Gamers always seem to want more. Single player isn’t enough. Multiplayer isn’t enough. Even co-op gameplay isn’t enough. What gamers want now is crossplayer, and with the current pace of change on the videogame industry, they will have it sooner than later.
Crossplayer is the complete fusion of a single player game and a multiplayer game. Deathmatch and deep story might seem like completely opposite elements, and they are, because they evolved and grew separately from one another. If you’re going to enjoy multiplayer, you have to be experienced enough to not get killed over and over again. And if you’re going to enjoy a story, you have to like being alone. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.
Multiplayer offers players the ingenuity and unpredictability of interacting with real people, as well as the emotional high that comes from competition and teamwork. Single player offers the possibility for a deep, rich, and meaningful experience, as well as scripted moments and set-pieces. Fusing the two lets you take all the best parts of both, and keep different audiences satisfied.
“There used to be this belief that only 5% of people that bought a game actually went online to play with other people,” says Paul Wedgwood, founder of Splash Damage, a developer that firmly believes social interaction is the future of interactive entertainment. “We know that people have better videogame experiences when they play with other people,” he emphasizes, adding: “At present, I would say that the large majority of people have the best experiences when they’re playing cooperatively rather than playing competitively.”
Wedgwood explains if you fail in a cooperative match, you fail against videogame AI – and you fail together with your co-players. The experience of failure is shared, as is the experience of possible victory. But if you fail in multiplayer, you’ve lost the game, while someone else has won. “In a competitive match, half the players fail every single time,” he says. It’s compelling logic, and it underlines that cooperative play is more about players sharing a story. Wedgwood thinks that most games benefit from allowing players to play together, and that having a cooperative mode is probably one of the most important factors in a game’s ability to create fun.
Gamers have downloaded Splash Damage’s free multiplayer shooter Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, for example, 15 million times and played more than 500 million competitive matches so far. “There’s definitely this sense that the amount of people playing online can have a significant impact on the success of the title,” says Wedgwood, who also suggests publishers can use that base to fuel the creation of downloadable content.
Splash Damage’s next game, Brink, blurs the lines between a single-player, story-driven campaign and an online multiplayer shmup. As you play through, it’s impossible to tell if you’re fully-online, fully-offline, or a blend of the two.
“I’d love to be able to take credit for having done something really, really significant – but the truth is, that as a multiplayer developer, it’s a hell of a lot easier for us to add AI to our style of gaming then it is for a single player developer to bring humans into theirs,” says Wedgwood. “I think that we have a bit of an unfair advantage.”
An advantage, maybe, but the path to truly seamless fusion of single player and multiplayer gaming was forged from the opposite direction, by infusing multiplayer elements into a single player game. The first to try it were the developers at Arkane Studios, who first coined the term “crossplayer.” Raphael Colantonio, founder of the development house, recalls it being a crazy, unfeasible, and initially confusing idea: “There must be a way to benefit from the unpredictability of people that you find in multiplayer, with the RPG/immersion that you find in single-player games.”
It started as more an idea than something practical, which, little by little, came to fruition. “First, I had to convince the team it was good idea,” remembers Colantonio. Arkane made a succession of prototypes of a game called The Crossing, chipping away at the challenge of creating crossplay until they had a format that was “really, really fun.” At the same time, other developers started working with similar premises, with Valve’s Left 4 Dead being the earliest success.
The Crossing has a linear and deep story campaign. Players have the choice to play through solo or in co-op. The AI enemies they encounter could be replaced by skirmish players who were having a more typical Counter-Strike experience, making things harder for the story players. With asymmetrical balancing, both sides would be completely satisfied with a game completely optimized for each player’s style, skill, and difficulty. Colantonio says that it’s hard to talk about the game, because it must be experienced to fully appreciate it. “The demo was incredibly fun, and still is.”
Ultimately, the right publisher was never found for the game. Colantonio puts it into context by saying it seemed like a crazy idea two years ago. Back in 2008, the economy was in turmoil, and publishers were struggling. Left 4 Dead wasn’t yet released, Brink was barely a twinkle in someone’s eye, and the marketing departments at publishers had no idea how to sell The Crossing. “They didn’t know if it should be sold as a single-player game or a multiplayer game, and were worried it wouldn’t sell to either of them.”
Is that still the case today? “Not at all,” replies Colantonio, who thinks a door has been opened. “L4D proves the concept, although it’s different than what The Crossing was.”
“I bet a lot of people have had this experience where they have a great idea, nobody believed in them for a while; then they see somebody else doing it,” reflects Colantonio. “It’s both heartbreaking and fantastic because you go, ‘See, I was right!'”
Colantonio still sees producers and business development executives from publishers that passed on The Crossing. Invariably, he reports, they express regret for not signing the title. “It’s staying in their memories, right?” he asks. “Whether or not it happened, the demo still exists. It’s not wasted time for us. It’s one of those projects that was fun to make, and we’re still proud of. “
Colantino suggests there may be some hope for The Crossing to see light of day, but cautions that it would take “some effort” to update the game to current standards and get it ready for release.
“I don’t know if we’ll do that ever. If we do, it will probably be a reboot, [because] that was years ago,” says Colantonio, saying the current focus of the company – recently bought by Bethesda – is on the immersive first-person games they specialize in, like Arx Fatalis and Deus Ex.
Colantonio remains a fan of crossplayer: “As a player, I think it’s great, and I want to see more of that.” He even thinks it should grow to be a required feature for the next great Call of Duty or Halo. “I just like the idea that I’m playing a linear campaign from A to B with scripted challenges and that my enemies are served to me through AIs that could be taken and controlled by a real opponent.”
But there’s still room for deathmatch, concludes Colantonio, who doesn’t predict that all shooters will go crossplayer in the future. “But I think it’s going to expand the range of possibilities.”
Splash Damage’s Wedgwood says that the first time he went online with Modern Warfare 2, there were around 500,000 people playing and cites research from Valve Software that says only 5% of a given audience is actually playing online at any one time. He reckons that tens of millions of buyers will play online at some point, but cautions that adding multiplayer modes to a single player game, just for the sake of capturing the multiplayer audience, is rarely a successful tactic.
“You get that sometimes with single player games that have very, very compelling stories,” he says. “And then when you go online it just feels soulless. It doesn’t feel like it is part of the same experience.”
Crossplayer aims to change that, and could be the next “last frontier” in game development.
N. Evan Van Zelfden is the editor of Interactive Age, a peer-journal printed twice-yearly for an audience of executives, creatives, and decision-makers in the video game industry.