titles.
Think Outside the Box For What Genres Can Have Multiplayer
A year doesn't go by when I don't hear someone say "[game] doesn't need multiplayer!" Except, did you ever ask yourself what kind of multiplayer that would be like? The XCOM: Enemy Unknown team asked themselves that, and what resulted is a surprisingly popular turn-based RPG style multiplayer that even got a wealth of new maps in the expansion pack Enemy Within.
The same happened with Mass Effect 3, and later Dragon Age: Inquisition. Perhaps its time we stop saying something shouldn't be done, and start more regularly asking "can this be done, and will it be fun?" Not only does this open the door to new multiplayer games, but it lets mechanics be handled in new ways. Assassin's Creed: Rogue's detection system wouldn't exist without Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood's multiplayer, and similar examples exist across many franchises.
So let's really push the envelope and see what works. If it fails, then go back to the drawing board; but if it succeeds, then help it grow.
Let Cooperative and Competitive Multiplayer Blur
The fact cooperative and competitive multiplayer are beginning to blur is a great sign, but there are only a few games that have toyed with this. Dark Souls, DayZ and Watch_Dogs remain the only notable examples, and even this early on, they show promise. Dark Souls in particular has caused many anti-multiplayer gamers to reconsider their stance on the issue, because it put it in a new context.
Taking competitive play out of instanced matches and making it more like a boss fight puts it in clearer context for those who don't regularly go out and play Domination or Capture the Flag. With the addition of cooperative players helping each side during conflicts, Dark Souls lets the players define the battlefield.
Watch_Dogs took this a different direction by empowering players with a variety of play styles. Maybe you go and spy on someone or hack their phone in a one on one battle. If you prefer racing, you could take on mobile device users or enter street races. If you like team battles, those are available too. They aren't carted off in some alternate landscape, but instead are present in your game, and have tangible rewards for both offline and online play.
As we step forward, these types of integrated multiplayer could even tie into grander mechanics. Imagine a world where the Dark Souls invasion system and the Shadow of Mordor nemesis system are combined. The potential is tantalizing, to say the least.
We Need More User Generated Content
For a long time, it seemed like modifications were on the way out. Very few games supported mods during the last generation, save for a handful of shooters, and a number of strategy and RPG titles. That is changing though, thanks to a rebound in the focus on user generated content. Even if a game is a completely solo experience, you can play levels or experience new content made by other gamers.
User generated content is the lifeblood of many older games. Tron 2.0 and Skyrim both got fan expansion packs in the past three years, well after their publishers had moved on. Mods are free DLC that developers don't have to spend a dime on. Whether or not you think mods should be commercially released is another debate, but you can't deny the popularity of modding. Some developers even use mods as ways of finding the best new talent to hire for their next project.
As development tools become more user-friendly, and in-game toolsets get more powerful, it stands to reason that user generated content needs to be taken more seriously as a means of online content.
Scoreboards Don't Count as Multiplayer
I would think this would go without saying, but judging by the number of games that have tried to use this as a placeholder for real multiplayer, it apparently does not. A scoreboard is fine on its own, but it does not make for great multiplayer. Most people don't care, and often times those who do are more interested in kill/death ratios in Call of Duty than how many Animus Fragments they've found in Assassin's Creed. Let's stop using this as a crutch.
Encourage and Grow Your Communities
This last part is something only a few publishers and developers have done really well. For example, 2K Games managed what seemed almost impossible at the time, and bred a longstanding Bioshock 2 multiplayer community. Between offering assets for wikis, and porting the game out of pocket to Steamworks as Games for Windows Live began shutting down, 2K Games did good by their community.
They also repeatedly tried to do right by them in terms of DLC. When it seemed like Minerva's Den might not release, they gave out the Protector Trials for free on PC. When they found out they could port it over still, they did, and they kept the Trials DLC completely free regardless. They also gave Minerva's Den for free to anyone who had bought the original, Games for Windows Live version of the game. On top of that, they made all multiplayer DLC free for everyone, and decreased the grind in the progression system so members of the community could regain their ranks quickly in the new Steamworks version.
This is how you reward a loyal community. You don't treat them like EA did with Dead Space 2, where they never ported any of the DLC, and when it was found some was already on-disc, EA just quietly made a few items and armor sets unlocked for PC users. They never got the Severed DLC campaign (which reportedly never got past pre-Alpha on PC before being cancelled on that platform), nor did they get any of the multiplayer patches.
Publishers and developers both need to learn from these and other examples, and understand that you don't survive through game sales alone. You need that community who will stick it out years from now. Bioshock 2 is thriving and active on PC after five years. By contrast, no one is playing Dead Space 2 on PC anymore. Consider that fact.
Multiplayer has been a part of this industry from the start, and its impact can be felt across the spectrum of platforms we play on. Whether you like online gaming or not, we've come a long way, and have a even further journey ahead to travel. Here's hoping developers choose the right path for online gamers.