This year’s E3 brought with it a lot of announcements for new, exciting games, along with a whole lot of what we’ve been playing for years. Most developers were eager to show off how similar, or dissimilar their latest and greatest multiplayer experiences played compared to King CoD and its throng of clones. If ever there was an console launch where multiplayer gaming was at center stage, this would be it.
However, I for one was a bit disappointed that we didn’t hear more about how and if the new generation will change how we find people to play with in the first place.
It’s no secret that playing with random strangers on the internet this generation has been less than ideal. For a variety of reasons, ours is a hobby filled with the racist, mysoginistic, the homophobic, and the just plain unsporting. Anytime you put that powder keg of ignorance and inferiority complexes together under the umbrella of anonymity and competition, you’re bound to find at least one or two people bent on ruining the experience for you or everyone else.
While that’s certainly a problem that must be solved at the ground level — by changing the way people think it’s alright to treat others — I don’t really see every parent in America suddenly becoming more active in their children’s lives at once anytime soon. Currently, finding solutions to the problem is the responsibility of players. We’re meant either to collect a cadre of real friends who have the same game, are free at the same time, and haven’t already committed to a separate clique, or weed through players in public matches, hoping some of them might want to become your virtual battle buddies.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with befriending people online. I’ve made a great deal of lifelong friends that way. I am saying that developers are woefully medieval in making that process a smooth one. I think that’s partially because the status quo is, from a certain point of view, to the benefit of publishers. The average video game consumer — not those who buy several games a month, but one or two a year — who buys something outside of their annual stalwarts like Call of Duty and Madden, generally does so at the behest of friends looking for a group. It’s a culture where word of mouth is coerced out of the game buying public. We’ve seen it happen with the rise of “single-player” experiences requiring two-to-four players to be viably entertaining.
Publishers know that consumers are willing to put up with this. After all, this is the generation which birthed the argument “but that’s where I’ll my friends will play it” to justify gating online multiplayer behind a paywall. Without a monetary incentive to improve upon skill-based matchmaking systems that have been around since the dark ages, systems that actively encourage players to convince others to buy copies, there’s really no business reason to change.
Precious few developers, acknowledge the issue at all much less address it seriously. Indeed, there’s likely a very good reason for the veil of silence hanging over the production side of the industry on the issue, as surely no one wants to be the first to admit their community is actively hostile, despite the fact its a problem shared by all. It’s like a crowd of children simultaneously defecating themselves in a crowded theater while teams of parents pretend not to smell anything, afraid someone might actually find out they never bothered to potty train their offspring.
The irony is, of course, that addressing the issue — potty training that little terror, if you will — is much less work, and much more pleasant than the alternative. Valve has shown us this with Dota 2, a game which actively informs players when reported users are punished, and incentivizes helpfulness with in-game rewards. The developers didn’t just leave the problem to fester and hope no one brought it up, they gave the community the tools it needed to police itself, and with great success [link here].
MMOs, too, have been finding solutions to this problem for years. Guild Wars 2 practically gutted the concept of quests and grouping as we know them. Instead allowing players to simply work together automatically based on their vicinity. Everyone works towards a common goal, and if they want to continue to communicate regularly they can, but it’s not a requirement. Based on what I’ve seen of Destiny — the one game at E3 I saw which actually did seem to be addressing the way people come together — it seems Bungie might be trying to apply a similar mode of thinking to the consoles. If that’s the case, I’d be thrilled to see everyone else follow that maxim of great artists everywhere, and steal the idea.
In the coming months, we’re going to have a lot to worry about, between how good our mechs look, and how many games allow us to order strangers around from our tablets. Maybe, just maybe, someone will have time between all that to spare a thought for making video games less hostile.