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It Takes Two To Tango
Like Greta Garbo once said ‘I want to be alone’ - a feeling which even echoes amongst gamers; some don’t see the need for a multiplayer mode and are quite comfortable playing through a single player video game, even more than once. Competing with your friends in games is hardly new, since the split-screens of Spy vs Spy, Hitpak’s Battle ships (I cheated Sal) or a good old bash at some ancient sports title. Back then though someone was standing next to you, even if it meant inviting the kid with bits of broccoli in his teeth or overly-enthusiastic perspiration.
Multiplayer mode since the days of MUDs loses that intimate connection, raising an anonymous smoke-screen we are all familiar with. Fast-forward to the modern day multiplayer and you can just jump into the game head first without needing to know, or particularly caring about whom you are playing against and where they are in the world. It can be argued that this very anonymity makes everyone equal and eliminates prejudice, like some kind of El Dorado or Shangri-La where everything is nice and rosy.
Following on, we look at both game modes in some notable single/multiplayer only titles, and how it all affects gamers and game play.
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The Art of the Single Player
The single player video game’s main focus is on an engrossing story, a main character you can identify with and an overall engaging experience. Looking back at some of the most notable platformers, like Sonic or Alex Kidd, the idea of a solid main-character suffices, as long as the game play remains engaging enough.
Adventure games of the point-n-click variety perhaps form the best example of a narrative-driven single player video game, with many titles from the 80's or 90's falling into this category. Zak McKracken, Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island or the whacky Sam and Max all offer a puzzle-fest and means of escapism in single player experiences. This tradition continues with more recent Interactive Fiction, though essentially the concept remains the same. Take any of the outstanding Syberia, Still Life or the Sherlock Holmes titles and you have a similar experience to watching a good movie while being involved in the action.
This mode of play isn’t limited to the above genre though, as the rise in popularity in single-player survival horror, like Resident evil and Silent Hill, tells us. Here both action and storyline play a major part, the narrative particularly important not only for purposes of immersion but to pave the way for successful sequels.
Lastly, The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, the Final Fantasy series and Fable are all an important part of RPG experiences in single-player only mode. These productions are huge and offer re-playability with their ample scope for exploration, character creation and non-linear gameplay. Bioshock is another game comfortably belonging to this category, though also featuring FPS elements.
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Perhaps the earliest example of a simultaneous multiplayer-only title is “Spacewar!" where two players control spaceships. Any MUD would also constitute a good example of multiplayer only, like the popular Aardwolf or Threshold RPG, though also offering the possibility to play on your own against monsters and non-player encounters, or the world.
Of course both modes can and do co-exist happily in any good release, but I would comfortably place the multiplayer-only game in the action category, and specifically shooters since a large number of these games are FPS’s. It seems that though a single-player only game can happily live with little or no action, a multiplayer game lacking fast-pace action is inconceivable.
A good example of early MMORPG would be Runescape or Guild Wars, offering all the classic mythical elements of a fantasy world but placing emphasis on the aforementioned action elements. Then along comes World of Warcraft, where doing raids feels like a dusty employee sorting through cadastres, or as repetitive as that after certain levels.
The FPS is undoubtedly where the mode thrives: Team Fortress, Warhawk, Tribes: Ascent or the free-to-play Alliance of Valiant Arms are all good examples of multiplayer-only games.
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Differences in Both Modes
As mentioned, in single player the focus is you as the hero, the one who saves the world from impeding catastrophes or ultimate doom. The storyline almost always plays a major part and in some cases, like Dragon Age, it can even differ on each play-session. Single player also allows you to save and reload, being more forgiving and accommodating to your own pace.
Multiplayer must maintain engagement through competition and action, and adds the ingenuity (or dementia) of another human being; end-results can be unpredictable resulting in a random experience each time. An article in Science Daily maintains that online multiplayer games also elicit greater stimuli than traditional single player experiences; a greater increase in addiction, decreased health or general well being suffers while new friendships, greater enjoyment or increased interest arise.
There is also the argument of re-playability, condemning the single player experience to only a few runs. This also raises questions about “value for money" and some articles, like one on Eurogamer, claim that single players should be cheaper, though that argument does not hold very well for me.
I can happily spend ten hours on an Oblivion campaign which I’ve played through already, and still find new things to do with a newly created character. To a more limited extent I can replay through Overclocked or Moment of Silence and enjoy the experience again, like I can enjoy re-reading a good novel or watching a film again. There is the further possibility of downloadable content and add-ons.
In short, both modes have their pros and cons, but I feel that single player can afford to take greater risks by design, while multiplayer must instantly be engaging, instantly gratifying and action filled without hope for wider scopes.
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Preferences and Final Thoughts
Anyone from Kotaku to Lockergnome would have you think that the single player is dead and buried, being slowly replaced by multiplayer only and MMORPG’s. While there are no official surveys, or I haven’t sufficient skill to find any, simple polls on Tigsource, Escapist Magazine or a post on the Only a game blog show that good old single player isn’t dead (see “references"). A similar poll on Tomshardware shows otherwise though.
These modes of play are not mutually exclusive by any means, as in the majority of cases both exist in the same game and both offer rich experiences. Some releases, like COD: Modern Warfare 2, offer a thin single player campaign concentrating on the multiplayer aspects.
Despite all the hubbub and rumors I doubt the experience of single player mode is dead, and can even wager that a large portion of gamers prefer to escape and be immersed in worlds without possible disruptions. I have had much fun wasting hours on HyperLobby against the might of the DEY or PFS squad pilots, but just look at The Witcher 2 or the much awaited Skyrim and tell me that there is no point.
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Author's own experience.