In defense of tacked-on multiplayer

"I think that model is finished," Electronic Arts Games chief Frank Gibeau told Develop two-years back. He was discussing what he called "fire-and-forget, packaged goods only" or, as they're commonly known as, single-player games. He said that developers needed to continue the connection with players, and that a good method was through some sort of multiplayer component. In one interview, one of the leaders of the second biggest game publisher had signed a death warrant for single-player gaming. People were understandably upset, thinking that the era of single-player was over.

But it wasn't, and I don't think that's what Frank Gibeau meant. Instead, a significant aspect of what he was acknowledging is the importance of replayability in an age where video games cost more to make, and people have less money to spend on them. And he's right; single-player "fire-and-forget" games generally don't have that much replay value, and it’s hard to justify keeping a game after you complete the campaign. The solution to this problem is to add multiplayer--even if it isn’t really “needed.” And while some might see multiplayer added to any single-player franchise as sacrilege, I think it can be a good thing. Sure, sometimes it backfires, but "tacked-on multiplayer," as many have called it, can often end up being pretty damn fun.

Take, for instance, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The original Uncharted was a bastion of single-player cinematic storytelling, so fans were understandably livid when news broke confirming Uncharted 2's multiplayer modes. Some silly deathmatch mode for what had previously been considered a proving point for the Games as Art movement? No thanks. And then it came out, and it was surprisingly well-developed, and in-line with everything that made Uncharted work.

A year later, and the flip-out cycle repeated itself with Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Said one GamesRadar commenter: "I can imagine a AC multiplayer mode: two players will stand and stare at each other for hours, each waiting for the other guy to make the first move so that they can counter it...then another guy just runs up and stealth kills them both." [sic] And, yet again, "tacked-on multiplayer" proved to be extremely fun. With each Assassin's Creed release since then, the multiplayer has been improved upon, to the point where it's as much a part of the series as ancient aliens wearing togas.

But there's no greater example than Mass Effect 3. Honestly, you’d think that BioWare had just announced that the Reapers were real and coming to wipe out all life on earth, but no: It had just revealed that the game would have some multiplayer. People. Were. Pissed. One GamesRadar user said, "Even if i don't know what the multiplayer is about, the fact alone that it exists is a bad sign, period." [sic] His comment was followed by many others, agreeing that the announcement was a disaster. Yet, when we had our 24-hour Marathon a few months ago, it was one of the few games folks were clamoring to play all night. The wave-based co-op was so good that BioWare has continued to support it with DLC and updates, and many gamers have told me that they’ve put more hours (and spent more money) into unlocking new races and weapons than they did playing through the single-player campaign.

And then when there were rumors that BioShock: Infinite would have multiplayer, and everyone freaked the hell out all over again. As history has shown, this mindset is silly. It also doesn't make sense given publishers' recent schemes to keep games in gamers' consoles longer. Answer us this, would you rather have a multiplayer mode that might be good, or be forced to download an ending weeks after release (as was seen in 007 Legends), or pay for slowly doled-out or on-disc DLC (basically everyone else)?

When Infinite was confirmed not to have multiplayer, gamers were ecstatic, acting like it was some sort of great victory for single-player gaming. “Thank God!” one commenter exclaimed; “I'm so proud of those guys,” said another. “I've never wanted my SP purchases to be compromised by the addition of an MP add-on.”

What great single-player purchase was compromised by multiplayer? Was Dead Space 2 ruined by the Necromorphs vs. Humans battles that most agreed were an absolute blast? Was BioShock 2 destroyed by its entertaining Splicer-filled team deathmatch? I know XCOM: Enemy Unknown wasn’t held back by the addition of multiplayer--if anything, it was amplified by the mode. While there are some examples of good single-player games not having a strong competitive side (Spec Ops: The Line comes to mind), there aren't many examples of the multiplayer actually compromising the campaign. Meanwhile, there are plenty of examples of great success in formerly single-player games being complemented by multiplayer components.

Listen friends, gamers, everyone: Stop freaking out. When a publisher or a developer reveals some sort of co-op or multiplayer for its game, give them the benefit of the doubt, because for all you know, it could totally be the next Uncharted 2 or Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood or Mass Effect 3 or...

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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  • trikeman - December 16, 2012 5:54 a.m.

    From a developer's standpoint, the issue isn't the existence of multiplayer in a primarily-single player experience, it's two things: 1) the near-necessity of multiplayer components of a game for a major publisher to even *think* of touching it, and 2) the diversion of resources towards making that multiplayer work. If the publisher wants to shell out money to some other company to have them tack on some multiplayer to my team's game, I'm a little annoyed as an "artistic integrity" sort of thing, but whatever, I can live with it; if the publisher expects us to make the multiplayer ourselves, that automatically means that the single player experience will suffer - we have limited resources, and limited people on the team, so if we need to dedicate some level design guys to designing multiplayer maps for the extent of the project, that means we'll have less people designing the campaign levels, and they'll probably be worse for that.
  • deceasedxo - December 12, 2012 7:20 a.m.

