Challenges of finding quality local multiplayer

I recently returned to playing online games and enjoyed it, but that isn’t to say that I’ve only been playing single player.

I have always preferred local multiplayer to online multiplayer. I’ve never been fond of using a headset and the experience just isn’t as good as playing with your friend sat right next to you. There’s less nerd rage and keyboard warrior nonsense when your opponents are in the same room as people are going to be cautious about any shameful behaviour.

As a kid, meeting up with friends meant playing football and playing video games together. There was a wealth of great games to play, from Worms to Sensible Soccer. The console experience was influenced by local multiplayer, either co-op or versus. At least half of my games had the option to play local multiplayer. Even my early Command & Conquer games had me and my sister hooking up a serial cable to take each other on.

These days seem to be fading away though. It is sad to see so few games looking to use local multiplayer nowadays. I find it staggering that several of my racing games don’t even have a split screen option.

Some games, like Star Wars: Battlefront only have a disappointing tacked on co-op mode that just doesn’t really work.

Good, or even decent, local multiplayer needs more than a split screen to allow two players to play at once. The biggest challenge is always skill imbalance. If I’m playing with my partner then 9 out of 10 times, I’ll do better and if that is a competitive game then that is a lot of losing for her. That isn’t nice.

Racing games have historically been pretty good at handling this. Games like Mario Kart use weapons to keep the pack together plus even on more serious racing games there’s usually catch-up options to give the slower player a better chance. In sports games the players can balance things themselves through team selection.

Bots can be a very useful way to balance local multiplayer. Just adding them in means that the players aren’t just stuck in the same 1 on 1 battle. However what you really want is some logic in there so that they can assess the players that they are up against and provide a different challenge. For example when playing Star Wars Battlefront in an offline Battle, rather than having equal difficulty bots, the winning team’s should become incrementally crap.

A Photo_4Platform and adventure games have often included local co-op multiplayer but this can still be quite imperfect. When you split the screen up it does provide challenges for the player to view what is ahead. The LEGO games tackled this by having the game dynamically split which was a wonderful idea but still doesn’t quite working without occasionally being quite jarring. Littlebigplanet, a wonderful game that is a joy to play with friends, took the approach of forcing you to always stay on the same space. I think early LEGO games did this as well. Whilst often getting a bit cluttered it could be great fun, although there’s always that one person who gets everyone killed by racing ahead. A problem with this approach is that often you need momentum to get through a section and being stop-start makes it harder, but some players are more cautious or unable to start at the same time. This results in players “killing each other”. Thinking back, games like Sonic handled it well by having no adverse consequences by just teleporting Tails back into the game. It did however make the second player a second class player, although this isn’t as bad as some games

Handling multiplayer players on one screen and being slick is a challenge.

Sadly few games seem to want to try to implement a fun local multiplayer, leaving it to a limited number of genres – and some of those aren’t as interested. Could it be that as games evolve as story telling devices, focused on the narrative and making a fairly scripted but more involving experience that the scope for local gameplay has narrowed? To elaborate, a stronger focus on a story and dialog makes it harder to plonk in another character.

Perhaps developers are put off by split screen limiting your view but more I fear that they simply don’t see it as providing enough “bang for buck”. I suspect that all too many developers see developing a solid local multiplayer, be it co-op or versus, as not worth the effort. Given the younger generation of gamers have grown up with the ability to play with their friends, including folk from around the world (which is awesome!), therefore they are happy with online multiplayer. I think this is a bit of a shame.

Online multiplayer can be great fun but please developers, don’t forget about the local multiplayer. So many developers grew up playing their SEGA or Nintendo with friends yet the next generation of gamers risk missing out.


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