Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Ghost's Arcade: Is Online Multiplayer Really A Good Thing?

Well HERE'S something that digs up painful memories.

This is Ghost, thanks for joining!

Ever since my post about The Mario Kart Problem I've been trying to come up with new gaming topics to talk about in between video game reviews.  Let's face it, I rarely if ever buy a game the day of its release and therefore any game I review is going to be months if not decades after everyone else in the world has spoken on the topic.  One such idea that came to mind was "When you start to hate the games you love."  This is something that I and at least one of my friends has been experiencing here lately...just a general distaste for a few of the games that we love.   Why is this happening?

Well I began thinking about that for several weeks in an attempt to come up with good solid reasons as to why.  There are issues such as mishandling of a franchise by its producer, but that generally doesn't change my viewpoint of an existing game I purchased and already love.  I racked my brain over and over and found only one common denominator amongst the games that I love to play and generally like but slowly became to hate... Online Multiplayer.

These days online multiplayer is prevalent everywhere.  Whole games and franchises have build their entire gameplay on online multiplayer such as Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2, and many more.  Even Nintendo has finally dipped it's toes in the pool where online multiplayer is the main focus with it's recent title Splatoon pictured to the left.  Online Multiplayer has even found a way to sneak into games where it flat doesn't need to belong like The Last of Us and Tomb Raider.  It's such a common feature in video games that most people don't ever really stop to think about it.  They just look to see if it has it or not and move on with their lives.  But perhaps people should be thinking about it more because I'm going to ask one simple question.

Is online multiplayer really a good thing?

There are many things that can be said about online multiplayer both good and bad.  I want to make this as balanced as possible so I'm going to be examining both the benefits and the drawbacks to online multiplayer and let's see if there is an answer to the question presented.  So I ask that you..
Now these are in no particular order or hierarchy.  I'm just going to be going down the list of benefits as I think of them then following up with the list of drawbacks.

The Benefits of Online Multiplayer

First of all, Multiplayer provides the gamer with a completely different gaming experience depending on the game of choice.  Some games such as Mortal Kombat offer basically the same experience whether you are doing single player or multiplayer.  It's one character fighting another.  However other games such as Grand Theft Auto V have a completely different experience for their online multiplayer.  In the single player game you do missions and acquire vehicles and goods but on multiplayer you can perform heists as a group to take down certain objectives easier or you can just screw around running over each other and fighting with outlandish weapons till you get tired of doing so.  Versatility is an excellent thing and in some cases online multiplayer can provide just that.

Having said that, online multiplayer can greatly enhance your proficiency at the game in question.  Computer AI is a wonderful thing and I'm thankful that it has come as far as it has.  However there are limitations to Computer AI.  You can easily study how the computer will act or perform and win more easily by exploiting weaknesses that repeat themselves.  Using online multiplayer you are battling your wits against another person who could be better at the game than you or be a master of playing mind tricks with your expectations.  They can change their play style in the middle of what you are doing which forces you to adapt and become better at the game no matter what is thrown your way.  I wouldn't have become so good with King Dedede in Smash Bros WiiU if it wasn't for online multiplayer forcing me to get better with him.  Increasing your proficiency at a game means you are practicing your hand-eye coordination, getting a better grasp of spacial awareness and increasing your reaction times which can benefit you in your daily life.

Now this one is honestly very similar to the first two but different enough to warrant it's own paragraph.  That benefet is providing a greater sense of excitement or just more exciting gameplay overall.  Minecraft is one of the best examples of this that come to mind.  Sure Minecraft is a great game and has lots of content however I find myself incredibly bored after only twenty minutes.  If I hop on a realm with a friend or head to an online server to play mini games I can find myself engrossed in the game for hours.  Some games are just better suited to having multiplayer to make the game more exciting and more fun.  I don't really know of anyone who plays a Call of Duty game for the "exciting singleplayer experience."  No, they play it for the multiplayer aspect of putting their skills to the test against a group of enemies from all over the world in fast paced action.

