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Always-online: why all our stories will be connected ones

Ed calls time on "single versus multiplayer"

For years, offline and online components have been at war, fighting for the time and cash of developers, publishers and players alike with all the ferocity of colonial powers carving up a fertile continent. Single and multiplayer modes are often created by distinct teams - one internal and there from the outset, the other external and shuttled in last-minute - who are obliged to draw from the same resource pool and do battle over the project's creative emphasis.

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Occasionally the fracas makes headlines, as when Spec Ops: The Line designer Cory Davis referred to that game's competitive aspect as a "cancerous growth" that "sheds a negative light on all of the meaningful things we did in the single-player experience". Exactly which side of the equation has the upper hand is hard to determine - games with multiplayer components sell more, we're often told by laconic brand managers, but they also seem to attract more in the way of controversy, as fans muddle through seemingly inevitable launch-week connection problems, or bemoan bitty DLC offerings and pass-locked content. Adding online features has become equivalent in the popular imagination with cashing in, with kowtowing to the dominance of Call of Duty - thanks in large part to the likes of Ken Levine, who are vocal in their disdain for "bolt-on" features.

Thus the troublesome present. The future may be rather different. Online modes won't exist in creative and commercial opposition to single player, as many now do - indeed, the concept of online as a distinct "mode" is rapidly approaching its sell-by date. Instead, online functionality will infest so-called single player. It will permeate your game, dogging you as ably and insidiously as a ghost dogs an obviously sacrificial, too-beautiful high school teen wearing short-shorts. It will arrive by way of neither big, clunky lobbies nor Facebook-style notifications. It will have sunk to the imaginative bedrock. It will be unnoticeable, and inescapable.

The seeds of this shift are prospering everywhere. Criterion popularised the whole asynchronous multiplayer gig with Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, where you're constantly sucked back into the cockpit by the activities of online rivals, batted onto the game's dashboard by the celebrated Autolog service. The studio's Most Wanted reboot capitalises further on the idea, transforming those addictive pop-ups into billboards, traffic lights and speed cameras, real structures within its fiction. But by the time of the latter's release, the torch had passed to younger and more ambitious souls. Dark ones, to be precise.

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Brilliantly, From Software's magnum opus turns online into a question of metaphysics - its multiplayer modes are Covenants, presided over by gods and godlings whose penchants and peccadilloes determine how and why players can meet. Pledge fealty to Nito, first of the dead, and you'll become an online plague-bearer, injecting super-sized foes into the worlds of random players, who must track down your sigil and slay you to lift the curse. Side with the Forest Hunters and their bizarre feline mistress, and you'll be called upon to defend a particular region from invaders. Lighting upon these Covenants means getting to the bottom of the game's lore, which is presumably why From talked about them so little in the run-up to release - and the result is a multiplayer community of uncommon hardiness, made up of people who've quested and fought for the privilege.

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