Competitive Gaming; A Mixed Bag

The era of e-sports and competitive video gaming has done a lot to bring video games to a new level of participation. It has forced video game developers to refine their engines and game balance to a level mathematical precision never before considered. Unfortunately, not all of these changes have been for the better. In fact some have hurt the genre in ways that cannot quickly be repaired.

There is no doubt that competitive multiplayer can be really fun. Anyone who has ever had a Quake 3 LAN party or been sucked into the more recent Call of Duty games will know what I mean, that is assuming that they have friends with similar interests and a whole bunch of spare hours to spend getting good enough to compete. Developers have spent countless hours tweaking every aspect of the games to provide the smoothest possible online experiences and balancing the classes, weapons, and maps to make sure they offer a level playing field on which to compete.

Unfortunately all of this tweaking and balancing takes time away from the development of the game itself, and in many games this is really beginning to show. There is a lot of pressure on developers to create the next best game for competitive play, to repeat the success of Halo, Call of Duty, Battlefield, SFIV, and others. While these efforts are often meeting with success and no doubt attracting new players, they are leaving behind those gamers who either cannot access or are not interested in competitive play. Not all of us are Daigo Umehara or Johnathan Wendel; some of us are just Stu.

  

What game developers are forgetting is that there is more to a game than its competitive online mode. There are a whole swath of gamers out there who will never go online and look to the game to provide a solid and enjoyable single-player experience alone. Whereas the focus of a game used to be on the solo experience, often with a multiplayer aspect tacked on later, the inverse now appears to be true in many cases. In some extreme examples it feels like the single player experience was the most meagre of afterthoughts.

This is also leading to a heavy stagnation in many of the franchises. While the multiplayer experiences are being continually refined and tweaked, the core games have remained essentially unchanged. I’m thinking of Soul Calibur V, Mortal Kombat 9, and Call of Duty MW3 specifically here. The latest revision of Soul Calibur was particularly disappointing in this arena. The multiplayer has been tweaked and changed, and at the highest levels of competition it probably feels like a complete overhaul. However, for the casual button masher looking for a compelling story of the two swords, it feels like SC4 with a couple of new characters thrown in and a broken block and parry system.

Soul Calibur
Soul Calibur 2 shipped with a fantastic adventure mode in which you would progress through an underground dungeon fighting enemies and advancing a story. It was compelling and extremely fun without every playing against another human adversary. Soul Calibur 3 added probably the greatest mode ever seen in any fighting game in history; a strategic deployment game in which battles would be resolved using the SC fight engine. There were items, bonuses, teams, and map strategy that could significantly alter the way in which the campaign was approached. That single mode made the whole genre for me. Soul Calibur 4 was less innovative. It brought some great character customization options, and introduced two mission based ideas in the form of towers that could be climbed and descended respectively, but it felt hollow for missing the strategic mode from SC3. The fifth (and most recent) iteration drops the single player game almost entirely. It’s online or bust unless you want to grind through the repetitious “arcade” mode. Where were the advancements in tutorial mode or a single player story? How about match replays with analytical data or an explanation of the new in-depth mechanics that might expose some of the beauty of the engine to more casual players. The minute solo story mode felt like the weakest tacked-on nod to solo players I’ve ever seen. Very disappointing.

   

Mortal Kombat 9
I really enjoyed MK9. It’s single player story was superb and the challenge tower was a heck of a lot of fun. However, I’m still going to complain that the focus on competitive multiplayer has hurt the series. Despite the inclusion of a solid single player offering, the whole gamed lacked replayability. It lacked character. There was something missing and it took me a few hours of play to figure out what it was. It struck me when deciding which character to focus upon; it didn’t really matter which one I picked because they all roughly played the same. While there are differences between ranged fingers, air control, melee, footsies managers, the characters felt like they had lost their uniqueness; the personalities that made them so endearing. The quirky appeal of previous entries in the series came from the horrible imbalance that occured between different characters. It wasn’t fair, there were bad matchups, there were crippled characters, and there were over-powered ninjas, but all of that came together in a wonderfully stupendous game that was more about punching and kicking to the face and ridiculous fatalities. It was the glorious whimsy that made it special. The newest version of the game, while technically superior, lacks the personality that made the earlier games so magnificent. Despite the copious story mode, the game still pales in comparison to experiences such as Mortal Kombat Deception; a game where the player truly explored the MK universe and really got to know the characters and their storylines first hand. Rather than advancing this concept and taking the player deeper into the universe, it felt like this first MK was a reboot that focused more on competing with Street Fighter IV than with creating another great MK game.