Everyone enjoys showing off something they love to their friends.  This includes video games.  However in the age we live in today our friends may not only be people within our town anymore.  This brings us to what I see as the greatest benefit to online gaming; we have the ability to play games with friends from across the world who we would have never been able to play with otherwise.  No longer do we have to physically take the console or handheld to someone's house to play with them.  We don't have to plan and work out details around schedules and perhaps sleepovers; you can just hop online whenever convenient at the drop of a hat and play with whomever you wish.  I have friends from across the United States (New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Arizona) and the world (Israel, Sweden) whom I have had the pleasure of sharing a gaming experience with in one aspect or another because of online gaming.  This would not have been the case several years ago.

Last but certainly not least, you can benefit from online gaming by the building of communities.  No longer do we have to talk to a handful of friends who may or may not share your interest.  You can now go online to find hundreds of people who love the same thing as you.  You can exchange ideas and become a better problem solver and people person by interacting with others.  Depending on the game or community of choice you can also gain a greater understanding for team building and how to contribute to a major cause.  Yes there are always going to be jerks in these communities just as there are in your day to day life but my experience overall with online communities for gaming has been a fairly positive one.  The fact that people of all walks of life can come together and share their love of an online game or a gaming platform is simply wonderful.  Who knows you may even be able to snag some (hopefully) life-long friends like I have.
And I'll forever be grateful to Online Gaming for them!  (also lol Angel)

The Drawbacks of Online Multiplayer

Online multiplayer can be a breeding ground for idiots, hatred, extremely profane language and racial slurs. If you've ever played a game that has team speak enabled, or even worse an open mic for anyone in that particular game then you more or less know exactly what I'm talking about.  It's pretty much a guarantee that within seconds of joining any game with an open mic you will hear either an f-bomb, the tossing around of racial or homophobic slurs, or announcing your mother's sexual preferences before the masses.  It's utter stupidity at it's most gloriously heinous.  I'm all for free speech but this is absolute nonsense.  There's no real way to stop it other than to stop supporting chat of any kind over gaming.  While that would stop the tide of idiocy, that would potentially ruin great parts of great games.  I can't imagine what would happen to Battlefield if people who are playing the game properly couldn't coordinate with their teammates.  I don't even want to think of a world where Team Fortress 2 didn't have voice chat, text chat, and sprays; it's just part of the fun experience.  These kinds of people are a major annoyance that you're going to have to come to terms with or worse have your young child exposed to.  I personally often don't have the patience to deal with this stupidity.

Something less common than the bile spewing masses but infinitely more infuriating is when you encounter those wonderful individuals who choose to cheat, hat and spam the entire time.  If you haven't encountered any of this particular breed of troll then consider yourself lucky as I have run across my fair share.  The Mario Kart player who has hacked his Wii to give himself Super Stars that never fade from the very beginning of the race.  The Sniper in Team Fortress 2 who never leaves the team's safe zone and is pulling off perfect headshots through walls to the other side of the map with the assistance of aimbot.  The Smash Bros players who refuse to fight during the match and spam taunts till the Sudden Death portion appears.  These people are so frustrating and their shenanigans completely destroy any fun that you might be able to have from the online gaming experience.  Thankfully for some systems and games you can report people like this and they will eventually be temporarily (or permanently) banned, but for other systems you just have to either deal with it or exit and try to get placed into a better group of people.  Now don't get me wrong here.  I really enjoy cheat codes and such as I am not a very great gamer.  I was a huge supporter of Gameshark and Action Replay during their hay day but I would have never brought those to any sort of multiplayer because that's cheap and completely unfair.  I don't want to be "that guy" who is making the gaming experience miserable for everyone else.

Before I even talk about my 3rd point, I want to preface it by saying that I this is only speculation for the most part.  I may very well not have any idea of what I'm saying and if you know better or differently I would like to know.  One drawback that I can think of would be the cost of acquiring and maintaining dedicated servers for video games.  Computer equipment can be extremely costly as can be the upkeep of said equipment.  Let's also not forget the monthly cost of the electric and internet bill to keep these devices running.  There's a lot of cash going around just to keep these servers going which is part of what is driving video game prices up.  Imagine how much cheaper games could be or how much extra content and skill could be thrown in to a game if they didn't have to set aside so much of the yearly budget to the upkeep of these servers.  Games could easily be pure masterpieces if they could funnel that money into something else.  Again this is all speculation but I feel it's something worth thinking about. 

