For the last few years my gaming sessions would consist of firing up my PC, Xbox 360, PS3 for a period, and later the 360 and Xbox One, and going online and playing some multiplayer games. They were fun, and for a while before a lot of game shutdowns in the past few years you could fire up even an older game and get into a game with a few players. I honestly miss the Xbox 360 era, it was a good time when multiplayer games were all about being social, and the fact that people would use mics and open lobbies and that my friends would often invite me to parties helped. Single player games I struggled to get into for the most part, with few exceptions, and for a good reason. Besides the fact that it’s easier to time sessions when playing multiplayer games especially with external factors in play (bedtime, parents nagging me to do whatever, talking with friends, etc.) and the fact that developers sometimes happen to be dicks with save areas (Want to save anywhere? No, autosaves or worse, save points are the only way to save). Getting stuck in games was boring, and so were some of the quirks of some single player games like grinding up for a super hard boss when you just want to kill some time. I actually downloaded a trainer for Dead Space 2 after the final boss pissed me off (also the first one was a better game by far IMO).
So multiplayer games were my go to for years, but eventually I lost interest in them and after failing to place my finger on why I now know.
Multiplayer games are less social
During the Xbox 360 era, multiplayer games were all about being social. Halo 3 and Reach were a good example of this, along with games influenced by it such as the Call of Duty franchise which added in some features. Halo 3 was probably the best all in one entertainment package before Call of Duty started claiming it was the best years later. Halo 3 had 3 core modes, alongside a theater option for watching replays: campaign, multiplayer, and forge, and all 3 were not only selectable from one menu but they were also playable online. There was the highly polished single player that offered 4 player co op and allowed one to “finish the fight”, topping off a trilogy of 2 good games and a mediocre in between game. There was multiplayer, that offered matchmaking (which I’ll get into detail on later) that offered the ability for one to party up, back the lobby out, and start a custom game, and there was the custom game feature which was a player configured game with custom rules….and map variants. See, Halo 3 and Reach had this unique feature that most multiplayer games to this day lack called Forge (named after the Marathon map editor), which allowed multiple players to switch between playing the game itself and editing objects on the map. While many actually edited the map, with multiplayer this could lead to fun experiences you could only have online, like spawning big objects or overpowered weapons, and building maps that’d overload and slow down the Xbox console itself.
Each player also had a file share for game clips, game variants, screenshots, map variants, and whatnot, and each player could access each other’s file share in the lobby. When Halo 3 had more than just poor kids playing used copies on their cheap thrift store 360s, it was booming and every file share would be interesting. Halo 3 also featured more fun stuff like integration with Bungie.net, allowing one to see stats, recent games, screenshots, and even render clips if they shelled out money for Bungie Pro. It was internet integration done well and was shut down when 343 took over the Halo franchise. People would also talk on the mic in public lobbies as well if they weren’t in a party chatting with friends or cool people they friended on Xbox.
It was probably the peak of the idea that online games should be social (and I don’t mean logging into Facebook), and it’s something you don’t see in modern multiplayer games, and especially not ones designed after the target demographic of modern multiplayer games became Twitch streamers and wannabe esports stars. Now all the resources go into making a game where you can press a button to join a multiplayer game, and that’s about it, with barely any social functionality added in. Voice chat and even in some cases text chat has become crippled either because the powers that be declared it toxic or in the case of companies like Nintendo, they’re lazy, but it’s not like it’d matter anyway because in games with voice chat all you hear are silent mics. Games that used to gain a reputation for screeching kids from people who played it once at a cousin’s house or who had the unfortunate fate of their parents buying them only a Wii (which lacked voice chat) are now dead silent with multiplayer lobbies. From games being barebones to everyone being antisocial in multiplayer games, you just don’t get the same feeling you would have playing Xbox years and years ago. They’re not about having fun, they’re about being a pro esports lord who gets killed in real life if someone calls them a fag, and games are designed accordingly.
