4 Reasons Why the Best Multiplayer Games Are All Broken
A few weeks ago, David Wong wrote this excellent article about landmark moments in video games that make playing them a worthwhile experience. But if you look carefully, you'll notice something: Not a one of them was about multiplayer. In fact, though we write about gaming often at Cracked, none of us seem to have any positive opinions about the multiplayer aspect. Now, there's an easy explanation for that: We're all socially stunted, misanthropic bastards who hate our fellow man as much as we fear his almost assuredly superior physical strength.
But shit, that hasn't kept literally everybody on Xbox Live from multiplayer gaming. And you know what? Despite the fact that I honestly may never enter a match again, I look back on my history in gaming and have to admit that some of the most fun I've ever had was due to multiplayer. But amidst that drunken retrospection, I noticed something odd. Was it just the whiskey dementia twisting my memories again, or was I on to something?
Was every truly great multiplayer game I've ever played completely and totally broken?
Let me show you what I mean:
Grand Theft Auto IV
I love sandbox games: You give me a city and free license, and I'm all set for an afternoon or 40. I'm not picky about the environment or the atmosphere, I'll steal whatever -- car, spaceship, horse cart -- and I will ramp that shit into the police station and run away laughing while my truck/skiff/stallion burns. That's all I want: The ability to destroy small parts of society without all that pesky walking. Luckily, we've had some great ones lately: Saints Row 3 understands fun like possibly no other game in history. Around the time they give you the actual Burt Reynolds as a partner, a gaggle of remote mines and a speeder bike like in Return of the Jedi, you can't help but give them all of your money and maybe, just maybe ... a little piece of your heart. Just Cause 2 built a gigantic, remarkably varied country ... and then let you tether a man's face to a jet and air-surf all the way across that nation and into a skyscraper like some sort of terrorist Teen Wolf.
Source.Stiles is whipping around behind it like a meat windsock.
And then there was Grand Theft Auto IV.
I have some conflicting opinions about GTA IV: I think everybody should own it, because what Rockstar accomplished with the living, breathing city they built is a feat that transcends gaming and ventures into science fiction territory. It's just too bad they layered an irreparably broken game on top of it. The controls were awful, the missions were lifeless and repetitive, and they generally seemed to lack any kind of creativity or imagination with which to fill their staggering technical achievement. Just a tip, guys: Next time you build a rich and believable environment, remember that we can already jump into a beat up old Bonneville and drive our fat cousins to the bowling alley. That is not the realm of fantasy; that is the realm of New Jersey on a Saturday night.
Source."Welcome to a rich fantasy world, cousin! Now, let's pick up my wife's blood pressure medicine and fall asleep watching soap operas!"
And yet, despite itself, GTA IV possessed what might have been the most fun multiplayer mode of any current generation game. So what was so ingenious about this new and novel mode?
They didn't do a damn thing. They gave the player a Grand Theft Auto city and allowed multiple players in the same space. The end. No objectives, no scores, no penalties -- just you and a dozen of your friends, all with infinite lives, set loose in the most dynamic landscape built in video game history.
That's the definition of fun: Just let us do whatever we want, whatever it is, with no rules, and we'll make up our games along the way. Whether that's just an endless, pointless brawl; hanging out and exploiting one of the many glitches (like launching cars from the infamous swing set); going garbage truck jousting; or my personal favorite, playing Hello Copter, where the entire point of the game is to steal a helicopter, hover just above one of your oblivious co-players and then bail out, shouting "Hello, Copter!" just as your body smashes into the pavement next to them, followed a split second later by an exploding helicopter.
Source."GREETINGS, HELICOPTER! Shit, did I do it wrong?"
But a complete absence of objectives or rules does not normally make for a good gaming experience. Don't believe me? Just go out on any playground and tell the kids you've thought up a new game called "playground" and the object is to "be on the playground they're already on." Then step back and smile at the confused blinking. A good game is a thing you can win; it's a set of rules for you to master and operate within. It's like Rockstar already knew that the objective-based games they included in GTA IV would be too glitchy and awkward to play, so they threw up their hands in frustration and said "You do better!"
And you know what? We God damn did.
When I was a kid, I loved fighting games best. Street Fighter II was my fucking jam -- why, I once came in "best non-Asian in competition" at the local arcade's round robin -- but I played every other major entry in the genre, too, all the way up to the Guilty Gear series. Then that game let me kill a transvestite nun with an electric guitar solo, and I knew it was all downhill from there. I haven't played since.
