In defense of the genre.
Lately, it feels as though there has been a large shift in the way that video games are developed. This change is to be expected, of course, as the games industry proves year after year that when it comes to the entertainment world, video games are currently the reining king. As the video game industry has grown, so too have the titles and projects that developers work on, with massive budgets granted for AAA titles that rival, if not surpass, major film budgets.
The shift that I have noticed the most within the games industry isn’t the stunning visuals developers can now create, or the desire and ability studios have to attract major Hollywood players to lend their talents to games, but rather the inclusion of multiplayer content or modes to games that by all rights, should just be a single player experience.
This, of course, is not to say that ever game that comes out feels as though it has a tacked-on multiplayer mode, or that games that sell themselves as having a strong story driven experience should shy away from away from allowing players to play with or compete against one another. The fact of the matter is that in many ways, developers attempting to incorporate multiplayer where it truly does not need to be simply cheapens the game as a whole.
It is not, by any means, surprising that developers have begun to attempt to incorporate multiplayer and online gameplay modes into many of today’s biggest titles. In doing so, developers assume that they will be able to both sell more units, and keep their game in heavy rotation for even longer, both affording the studio more money for additional products and establishing a larger presence in the minds of the video gaming world. When examining the trend from this viewpoint, one can see plain as day why developers have been actively attempting to add multiplayer into games more and more often.
The easiest developer to talk about in this situation would be BioWare, who recently announced that their eagerly awaited role-playing game, Dragon Age: Inquisition, would feature a four player co-op mode. The younger generation of gamers may not be as familiar with the Canadian developer, but those who have been avid video game fans for years are more than likely to recall the classic, genre-defining RPGs that BioWare created during the mid-90s and early 2000s.
BioWare’s latest effort, the aforementioned Dragon Age: Inquisition, has been in development for somewhere around three years, and the title, by all accounts looks to be a return to form for the franchise following the lackluster Dragon Age II. The Dragon Age series has prided itself on being an engaging blend of classic role-playing combat and storytelling with tactical elements, and Inquisition looks to be the perfect evolution of this formula, making it one of the most anticipated RPGs in years. Why then, does BioWare, choose to include multiplayer gameplay in what has always been a single-player experience?
It is easy to point to the success of Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer. Similar to the Dragon Age franchise, the Mass Effect games were BioWare’s other big-name franchise, taking an action/RPG formula to space. The third title in the series, Mass Effect 3, incorporated a co-op mode which allowed four players to team up and face waves of foes and tackle other missions. Despite this being a departure for both the franchise and the genre as a whole, Mass Effect 3’s co-op was met with high praise from the gaming world, potentially instilling the notion to BioWare that they can continually replicate this formula with subsequent game releases.
While not an outright replication, BioWare’s co-op mode in Dragon Age: Inquisition is markedly similar to their efforts in Mass Effect 3. This, in and of itself, is not a problem. One cannot fault a developer for including something in a game that they have met some success with before. The fault, however, with Inquisition’s multiplayer, is that it comes across as more of a cop out than anything else.
Shortly after announcing that Dragon Age: Inquisition would feature a co-op ‘dungeon crawl’ mode, the game’s official website launched a FAQ section for the multiplayer mode. One question specifically addressed why Dragon Age: Inquisition’s mulitplayer was a simple co-op instead of a full campaign. The answer given, unfortunately, can lead one to believe that Inquisition’s co-op is more of a cash-in than anything.
Why four-player co-op instead of a full MP campaign?
In Dragon Age: Inquisition, we wanted to focus on five key aspects: Open World, Story, Characters, Visuals, and Inquisition. We also have a new engine (Frostbite 3), and we had to create many new tools to support the huge amount of cinematics and localization that a BioWare title requires. A full MP campaign would have been another layer of complexity, and we decided it wasn’t the right time for the franchise to take on that feature.
In saying this, BioWare states that they have five aspects they want to nail when developing and releasing Dragon Age: Inquisition, a core multiplayer (or co-op) experience decidedly missing from the list. Furthermore, the FAQ makes a point to say that incorporating a true multiplayer campaign is too complex for the team at this moment, leaving one to believe that it was simply never meant to be incorporated and that the team simply chose to take the path of least resistance, incorporating online co-op to sell a few more units. Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Knights veterans are rolling over in their graves.
To further muddle the situation, BioWare also announced that Inquisition would feature mictotransactions to allow players to quickly increase their level by paying real world money for in-game currency.
Microtransactions, as a whole, are something of a blight on the industry and the inclusion of them into a AAA RPG sets a precedent for a slippery slope in the future.
Opinions about microtransactions aside, it is not just Dragon Age: Inquisition or BioWare’s work that can be addressed when talking about games that feel as though they do not need a multiplayer component. The Last of Us, one of the most instantly adored and respected games of all time, was lauded for its engrossing and emotional story and astounding visuals. The game’s multiplayer mode was well-received, but still feels almost unnatural when compared against the rest of the game as a whole.
At its core, The Last of Us was a champion of brilliant writing and emotional interaction. Faced against a world gone dangerously awry, protagonists Joel and Ellie struggled to survive the wasteland that America had become, constantly avoiding looters and mutants. The game’s multiplayer tried its hardest to capture the thematic elements featured in the the game proper, but still comes across as an attempt to make what is essentially a single-player epic more accessible to those who prefer simply shooting at other player controlled characters.
The main problem that shines through in this era of making sure every big name video game release has some sort of multiplayer in addition to its single-player story is that developers seem to struggle to find a way to incorporate it meaningfully. From Software and their Souls series have managed to incorporate both cooperative and competitive gameplay into their largely single-player experience in a smart way, building game lore around the experience properly so that it does not feel like a simple extra ‘selling point’. Of course, to many Souls fans, invading other players or helping them take down challenging bosses is one of the main draws to the games, but there is no denying that it is never shoved into the players face.
Perhaps my sentiments regarding multiplayer add-ons is the one off base. Clearly, the amount of games being released with multiplayer as an additional featuring is only going up, indicating that consumers seem to be enjoying the option. As I’ve said before, there is nothing inherently wrong with this decision, I just feel that in order for the industry to continue to grow stably and continue its impressive upswing, some serious care must be taken to ensure that the video game world can stay a diverse and creative one, instead of ushering in an era where every game feels as though it is packaged with the same cash-in elements.
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