There’s something magical about a good competitive video game. Whether it’s a packed crowd around an arcade cabinet or two friends on a couch against the final boss of Contra, we all love playing games together. More to the point, whether we’re working together or tearing each other apart, we all love playing with someone next to us. Sadly, over the years that experience has given way to online features and random matchmaking. In the current gaming climate, local multiplayer is being treated as an afterthought, and that’s if it’s thought of at all. Local multiplayer should never be a perk or a bonus in competitive games – it should be a requirement.
As far back as Tennis for Two, video games have been designed as a communal pastime, and that competitive spirit evolved quickly in the industry’s early years. Atari’s VCS led the charge with tw0 packed-in controllers, and Intellivision and Colecovision quickly followed suit. Two-player gaming even survived the gaming crash of the 80’s, with the Nintendo Entertainment System offering two controller ports and all the games you’d need to forge (or ruin) friendships. The N64 brought about another evolution in party gaming with four controller ports. Games like Goldeneye 007, Mario Kart 64, and Super Smash Bros. created a new niche for video games, one where four friends could sit down on the couch and battle each other for gaming supremacy.
Then the sixth generation came, and console gamers were introduced to a feature that was hitherto known only to PC users: online play. The SNES and Genesis experimented with network play, but it wasn’t until the Dreamcast, PS2 and Xbox arrived that online play secured its role in console gaming. Games like SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs and Halo 2 brought multiplayer into a massive space where clans, tags, and leagues became common. With a wealth of online options, Microsoft set the bar for the online services displayed in the following generation. Xbox Live on 360 and Playstation Network on PS3 made online gaming ubiquitous.
Meanwhile, local multiplayer sat quietly on the sideline. It coexisted with online gaming in many newer titles, but was rarely met with the same kind of recognition. While some companies like Nintendo kept the power of local multiplayer alive, the biggest publishers and developers increasingly began to disregard it. Many AAA games like Killzone: Shadow Fall had no split-screen at all. Why play the game on the couch with just three other people when you have an entire network of other gamers to battle? It’s the future, after all!
This neglectful attitude is a little baffling. Creating local multiplayer is a trifle compared to building a robust online backend, yet it’s often treated like a huge resource drain. That might not seem entirely unreasonable, as split-screen does necessitate compromises in terms of graphics and frame rates. However, it’s distressing that some developers prioritize graphical flourish over providing a fun, convenient gameplay feature. Oftentimes I’d rather stare at something a little ugly with my friends than run around a big, pretty space full of strangers.
At Gamescom Sony revealed Share Play, a new feature for PS4 that simulates local play over the internet, with only one player requiring a copy of the game. Sony pitched this as a way to bring friends together over PSN. While this is definitely a creative idea, many AAA games released for the system like Killzone: Shadow Fall have no local multiplayer. Most of the same-screen games are made by independent developers. Sony is trying to fill the gap they’ve helped create with this new Share Play feature, and that’s admirable, but it won’t help with the biggest games. Some of the most intense competitive experiences out there are reserved solely for the servers.
We shouldn’t have to hold our breath for local multiplayer whenever a new game is announced. If a game is designed to be competitive, nothing beats feeling the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat with someone you can trash-talk in person. Online play is important – one of the most important developments in console gaming history – but the way developers are sidelining local multiplayer is misguided. It’s admirable that so many indie developers are keeping couch play alive, but AAA developers need to get back in the game. If things keep going the way they are, we could end up playing all our games – especially the “social” ones – alone. While I don’t think it’s quite that dire, games will be miles better if they stop treating local play as an afterthought.