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Online Gaming Blues


As online multiplayer becomes increasingly prominent in gaming and works its way into seemingly every genre, a painful quandary has emerged: Too often, online multiplayer modes have become a lonely solitary activity.

I had just purchased a game and blazed through an online co-op mode that I knew would have a limited shelf life.

I admit I was very late to the Castlevania: Harmony of Despair party, purchasing it nearly a year after release when it became discounted as a weekly special on Xbox Live. I fell in love with everything the game had to offer. It reminded of my youth and the many Castlevania games that were close to my heart. There was instant joy in leveling up multiple characters, navigating large maps, discovering treasure chests, and purchasing better items and equipment. Then I hit a brick wall: the higher level map bosses. I was heartbroken when I consulted an online FAQ only to discover the best way to deal with those bosses was via online multiplayer, where players on different parts of the map could assume different roles and perform specific tasks necessary for success. Attempting to do so single-handedly was a monstrous effort full of frustrating deaths and mission restarts.

I decided to jump online, hoping to find a multiplayer queue and tackle these problems with a team of experienced vampire slayers. Problem was, there wasn’t a single other player online for Castlevania HD. I tried every night for an entire week and found absolutely nobody. Players had their fun with the game when it launched, explored every nook and cranny the game had to offer and then moved on to a new experience after a few months. To this day, the game still remains unfinished on my Xbox 360 hard drive.

A little bit luck came my way when Castlevania HD was recently released on PlayStation Network, giving me an opportunity to finally clear the game and soak in the fun that all the multiplayer modes have to offer. Sure, I had to purchase it all over again, but I was more concerned with getting in as many online co-op sessions as I could before the community moved on, just like they did on Xbox Live.

I eventually stood back and considered the slight absurdity of what I was doing. I had just purchased a game (one that I had already owned on another platform) and blazed through an online co-op mode that I knew would have a limited shelf life. I had willingly purchased a game that would be unplayable in a few months’ time.

The problem with Castlevania HD is that it integrated multiplayer gameplay into the core of the game, making co-op a necessity for completion. But Castlevania HD is not the only offender in this case; an increasing number of primarily single-player games have tacked-on multiplayer and online co-op modes that becomes obsolete months after release.

This obsolescence stems largely from two major factors: a constantly shifting gamer base and abandoned server support on the part of developers. Gamers will always migrate towards the “new and exciting,” but online co-op features also cost considerable time and money to develop and have an unfortunately short shelf-life. Developers of these online modes have to absorb the cost of server maintenance and continued technical support well after the game is released. Not every game with an online multiplayer mode can claim it has millions of players still logging into servers years after its release. It’s hardly surprising that a developer would be reluctant to maintain server costs and dedicate personnel to the upkeep of an online feature for a mildly successful title.

Demon’s Souls was built from the ground up as a punishingly difficult single player game with unique online capabilities. Players could leave clues in the game world and upload them for other players to see during their own single player playthroughs. Faint ghosts showcasing the final moments of another player’s life were also uploaded to the server, giving players a warning of impending danger. Demon’s Souls also had a more outright multiplayer option in which a player could invade the game world of another player and either kill them for experience or help them defeat a difficult boss.

The sad fact is that the glory of many games with a tertiary online multiplayer component are limited to short time periods immediately after their release.

Despite being a largely single player experience, Demon’s Souls provided a unique take in terms of online gaming to the point where online support was essentially the heart and (if you’ll pardon the pun) soul of what made the game so gripping to begin with. Anyone popping in Demon’s Souls years from now, after the official servers have gone offline, will be playing a mere silhouette of the game that early adopters got to enjoy with full robust online integration.

The sad fact is that the glory of many games with a tertiary online multiplayer component are limited to short time periods immediately after their release. Just ask anyone who recently picked up Lost Planet 2 how much luck they’re having finding online co-op partners to help clear the oftentimes grueling difficulty the game throws at them or the solitude of the empty multiplayer queues in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood or how lonely the online co-op mode in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 has become. All the development time and effort put into the modes will be lost on anyone picking up these games now, let alone a few years from now.

This trend likely won’t be slowing down anytime soon as more and more developers include multiplayer and co-op oriented gameplay as selling points for current and upcoming titles.

Early previews of Operation Raccoon City reveal how single-player is thoroughly unenjoyable and frustrating. Much like its genre brethren Left 4 Dead, Operation Raccoon City is dependent on a group of players tackling the game’s missions via online co-op for full satisfaction. How playable will this game be six months after its release if the title is only met with lukewarm sales?

As player communities move on, sequels get released, and developers drop online server support, it’s the players who embrace the role of early adopter that often end up being the most richly rewarded. Players who venture into multiplayer modes long after a game’s release often realize that they’re not simply late to the party, but that the party may be over altogether.

Previously a foreign diplomat and university instructor, now retired at an exceptionally early age, Zoran Iovanovici spends his free time writing and mentoring gifted youngsters.

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