Op-Ed

Op-Ed
Not Recommended for Children Under 5

Russ Pitts | 13 Dec 2006 11:02
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imageThis one could be filed under Editorial, Rant or Filling the Quota, but for now we'll call it Highfalutin Theory of Reviewing Games, and I'll save you the trouble of speculating: Yes, it is directly in response to a number of comments we've received regarding a certain review of a certain game.

"Multiplayer" used to mean "sitting huddled around the Atari 2600." Back then, as today, the best multiplayer games were the sports titles, and Summer Games was the king of that castle. In-between doing actual things in the sunshine, we'd get together with a few other guys and crowd around the TV while one or two of us whacked the joystick rapidly up-and-down or from side-to-side. From a distance, this looked just like it sounds like it looked, and the fact that none of us were aware of that at the time explains a great deal about why gamers often have trouble mating.

Multiplayer has come a long way since then, and we can now sit huddled over our machines in the comfort of our own, private homes, whacking our joysticks without opening ourselves to such embarrassing analysis. It's called progress people, but it's also, oddly, created a bit of retrograde movement in game design; away from games that can be enjoyed without a bevy of fellow joystick-humpers.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Today, as before, some of the best games are played with others, and it'd be a shallow sort indeed who eschewed all social activity, even in digital form. I have to believe that the same applies in reverse. Moderation, in other words, in all things - even multiplayer.

Allow me to suggest that it is ridiculously absurd it is to consider a game lacking a multiplayer component a "lacking game," or, on the other hand, to consider a game, like Gears of War or Chromehounds, which purports to contain a single-player component and a multiplayer component in the same game, but which, in fact, only contains one and (at best) a half-assed attempt at the other a "good game."

Similarly, there are a number of games guilty of the opposite: offering strong single-player modes with a completely worthless multiplayer game tacked on. Gun I'm looking at you. Gun, Chromehounds and Gears all fall short because they try to do too much, but even that would be forgivable if it weren't for the fact that they "promised" to be more than they are.

Allow me to explain.

Have you ever tried to play poker without a second player? Or solitaire with a table full of them? Some games are made to be played with others and some aren't. Baseball, for example, can be played with as many as 18 players (or more), but as few as about five, realistically. Football? Let's call it 4-22. Pac-Man? One. It sucks if you've got eight guys wanting to all play Pac-Man at the same time (and no quarters to stack on top of the cabinet), or one who just really wants to throw some pigskin around (protip: dogs make poor receivers), but those are the breaks. If you've got too many for Pac-Man, throw on Halo. Too few for poker? Solitaire.

We base our choices on known quantities and experience and when we're misled about what kind of game we're buying, it makes it awfully hard to make good choices. When we're sold a game claiming to have a "rich single-player campaign," which then turns out to be little more then 6-8 hours of training for the online multiplayer mode, we've been lied to, and that blows.

Let me spell this out so that there's no misunderstanding: Chromehounds, Gears of War are not good games. That's not to say that their multiplayer components aren't good - they are. Quite good, in fact. Multiplayer gamers will (and do) have a great deal of fun playing those games online. But for gamers who do not intend to use the game thus, they are a complete rip off. Not because what's inside the package is lacking, but because it is lacking what's been suggested is inside the package.

A game maker's worst fear is to spend millions developing a title and have it sit on the shelves for lack of interest. And I feel for them. Game making is a rough racket, and many a talented developer has broken his will against the rocks of consumer demand. But that doesn't excuse lying or misdirection.

A game designed to be played in online multiplayer should be marketed as an online multiplayer game. And vice-versa. In fact, some of my favorite games from this year have made no pretension to being other than what they are: either a good, rich single-player game, or a frenetic, fun-filled online game. Very few are both. Let's stop pretending, shall we? If Milton Bradley can stoop to slapping a "For 2-4 Players" sticker on the side of the Hungry Hippo box, game makers can do so as well, and I don't think they'd lose a cent in sales.

And gamers, you can help us all out a little by being a bit more discriminating. You don't have to buy every game. Not even when all of your friends are doing it.

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