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In Defense of Localized Multiplayer
by james sadler on 05/20/11 03:14:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This is probably more ranty than most of my posts have been in a long time (the MMO question aside of course. That was reeeaaalllyyyy ranty). As most will gather from the title of this post, I am writing this to defend the seemingly forgotten joy of localized mutiplayer/co-op from a single console.

About a year or so ago I had a new friend come over to the house. We spent a couple of hours shooting the @#$% and began playing some Wii games. After another hour or so of playing that we decided it was time to do away with the somewhat childish play of most Wii games and try some multiplayer on the PS3 or Xbox 360. Now my video game collection isn't the greatest and mutiplayer is not one of those things that influence my game purchasing, but I do have a few that boast multiplayer pretty heavily (F.E.A.R. 2 for example). Out of the entire selection of games at my disposal not a single one offered localized (non-network) multiplayer. I was amazed. So back to the Wii we went.

I remember a time when almost all multiplayer games were localized. Yes kids there once was a time when things weren't connected to the internet and people had to sit in the same room and play against each other on a single 13 inch CRT TV. I am not one of those "things were better back when...." people. I like the internet. I like playing online (here and there). It just seems like we as an industry have forgotten some of the virtues involved in our past.

A huge problem with exclusively having multiplayer online is that is prevents people from sitting in the same room and playing along, unless they happen to have two TV's, two consoles, two copies of the game, and a network to link them. This isn't that uncommon for most hard core gamer parties, but it does prevent Average Joe and his friend Average Sam from deciding after a long day of working on a car, and a few beers, from playing a game together. It just doesn't make sense that these two friends would have to go back to their respective houses, sign in on their consoles, just to play a game together.

There is a gap between playing with friends in the same room and friends online that even the best video chat can't replicate. I have played Modern Warfare 2 with my friend online and in the same room and it is always more fun when we are together. Even the people (usually our wives) watching us play seem to have more fun. Even with the split screen it is more fun. Sure I'd like to have my own TV for myself, but if it means making my friend go home so we can play, that just doesn't make sense. I will suffer with a smaller segment of the screen. Granted I have a pretty large TV so sectioning it off really isn't that big of a deal.

There is also the idea that making people play online makes the play much more structured, which is always a bad thing. Like the example I gave above where two friends were working on a car and then decided to play a game (yes that actually is a real life example) that gameplay is spontaneous and doesn't require too much planning or outside variables to make the gameplay happen. Online multiplayer requires both, or multiple, parties to set aside time, schedule the play with each other, make sure their systems are running, signed in, on the right server (more an issue with older multiplayer games), and everyone is in the right place at the right time. Just look at how kids play on the playground versus how they play sports. Odd analogy I know but follow me here.

Kids during recess are basically given very few rules and guidelines. Here is the area to stay in, these are the thing you can play with, make of it what you will. Kids will naturally structure their own play with different groups and things to make play for the given time. Sports on the other hand is like telling the kids these are the rules, this is the goal, these are the things you need to do in order to play, but we can't do any of it until everyone is here and everyone is wearing the right uniforms.

Yes there are a lot of holes with that analogy and the devil's advocate in me is already picking that apart, but what I am trying to get at is that online gameplay to me feels more like a sport where there is so much planning and preparation involved that the play seems to take a back seat. Localized gameplay has the opposite feel though. Things can happen spontaneously and give way to added elements of the game. For one localized multiplayer session my friends and I played we made the winner of each round take a drink (of some unnamed fluid that alters one's judgment and focus) to possibly level the playing field. It was a hugely entertaining night that I just don't see as possible, or at least as fun, in an online environment.

Last week I finally received Portal 2. My birthday was pretty close to launch date so I decided I would wait to see if a family member or friend bought it for me (yes it was killing me waiting). My wife gave me the present before she went to work as she knew I would want to play it during my day off (she was very right. I love my wife). A few hours later my friend (from above) came over so we could fix a few things on my car (is this sounding familiar yet?). We worked on the car for a few hours and then decided to finish up so we could do something fun before we both had to leave. We cleaned up, came inside and decided to try Portal 2's multiplayer. I was shocked to see on the back cover that yes, there was localized play in the game. We turned the system on and began playing.

Valve did a great job in making the multiplayer feel very good. I have played both online and locally and as no surprise I prefer local play. I don't want this to turn into a review of Portal 2 so I'll just say that I love the game and stop there. But the big thing that makes the game that much more appealing to me is that they gave the players options. There was a great single player mode and a co-op mode, which was a completely different story arc, and enabled the players to play locally or online. It really does make a difference to me.

Multiplayer has become more of an interest to me with having a gamer friend and a wife that plays too. For a long time our only real options for playing together locally have been Wii titles, which leave a lot to be desired, and Rock Band. When a large group of use get together it is almost always Rock Band and maybe a Kinect title. I am hopeful that more games will come down the pipe that utilize the localized play method as it really is just more fun for everyone.

