The scenario goes a little something like this: a game is announced. It might be a sequel, or a new IP, it doesn’t really matter. It’s presented as a singleplayer experience. Everything you see and hear about the game is talking about the singleplayer. You’re excited, it looks great.
Then, a sudden announcement. The game will now include a multiplayer mode. Suddenly you’re wary. Why do you feel like that?
That’s The Last of Us for me. We personally didn’t hear of The Last of Us’ multiplayer mode until roughly a week before launch, though that’s in part because Naughty Dog kept it a close secret for a long time. I mentioned it before in our Last of Us preview; the announcement almost felt like an afterthought. And that worried me.
Worry always seems to be the first feeling we get after these announcements. Whether they actually turn out to be good or not, we’re initially so wary. But what does that mean? When we look at multiplayer announcements like this, why are we so worried?
We’ve come to fear multiplayer because we suspect it’s being tacked-on. And sometimes that’s true. But sometimes it’s false. There are some excellent experiences that we might miss out on purely because we’re overly wary.
The fear seems to come from the idea that the developers aren’t focusing on the singleplayer enough. This is going to be most evident in sequels with sudden multiplayer additions, where you’re so used to that singleplayer environment. The announcement brings a sort of fear that the game’s singleplayer mode won’t be up to the standards of the game before it, that they’re going to be sacrificing time and effort for something that wasn’t what drew you to the series originally. It was fine as a singleplayer game. It didn’t need anything more. Sometimes this is alleviated by the fact that the multiplayer is being worked on by a smaller group, another studio, but it’s generally the case that no matter what people are going to worry about these additions.
Games have been adding multiplayer modes to the sequels of singleplayer games for a few years now, and I think it has had some successes. The first that comes to mind is Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, which I was initially quite wary of, because as we know I don’t like change in things. But the cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek style gameplay was wickedly addictive, and I lost an entire Summer to it. I do consider Brotherhood to be my favourite of the series, in part because it managed a good balance between singleplayer and multiplayer content, and on a wider scale, Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer was relatively well received.
What worked for it is that difference – it’s a much slower pace than most other competitive multiplayer modes, requiring more patience and precision if you want to score the big points – even if it is possible to run around the map practically screaming ‘I’M AN ASSASSIN!’ while brandishing several nasty blades. But it also worked because it was different enough from the singleplayer. The gameplay was largely the same, but with the added threat of constantly being hunted by someone else. It was tense. It was different. It was good.
That sense of difference was a bit more lacking in something like Mass Effect 3, where the multiplayer essentially boiled down to fighting off waves of AI enemies in maps made from singleplayer areas. It’s not that it was necessarily a bad mode at all – it was fun, and the strength there lay in all of the different races you could play, including krogans or quarians for a bit of interesting variety. The multiplayer here also tied back into the singleplayer, where successfully completing a multiplayer mission affected a statistic that would help determine how the ending of the singleplayer game turned out, so there was an added incentive for at least playing a couple of rounds every now and again. But Mass Effect was such a story-intensive series. The multiplayer felt hollow as a result. Not bad to play, but nothing particularly memorable. To me it is an example of tacked-on multiplayer, and an unsuccessful one at that.
Multiplayer can also raise questions about the kind of audience the developers are targeting – and if the multiplayer is just an attempt to expand that audience. With The Last of Us, I simply didn’t see the need for a multiplayer mode at all. The game had been marketed for so long as being about the bond between Joel and Ellie, about two people alone but together in a dying world. The strength was (and is, really) in that relationship, those characters, the writing over everything else. Can you have that kind of experience in the multiplayer? It plays similarly but it’s also so different. When I thought of The Last of Us’ multiplayer as an afterthought, this was what worried me. Was it really needed? And I think that no, it wasn’t, even if it is fun. The fifteen hours I spent in the singleplayer was enough for me.
The problem I’m personally having with The Last of Us’ multiplayer mode is that I just don’t care about it. Because Naughty Dog kept their cards close for so long, their entire marketing campaign was about the singleplayer experience. That’s why we’re buying this game. So I put the disc in and launch the game and the fact that there’s even a multiplayer mode at all barely registers with me.
So maybe it’s my problem and I’m just being stubborn. The multiplayer is there for those of us who wanted more with the game. It’s pretty clear in the case of The Last of Us that quality hasn’t been sacrificed anywhere along the way to compensate for the multiplayer. It’s a phenomenal experience (review coming soon!). But the doubt still lingers and try as I might I can’t pinpoint any legitimate reason for it anymore. That’s confusing, and the more I think about it the less I make sense and suddenly I’m not in my body anymore I’m floating through time and space and why is there a walrus playing a piano?
But the general feeling when these kinds of games announce a multiplayer mode is generally one of mild concern or worry (and in extreme cases, loud outbursts). Multiplayer additions are always going to seem risky because we continue to approach them with caution, whether justified or not.
What’s the problem here? Is it the people who are stuck in their own ways, their aversion to multiplayer blinding them from enjoying some quality experiences? Or is the fault with the developers, or the publishers, or whoever decides that a game suddenly needs a multiplayer mode just because it can have one? Or is everyone to blame? I’m quite the fence-sitter, I’ll have you know.