    I believe that since the popularity of COD all devs are relying way too much on multiplayer to sell a game nowadays when really most people outside of the hardcore COD fans want a great single player campaign over any form of multiplayer.
  • elilupe - December 11, 2012 1:41 p.m.

    I agree that sometimes multiplayer components of games can be surprisingly entertaining, but I'm part of the school of thought that thinks "tacked on" ANYTHING should never be defended as a good thing.
  • awesomesauce - December 4, 2012 10:31 p.m.

    Well the way i see it is like extra credit on a test. Taking some time to do the extra work won't ruin the rest the of the test even if you get it wrong. However if you do the extra credit "multiplayer" right it can make up for most main portion "single player's" short comings. So it's multiplayer isn't ruining the game, some people just use it as a scapegoat because the single player didn't rise up to their expectations. Because most of the time if a game isn't ready it just gets delayed or updated. (Or in Mass Effect's case DLC'ed)
  • Aarononymous - December 4, 2012 2:15 p.m.

    Splinter Cell's multiplayer was mediocre and super tacked on and I suspect that it hurt the franchise. Then again, the thing that really hurt was drifting from the hardcore, slow-paced, stealth gameplay that fans loved and everyone else hated. Also chaos theory's co-op mode was awesome, so mixed bag I guess?
  • zombi3grim - December 3, 2012 9:56 p.m.

    Man, this enitre comment thread is nothing but people who confuse their very poorly thought out opinion with fact. My god, I could pick apart any of these posts and thurn this into a 50 page shit storm. And theres so many to choose from! Its...its like a buffet of idiocy! What to pick, what to pick.....
  • MyCoolWhiteLies - December 3, 2012 8:57 a.m.

    Nice article, but I have to ask, who the hell considered the first Uncharted to be a "proving point for the Games as Art movement"?
  • AuthorityFigure - December 3, 2012 3:41 a.m.

    I thought the current trend was to 'tack-on' campaign mode. Why? Because developers want to socialize their work as much as possible to cater to the always connected facebook generation.
  • DarthPunk - December 3, 2012 3:12 a.m.

    What a specific example? Fine, Resident Evil 5
  • clearlight20 - December 3, 2012 8:08 a.m.

    A specific example for what exactly?
  • DarthPunk - December 3, 2012 9:21 a.m.

    Gah this was meant to be a response to Hollander's comment but logging back in just made it a regular comment. I mean specific example of a game that had it's single player ruined by multiplayer
  • clearlight20 - December 3, 2012 9:53 a.m.

    I guess that comes to down opinion really. I rather enjoyed RE5 MP considering how much of a shitty job Capcom did with the AI. Then again this whole defense by Hollander comes down to opinion and there are very few facts to be presented.
  • DarthPunk - December 3, 2012 11:56 a.m.

    Admittedly Resident Evil 5 isn’t the best example for this article given it’s about tacked on multiplayer where as Resi 5 was very clearly designed to be a predominately co-op game It’s just Resi 5 is the most obvious example I can think of for single player suffering due to game developers focusing more on multiplayer.
  • clearlight20 - December 3, 2012 12:12 p.m.

    The only game I can really think of that could have been better off if the resources and time were used to develop the SP more thoroughly would have been Rage. The ending was so ungodly anticlimactic that it felt like ID software just dumped it off without any thought of a final, epic boss. However, it becomes almost a sneaking suspicion that even if the game was a SP game, that little would have been changed. Developing a final boss would have probably taken a minute amount of time compared to developing the engine and the game in its entirety and yet ID felt it was unnecessary to put in a final boss. In short, the developer's will do whatever they want.
  • avantguardian - December 2, 2012 11:32 p.m.

    damn gr, is this the start of your: 'things you hate aren't really that bad' editorials? like moths to a flame.
  • Pwnz0r3d - December 2, 2012 7:22 p.m.

    Big budget games that are SURE to be a critical and financial hit never have tacked on MP (for the most part). Tacked on meaning "throw in team deathmatch and free for all and call it a day." The MP is usually on par or very slightly below the single-player offering. The only games that really have a detrimental effect when it comes to MP are FPS's as their main focus IS multiplayer, and even then the singleplayer is still enjoyable to a degree. With such a huge budget, they wouldn't ever just half ass a MP offering if that meant wasting money on something that no one would play because it was terrible instead of perfecting what you focused on in the first place. The same could be said for smaller budget games (which do have "tacked on" MP) but those kind of games are risks in today's gaming market (which is disappointing, considering all we really get nowadays are sequels.)
  • Z-man427 - December 2, 2012 6:17 p.m.

    The problem with tacked on multiplayer is that it's tacked on. It's not well thought out. It's not well developed. Don't defend poorly made multiplayer.