The Loss of Local Multiplayer Part 1: The Myth of Progress

When did Deathmatch, the king of multiplayer modes, retreat into online servers? When did playing a game cooperatively shift to speaking through a microphone and sitting in two different houses? Gone are the days of the intimate split screen competition, replaced by the large-scale online battleground. The gaming landscape has changed and it seems as though there is no longer space for the cooperative couch marathon or the split-screen battle in its future. Before we move resolutely into that future however, we should take the time to consider the plight of local multiplayer and really ask ourselves if it’s something we, as gamers, can afford to ignore.

Halo: The Rise and Fall

A box canyon in the middle of nowhere with a lot of space to fill.

The franchise that reveals the loss of local multiplayer most severely is the Halo series. The first entry, Halo: Combat Evolved, boasted impressive support of local multiplayer through two key features: system link and cooperative campaign. System link, or LAN (Local Area Network), refers to the process of connecting multiple consoles together in order to play with more people than the standard four controller ports on a console would allow. The game’s developer, Bungie, seemed to design Halo: CE specifically for this process. Some multiplayer maps were clearly created to inhabit more than four players (looking at you Blood Gulch). The cooperative campaign also became a vital part of the series’ features list. For me, every story in the franchise is defined by my experience in the cooperative campaign and not in the single player. I’m willing to bet that plenty of fans would agree with me. The social aspect is intrinsic to the game’s DNA, it’s one of the main reasons it succeeded in the first place. This is how Halo games are meant to be played. This unfortunately changed with the release of Halo 5.

The first Halo game on the newest Xbox console did not feature cooperative split screen for the campaign nor did it include support for local competitive multiplayer (and as a result, system link). This was a massive missed opportunity because the player is surrounded by a squad for the entire campaign. In fact, one of the story’s primary conceits is the connection between squadmates, the relationships of a team. For the game to then deny this thematic element within its feature list, for it to intentionally block a connection it holds some reverence for, is strange and contradictory.

“Times have Changed”

On a technical level the game is superb with strong gunplay and interesting environmental design, but it feels hollow. Sure there is still cooperative play in the campaign but only through online support and that’s the part that is significant. In the first Halo, and in fact through most of the series, local play felt like it was encouraged, like it was the definitive way to experience the game. 343 Industries, Halo’s new developer, didn’t just stop encouraging this, they eliminated it altogether.

#SquadGoals? Maybe not.

Xbox head Phil Spencer stated that the decision was based on the robustness of Xbox Live. He claimed that online features offered a more convenient alternative than gathering people together in one physical place. Spencer also cited advantages such as not having to compromise the graphics quality, frame rate, or AI performance. Within this same response, Spencer notes that Halo multiplayer was essentially born from split screen, that it owes at least part of its identity to this feature but, “times have changed.” As a result, more development time is devoted to providing the gameplay that most people will want to experience. The realm of online multiplayer has grown tremendously and there is a significant push from many gamers to make this aspect as smooth as it can be. This means doing what Spencer suggests, optimizing frame rate and graphics and compromising on other features. The advancement and popularity of online multiplayer has encouraged developers to do what Bungie couldn’t with the first Halo and think primarily about the online component, the piece that most people will experience most often.

“Progression” or Revision

Would Goldeneye have been “better” with online multiplayer?

This makes sense from a business and customer perspective, but it misses the true issue at hand. It assumes that online multiplayer represents both the present and future, casting it in a positive light, whereas local multiplayer represents the past, an extra weight on the path to that future. There is this idea that local multiplayer is indicative of a time when developers couldn’t fulfill the promise of multiplayer. This perhaps unconscious view revises gaming history so that every multiplayer game that came out before the advent of online multiplayer is somehow incomplete. It assumes that developers would have wanted the game to be online, and that this new online age is a fixed destination that multiplayer advancements have been building towards. In actuality they are different forms.

This is difficult to see because from an outside perspective local and online multiplayer appear to be the same, online merely being the result of a linear progression. However, though they utilize similar modes and processes, in practice they fulfill different purposes and endeavor to generate different experiences. Spending more time and money on online multiplayer because it is the kind of game a developer wants to make is a fair statement. However, the suggestion that this is done because it offers a “better” or more refined and complete experience ignores these features’ fundamental difference. Developers and gamers will choose what the future of games will be and we must understand that the past is not merely an incomplete version of the present, but its own refinement of form.

This attitude is not isolated to the Halo series. Numerous franchises have been moving down this path for years. Rather than accepting this progression as inevitable we should take the time as an industry, as a community, to think about what it is we will be leaving behind. In part 2  of this story I will discuss what local multiplayer brings to video games as a whole and why it is important that we should not let it fade into memory.