Originally published on www.7outof10.co.uk
Games, if I may take a moment of your time to state the obvious, are complex items. Most modern titles are the result of many multiple of years’, if not decades’, worth of man-hours. Bioshock didn’t happen overnight; Ocarina of Time wasn’t dropped into Miyamoto’s arms by a passing stork; and the original Metal Gear Solid was definitely no happy accident. Each were carefully and lovingly assembled by a dedicated team who in the hope that they all might sit side by side in harmony and produce something magical as a result.
From inception to release the entire process is about resource management. Early on a small team, maybe skeletal in numbers, will work on a concept aiming to produce a prototype that not only gets across their core concepts but also acts as a showcase that can also be used to pitch their vision to a publisher. This could be the ubiquitous “vertical slice” or a more focused experience targeting just a solitary aspect. Either way, the choices of where their effort should be focused can be crucial. Many games never make it beyond this point, and not just because they are poor ideas; the design may be fixated on one aspect that the publishers simply don’t want or staff are spread so thinly across multiple areas that the overall quality suffers.
Should the concept be “green lit”, then the same issue arises again but on a far broader scale. With the team moving into full production the purse strings are loosened and extra staff are brought on board, either from other internal teams that may have recently shipped or with new hires. From having to initially impress the publishers, the target is to now impress the public and it is imperative that the increase in headcount is used effectively.
However, no matter how many producers and schedulers are involved there will be hiccups along the way. Requirements will change with internal/external influences, technical difficulties will crop up at inopportune moments, and the design has a tendency to evolve over time. One way to continue to meet milestones and stay on target is to cut whole sections of a project. If it’s not utterly integral then right up until the gold discs are pressed then features can hit the cutting room floor to save time in both development and testing. Something I can attest to first-hand.
An experienced team will know exactly what to remove. Having lived with the game since its birth then they will have a pretty good idea as to its strength and which areas need to be addressed. It is at this point that they don’t need a remit handed down from on high stating that no matter what feature X must stay. Or worse still, be added.
Speaking to Giant Bomb a couple of weeks ago, Ex-Midway producer John Vignocchi spoke of being forced to add multiplayer elements into Stranglehold, the 2007 game from John Woo. Claiming it was the “worst part of the game” he admitted that “no one wanted it” and in doing so he struck a chord with a great many people, both developers and gamers. There are countless games that have had multiplayer forced upon them simply because designers or, even worse, management feel that they need to include it. What then usually follows is a mediocre death match rehash that steals resources from the main game and yet adds nothing of value to the package as a whole.
This pandemic has existed for a long time, occasionally spilling over into a delusion that the multiplayer component is so strong that it can stand on its own (see Turok: Rage Wars). It has, however, been exacerbated by the introduction and standardisation of online platforms such as Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. The comparative ease at which an online mode can be created means that developers feel compelled to do so. The likes of Prey, The Darkness, Haze, Stranglehold and Condemned 2 have all sullied the bandwidth of ISPs everywhere (although probably only briefly) and whilst none of their single-player components could be described as dreadful I doubt that the amount of man-hours invested in what – in most cases – felt like a tacked on multiplayer could not have been better spent elsewhere.
To put this into context, imagine if a good proportion of the Fallout 3 development staff had been taken off the main game to create a competitive shooter. Whilst this may make some salivate, think about which portion of the game’s polish you would sacrifice to obtain that. Would it still have received such glowing reviews across the board if it were compromised in such a way?
A growing trend is that whole separate studios are drafted in to develop a game’s multiplayer, which then could be argued that they are no longer dividing a team’s focus. Ultimately, though, there is still a cheque being written for the that work somewhere in the world.
But it is not just a division of resources. Part of what made Bioshock so incredibly special was the complete and immersive nature of Rapture. You were alone in a world of unhinged maniacs with nothing but the trickle of water and series of dubious syringes for company. Had the team not had the strength to resist the urge to put in an online component then I doubt it would have the same rush when I think back to my time spent under the waves. The sense of solitude would be dashed if, in the very same environment you had just lumbered as a Big Daddy, a pop-up exclaimed that you had just unlocked that map in Team Splicematch. The next time through I would not be able to shake the thought of other players having fought each other where I stood, most probably turning the air blue at the same time.
Of course, all single-player repercussions aside, when multiplayer works as well as it does in Halo or Call of Duty then many things can be forgiven. Those two brands alone have captured what fans what from an online shooter and over several iterations have managed to improve and refine the experience. Every ounce of effort poured in has paid off and they have made a daunting benchmark for any studio wishing to steal bragging rights from Bungie and Infinity Ward. So it begs the question, why would they try?
Returning to the list above, did Prey honestly believe itself better than Halo? Were those at Free Radical really thinking that Haze would actually dethrone Call of Duty? Deep down developers know where their game stands long before Metacritic begins its aggregation and I’m sure if they were being honest they would say “no”. Just because a game features guns it does not mean that is also has to feature multiplayer and it’s a shame that more developers aren’t brave enough to admit this.
The most interesting online modes that have emerged in recent times are those that try a different tact or where serious thought has been put into the strengths of a game: the one-up-manship in Red Faction’s destruction frenzies; the MMO stylings of Borderlands; and the care and attention lavished on Uncharted 2. There are enough shooters in the world that a mediocre and unloved multiplayer bolt-on should no longer be tolerated; and if we never see a co-op as lacklustre as Fable II’s again, we’ll be making progress.