Pay to play
This is only an issue on consoles, but even just a few years ago Microsoft charging for Xbox Live was seen as the exception, not the norm. It was like Verizon, it cost more but it had the reputation of in some ways being a better service, with less lag, fewer server shutdowns, and nearly no outages. Original Xbox Live continued until 2010, nearly 9 years after the console was first manufactured, and Live for the 360 is still up despite lasting even longer, outlasting the Wii’s GameSpy based online (more on that later). This changed with the releases of the PS4 and Nintendo Switch. During the PS4 announcement, gamers were too busy drooling over the idea of not having to go through any hassles to sell or give PS4 games away unlike the planned DRM scheme with the Xbox One that was later canned, despite being normalized by Steam. Right afterwards Sony announced that the Playstation 4 would require PS Plus to play online, and it was now no different than the Xbox line, except PSN still goes down more often than Xbox Live. The PS3’s selling point was “at least the online is free”, and it didn’t even have that now. Had Sony made online free on the PS4 there’s a good chance I might have owned one and that the market share gap would be much wider between the Xbox One and the PS4. Nintendo (who always plays catch up with online) made online free on the Wii U but with the Switch? You guessed it, also pay to play despite being at a lower cost for online services.
Right now, the only free platform for online games is Steam (which might as well be the PC since 99% of big Steam games are encumbered with its DRM) and I hope you enjoy lower playerbases and playing the same games over and over.
PC issues: server shutdowns and even deader communities
Now it’s time to go in depth on issues specific to the PC platform, since I went in depth on an issue that only exists on the consoles. See, ever since Nintendo’s Wii lacked all the games the cool kids were playing, the Wii U being merely a “secondary console” with none of the games you wanted to play, with the rise of free games and cheap games that might run on a shitbox like Minecraft, and since the rise of Twitch streaming and let’s players on YouTube, console kids have flooded the PC like…well you know the metaphor here so feel free to picture it in your head, except with rich kids who don’t know fuck all about tech instead. Many of them get hyped up at playing either the same games they did on Xbox but on a 4k 144hz monitor with a mechanical keyboard, even if said game has a port that’s literally a cut and paste of the console code. These people I like to call modern PC gamers, and they all tend to be the same brand of person anyhow. Usually they’re someone with no PC experience who came from the world of “it just works”, diving headfirst into a new platform with Android like fragmentation, with zero tech knowledge, and depending on how rich they are, anywhere from a Wal-Mart Special or old off-lease C2D or early i5 to an AMD Threadripper or i9 gaming computer with LEDs and expensive gamer gear.
Now the PC has a lot of issues of its own for multiplayer games. Multiplayer games are fragmented across several networks with their own DRM schemes (Steam, EA/Origin, uPlay, Activision-Blizzard’s Battle.net, and every goddamn F2P game launcher in existence), voice chat is often done outside the game itself with a program like Discord (which spies on you and is a resource hog) or legacy programs like TeamSpeak/Vent/Mumble, and PC ports usually have performance issues. But there are some glaring flaws that made me lose interest in it. The first being, the PC community usually plays the same few multiplayer games and if you don’t like them, tough shit. Enjoy a game with over 400ish people VS the thousands playing CSGO, Fortnite, Minecraft, Payday 2, Garry’s Mod, and all the other handful of games PC gamers play in large numbers. Even on consoles it is nowhere near this bad.
Furthermore, with the rise of cheap “console to PC” ports dogged by Denuvo and poor optimization, the PC has lost a lot of it’s identity as a platform, becoming the rich man’s game console (made worse by GPU and RAM shortages). Mods are only mostly seen in indie, Valve, or Bethesda games, only a few developers like Valve or DICE still put server lists in their games (and Valve really has pushed towards matchmaking in TF2 and Counter Strike Global Offensive, with DICE adding a “quick play” option), and developers like Activision have gone after mods before, with Take Two also trying to shut down GTA modders as well at one point. Many PC ports still use console button icons and some ports even lack proper keyboard and mouse controls, but hey they will support your Xbox controller. This also means many PC ports now use matchmaking (which is the next point) instead of server lists, and did I mention many games no longer have LAN or direct IP connection in them?
