In defense of tacked-on multiplayer

“I think that model is finished,” Electronic Arts Games chief Frank Gibeau told Develop two-years back. He was discussing what he called “fire-and-forget, packaged goods only” or, as they’re commonly known as, single-player games. He said that developers needed to continue the connection with players, and that a good method was through some sort of multiplayer component. In one interview, one of the leaders of the second biggest game publisher had signed a death warrant for single-player gaming. People were understandably upset, thinking that the era of single-player was over.

But it wasn’t, and I don’t think that’s what Frank Gibeau meant. Instead, a significant aspect of what he was acknowledging is the importance of replayability in an age where video games cost more to make, and people have less money to spend on them. And he’s right; single-player “fire-and-forget” games generally don’t have that much replay value, and it’s hard to justify keeping a game after you complete the campaign. The solution to this problem is to add multiplayer–even if it isn’t really “needed.” And while some might see multiplayer added to any single-player franchise as sacrilege, I think it can be a good thing. Sure, sometimes it backfires, but “tacked-on multiplayer,” as many have called it, can often end up being pretty damn fun.

Take, for instance, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The original Uncharted was a bastion of single-player cinematic storytelling, so fans were understandably livid when news broke confirming Uncharted 2’s multiplayer modes. Some silly deathmatch mode for what had previously been considered a proving point for the Games as Art movement? No thanks. And then it came out, and it was surprisingly well-developed, and in-line with everything that made Uncharted work.

A year later, and the flip-out cycle repeated itself with Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Said one GamesRadar commenter: “I can imagine a AC multiplayer mode: two players will stand and stare at each other for hours, each waiting for the other guy to make the first move so that they can counter it…then another guy just runs up and stealth kills them both.” [sic] And, yet again, “tacked-on multiplayer” proved to be extremely fun. With each Assassin’s Creed release since then, the multiplayer has been improved upon, to the point where it’s as much a part of the series as ancient aliens wearing togas.

But there’s no greater example than Mass Effect 3. Honestly, you’d think that BioWare had just announced that the Reapers were real and coming to wipe out all life on earth, but no: It had just revealed that the game would have some multiplayer. People. Were. Pissed. One GamesRadar user said, “Even if i don’t know what the multiplayer is about, the fact alone that it exists is a bad sign, period.” [sic] His comment was followed by many others, agreeing that the announcement was a disaster. Yet, when we had our 24-hour Marathon a few months ago, it was one of the few games folks were clamoring to play all night. The wave-based co-op was so good that BioWare has continued to support it with DLC and updates, and many gamers have told me that they’ve put more hours (and spent more money) into unlocking new races and weapons than they did playing through the single-player campaign.

And then when there were rumors that BioShock: Infinite would have multiplayer, and everyone freaked the hell out all over again. As history has shown, this mindset is silly. It also doesn’t make sense given publishers’ recent schemes to keep games in gamers’ consoles longer. Answer us this, would you rather have a multiplayer mode that might be good, or be forced to download an ending weeks after release (as was seen in 007 Legends), or pay for slowly doled-out or on-disc DLC (basically everyone else)?

When Infinite was confirmed not to have multiplayer, gamers were ecstatic, acting like it was some sort of great victory for single-player gaming. “Thank God!” one commenter exclaimed; “I’m so proud of those guys,” said another. “I’ve never wanted my SP purchases to be compromised by the addition of an MP add-on.”

What great single-player purchase was compromised by multiplayer? Was Dead Space 2 ruined by the Necromorphs vs. Humans battles that most agreed were an absolute blast? Was BioShock 2 destroyed by its entertaining Splicer-filled team deathmatch? I know XCOM: Enemy Unknown wasn’t held back by the addition of multiplayer–if anything, it was amplified by the mode. While there are some examples of good single-player games not having a strong competitive side (Spec Ops: The Line comes to mind), there aren’t many examples of the multiplayer actually compromising the campaign. Meanwhile, there are plenty of examples of great success in formerly single-player games being complemented by multiplayer components.

Listen friends, gamers, everyone: Stop freaking out. When a publisher or a developer reveals some sort of co-op or multiplayer for its game, give them the benefit of the doubt, because for all you know, it could totally be the next Uncharted 2 or Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood or Mass Effect 3 or…

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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