As a caveat to this I don't want to sound like localized game play just doesn't exist anymore or that I am completely against online play. There have been plenty of games out there that use it, and use it well. I am not here to write a list of them, but to show how they are few and far between nowadays with network play becoming so much more prevalent and people downplaying games strictly because there isn't an online feature. The industry has seemed to think over the last few years, with how popular online games have become, that people don't want or need to play in the same room anymore, which is just dumb to me.  Just slapping an online mutiplayer feature to a game does not make a better game. Sure it will sell a few extra copies, but not make the actual game better or greatly increase longevity (again yes, there are exceptions to this statement I know. No need to list each one). The network is a tool, not a standard. Create a good localized multiplayer/co-op and then add the network feature and it will be a far better game for it.

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Ardney Carter
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Can't help but agree. One of my biggest frustrations with the original X-Box was the fact that, despite having 4 controller ports, so many games did not have localized multi for 4 or even 2 players. The trend only seemed to get worse on the 360. Yes, we did organize some large LAN sessions but planning took a significant portion of time, as did setup and this made doing this frequently prohibitive. Being given the option to use a single console to play games with several of my friends is always preferrable. The vibe created by having peopel in the same room simply cannot be duplicated online.

james sadler
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I meant to put a bit in there about how consoles have ports, or at least driver support, for 4 controllers, but rarely if ever do any game developers use them. It is very annoying. Hell I've had two controllers for both the 360 and the PS3 since I bought the consoles and more often than not the second one is used only when the first controller runs out of power.

Martin Juranek
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I'm PC gamer, so I does not miss split screen (and other single machine multiplayer) so much, but I understand you point.

There were such games for PC too, but they got pushed away by LAN multiplayer. So my sentiment is more towards LAN gaming than towards single machine.

I guess that reason is, that they feel that it would not increase sales but would increase developement cost. But if it would make players play more often their games, it would have some longterm benefits from players not switching somewhere else.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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Local multiplayer is so much more fun than online. Tends to work a little better with 2D-based games so that several players can view their characters on one large game screen, but even all the best-selling first person shooters have split screen multiplayer too.

My fondest gaming memories come from local multiplayer. It's very much the past, present and future of gaming.

Another thing to note: Sports games have always been huge and are as strong as ever today and they all feature and rely on local multiplayer. Racing games, another mainstay in gaming almost all have local multiplayer.

I have been thinking for ages about doing a blog post celebrating it. I doesn't need defending in real life. Only on the internet.

Josh Verrall
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From a development perspective, split screen is a pain. You go from rendering your game once, to rendering your game 4 times. That means 4 times as many visibility checks, etc, which is often why a lot of the shiny features are turned off during splitscreen, just to get the framerate up to playable levels.

(I totally agree though that local multiplayer on the same box is fun, and I'm glad when developers go to the trouble of implementing it.)

Joshua Sterns
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Yes! Another proponent of co-op goodness. I too have written/spoken of the great fun that can be had with local MP. Human interaction works best when all your senses can be used. Internet high fives just fail.

I also feel ya on the lack of local MP on PS3 and 360. Nintendo is awesome for MP games, and it is one of the companies strong points. N64 is a great throw back if you are sick of the Wii. I'm also surprised there are not more games like Castle Crashers. Great side scrolling beat em up action. Live Arcade games do, however, often feature some sort of MP.

james sadler
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If I remember right we did eventually plug in my old N64 and play some Golden Eye. It was bizarre, to say the least, playing on a very large plasma screen.

Douglas Baker
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Super Smash Brothers is a prime example of fun you can have with four people in front of a tv. I also wish there was more turn based local play like the excellent Worms series. I do appreciate online co-op campaigns like Halo and Gears of War.

Alan Jack
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A few years back, I wrote a paper in my Honours year at Uni entitled "Memorable Gaming Experiences". It looked simply at memories of people's experiences in gaming, and broke them down in a fashion to let us see what stood out that we could focus on in design.

One thing I noted in that study was that a small proportion of outlying results was due to non-gamers relaying memories that actually had nothing to do with the game itself - playing alphabet/number games with their parents, playing Mario Kart with their flat-mates or crowding round old 16 bit systems with their friends to play new games for the first time.

Its important to remember the power that games have to unite us and bring us together. Games exist in a "safe" environment - where the situation can have a lasting result is where the "game" breaks down and life creeps in.

Think of Deer in rutting season - those antlers can tear an animal up with a single sideways swipe, but they known instinctively to charge each other head-on. Dogs, similarly, if let loose in a park, will snarl and snap, perhaps pin each other by throat as a sign of dominance, but won't (deliberately) scratch out eyes or tear chunks out each other (unless trained to).

Similarly, playing games together with other humans is an important part of our life, because we can test the limitations of our social interactions in a safe place in the same way Deer test their physical strengths in a safe place when rutting, or Dogs test their dominance when play-fighting.

Something in this is lost in the dehumanising process of online play, in my opinion, but I'm not sure what, exactly. There's got to be some study to be done in this ...

james sadler
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I think it has to do with the anonymity of the internet. If people know that others can't harm them they will act differently than they do around other people. Lots of people will be complete jerks when talking online, but be completely different when sitting at the table with them. There is safety in that. There is cowardice in that. It is bizarre.