Being physically ill-equipped, handheld consoles usually enforce a one-pair-of-thumbs-per-unit setup, which means that the DS, PSP, and iPhone have to rely almost exclusively on online modes for multiplayer jollies.
The problem with this “solution,” is that online multiplayer gaming is a pursuit enjoyed chiefly by hardcore gamers, and hardcore gamers who own both handheld and home consoles will mainly opt for the latter during an online gaming session when they’re at home. When these same gamers are on the move, there’s no guarantee of a persistent internet connection on a handheld.
The solution isn’t for game designers to craft online handheld modes that compete for the gaming time players usually devote to couch fragging, racing, and questing. Great handheld experiences though they are, four player ad-hoc racing in Gran Turismo for PSP or an arena deathmatch over 3G in N.O.V.A. just can’t come close to matching the online thrills offered by Forza Motorsport 3 or Killzone 2.
So what’s the solution?
Some games, particularly on the PSP, have made some very commendable attempts to sidestep the problem. Both Tekken 6 and WipEout Pulse offer excellent ghost options, where the player can upload recordings of their best performances for others to download and compete against.
Then there are titles like Harvest Moon, which allows players to gift items to one another online, so that even when you’re not playing, the next time you turn on your DS something new will be waiting for you.
But that’s all stuff that’s been happening for quite a while. What about now? Today, online handheld gaming is all about bragging rights. Any decent title has an online leaderboard, many of them with localization options so you can scope out your neighborly competition.
Even better than a leaderboard is the current iPhone trend where you can post your high scores to Twitter or Facebook. It makes perfect sense to integrate a layer of familiar communication with a leaderboard, and adds a human element to the challenge.
Using Twitter or Facebook Connect to challenge a friend to beat your high score is infinitely more satisfying than watching random usernames like Madkev443 and Jasonbournelives21 do the same.
But why does multiplayer gaming have to mean competitive gaming? Surely handheld games are better suited to collaborative styles of play where users log in to modify the game world in such a way that subsequent players logging on at different times can experience that modification.
LittleBigPlanet is the closest any handheld game has come to offering such a grand possibility, but there’s no reason why this type of experience shouldn’t find more handheld homes. Collaborative gaming is just cooperative gaming with calculated latency. It’s a simple yet potentially profound idea.
Why does a title have to be some sort of MMOG for player actions to be persistent? Why can’t gamers play collaboratively in Zelda: Spirit Tracks on the DS, Skies of Glory on the iPhone, or even Zombie Tycoon on the PSP?
The last five years has seen a sharp-minded breed of single player handheld game development match the unique strengths of portable hardware. In an ever more connected digital world, it’s time multiplayer gaming on handhelds got the same treatment.
Pocket Gamer is Europe’s leading source of news, opinion and reviews on mobile and handheld gaming.