By David Toler
If you run in the gaming scene long enough you will eventually hear some version of the phrase “Online killed couch multiplayer.”And it seems logical right? If you can do something at home why bother with the trouble of going outside your house to do it.
Well I don’t buy it. Whether in person or online I constantly hear the desire for games you can play while hanging with your friends and shooting the shit with the people that matter most. I believe that gamers have not lost the desire for couch co-op; instead, I think couch multiplayer is being neglected by the industry.
Lets start by attacking the premise that, “people do not want to play couch multiplayer because they can play games online.” Fortunately for us, this last generation of Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii provides some very strong data points for me to cherry pick to show that online and couch gaming can exist hand and hand. Let’s start with online gaming. Everyone knows that Call of Duty, more specifically online Call of Duty, dominated the gaming market. Billions of online hours have been logged by couch warriors worldwide. Screaming obscenities at people over Xbox Live was basically the national pastime. But at the same time that online FPS games were taking the world by storm another gaming revolution was taking place in the form of the Wii.
The industry was told early on in this console life cycle that most gamers would choose online over in person. But gamers didn’t choose between them, they played BOTH. And that’s the heart of this issue really, online and in person multiplayer are not mutually exclusive.
That being said, there does seem to be fewer popular couch games coming down the pipeline then popular online games. Now, while I can say for sure that there is still a demand for couch multiplayer and I can point to specific games to back up that statement (like Smash Bros.). I can only give you my speculations for why so few modern examples seem to take the gaming scene by storm.
My first theory is a simple one: new couch games have trouble competing with older multiplayer classics. Sounds crazy, right? But this is a common problem in the pen and paper/ board gaming world. What typically happens in this community is that one game explodes in popularity and dominates that particular genre. It is played at conventions and passed around among groups of friends for years. Once a game reached this level of saturation it becomes difficult for new games of the same genre to make any headway. Think about the last time you heard of a sword and sorcery pen and paper game that was not D&D.
Now in modern online video games, market penetration is not the biggest factor in keeping a game alive. It does not matter if a fan base for a game is small and dispersed because they can all connect online. If only 10,000 people in the whole world play the game you like over the Internet you can still find a server to play on. It might take some work, but there are many online games with very small communities that survive because all its members can just hop online wherever they are.
But imagine those same 10,000 people around the world trying to keep charades alive. A lot of the fun of charades comes from every player being in the same room. So when you can’t consistently get live players together interest in a game like that dwindles. This circles back to why D&D has been king of the tabletop hill for so long. When you want to play a pen and paper fantasy RPG, and you can only play with people located in your general area, you are forced to play D&D because that is the game that everyone knows how to play. By their very nature couch multiplayer games have these same problems. When you have a bunch of friends over and you want to play a racing game that everyone knows and everyone enjoys, you are playing Mario Kart.
This leads me to my more abstract argument for why a game succeeds or fails as a couch co-op game. When it comes to local multiplayer simple game design is often better. When you have a bunch of people hanging out and having a good time you don’t want to break the flow of a party to teach everyone how to play Starcraft for an hour. Now don’t get me wrong, Starcraft is a great game, but it is not a pick up and play game. Starcraft is a good book that you read over many nights. It really requires your full attention. It is not a popcorn horror flick you throw on in the background of a Halloween themed party.
Think about introducing a complex game like that to your average group of gamer friends. There will be the one guy who is great at it and will win most of the time, a few average players who will do OK from game to game, and some new players who won’t fully understand what’s going on. It is hard to have high energy shit talking and exciting back and forth moments in this situation. Most of the time the players just kind of durtle around until the player that usually wins, wins. Compare this to a game with simple mechanics that can be picked up by everyone quickly.
Many of the Nintendo 64 era classics that are still heavily played have this pickup and play style. No long game mode or class setups. No complex hard to explain mechanics or level design. Many of these old games like Mario Cart 64, Golden Eye, Smash Bros, old wrestling games, Tony Hawk, Bomberman, Worms, Power Stone, and others like these are ideal for party environments. They are easy to teach and learn, quick to setup, and have enough depth to keep people coming back.
Now I don’t want you to think that we are stuck with these old multiplayer games for all time. But I do think that we will be stuck with them for a while. The current trend for triple-A game design seems to be leaning towards more and more complex multiplayer setups. Whenever a developer shows off their new online multiplayer game they talk about all the options players have for things like character load outs. Look at all these menus you can scroll through, they say. This game have so many menus! But menus don’t make for a good local gaming experience, when my group of friends pop in a video game we want to get right to the good stuff.