    

“Punch it in the face, again, and again.”

Call of Duty MW3
Hooo boy! This is a tough one. Technically, and in terms of depth, the newest Call of Duty is absolutely amazing. The online play continues to improve with every iteration, and the presentation of the entire package is top notch. There is no way to dispute that CoD MW3 provides one of the best multiplayer shooting experiences out there. Buuuuuutttt….what if you’ve been playing that same formula for the last twenty years? I remember lugging my PC over to a friend’s to fire up some Doom deathmatch on a LAN. It was amazing. We spent hours upon hours running around grey hallways shooting each other with a shotgun, and at 320×240 resolution no less. Quake came along, so did Half Life, and it was brilliant. I even love the MW3 take on the genre with new game modes and team concepts. Buuuuuuttt….under the hood, it’s the same game. I’m still running around like mad, shooting anything that isn’t in my team colors, picking up ammo and respawning moments after I get shot to start it all again. What if I’m looking for something different? A more tactical approach, something to play when I don’t feel like trash talking with friends online? I could fire up the single player story, and I did. Then four hours later I watched the credits. Hmmm, what now? I guess I’ll go back and do it on the hardest difficulty. Six hours after that, yup, credits, check. Wow. Thrill ride….aaaannnndddd, the game goes back into the binder.

  

“Not much has changed”

So why is it that I’m playing through Half Life 1 and 2 again, or firing up Mortal Kombat Deception when a much higher resolution version exists? Why do I have a new save in Might and Magic 6 started, with a patch to make the game run slow enough to be playable on modern systems? Because those games had compelling single player experiences that keep drawing me back in to experience them again. While the multiplayer thrill ride is exhiliarating, it doesn’t devite from a basic pattern from day to day; kill people worse than you, get killed by people better than you, talk trash with friends, get slightly better at playing the game. What it lacks is that moment in Thief where you learn that you can use rope arrows to climb onto beams and then take the arrow back. What about the first time you recruited a cop to be your friend in Half Life 1 and subsequently saw him die to an automated turret but knowing that it safely got you across? You thanked him for his sacrifice in service of your stronger cause. Those games exposed a personality that made you jump out of your seat. With all of the focus on balancing and netcode the teams have been distracted from innovating in the solo experience.

    

“Half-Life is the closest thing to a revolutionary step the genre has ever taken.” (link)

I’m hopeful that the online and offline modes for games can co-exist in the future. However, in the short term I really hope for more games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, or Gears of War 3; games that don’t feel the need to compromise on a great story and are happy to take risks with new mechanics and concepts.

Games are continually evolving. What was cool and fun five years ago might be old news if done again today. Adding new beefy graphics and a fancy soundtrack doesn’t inject new life into an old concept. See Diablo 3 for details of that.

Innovation takes times, risk, and experimentation. That’s the key to successes like Minecraft and Portal. We’d never seen things like that before and the novelty sucks you in for hours and hours. I bought Minecraft twice just to support the developer because I didn’t think the $20 I’d paid him justified the amount of value I received from my copy of the game. I still find new ways to enjoy that game and I’ve already buried hundreds of hours into it. There is no balancing, no sense of utter fairness, just a simple yet brilliant concept that is so compelling I can’t draw myself away.

What games have you loved or yanwed at this year? Is there a good compromise to be had between competitive balance and single-player quirkiness?

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