Multiplayer gaming is not the future

Opinion: If singleplayer games die, then gaming dies with them, argues Xbox World's Steven Williams

So we're all going online - we're all multimedia, socially networked, globally connected.

Our consoles increasingly prioritise shared online 'content' - that ghastly catch-all marketing term that means 'stuff' - and obviously it's at the expense of offline, solo experiences. There's Facebook. YouTube. Twitter. DLC. Multiplayer... ah, multiplayer. I don't give a damn about multiplayer.


For years it's been championed as the future of gaming. Singleplayer games will die completely, say some. Ex-Sony game designer turned industry consultant Mark Cerny recently claimed they'd be gone completely within three years; last year, EA label president Frank Gibeau laid into 'fire-and-forget packaged goods,' saying: "I think that model is finished. Online is where the innovation, and the action, is at."

Not if my experiences are anything to go by. If all the innovation is online, why have the new multiplayer modes in once-proudly singleplayer experiences - such as EA's own Dead Space and Mass Effect - added so little?


For more opinion and features buy Xbox World online for £4.99 or on Apple Newsstand.

OK, Mass Effect 3 isn't out yet, but we've seen it, and you know the pitch - it's a shooting-focused mode for a game where story is everything. And try looking for a match on Dead Space 2 these days - you won't find the future there.

Or take a look at the charts. The none-more-multiplayer Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 shot straight to number one, but was then supplanted by Skyrim - the least multiplayer game of all time. Batman Arkham City is still in the top ten, while L.A. Noire remains in the top 25 after almost 30 weeks. All of these are resolutely solo experiences. And gamers appear to like them.

Modern Warfare is part of the problem. The huge popularity of it online cannot be ignored - map packs, yearly sequels and now Elite score Activision millions per year. What publisher wouldn't want a slice of that? But you can't hope to compete with an established game like CoD just by flinging deathmatch or co-op at everything - only one or two games can flourish at a time.

"Try looking for a match on Dead Space 2 these days - you won't find the future there."

Even successful series such as BioShock gather relatively small communities, despite solid design. The servers of more modest releases are desolate after just a few weeks.

I suspect the fanfare around online gaming is driven by several things: the enticing profits of the area's leaders,
the ability a server connection offers publishers to 'combat' used sales and piracy, and simple novelty. The internet is still new enough for the medium to regularly outshine the message.

The net's been mainstream for maybe 15 years, and yet everything from the news to washing powder adverts is still imploring you to go online and add your facile, ill-informed bleatings to the ocean of drivel already there. And no serious TV show would dream of having a phone-in these days, but Tweet Jeremy Paxman about how David Cameron has shifty eyes and the poor, educated bastard will be forced to read it out as if it had dripped from the lips of God.

Similarly, every publisher and pundit seems to agree that the future of gaming is online. Which is like saying the future of education is a playground where all the teachers have gone home. Fine. Have multiplayer.


I can cope. But don't ever assume it can replace singleplayer for scope, imagination and progress.

Singleplayer requires pacing, narrative and subtlety to hook you; multiplayer just addicts through repetition and dog-treat reward. Singleplayer forces improvement in character animation, AI and mission design; multiplayer just needs new mazes for its rats to run around. Which one really sounds like the future?

I've had great multiplayer experiences, but it's always like riffling a pamphlet in the hope of a briefly interesting sentence, as opposed to settling into the crafted arc of a novel. Fine as far as it goes, but for things to matter - death, love, loss, fights, explosions, disasters - they need a context. Singleplayer demands context. Multiplayer doesn't.