Consoles have been lagging behind the PC for multiplayer gaming. There are many reasons that explain that and many more to argue that the situation will change.
Xbox Live has already attained over 14 million subscribers. Sony, with its PS3, PSP, and PlayStation Network, is now offering the right hardware and network infrastructure. Nintendo is developing its online offerings in a very smart way. Broadband access is spreading fast, including in China and India.
In a few years, consoles are likely to become the leading platforms for multiplayer gaming as we know it today (on mobile platforms, we are more likely to see the emergence of new genres of casual multiplayer gaming). Shooters are far from restricted to the PC anymore, and strategy games will probably make a breakthrough on consoles as well.
New control mechanisms and viewing modes will have to be defined but most publishers have projects in that direction. Ubisoft's voice-controlled Endwar could show the way. By the same token, MMOs will probably proliferate on consoles as well, since most of them now offer mass storage devices.
Ubisoft Shanghai's EndWar
Will it mean the death of the PC as a multiplayer platform? Not at all. The PC will probably cease to be the main platform for hardcore multiplayer gaming, as it becomes an important one for casual and social gaming. The PC is also a hotbed for creativity. New multiplayer game concepts are likely to appear on the PC first.
The experience of playing online has little or nothing in common with that of solo gaming. The main difference lies in the behavior of the player's opponents -- or his allies, as the case may be. Whereas AI behavior is strictly controlled by designers in single-player games, the online player is potentially confronted by the whole broad spectrum of human behavior.
What sorts of things must the player contend with in such a situation? Here are some typical scenarios, no doubt quite familiar to network gaming aficionados:
Online gaming is sometimes like a jungle. Anonymity, coupled with an absence of regulation or any real consequences, tends to encourage all of the excesses of behavior characteristic of humanity. If multiplayer gaming is to become a mode of play accepted by all, it will have to become more civilized in the process.
Design solutions to such behavior problems are not so obvious. On Xbox Live, Microsoft allows players to rate each other, but this is effective only against the most blatant kinds of abuse. Another possibility lies in developing games that are reliant on cooperation, rather than on having the players confront one another.
Lastly, games should feature ranking systems only if they target hardcore gamers. Only these players really care about leaderboards. Experience has shown that ranking mechanisms tend to incite the most aggressive and least honest of players to cheat and take advantage of all of the exploitable quirks present in a game.
Innovative solutions for dealing with the gap between newcomers and veteran players will need to be explored. Here are some of the possibilities: