Gaming with friends has changed a lot in the past 15 years. Mat Ombler explains why it's so important not to forsake the split-screen ways of old...
If you're anything like me, some of your fondest gaming memories are from your childhood and likely involve four friends, sat around a TV, playing multiplayer games like Goldeneye and Mario Kart. I remember the first time I ever played a Halo title, which served as a pinnacle bonding moment between my best friend and I at the time, as we battled through the campaign for two straight days in co-op mode. That, to me, was what great gaming was all about.
I remember being unable to complete TimeSplitters 2 on the hardest difficulty setting without calling up a friend to come round and help out. I recall whole weeks of holidays engrossed in multiplayer modes, and deathmatch sessions that stretched long into the night. I’d probably be sick if there was a way to track the amount of hours my friends and I spent playing Super Smash Brothers, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So often it’s memories like these that define childhood friendships, and I’m grateful that I get the chance to relive them every time a new split-screen title is released onto the market. However, such occasions are becoming fewer and farther between, and local multiplayer seems to be getting abandoned in favour of purely online play. Most recently, it’s been announced that Halo 5 won't feature local co-op or multiplayer of any kind. Given every major Halo release up until this point has supported offline multiplayer of some sort, this is another huge blow to couch-based gaming with friends.
If you’re wondering why developers are doing this, there are a number of reasons. Unsurprisingly, the biggest is profit. Nowadays companies want to encourage online gaming because it’s a paid service, so why offer customers the chance to play offline for free? By pushing people online you’re encouraging them purchase additional downloadable content or pay for subscription services, and by getting rid of AI bots in offline play modes you're not only cutting out a huge amount of costly development time, but shifting a certain amount of this back to the gamers themselves. The fact that modern gamers seem to be tacitly accepting such a sinister shift makes it all the more depressing.
That said, there's a more practical reason for the decline in split-screen gaming, which is that it simply eats up too many console resources. This results in reduced frame rates and impaired graphics, sullying the "perfect" impression one gets from a game in single player mode. In this day and age of cutthroat statistics, where everything is reduced to competing lists of facts and figures, developers are wary of how such an effect might impact reviews of their titles. Yet I, for one, couldn’t care less if playing a split-screen game comes at the cost of slightly impaired visuals — the more important thing is the experience, and how much actual fun it is.
This isn't a new dilemma. Split-screen gaming has always taken up console resources (as anyone who's ever tried to play a four player split-screen game with explosive weapons will be all too familiar with). Ultimately, I’ve never felt this had a negative impact on the gaming experience. If anything, I and all my friends all found it hilarious.
Unfortunately, this generation's console war seems to hold graphical capability at its absolute forefront. Online forums, magazines and websites are full of comparisons between how fast title x runs on respective consoles, or how smooth the rendering is on title y. It seems that, these days, developers are petrified of any perceived weakness that could lead to comparatively negative press.
It may even be that we, as a gaming community, are partly to blame for this. Instead of engaging in debates about frame rates, we should be encouraging developers to invest their time in creating the kind of innovative experiences that lead to great social interaction, and celebrating that instead of fetishising more flawless reflections or dynamic lighting. This reason is exactly why my Wii U currently sees more playtime than my PS4. Nintendo are one of the few companies out there who continue to focus on the idea of bringing gamers together under the same roof, rather than hiving them off in a million individual, lonely bedrooms.
That’s not to say that local multiplayer is completely dead elsewhere. Team 17 have only recently announced a brand new Worms title, which looks every bit as fun to play with friends as every other game in the series, while Black Ops 3 will apparently feature a split-screen co-op mode. There’s also plenty of indie titles out there with amazing multiplayer options; Octodad and N++, in particular, are at their best when played with other people.
It's also not to say that there's anything wrong with online multiplayer, per se. In fact, there are some truly unique gaming experiences that really are only possible when large numbers of people are brought together online, and the magic of the internet means I can game with friends who live halfway around the globe at the push of a button. Yet, so great is the potential of online gaming that we've allowed it to completely sweep its predecessor off the map. We were so busy storming enemy lines alongside dozens of virtual teammates in Star Wars Battlefront that we forgot how great it is to sit next to three buddies in the same room and high-five a perfect headshot IRL (the high-five, not the headshot).
Knee-deep in the Internet Age, it's easy to forget that we’re not yet at that point where everyone has a high-speed broadband connection (as Microsoft’s embarrassing u-turn proved when it was forced to ditch its "always online" policy for the Xbox One). Huge numbers of people in more rural communities around the world still struggle with sub-par connection speeds, making online gaming an impractical and frustrating experience. Ironically, these are the people who would probably benefit from the far reach of online gaming the most, but in its absence they are being left by the wayside as fewer and fewer titles cater for a physical multiplayer option with people who live nearby.
When you look back to the heydey of split-screen gaming and see how routinely it's been overlooked in the past 15 years, it's not hard to imagine that, in just a short space of time, it might be gone forever. While companies like Nintendo will hopefully still recognise the unique pull of the more social side of gaming, the recent commercial failure of the Wii U has certainly thrown the practice against the ropes. While you might *think* nothing beats kicking back in your La-Z-Boy and pwning a few n00bs from some country halfway around the world any evening you like, there's still nothing that comes close to the enjoyment of a late-night gaming session with friends right there on the couch with you, and we should be letting developers know that.
Could Apple be about to save the practice of split screen gaming? Find out here.
Words by Mat Ombler for Highsnobiety.com