Although maybe that's more due to online multiplayer replacing in-person multiplayer: That switch, from personal to digital, raised a whole host of problems. Not the least of which was the inability to punch your friends in the arm after defeating them, or to simply look deeply into their eyes when you tell them to suck it. That eye contact was important, you know; how else could they see into your soul and know -- truly and fundamentally understand at a cellular level -- that you really, really, really thought they should suck it?
Or maybe it was because, with every match being against an international, limitless player base, you were most likely to wind up going against the people who played the game the most (and were therefore transcendentally better than you). When every match both begins and ends with the same 12 billion hit unblockable super combo, and your only recourse is to reverse uppercut cancel at the 14 5/6 second point --after the teabagging animation ends but before the curb stomping animation starts -- it starts to not be as much fun anymore.
Source."Stop complaining, n00b, you totally have a six millisecond opening before he moves his foot." -The comments section
But Bushido Blade was the direct opposite of modern fighting games: It was based entirely around one hit, one kill moves -- all of which were possible with the right training, patience, honed skill, or random sneeze/thumb spasm. The game was massively innovative, and featured some entirely new concepts for the fighting genre, like realistic, accumulative body damage (you slashed the tendons in their knee and they couldn't run; a hit to the arm would take away their ability to execute certain attacks). Bushido Blade even featured linked stages, meaning that you could sprint off the right edge of the screen and emerge on the left side of the next stage. In theory, this would make for the most dramatic, realistic sword-fighting game possible. In practice, this made for the longest, most absurd, bloody game of tag in history.
The second anybody started losing (or if they just thought you were funny when you were mad, and didn't really have any place to be that day), they would turn and sprint away, leaving you no choice but to follow. This led to every "deathmatch" being comprised mostly of two dudes in bathrobes jogging equidistantly for 40 minutes straight. Eventually, the fleeing party would get hung up on the corner of a bridge or a pole of bamboo or something, and you chopped them in the back of the head. They died instantly, the next round began, and repeat. It was infuriating.
And that's why it was so much fucking fun: No matter how skilled you got at the game, the playing field was no more than slightly in your favor. The absolute and undisputed master of Bushido could only ever have a marginal advantage over a determined stroke victim or an excitable little girl, which may sound shitty, but it meant that you always had opponents who felt like they had a shot and wanted to play. That shit was invaluable, because 99 percent of fighting game matches end with somebody throwing the controller down and saying "This is stupid, I don't want to play anymore." And without a live opponent on the other end of that controller, sitting in a dark room watching a heavyset Japanese guy power-fist a little British girl until she passes out is somehow nowhere near as fun as it sounds.
Source."I mean, sure, I'll masturbate to it, but I'm not going to like it."
It was an utterly broken, unbalanced, unmanaged mess of a fighting game, but you always had a line waiting to play it, and every single match ended with screaming swears and wild cheers.
Because, while Bushido Blade's marathon foot-chases were mostly boring and aggravating, the end was always worth it, when either you got the vindication of finally mowing down that little bastard with a well-placed swing, or they'd get bored and unexpectedly turn to fight. Either way, it was 40 minutes' worth of boring buildup that always ended with one minute of pure, unbridled, bloody excitement.
And Bushido Blade invented that formula six years before Battlestar Galactica came out.
There was a period in the mid-'90s where gamers were all about "roster games." I'm not entirely sure what their official name is, but you've probably played one: The basic conceit is that each side has a list of characters/units/vehicles/horse carts, and the two sides send one out to fight the other until a player's roster is completely destroyed. The roster games spanned lot of different genres -- from strategy to fighting -- but my personal favorites will always be Star Control 2 and Return Fire. But while Star Control was an arguably excellent series, presenting an in-depth single-player mode as well as a carefully balanced, exhaustive list of unique ships for the multiplayer, Return Fire did it better.
By doing none of those things.
It was a multiplayer only (you could fight an AI opponent, but this was back in the day, remember; fighting '90s AI was like whipping dodge balls at a special needs class) capture the flag game, and each player had the same four units: a helicopter, a tank, an APC and a jeep. You could not pick your own units, and each unit was pretty much only suited to fight one other unit. He brings out his helicopter? You bring out your tank. He brings out his APC? You bring out your tank. He brings out his tank? Tank. Tank? Tank.
