This week on Cold Take, Frost takes a look at the current state of multiplayer gaming and why it’s basically a mess.
“A game reviewer who doesn’t like multiplayer games. He way to stick out, you pretentious idiot.
Fix your posture, you breathe through your mouth with a shrimp back. I used to only play multiplayer games.
Let’s make a truce until the end of the video. I’m not ashamed to say that Call of Duty Black Ops was the reason I got an Xbox 360. In fact, three of them, a freak lightning storm took out the first and the second succumbed to the Red Rings of Death. Halo: Reach, Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3, and Black Ops 2 kept me hooked until I switched to PC gaming in 2013. That’s where my paper-traceable trail begins. 6,000 hours in Smite. 600 hours in PUBG. 300 in Ark. 250 at Dead By Daylight. Who knows how many in Minecraft? So I come from a place of sincerity, experience, and passion when I say that something is wrong with multiplayer games today. Too many are outright predatory and use every trick in the book to keep people playing. And for what? Other than a select few, there appears to be no content in the live service games and no real development plan outside of implementing whatever the rowdy crowd and serious men in suits want. All in an effort to keep people working, because people are the real content of video games.
My multiplayer disenfranchisement began with Paragon, the first game I personally witnessed being tainted by the multiplayer miasma that is mandatory in today’s games. It was a third-person MOBA created by Epic Games in 2015. I say ‘was’ because now it’s dead, killed by its own monetization system. It was technically free to play, but you had to buy card packs with real money, or coin to grind, for a chance to get a part of an item. If you’ve never played a MOBA, it’s like being forced to pay for bullets in an online shooter. Something tells me that Epic Games saw Blizzard’s success with Hearthstone at the time and thought card packs were the future’s path to an early grave.
I tried desperately to tell the devs that this was a horrible idea during the alpha, but other testers rebutted me, saying that opening card packs is exciting. Opening packs of cards is exciting. get legendary loot is exciting. Finding one more fry at the bottom of the burger bag is exciting! But it doesn’t make sense outside of games like Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone! I’m not inherently against a company making money or a person spending their money on claw machine waifus. That is your prerogative. It’s when a monetization system is duct-taped to a game that I lose faith in developers’ ability to take the wheel off the data analysts or accountants who run game studios these days. Online multiplayer games used to ask me if I mind spending a few bucks while playing. Now they ask me if I mind playing a few games while spending money. In the end, a good game with bad monetization is just a bad game.
Then came 2016 and that’s when I felt like games were really rushing to ask for my mom’s credit card. A fully integrated day one esports scene for Overwatch seemed opportunistically premature, as if the fox was trying to get into the coop before the chickens had hatched and was selling off the stock of other foxes in the coop. It’s like Blizzard is trying to copy the model set by League of Legends without any of the grassroots efforts that created the scene. It happened to Heroes of the Storm and I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens to Overwatch 2 as well. I wouldn’t say that Blizzard was solely responsible for the games that put the cart before the horse, but I’d bet they made it more fashionable. Fortnite may have popularized battle passes, but the game had a rocky birth before kids got hooked on V-bucks. Online multiplayer games have always had shaky launches, but now they launch with concrete ways to spend money and time, the two biggest boxes on the corporate checklist. Mobile gamers know what I’m talking about. Even if you’re playing without spending a dime, you’re flooded with notifications about the newest Battle Passes, Chests, Card Packs, Daily Rewards, and Seasonal Events. There are so many things you can do! I’m not here because I have too much free time. I wanted to play a fun game designed by creative people. If I suddenly found myself immortal I might consider participating, but until then life is too short. I want something fun to do, not just something to do.
Give me a few more drinks and I’d blame Path of Exile for all of this. Chris Wilson gave a talk at a Game Developers Conference in 2019 where he outlined the process for making a game last forever. Frankly. it’s brilliant and easy to get behind as Path of Exile continues to break its all-time user peaks even today. I recommend watching to hear how a passionate but struggling studio in New Zealand formulated a plan that maximized the appeal of his work that maximized its longevity and money as a by-product. Battle passes are effective. Seasonal content changes are exciting. Random loot and procedural map generation can be beneficial to games. Targeting the whales and the content creators is a viable strategy if it all complements the amazing core of one of the best free-to-play ARPGs to ever hit the market. Without a solid core, it’s useless for any game. This system does not work especially for online multiplayer PvP games.
But since then I’ve seen multiplayer games imitate Path of Exile’s development plan. There are the seasonal patches. There are the battle passes. There is a new event every 13 weeks. That’s where I can spend all my time and money. But where is the game? Well the game is PvP. You could play casual, you could play ranked, you could bring your friends with you. So the players are the content then. Every time someone defends the lackluster nonsense of multiplayer by saying “it’s fun with friends”, the horns of a red-suited investor grow bigger. I’m always curious what excuses people come up with to defend the inexcusable and, for the most part, it’s been the same. It’s more fun with friends. Why don’t you see that as a virtue of your friends and not of the game? There’s a newer excuse that’s popping up recently and it’s “maybe one day the game will have more content”.
And that pretty much sums up what online multiplayer gaming has become in the last decade, a way to dangle carrots forever. If you don’t like the carrot once it finally drops, that’s okay because we’ll hang another carrot for you. There will always be more promises and if you don’t like the current content, tell us what kind of content you want and we’ll do our best to bring it to you. In the meantime, play the game again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Live service games finally reach a point where ruthless design pushes away creatives and leaves only developers who are willing to design based on CEO, community feedback, data analysts, and quarterly projections. . The fanbase that remains will mostly be made up of people who are willing to actively participate in the carrot dance and yell at each other for the next one to more suit their needs.
I have to give it to Fortnite. You’ve created a hub within your own game for people to socialize, play other types of games, be competitive, or create things with people. While players are the content within their game, Epic Games has taken the time to make something worthwhile that they can then monetize. It’s a better look than Paragon. That is sure. But I doubt the rest of the industry will take the moral of the story as: make better games first and monetize later. Instead, online multiplayer games are getting to where they are now. Even PvE games go the way of color-coded loot, opening packs, battle passes, and season updates. Redfall was inevitable. What is also almost inevitable is the games industry’s habit of chasing successful trends and adapting them to the benefit or detriment of their games. They’ve been knocking on the always-online door since the launch of Xbox One, but never had a proper excuse until now. Please stay tuned so we can better serve you with a constant stream of things for you to make and things for you to buy, while the game maintains an amorphous quality about itself, too vague to be considered good but constantly changing so you never can. dismiss it as a lost cause. As I’m making this video, Sony has revealed three new online multiplayer games, Haven’s Fairgame$, Firewalk’s Concord, and Bungie’s Marathon, and the Last of Us multiplayer game has been delayed. It didn’t even have a release date to begin with. They’re just setting us up, right?
That’s why online multiplayer games have lost their appeal to me, and this trend of making hollow, indefinite charades will continue, because firmly defining your parameters as a developer risks losing a wider audience. And you need that broader audience to feel that their opinion influences the content development cycle, so that they can keep playing in perpetuity while they wait for the next patch to come along with the content that satisfies them. But it will never come. Because there is no content. The people are the content. Soylent Green is people.
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