I think there’s a right way to play a game, a way of approaching the game that the developers intended for and designed around. Unfortunately, the word “right” carries certain connotations of value that I don’t think are appropriate when talking about games. If you want to play a game other than how the developer intended, you’re not wrong for doing so. You can play however you like, but you also have to admit that some games don’t cater to some play styles.
Sadly, it seems to be getting harder and harder to play some games the “right way,” especially when the “right way” involves other people. What if none of my friends have the game or want to play it? Thankfully, a game like Left 4 Dead advertises its emphasis on cooperative play, so if I suspect I won’t get the best experience because no one else I know will be playing it, I just won’t buy that game. But it’s getting harder and harder to tell, ahead of time, whether I’m going to get the best experience out of a game or not. It’s trendy to integrate social features into ostensibly single-player games, which is fine in theory, but it becomes a problem when single-player games suddenly include so many social features that it ceases to be a solo experience.
Multiple friends of mine bought Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit in 2011, and the resulting constant competition was fantastic. While I rarely raced with them in live multiplayer games, I would always race against their times since every track had a leaderboard and I was determined to be ranked in the top three for every track. The use of leaderboards meant that I always had a friend to compete against. I got the fun of friendly competition without having to specifically schedule play time with others. This is how the game was meant to be played. You were meant to have friends and they were meant to populate the leaderboards and you were meant to compete against them even if they were offline. The more people that played the game, the better your experience. For a while, I couldn’t imagine playing Hot Pursuit with an empty leaderboard. What would be the point?
None of my friends bought Need for Speed: Most Wanted last year. Some rented it, but they quickly gave up. The game was designed with the same social focus as Hot Pursuit, so without that community of friends, I ended up missing out on the right way to play through no fault of my own. I still wanted to play the game as the developer’s intended, I wanted that social competition, but no one else did.
Dead Space 3 is the worst example of this trend so far. Most Wanted could at least be enjoyed solo. You would be missing out on the best parts of the game, but at least playing alone was still fun. Dead Space 3 is just frustrating when you’re alone. Its combat design is so co-op focused that it feels cheap and unfair when you’re playing solo.
I tried playing with strangers, but that never worked out well. I didn’t want to talk to them or they didn’t want to talk to me or they were only interested in fooling around with the devil hand. For these reasons, I never developed a sense of camaraderie with the random folk who popped into my game. Dead Space 3 is best played co-op with a friend. If you don’t have a friend to play it with, well, you’re just shit out of luck then.
Maybe this is just an EA thing, since that’s the commonality between these three games. To my pleasant surprise, the co-op mode in Assassin’s Creed III could be played solo (in fact it’s easier solo). Since you earn multiplayer currency through the co-op mode, this means I’ll be able grind out abilities and costumes for the multiplayer/co-op characters even after the majority of the community has moved on to Assassin’s Creed IV. By allowing me to keep playing this co-op solo, the game ensures it will have a life beyond the brief zeitgeist of popularity that comes with its initial release.
It’s fine for a game to be designed around a co-op or multiplayer experience, but doing so naturally limits its lifespan and audience. It’s harder to play the right way when you need other people since gaming communities are so temporal in nature, always moving on to the latest and greatest game in a franchise, leaving those of us who don’t upgrade all alone with a now gimped product—or vice versa, as is the case with Most Wanted. Or in the case of Dead Space 3, EA will shut down the multiplayer servers in a couple years, and we’ll all lose access to that part of the game forever. Then we’ll all be shit out of luck through no fault of our own.
When the best way to experience a game is reliant on other people, it’s harder to get that best experience. That’s fine when the game advertises itself as cooperative or multiplayer-focused, but Most Wanted and Dead Space 3 have a significant chunk of single-player content that should be equally as enjoyable as the multiplayer content.
I love a good multiplayer game, but I bemoan this rise of this social, connected gaming because as someone who also loves the single-player experience, it seems like it’s getting harder and harder to play some games the way they were clearly meant to be played.