But perhaps the worst thing the influx of console players has done to the PC, is it’s not only normalized the PC becoming a console, but it’s also led to a major issue: console gamers expect games to “just werk”, and even I’m guilty of that because I’ve had times where even after trying to fiddle with a bad port it still won’t “just werk”, meanwhile a game on an Xbox will work every time nearly. One event that made this issue a problem is what I like to call the great GameSpy server shutdowns of 2012 and 2014, when GameSpy (a popular matchmaking service used in hundreds of PC and console games, along with being the backbone of Nintendo Wi-Fi, the Wii and DS’s online service) after being bought by Glu (a company that likely wanted just the IP and staff) first jacked up prices for using it and pulled a lot of old games without warning in 2012, and then shut down all remaining services in 2014 including online for many popular games that used it. While some of the more popular games got official patches, like Borderlands, Halo PC/Custom Edition, and ARMA 2 (the base game for the then popular DayZ mod), numerous older games were left either dead, with fan patches, or with LAN tunneling apps being required to play them online.
This greatly raised the barrier of entry for console gamers used to things just working, and as a result many of these games just died off with few players on the replacement servers. After all, editing a file is hard stuff, and what if it’s illegal and is going to get me in cyber jail? Torrents caused my PC to get hacked, oh no.
Matchmaking: Killing older games even faster
Perhaps the biggest issue with modern multiplayer games is the reliance on matchmaking. Halo 2 set a bad habit for the industry, it replaced a server list with a more streamlined system called matchmaking, where you’d press a button after selecting a game mode you wanted to play and get into a matchmade lobby with other players who wanted to play the same mode. Halo 2 also featured a “skill” based ranking system in an early attempt at fueling the esports community, despite the fact that ironically Halo 2 was easier for kids to play. During the 360 era, just about every game used matchmaking, especially as the console aged.
The biggest flaw with matchmaking comes however when the player count dips lower and lower. That’s when the system falls apart. First, playlists are completely dead so the only one that’s populated is the Team Deathmatch playlist every 15 year old presses A to select, and then later you either end up in lobbies searching for long periods of time as it keeps trying to find players, or in games that allow joining in progress like Call of Duty, leaving a bad lobby and rejoining the same exact lobby. While older games with server lists could allow you to join a game with people in it instead of searching for nothing, with newer games any player is going to be stuck searching, and with factors like ports being open affecting this, this creates an effect where players just leave multiplayer games.
On the PC, server lists held out longer, eventually dying with the release of Modern Warfare 2. Sure, PC gamers threatened to boycott it and complained about how bad it was, but did they actually boycott it? Well, you be the judge.
Oh, and mods that bring back server lists for older games? Yeah, they either get shut down or nobody plays them, PC gamers want it to be easy like it is on console nowadays. Installing mods for video games that aren’t publisher approved means you could wind up in the cyber jail, just look at El Dewrito, FourDeltaOne/AlterIWNet, and every Nintendo fangame ever made. Plutonium T6 might have one server that’s populated while Black Ops 2 on Steam will have what, 400~ players still at the same time of day? While GameRanger supports a lot of older games, mostly RTS players use it along with numerous amounts of FIFA players.
Unbalanced XP systems
Perhaps one of the biggest problems with some multiplayer games is when they have an unbalanced XP system. Now many multiplayer games let you gain experience points, or XP as they’re called, and level up to level 50, with more weapons and skills being unlocked the more time you sink into the game. The problem comes when games have everything “good” locked away behind experience. This takes the XP system to an extreme level, the same level you find on free to play games, the level where everything is dependent on your character being overpowered that it’s no longer about who’s good with aim or skills, it’s about who has the most buffed character. You can’t even stand a chance against someone who spends all their day playing said game, or who just used cheats to level up faster. Furthermore, Payday 2 adds this type of experience system into a goddamn co op game of all things. That’s right, you could be playing a co-op game where you can pop caps into cops and yet this experience mentality carries over. When I want to play a co-op game, I want to have fun, not get killed and wait for a player to revive me because he has 1,000 hours in Payday 2 and you only have a few. What does that mean? You get bored quickly and just go play another game like I do all the time, and it’s not like it matters anyways too much because…
Your friends aren’t playing what you’re playing
This is the biggest issue personally for me. See with multiplayer games now everyone has to play the same exact games, and this is worse on the PC. At least on consoles you can find someone to play with even if you never say a word to them ever. With the PC though, it seems like all gamers ever do is play the same handful of games, and the same goes if your friends game on the PC. If you want to be a PC gamer with friends playing what you play, you have to have the absolute most basic taste in games. Be sure to play Fortnite, Minecraft, GTA Online, TF2, Garry’s Mod, CSGO, Overwatch, Rainbow Six Siege, and only a few other games. If you want to play a specific game you spent $20 to play a handful of times some more, tough shit they all went back to playing CSGO.
