The Rise of and Risk of Multiplayer Gaming

Competitive muliplayer gaming has evolved a great deal over the last 30 or more years, but then again, it also hasn't really evolved that much. How many times can we play the Atari 2600's Combat?

Secret Ponchos had me at “Hello,” with “Hello” being the image above. I love Westerns (there just aren’t enough of them in video games), I love super stylized art, and I love a skeletal figure in a sombrero.

I didn’t really know what the game was about, but, boy, did I want to play it. For the uninitiated, Secret Ponchos is a multiplayer twin-stick shooter available on Steam and the Playstation 4 that is being developed by and has been published by Switchblade Monkeys (hell’s bells, I even love the development company’s name). Players take on the role of variously Western themed characters (there is a Billy the Kid type character, an army deserter, a skeletal figure in a sombrero, a female matador, etc.) and are dropped onto Western themed maps to shoot at each other and stuff. Well, there isn’t a lot more to it than shooting at each other to be honest.

The music for the game is moody and appropriate, and while the above image is cutscene-style art for the game, it is a pretty fair representation of what the game actually looks like. The game features grotesque and beautifully designed characters battling it out in well realized, but highly stylized Western settings. However, while the game features three modes and a bounty system that allows characters to gain and lose notoriety and cash, these modes essentially amount to launching a game about running around a map and ganking as many people as you can a whole lot. There’s a free-for-all mode, a team deathmatch mode, and a mode called domination in which you gain points for your team by scoring a kill and lose points by getting killed (eventually one team has to completely “dominate” the other in total points to win).

For those unfamiliar with twin-stick shooters, the controls take a bit of getting used to, as playing requires a different mindset in which your movement and aiming operate essentially independently of one another. But whatever novelty a twin-stick shooter multiplayer battle arena might offer, it’s still essentially a place to go to shoot other players for awhile.

Now, to be fair to Secret Ponchos, while the game has been available to players since last summer, it is still in development. It is an early access game. Eventually there may be more to it than there is currently and all that. However, it does appear to me that the core mode of the game is essentially Atari’s Combat with a very, very nice coat of paint. You remember Combat, right? It’s that game where two tanks shoot at one another, scoring points for each hit, across a very simple maze-like arena or in which two airplanes (or a big fat airplane and three smaller airplanes) competed in similar 8-bit-style aerial combat. You know, a couple of players loaded up a cartridge on the Atari 2600 and shot at each other a lot.

Competitive multiplayer gaming has evolved a great deal over the last 30 or more years, but then again, it hasn’t evolved that much. Shooters and combat games are still shooters and combat games, albeit with much slicker coats of paint, and as far as the more successful ones go (League of Legends, Left 4 Dead, Call of Duty, etc.) with some additional layers added (be they more broadly defined objectives, capturing a flag or destroying a nexus, or more personal goals, leveling up a character, gaining better gear and load out possibilities for future matches, etc.). As far as success with multiplayer games goes, that success can be largely attributed to those two additional elements, making sure that the games looks compelling and that it has some kind of hook in addition to just scoring kills to define the experience overall, things that move these games away from the very “basic” quality of games like the original Combat.

Combat was originally packed in with the Atari 2600 unit when the system was first sold in the late 1970s. It served the purpose of providing consumers with a game that they could play right out of the box, but truth be told, what it often enough did was provide a reason for wanting to purchase some additional cartridges. I’m not saying that I didn’t have some fun afternoons playing this game with my siblings or friends, but Combat is a serviceable game, nothing more. It proves that playing a game in your living room can be fun, but it also makes one ask, “What else?”

All of which brings me back to the lovely, but altogether merely serviceable game Secret Ponchos. It’s okay, but given what other multiplayer competitive experiences offer in addition to the goal of shooting at someone else a lot, it makes me just shrug a bit and ask, “What else?”

It seems I am not alone in this experience, as it remains difficult at various times of the day to find other players to play with and against in the game. Once again, the game is in early access, so its player base may yet to be built, but it is discouraging to wait and wait for just a simple, mediocre experience that kind of conceptually resembles a game from 1977.

It’s funny. There is often enough some hue and cry about the death of single player gaming and the ascendance of multiplayer gaming. However, games like Secret Ponchos leave me in doubt about such a phenomenon. Multiplayer gaming seems to me to be a most dangerous financial endeavor, equivalent in some way to the risky business of opening a restaurant. You open a restaurant (say, Titanfall), it’s cool for a few months, then everybody goes looking for a new menu, a new experience. And no one wants to go to an empty restaurant on a Friday night.

Certainly, there are some independent restaurants that stay in business for years, becoming a mainstay of a city or community, but most others exist briefly before everyone looks for the new hotspot, which I guess could be said of single player gaming, too, except that the sale of older games on Steam and GOG.com make me think otherwise. The single player game has an advantage in staying power over the multiplayer game. You don’t need everybody else to think it’s cool at the same time that you do for it to continue to operate.

The apparent mainstays of multiplayer gaming, games that appear to have longevity like League of Legends, like Left 4 Dead, like Call of Duty, recognize that they have to offer something more than Combat did as an experience or that they need to regularly renovate the place to keep the franchise going. But for as many cool restaurants open, far fewer stay relevant for decades. Multiplayer gaming itself will persist, but since it isn’t some monolithic force and so many of its various elements lock its components into a transient state, I distrust the idea that it is what video gaming will exclusively ever to become all about. Sometimes you want to eat out, but more often than not most of us are content to eat in.