As you’re probably aware (And you more than likely are if you’re skimming a website dedicated to video games and gaming news.) the multiplayer beta for Battlefield 1 recently dropped, allowing players to experience the action-packed melee of trench warfare at a time before penicillin was even a thing. I’ve yet to play it myself, so I asked a friend of mine what his experience was with the game so far and how he was enjoying himself, if at all. According to him the multiplayer was a joy to play, and was a genuine good time. His only concern was that there were only five maps available to choose from, and he’s worried that when the game comes out he’ll only get about two or some more via DLC or what have you. He then mentioned that he wished that the developers would cut out the campaign altogether and put the rest of their resources into making more maps and basically making the multiplayer more engaging and interesting. This seems almost like heresy; completely scrapping a campaign mode to focus on the multiplayer aspect? They’re supposed to exist side by side, dammit! Everyone knows that, or at least accepts that, but maybe it’s time to really take stock of the situation.
If anyone asks me what I prefer in a video gaming experience I tend to say “the story”, as I push my glasses up, look down my nose at them and swirl a merlot that for some reason I’m drinking. (Do snobs drink merlot? I don’t know, but you get it.) And it’s true; what I like in a game usually translates to do I enjoy what the game is trying to tell me in terms of narrative and how it’s trying to tell it to me in terms of gameplay; games like Hotline Miami and Bioshock are up there on my personal favorites list because of the stories they tell and how they weave the gameplay elements into the storytelling process. But that’s just how I personally roll, and many others have much different criteria than I do.
As you’ve been screaming at me for a whole paragraph, FPS games don’t necessarily need to have a campaign mode, and in fact two of the most successful ones don’t have one at all. Team Fortress 2 has a huge amount of backstory behind it, so much that it almost lead to a show on Adult Swim. TF2, however, offers no single-player campaign, or any real in-game explanation as to why teams Red and Blu are so hell-bent on annihilating each other. More recently Overwatch has done the same thing, creating a rich and nuanced lore that’s really only accessible through Blizzard promotional materials available outside of the game. The game doesn’t explain why there are two teams murdering each other or even who the players are, but you don’t really need to know that Ana is Pharah’s mother from the first Overwatch team that was led by Soldier 76 until they were betrayed and went into hiding after the first Omnic Wars when the gameplay boils down to “murder the other team while occasionally doing X”. And obviously that’s fine with millions of players worldwide.
It seems important to consider how the gameplay and the story work or can work in tandem, because for every Spec-Ops: The Line there’s a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Among CoD:MW2’s detractions was that the campaign lasted about four to six hours long, and there’s way too many letters in the acronym (That last one might just be a personal hang-up). Do players care about the story? Are the characters fleshed out enough to explore who they are? Overwatch works because Blizzard fans are used to thick volumes of lore in their games and understanding a great deal about the worlds involved, but oftentimes gamers aren’t willing to absorb the complexities of a Tom Clancy novel unless the characters are shooting lasers. The operators in Rainbow Six: Siege (Speaking of Tom Clancy) doesn’t quite have the backstories that Overwatch characters do, but all you need to know is that Sledge has a Sledgehammer and Valkyrie is the Strong Woman.
Titanfall has recently experimented with merging campaign mode into the multiplayer mode by making the campaign little more than a glorified tutorial. All of Titanfall’s gameplay is online, including the campaign which amounts to an introduction to the gameplay elements, including the story and characters. There’s not much to the universe itself besides “Robots in Space” and that could be about all you need. Whether Titanfall’s experiment was successful is up for debate, but it marks an interesting divergence from the current trend.
What drives the sale of most FPS franchises year after year are fans that wanna kill people online. The multiplayer has been a key component of shooters since Halo, since the first Counter-Strike. Perhaps it would serve developers better to be a bit more judicious in terms of how story is presented and even used in order to present better gameplay. The other option would be to devote MORE resources to developing campaign modes in order to better the end product. But if fans are going to refer to campaigns as “bullshit” maybe it’s just worth it to use digital methods and “second screen” technology to help flesh out the story and lore while devoting the bulk of the resources to making multiplayer modes fun and engaging.