Source."HELLO, COPTER! Shit, are we doing a different thing now?"
And so it went, all the way up until the end, when you were both locked into another choice: helicopter/jeep. The jeep was the weakest unit, and the only one capable of capturing the flag, and the helicopter was the only one that could catch the jeep. So the game gave you the illusion of a choice, but it always came down to who ran out of tanks first, and then ended with that guy in a tiny jeep leaving a dappled trail of fear urine as he got mowed down by the trail of rapidly approaching explosions emanating from the helicopter behind him.
It was pure chicanery on the part of the developers. It was precisely the kind of thing we gamers hate. It was artificially inflated difficulty, not true skill, and blah, blah, blah. You already know that it was friggin' brilliant: Every match ended with the ultimate underdog going up against the very flapping embodiment of death. Return Fire knew that the key to a good gaming experience is the same as in stand-up comedy and my sex life: Always go out on a laugh. The game had no basic balancing, no variety, and transparently manipulative rules, but every single time you brought out your jeep, "Flight of the Bumblebee" started playing, and you could guarantee that the next five minutes would be spent laughing, swearing and white-knuckling the controller until your mom came in to see if you were overdosing on whippits again.
NFL Blitz 2000
I don't sports.
I don't play, watch, care about or understand sports. At all. I do not sports.
But the single most fun I've ever had with any game, in the history of ever, was playing 2 vs. 2 on NFL Blitz 2000 for the Nintendo 64. And that's saying a lot, because the N64 was nothing but a multiplayer monster. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that true, old school, in-person multiplayer gaming died with the N64. That's not even meant to bash modern systems, it's just that the bastard had GoldenEye, Wrestlemania, Mario Kart -- what can you do about that? The N64 brought a nuclear bomb to a slap fight. And NFL Blitz 2000 was the switchblade that nuclear bomb pulled on you, just to see the shock on your face, right before it exploded. That system and game combination were specially engineered to accomplish a single, noble goal: to put one console and four controllers in every frat house on earth.
And they did it. It wasn't just a marketing feat; it was a social revolution. The ubiquitousness of Blitz finally gave hardline, non-sports nerds like myself something in common with frat-joining, beer-bonging, football-understanding jocks. And that's all, because it failed completely as a sports game. NFL Blitz had as much to do with football as pachinko -- there's a little round thing that bounces around inside of both, and if you're drunk enough, you can bet on it.
Source."WHAT? Did you see that bounce? That was bullshit!"
Thanks to the most malevolent rogue AI since Shodan, Blitz wasn't even a game so much as a roulette table that let you reach in and slap the wheel once in a while. The computer in Blitz turned on you more often than a Game of Thrones character, and it did it all in a misguided effort to keep things "balanced." But it did not result in balance: It resulted in every fourth quarter being absolutely littered with inexplicable fumbles, miracle interceptions and whole teams dive-tackling straight through wide receivers like they were the ghosts of greased pigs.
Source.Seriously. It's like Jerry Rice crashed his car into a KY factory. (Thanks for the football guy name, Wikipedia!)
The blatant, obvious fuckery on the part of the computer gave every player a collective villain to rally against. That, combined with the team-based nature of the game, made for the most instant, die-hard camaraderie this side of a foxhole. I've got a joke for you: What did the skinhead say to the Jew after their team lost at NFL Blitz?
"You did your best, man; there was just too much bullshit. Rematch!"
Because that's what everybody says. You want world peace? Easy. We could settle every dispute in history by putting two guys on one side of a Blitz game. That loss bonds for life.
Well, I imagine, anyway. I never actually lost a game of Blitz, I've just watched others lose to me so often that I've managed to observe a pattern through the profanity and broken sobbing. (It's called Hurricane, bitches; I multipass that shit like Leeloo Dallas).
So what, am I totally off base here? What are your best moments in multiplayer games? When you relay those anecdotes to other gamers, are they all about finely tuned, well-balanced and expertly executed big name properties? Because I think a great multiplayer game is like a childhood fistfight: The good ones always involve insane shenanigans, rock-stupid mistakes and the occasional bloody nose.
Get the first episode of Robert's Sci-fi Serial Novel, Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, right here, or buy Robert's other book, Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead. Follow him on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook.
For more from Brockway, check out 5 Real Skills Video Games Have Secretly Been Teaching Us and The Most Efficient Way to Do ... Everything.