Demon’s Souls showed the world a great and innovative multiplayer feature that most of the industry has ignored: the ability to leave messages for other players. It’s a great feature because it creates a sense of community through user generated content, and that content is easy to make. It’s actually so easy to make that it’s more like content manipulation than content creation, but that’s part of the appeal. Everyone can participate. Despite this, the only game that I’ve played (or seen or heard of) since then to incorporate a similar kind of content manipulation is SSX, which then tweaks the feature so that it becomes something quite addictive.
In part, this is what makes the multiplayer in SSX so great. It’s a collection of lesser used multiplayer innovations pieced together in such a way that each one compeiments the other, while also avoiding the most persistent problems that plague multiplayer games.
SSX‘s version of leaving messages for other players comes in the form of leaving snowflakes (or geo-tags as the game calls them—but they still look like snowflakes, so I’m still going to call them snowflakes) for other players to locate. Before any event you can equip your rider with two snowflakes. Whenever you rewind time during that event, you can press a button that drops the snowflake at your feet. As soon as it is set it appears in other players’ games for them to collect, but the longer a snowflake goes without being collected, the more in-game money that it earns for whoever set it.
Unlike Demon’s Souls, this quick content creation/manipulation is competitive in nature. I don’t want people to collect the snowflakes that I drop because then I get less cash. As such, players work to make the snowflakes hard to collect, purposefully launching off a jump at the wrong angle in order to place a flake in some obscure corner. This kind of effort ensures that we become more invested in the metagame, which then drives the community of players around it.
When you collect a snowflake, the game shows you the Gamertag of the person who dropped it. When yours are collected, you’re notified the next time that you boot up the game, and again, you’re shown the Gamertag of the player that found your flake. This simple interaction creates a bond with other players since you can get to know the people that found your collectibles: Are they hardcore SSX players? OK, then I don’t feel so bad about them finding my stuff. Are they rookies? Damn, then I clearly could have hidden the snowflakes better.
While leaderboards are common in games, this kind of implementation of them is not. SSX borrows heavily from Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, and I’m honestly surprised that more games haven’t done so. RiderNet is the SSX equivalent of Autolog, and it’s essentially a mini social network, the most commonly used feature of which is a “friends only” leaderboard attached to every track and event in the game.
It was a great feature in Hot Pursuit and that doesn’t diminish its effectiveness here. I’m encouraged to replay a track even if I’ve earned a gold medal because a friend has a better time/score than me. It’s another system that encourages competition, but on the surface, it’s not all that different from what Hot Pursuit gave us. RiderNet only comes into its own when combined with the next system.
The term itself is a convoluted mouthful of marketing, but the idea behind it is genuinely interesting. It’s multiplayer that you can play alone; another player doesn’t have to be present. You race and set your time, then someone else races against your ghost. They’re still racing against you. All your tricks and shortcuts still work, but it’s not happening live. This is glue that makes everything about the multiplayer come together.
It makes the snowflakes work because now it’s okay for you to veer off course to grab one. In some races, I’ve spent a good couple minutes falling down a crevasse, rewinding, and falling down again while making only a very subtle course correction because I’m trying to fall at just the right angle to collect a flake. I can only do this in the middle of a race because it’s not a live race; I know I can restart without penalty. If SSX included live multiplayer, no one would ever look for the snowflakes because the race itself would demand their full attention. Since everything is asynchronous and since the snowflakes are everywhere, they become a metagame that’s constantly available to play, and by playing it, I become a more active member of the community.
It makes RiderNet work because you can watch and learn from the ghosts. You can see the specific route that someone takes to get a crazy time or score. This is better than just a plain leaderboard in encouraging competition because I know that if anyone beats my score thatI can always follow the ghost to find out how. You’re never so disillusioned by the competition that you give up playing. The ghosts help keep you competitive, even against someone far better than you, someone you could never beat in a live match.
Then there’s the lack of lag from host migration, the lack of profanity from frustrated players, and the lack of waiting 20 minutes in an empty room for people to join the game. The advantage of this asynchronous multiplayer is that it ensures the multiplayer lives on longer than the community itself: Even if no one is playing the game online, their ghosts will still be there.
The multiplayer in SSX is so surprisingly impressive because it doesn’t let other games dictate how it should play. It doesn’t try to mimic what’s popular. Instead it looks at what makes SSX fun (replaying events for better times and scores) and how to best translate that experience to an online setting. In forging this path, it stands out from an overly crowded multiplayer market and hopefully convinces other developers that these features are worth imitating.