While we are on the subject of servers and online connectivity it's time we hit the big one, the mother of all problems with online gaming.  It is the thorn that has been shoved into the side of every online gamer.  That big nasty problem is... lag!  There are precious few things that can bring about a fit of rage and utter despair quite like experiencing lag during your gameplay.  The biggest problem with it is the simple fact that there is absolutely nothing you can do to predict or control lag.  Any one of a great number of things could just happen causing you to experience severe lag that changes your gameplay.  Someone with a poor internet connection could join the game.  An Internet Service Provider could have come across a problem or outage.  There could be maintenance with the network server.  There could be too many devices trying to connect at the same time.  The list goes on and on.  Lag is a big issue because, as the picture associated with this section can show, each player can see a different outcome and the game is trying to process each of these instances across multiple platforms.  For example you can see an enemy and hit him in the face on your end. You are expecting this to do damage but nothing happens because on the opponent's screen he saw you and ran in a different direction entirely.  What makes this worse is that some gamers can utilize lag intentionally by causing their connection to be slow and skew the results in their favor.  Lag instantly obliterates any enjoyment you can get from a game.

Lastly is something that I certainly deal with all the time.  The last drawback is being pitted against opponents that are grossly more skilled than you.  This can either be by choice or by the online servers poor matchmaking abilities.  Before I really discuss this I wish to make something very clear.  Gaming against people who are better than you is a good thing as it can help you increase your skill and proficiency at the tame overall.   However there is a complete difference between an opponent more skilled than you and an opponent who is so much better at this than you that there is literally nothing you can do but despair.  Fighting those types of people just plain ruin your game as you can't learn from anyone who is so good you can't even do a single thing about it to even learn how to be better such as in the gif image above.  Now before online multiplayer became a big thing this probably wouldn't be that big of a deal.  You would already know the person who is coming over to play and if they were that much better than you, you would either suggest a different activity or just flat not invite them over to play.  However with the rise of online gaming it becomes easier to agree to gaming with these kind of individuals because, in theory, you can accept a game request at the drop of a hat and leave said game just as quickly without the awkwardness of the individual physically being there at your location.  This opens you up to a more frustrating experience more often.   Now that IS your choice still.  You can choose to ignore the game request and move on with your life;  this is something you can still control.  If this was the only point being made then it would be admittedly weak, however that is not quite the case.  Many games pair you up with random people across the world automatically and in most cases there is no leader board or raking.  There is no way to filter out who is great and who is mediocre either because the computer doesn't take skill level into account by default or the game has technical limitations that can't separate things like that.  You have no choice or option when this happens other than disconnecting form the game and re-joining online in the hopes that your game will be better balanced towards your skill level.  I can attest to multiple instances in Team Fortress 2 and Super Smash Bros where I get pitted against people who play the game so well that this might as well be their profession.  It's makes for a very frustrating experience especially when you either can't get any better or can't learn because of the severe pummeling you are receiving.

So is Online Multiplayer a good thing or a bad thing?

I'm not entirely sure I have an answer for that.  There are many good things about online multiplayer that I have certainly benefited from.  On paper these positives do seem to be more important while the negatives seem to be more annoyances than anything else.  However my discussion above didn't quite go into frequency of the negatives.  In my personal experience, I have come across each of these positives but only a handful of times whereas I am almost guaranteed to run across one of the negatives each and every time I decide to play online multiplayer.  The ratio is easily 8 to 1 for the negatives.

People say to not bring up a problem or potential problem unless you have a solution and I don't know what that solution could be.  I hate dealing with the drawbacks of online multiplayer but I love the benefits I get from it as well.  The only possible solution is having games perform online multiplayer the same way that Minecraft servers work.  One person being a host of the game and hosting online multiplayer matches/games for people who have his userID or friend code.  This means that you could easily manage who comes on to your games and can quickly eliminate those who are causing problems.  However that comes with a different set of drawbacks such as people not being available to host if you wish to play a game online, people losing their temper and kicking people out of an emotional reaction to losing, slow connections of that host machine, not getting to fight complete strangers etc.

There possibly is no solution to this but I feel it's something worth thinking about.  Any improvement that doesn't come at the cost of efficiency or freedom should be at least considered.  What do you think?  Do YOU think Online multiplayer is a good thing?

This is Ghost, Fading into the darkness.
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