I could look at any random person’s Steam profile and before Valve fucked it all up by hiding playing times, I’d see people with hundreds of hours in the same few games. Every single time, it was predictable. The biggest issue is well, at least on consoles you can play with mute randoms.
The multiplayer gaming market is oversaturated
There have been a number of high profile multiplayer game flops as of late. Battleborn, Lawbreakers, Evolve, the Titanfall franchise, and more keep trying to be multiplayer games that “change everything”, trying to recreate the effect Call of Duty 4, Halo 1, or the Quake franchise had on multiplayer games. There have also been numerous games that tried to chase fads from the arcadey military shooter to MOBAs, and lately the hot new trend has been to make “pro esports” shooters. Games come out, and thanks to matchmaking die out really quickly, with games like Lawbreakers symbolizing that. The last fad was the “hero shooter”, and the current fad is the battle royale genre…the genre the Lawbreakers devs attempted to break into before it died off fast.
I’ve seen so many games that promise to change the multiplayer landscape, come out, die off quickly as players move to other games, and these games sit around dead, costing $10 in the steam store and with only a handful of players still devoted to said game. I’ve seen this with “new arena shooters” for years, so many games that claim to fill the shoes Quake and Unreal left despite the fact that the playerbase either moved on to working jobs or other games. Even the new Unreal Tournament has this issue, it barely has any players on it.
That update that breaks everything.
Lately the sales model for multiplayer shooters has moved away from “patches and buy our map packs” to “constant updates”, and on one hand this is good for gamers. Gamers get to save money and get free content, especially giving them more bang for their buck. There’s just one issue however, and that is when the developer pushes out an update everyone hates. With older games, this wasn’t so much a problem since you could downgrade the game, and one such update was the update to patch out the infamous “Hot Coffee” mod that had the side effect of breaking mods for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Everyone made patches and downgraders to revert your digital version or later pressing back to the old version, and most people just kept playing the original pre-patch version if they pirated it anyhow.
With modern games however, they make it harder to do that. With single player games you can find patchers, and the same goes with older multiplayer games where the only form of authentication was a CD key. With modern multiplayer games, this leads to a massive problem: How can you play these games online after a patch of this nature when everyone has to run the same version due to matchmaking or servers controlled by the publisher and a few partners (in the case of say, Battlefield 4).
Newer multiplayer games just aren’t very good
With many of the issues I mentioned along with countless more, this leads to an issue. Older games die out and newer ones are just not very good, for both reasons I mentioned and more such as lack of features older titles had including voice chat and LAN. I can’t be interested in these games at all, and older multiplayer games either have server shutdowns or you need to set up a “game time” to play the game with someone. This in turn leads to a lack of interest for me, since how can I be expected to focus on a bad multiplayer game when I could be playing fun games?
Oh, and I might as well mention piracy as a footnote. Now that piracy is harder, multiplayer games have fewer players since you know, so many people on older multiplayer games were actually pirates. For example, Call of Duty 4 was easy to pirate, all you had to do was join a “cracked server” (which 9/10 are nowadays) with a CD key you found online and bam you’d be in. 2008 was a year when the piracy scare was sweeping the PC as developers blamed the lack of sales on pirates, when developers swore they’d make games on consoles too instead of just PC, when DRM like SecuROM was being added to games left and right, and when Robert Bowling, who worked at Infinity Ward, posted a blog post whining about CoD4 pirates. While Stardock’s CEO Brad Wardell (a PC game dev I can respect who always seems to have the right idea) said to simply ignore pirates, I not only feel like the push against pirates has crippled game communities (especially with older games or with broke gamers), but I feel that the anti-piracy push led directly towards a lot of bullshit you find in modern multiplayer games, on the PC at least. On consoles, it’s likely due to the whole push against players deemed “toxic”, and publishers getting lazy, and both aren’t good things at all.
At least with single-player games you don’t have to deal with low player counts or other multiplayer specific issues, you can just play the game. Even if you’re the only one playing it in the world right now you can still play it.