It doesn’t seem like that long ago that I would have immediately balked at Star Wars: Battlefront just for being a multiplayer-focused game. Multiplayer’s not my cup of tea, I would have said, in my misanthropic way. I’m here to entertain and challenge myself appropriately and I don’t have time for a game in which I must compete for my share of the glory. I would have torn into it as much as I did Titanfall and Evolve for lacking a rounded single-player experience and yet still charging full price, when I remember an age when shooters somehow found a way to balance both for the same cost.
But something seems to have changed, I realize, as I fearlessly connect to games like Star Wars Battlefront and Rocket League when a year or two back I would have only done so with a minimum amount of anxiety and procrastination. I had a problem with the social aspect, you see, it used to make my anxiety flare up to think that people were on the other side of that screen thinking mean things about my performance.
That doesn’t seem to happen anymore, and I think it’s because I gradually came to realize that there is absolutely nothing social about today’s online multiplayer experience. I still find playing a local multiplayer game with people in the same room to be a bit exhausting, but in today’s online shooters, the only interaction between users is via the medium of bullet. Making them, from the perspective of an individual player, functionally identical to an NPC enemy with unusually unpredictable AI. It’s a far cry from the rowdy Quake LAN parties of my boyhood, or the later Team Fortress Classic years when there’d always be one or two players camping out in the spawn to argue politics.
Even the word ‘multiplayer’ is a misnomer when applied to a game like Star Wars Battlefront, because on the level of the user experience, there is only one player, which is you. You’re thrown into a game mid-match and suddenly you’re in the middle of a war zone with the team objective not doing much more than provide a direction to run in as you make your blind pursuit of opportunities for kills and points. You’re motivated to play to gain points to level yourself up and gain more weapons and abilities, not to be a team player. Because you get more points for getting lots of kills and kill assists, and for just happening to be there, than you get for your team winning.
The point is, while the game is ostensibly a team effort, there is no communication or co-ordination between teammates. Basically it becomes an on-the-nose satire of World War 1 battlefield strategy as wave after wave of plebs spawn, run to the front, and are cut down. The teams are two enormous waves crashing against each other and all success and failure is down more to the chaotic fluctuations of random particles than it is to superior skill or strategy. Without communication or any sense of mutual gain from co-operating, this kind of multiplayer is the same experience as the single player, albeit devoid of coherent story, context, goal, challenge or personal motivation. It is essentially just the combat, over and over again, served up in an endless sushi train of snacky packages. You don’t make lasting friends with your allies, neither do you make lasting rivalries with your opponents. You’re just part of a great big miasma of warfare, little fish darting around a cloud of plankton nipping scraps of nourishment.
In a nutshell, online big-server multiplayer gaming is the new arcade gaming. Arcade gaming in the olden days sense, not whatever the fuck arcade gaming is like now; I passed by an arcade the other day and I saw a fucking Doodle Jump machine. Hell is real and we are living in it.
Online shooters promise the same experience that the arcade does. You buy into a quick round of uncomplicated video game action, with very little promise of long-term investment but that hardly matters because you’re just trying to kill time and the sound is being mostly drowned out by the masses all around you. You play, not because the game is inherently fun or to see the unfolding of a story that you’re invested in, but only for the sake of getting the highest score, and seeing the little flashing message at the end saying that the manager has to give you a special prize now.
And of course there’s two kinds of player you used to see in the arcade: the casual kids who are just filling time before their movie starts who play once, die, and never care or think about it again, and the ones who got abandoned there for the afternoon by their exhausted parents with a roll of quarters. Getting ridiculously good at a game in a way that has absolutely no real world applications except to piss off the poor bastard playing next to you. Slamming quarter after quarter in because only by winning the game will you have any sense of having triumphed over it, as the manufacturers take your quarters and laugh all the way to the off-shore bank.
The difference is that now we have micropayments instead of quarters, which are usually around $1.99 so I guess that’s inflation at work, and that arcade gaming had a social aspect, as you got to put on a show for the other kids who were waiting their turn. None of that, now. You’ll make no friends in online multiplayer. You’ll have no stories to tell, like that one time we pissed off Mr. Patel by pouring Fanta into the Space Harrier machine.
Just a little observation I made this week. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and all that. I suppose the question is, to bring things back to the start of all this, do I now play online multiplayer games often enough to be considered officially ‘into’ them? No. Not really. It’s still not the sort of thing I’d do in my spare time, if I wasn’t obliged to for work. If I ever need to scratch that itch I’ve found a game that boils down the experience of online multiplayer to its most basic elements: Agar.io, the browser-based competitive roomba simulator. You get bullied by bigger boys, then you invest enough time to get big and bully the little boys you used to be. The difference of course is that the big boys can go back to being the little boys if you opportunistically hound them. Take a note, online shooters: something like Star Wars Battlefront could be vastly improved if we could take to the level 50 shithead’s XP bar with a pair of hedge clippers.